…and we have to pass over the dead Yanks of the battle field of yesterday; and here I beheld that which I cannot describe; and which I hope never to see again, dead men meet the eye in every direction, and in one place I stopped and counted 50 dead men in a circle of 30 ft. or me. Men lying in all sorts of shapes and [illegible] just as they had fallen, and it seems like they have nearly all been shot in the head, and a great number of them have their skulls bursted open and their brains running out, quite a number that way. I have seen many dead men, and seen them wounded and crippled in various ways, have seen their limbs cut off, but never saw anything before that made me sick, like looking at the brains of these men did. I do believe that if a soldier could be made to faint, that I would have fainted if I had not passed on and got out of that place as soon as I did.1
This Confederate officer’s eyewitness description of Union dead does not come from Cold Harbor or any other bloody Virginia battlefield during Grant’s Overland Campaign. I comes from Pickett’s Mill, Georgia, two dozen miles northwest of Atlanta. The battle was fought on May 27, 1864, during Sherman’s campaign to push Joe Johnston’s army back. (“Get into the enemy’s country as far as you can,” Grant had ordered him earlier in the spring.)
By May 20, Sherman’s three armies had gotten to the Etowah River, the second deep-water obstacle between them and Atlanta (the Chattahoochee would be the third). Johnston had pitched his army at Allatoona Mountain, inviting attack in a strong defensive position. Sherman had seen Allatoona before the war, and determined to bypass it. Accordingly he sent his troops marching southwest of the mountain, towards the crossroads town of Dallas, twelve miles southwest of Johnston’s line. Confederate cavalry picked up the flanking march, and Johnston sidled his army toward Dallas. On May 25 the Southerners established a six-mile line running from Dallas eastward to Pickett’s Mill—the creekside gristmill owned by the Widow Pickett (whose husband, Lt. Benjamin Pickett of the 1st Georgia Cavalry, had died at Chickamauga eight months before).
Sherman, aware that the Rebels had blocked his flanking maneuver, grew impatient. On May 25 he ordered an attack on John B. Hood’s line at New Hope Church, and was smartly repulsed. (See my article on New Hope Church in the April 2018 issue of Civil War Times).
Both sides dug in on May 26, watching each other’s activity. Johnston was staying put, so for the 27th Sherman ordered a move of his infantry to the east, directing the columns to fix the enemy’s right flank and attack it.
The task fell to Howard’s IV Corps. During the course of their march on the morning and early afternoon of May 27, the Federals had to change course often. One of Howard’s brigades, August Willich’s, had trained to guide march by bugle orders. As they lurched toward the enemy flank, more than one Northern soldier complained about this “perfect din of sounds,” as one later wrote. If this were to be a surprised attack on the Rebels’ flank, why announce it to the enemy with “those damn bugles”?
Finally, by mid-afternoon, General Howard thought that his troops had reached the enemy flank.
They had not. Maj. Gen. Pat Cleburne was in charge of the Confederate right, and had extended his line to the east against just such as assault as the enemy were preparing. Thus when the Northern infantry of brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood’s division sallied forth that afternoon, they ran squarely into the Texans of Hiram B. Granbury, one of Cleburne’s brigade commandeers. Brig. Gen. William B. Hazen’s brigade, leading the charge, advanced “a quarter-mile uphill through almost impassable tangle of underwood,” as Ambrose Bierce, one of Hazen’s staff officers later wrote. The Confederates, moved in just hours before, had not had time to entrench, so they lay on the ground while delivering their fire. Cleburne later reported that Granbury’s Texans “slaughtered them with deliberate aim,” leaving “piles of dead on this front.”
Subsequent attacks by other brigades fared no better, so that at sunset the Union assault ended. Federal casualties at Pickett’s mill totaled 1,565 (212 killed 927 wounded, 318 missing) in Wood’s three brigades, plus another from Richard Johnson’s division. Cleburne’s loss was a third of that—448 plus another hundred Confederate cavalry men engaged on Cleburne’s right, nearest the Pickett mill.
Thus we see what so often happened in the Civil War: an infantry movement intended to strike the enemy in flank ended up as a bloody frontal attack. For good reason Lieutenant Bierce later termed the Union assault at Pickett’s Mill a “criminal blunder.”
Steve Davis’ recent article, “Simply Criminal,” on the battle of Pickett’s Mill, appears in the May 2019 issue of America’s Civil War.
1 Samuel T. Foster, One of Cleburne’s Command: The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, CSA, ed. by Norman D. Brown (University of Texas Press, 1980), 88.