In my new book, Texas Brigadier to the Fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood (Mercer University Press, December 2019), I coin a word, Jonesboropia, to refer to the persistent myth that the battle of Jonesboro, fought south of Atlanta on August 31-September 1, sealed the city’s fate.
Here’s an example, from a Georgia Historical Society marker placed a few years ago at the Carter Center in Atlanta: “Unwilling to attack the city’s strong defenses, U.S. forces swept west and then south and at Jonesboro (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) cut the last railroad supplying Atlanta, forcing the Confederates to abandon the city.”
The real story of how Hood came to abandon Atlanta is a little more intricate (and cooler), I think.
First, the big picture. Toward the end of August 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had been conducting a semi-siege of Atlanta for more than a month, but he was no closer to capturing it than when he started. Gen. John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee held the fortified lines around the city, supplied by the railroad running south to Macon. As long as he held the Macon & Western, Hood could hold Atlanta. Sherman knew this, too. Having failed with cavalry raids to cut the Macon road, by August 25 he had resolved to march six of his seven infantry corps in a wide arc south of Atlanta, then east toward the Macon & Western. He had no specific objective other than to cut it somewhere between East Point and Jonesboro, rail stations seven and twenty-three miles south of Atlanta respectively.
Hood’s cavalry kept him apprised of the march of Sherman’s columns. On August 30, Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, Hood’s senior corps commander, wrote his wife Mary that five, maybe six enemy corps were some fifteen to twenty miles southwest of Atlanta. Then, just after noon on the 31st, Hood’s headquarters received report from Col. Duncan Clinch, 4th Georgia Cavalry, that enemy infantry was pushing him back at Mount Gilead Church, nine miles south of Atlanta—and less than three miles west of the M. & W.
They were elements of the Union XXIII and IV Corps. The troops of Brig. Gen Jacob Cox, division commander in the XXIII A.C., were the first to reach the railroad, as he proudly recorded later: “Wednesday, 31st, the division…struck the Atlanta and Macon Railroad one mile below Rough and Ready Station at 3 p.m., being the first of the army to reach that road. The advance was sharply resisted by the enemy’s cavalry, but no infantry force was found” (OR, 38.2.692).
Sherman’s soldiers were marching on a wide, eight-mile front, from Rough and Ready to Jonesboro. With his troops stretched from the Atlanta defenses (where Sherman had kept the XX Corps) Hood didn’t have enough force to cover such a wide expanse.
Actually, it was Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s three corps that got near the railroad first, on the evening of August 30, crossing the Flint River and approaching Jonesboro. Hood sent Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s corps hustling down to help Hardee in an attacking battle that commenced around 3 p.m. on August 31—the same time as Cox’s division had begun to wreck the railroad between Rough and Ready and Quick Station. As McMurry therefore states, in his Atlanta 1864, the battle of Jonesboro “was a useless event”—the railroad had already been cut before Howard’s troops repulsed Hardee’s and Lee’s assault at Jonesboro on the afternoon of August 31.
How Hood got the bad news is itself a neat story.
As a precaution, Hood had already sent the army’s principal ordnance stores to Hardee south of the city. Then, at midday on the 31st, he sent his chief quartermaster, Col. M. B. McMicken, with a train carrying the army’s reserve ordnance (“Col. McMicken has started down the road on engine,” OR, 38.5.1010). According to “Rover,” a reporter in Atlanta (who has yet to be identified), the locomotive got a short distance below Rough & Ready when Confederate cavalry halted it, warning that Yankees were on the track ahead (Augusta Chronicle & Sentinel, September 6). The train chugged back to East Point, and informed the commander there, Brig. Gen. John T. Morgan, that the Macon railroad was cut. Morgan passed on the news to Hood’s headquarters by 5 p.m. (38.5.1008). Thus Hood knew that he would have to abandon Atlanta even before he got word of Hardee and Lee’s repulse—which would not arrive by courier till early in the morning of September 1, as the Federals had cut the telegraph north of Jonesboro.
Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor’s nickname), by the way, was really just a tavern with a railroad water tank and wood sheds, according to a historical tablet written in the 1950s by the redoubtable Wilbur G. Kurtz. The tavern disappeared in the 1920s; the tablet, once on Georgia Highway 3, is gone, too; and the town of Rough and Ready is now “Mountain View,” a suburb of south Atlanta nothingness.
All that endures, I suppose, is that marker at the Carter Center.