On July 21, 1864, William T. Sherman’s three armies were separated on the outskirts of Atlanta. John Bell Hood received reports that the left flank of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was in the air. McPherson’s army was facing Atlanta from the east astride the Georgia Railroad. Hood seized the opportunity and ordered William J. Hardee’s corps to drop back from its lines north of the city into the main fortified perimeter on the night of July 21-22; the remaining corps of Alexander P. Stewart and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham would follow. Hardee’s corps would march through and out of the city, guided by Confederate cavalry. Once in position, the corps would strike McPherson’s left-rear, while Confederate cavalry of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler attacked McPherson’s wagon trains at Decatur. Cheatham would support Hardee from the east edge of Atlanta. It was an ambitious plan, calling for a 15-mile night march by Hardee’s troops and a dawn attack on the 22nd. But a late start, the exhaustion of the men, a hot night, and dusty roads combined to bring the four assault divisions not nearly far enough into McPherson’s rear.
On the Union left, a Union XVI Corps division under Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sweeny was positioned in the path of Hardee’s opening assault. Instead of overrunning hospital tents and wagon trains in McPherson’s rear, Confederate troops ran instead face-to-face into veteran Yankee infantry.
McPherson, having left Sherman’s headquarters just before the firing started, was on this part of the field watching Sweeny contend with the Rebels. He rode off to see how Maj. Gen. Frank Blair’s XVII Corps was doing, which had been struck by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s hard-hitting division. McPherson and his staff were riding down a wagon road when they unexpectedly ran into part of Cleburne’s line. “He (McPherson) checked his horse, raised his hat in salute, wheeled to the right and dashed off to the rear in a gallop,” an observed recalled. The Rebels fired on McPherson, felling the general—a bullet hole in the back, near the heart.
Cleburne’s attack initially overran part of the Union line, capturing two guns and several hundred prisoners. Then the Southerners ran up against infantry and artillery on a treeless hilltop occupied by Brig. Gen. Mortimer Leggett’s division, which stopped them cold. Brig. Gen. George Maney’s Confederate division joined in the fight, but Leggett held onto his hill.
Around 3:00 p.m., Hood ordered Cheatham’s corps to launch an attack from Atlanta’s eastern line of works. Cheatham’s fierce but uncoordinated assaults against the line held by the Federal XV Corps met with initial success, overrunning the Yankees at the Troup Hurt House and capturing artillery, but a Union counterattack forced it back.
The Battle of Atlanta, the bloodiest of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, was over. Confederate losses on July 22 added up to about 5,500, while the Federals sustained 3,700 casualties. Hood’s effort to roll up Sherman’s left flank had failed.
Sherman’s armies would move on, northwest and then west of Atlanta, fighting again at Ezra Church on July 28. Worn out after that, both armies settled in for a siege of the city that consumed all of August. On September 1, 1864, Hood abandoned the city of Atlanta, and Sherman’s forces marched into the city the next day. The gateway to the Deep South—and the sea—lay open.