July 22, 1864: Witnesses to the death of General McPherson

On this day in July, 1864, Confederate General John B. Hood launched a flank attack on the Federals on the east side of Atlanta.  This was the second such attack by Hood since taking command of the Army of Tennessee, following the Battle of Peachtree Creek two days earlier.

On the Federal left flank, which was Hood’s objective, was a string of Federal signal stations.  These signal troops supported the Army of the Tennessee, under Major-General James McPherson.  As the Confederates moved into flanking position, they came under observation of these signal stations.  Captain Ocran H. Howard, Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Tennessee, reported:

Upon arriving before Atlanta stations of observation were established, overlooking the city and enemy’s works, from which stations much important information was transmitted to the commanding generals. From one of these stations on the 21st Lieutenant [Clifford] Stickney reported to General [Mortimer] Leggett the enemy moving a large force to our left, and on the morning of the 22d Lieutenant [Samuel] Edge reported to Major-General [John] Logan that the enemy were moving all available forces to our left. On the 22d the enemy attacked the Army of the Tennessee in front, flank, and rear.

The Confederate attack knocked the Federals back on their heels.  It also meant the signal troops shifted their activities to support command and control.  The Confederate advance, however, overran some of the stations with others dangerously close to the battle lines:

Lieutenants Conard and Stickney were in charge of a station in General Leggett’s front, from which they communicated to station at General Blair’s headquarters, in charge of Lieutenant [James] Dunlap. Lieutenant Conard’s station was entirely uncovered by the falling back of the left at the time of the attack on our left and rear, but this station was held until the last moment, and messages were transmitted to General Blair from Generals Leggett and Smith under a galling fire from front, flank, and rear. So nearly were they surrounded at one time that communication other than by signals could only be had at great risk. The last messages transmitted were read over the heads of the enemy. Lieutenant Edge had a station of observation in the Fifteenth Corps front, 100 feet high. He saw the enemy preparing for a charge upon the Second Division, and informed Brig. Gen. M. L. Smith, commanding, of the fact, and received the reply, “I am ready for them.” Lieutenant Edge remained at his station. The charge was made and our lines were broken and fell back past the station, and Lieutenant Edge was compelled to descend and retreat before the advancing enemy under a heavy fire of musketry.

But there was more activity than signal officers waving flags and climbing down from trees.  Howard and his fellow signaleers were witnesses to one of the pivotal moments of the Atlanta Campaign:

On the morning of the 22d, accompanied by Lieutenant Allen, I had visited the entire front, and the station in charge of Lieutenant Stickney.  We were returning toward the right when the attack on the extreme left was made, and immediately turned and accompanied General McPherson to the scene of action, to render such service in any capacity as best we could. By order of General McPherson endeavored to rally the broken left of the Seventeenth Corps, but with little success. We were here joined by Lieutenant [W. H.] Sherfy. We then accompanied the general through the broken line and into an ambush, where the general was killed, and we had a very narrow escape, Lieutenant Sherfy being badly injured by being thrown from his horse, and Lieutenant Allen badly bruised by coming in contact with a tree.

Howard was a “just the facts” reporter.  Lieutenant Edge, writing about himself in third person, offered more “facts” to include the time of day:

July 22, Lieutenant Edge took his position in large pine, Lieutenant Fish in station established by Capt. O. H. Howard and Lieutenant Allen. Lieutenant Allen reported to Captain Howard for duty. At 10 a.m. Lieutenant Edge reported to Major-Generals McPherson and Logan the movements of the enemy. At 11 a.m. he reported additional movements of an alarming nature. At 12.30 p.m. the enemy made an attack on our left wing. At 12.45 p.m. General McPherson, accompanied by Capt. O. H. Howard and Lieut. W. W. Allen of this detachment, with other officers and men, were fired upon by the enemy, resulting in the death of the general and the wounding of Lieutenant Allen, caused by the jumping of his horse against a tree, fracturing his ankle. Soon after this accident Lieutenant Edge saw the rebels massing in front of Fifteenth Corps, and reported the fact to Major-General Logan and Brig. Gen. M. L. Smith. The enemy charged, driving our men back some distance, which forced Lieutenant Edge to abandon his station. Our troops rallied, drove the enemy back, and the station was reoccupied.

Howard himself, working under the intent of his fallen commander, positioned a battery of artillery to help shore up the Federal lines.  The next day, the chain of signal stations on the Federal left was completely re-established.  From those stations, Howard, Edge, and his fellow officers could see “nearly all of the city of Atlanta, the rebel lines, and most of our own [Federal] works.”

Many years ago, I proposed Edge’s actions on July 22, 1864 as a subject for a painting.  I still think it would fill out the canvas well.  But what do I know? Better stick to the blogging, I guess.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 38, Part III, Serial 74, pages 81-2 and 121-2.)