Following the federal breakout from Chattanooga in November 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln promoted Major General Ulysses S. Grant to the special rank of lieutenant general and placed him in command of all Union armies. Grant temporarily moved his headquarters to Washington, DC, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of federal operations in the western theater. Upon arriving in Washington, Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia in the east and Joseph E. Johnston‘s Army of Tennessee in the west. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman launched his Atlanta Campaign in the West.
Sherman Surrounds Atlanta
Using a series of flanking maneuvers, Sherman persistently drove the Army of Tennessee south toward Atlanta. On July 17, 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston of his command and placed General John Bell Hood in charge of the Army of Tennessee. Hood proved more willing to fight than Johnston, but the results were the same. By July, Sherman had bottled up Hood’s army in Atlanta. On July 20, Sherman ordered his artillery to bombard Hood’s lines and the city, which still harbored approximately 3,000 civilians.
Hoping to avoid a prolonged siege, on July 27, 1864, Sherman ordered two columns of federal cavalry to move south of Atlanta to cut supply lines leading into the city. Major General George Stoneman‘s cavalry from the Army of the Ohio circled around Atlanta to the southeast. Brigadier General Edward M. McCook’s cavalry from the Army of the Cumberland circled around the city to the southwest. Sherman ordered each column to sever the rail lines that supplied Atlanta and then link up south of the city at Lovejoy’s Station. From there the combined force was to liberate the 32,000 Union prisoners the Confederates held at Andersonville, Georgia.
The raid went well for McCook’s 2,400 troopers initially. They cut the Atlanta & West Point Railroad at Palmetto, captured and burned over 1,000 Confederate wagons at Fayetteville on July 28, and reached Lovejoy’s Station on July 29, where they set about destroying the Macon & Western Railroad.
Stoneman Captured and Imprisoned
Events did not go as well for Stoneman, who met heavy resistance on July 28, 1864, after he swung out toward Covington en route to Macon on his own accord. Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the cavalry forces around Atlanta, sent Brigadier General Alfred Iverson’s brigade after Stoneman. On July 29, Iverson’s 1,300 cavalrymen defeated approximately 2,300 of Stoneman’s troopers near Macon, taking roughly 200 prisoners. Two days later, Iverson’s men captured another 500 Union soldiers, including Stoneman, at Sunshine Church near Clinton, Georgia. Ironically, the Confederates imprisoned Stoneman and his captured troopers at Andersonville.
Rebels Block McCook’s Retreat
When Stoneman failed to appear on July 29, 1864, as planned, McCook called off the rendezvous and reversed his course to return to the main army. As McCook tried to make his way back, parts of General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry led by Brigadier Generals William H. “Red” Jackson and Lawrence “Sul” Ross repeatedly attacked the Yankee rearguard. On July 30, as the hard-pressed and exhausted federal horsemen tried to make their way north, McCook found his escape route blocked by more of Wheeler’s cavalry near Brown’s Mill.
Yankee’s Refuse to Yield
Believing a superior force surrounded him, McCook met with his subordinate officers and proposed surrendering. Led by Colonel James P. Brownlow of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry, who stated, “you can all surrender and be damned. I’m going out with my regiment,” McCook’s officers refused to yield. Instead, they attempted to cut their way through the Confederate line.
The result was a disaster for McCook’s command. The Yankees lost roughly 100 killed and wounded men, compared with approximately 50 casualties for the Rebels. In addition, Wheeler captured nearly 1,300 Federals (many of them ended up at Andersonville), and he freed roughly 300 Confederate soldiers that McCook had previously captured.
The Union loss at the Battle of Brown’s Mill undoubtedly prolonged the Atlanta Campaign. Unable to stem the flow of supplies into Atlanta from the south, Sherman had to extend his siege of Atlanta until early September when Hood’s army abandoned the city.