The Battle of Gilgal Church was a relatively minor engagement between Union forces commanded by Major General William T. Sherman and Confederate forces commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston on June 15 and 16, 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign.
In late November 1863, Union forces commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant successfully lifted Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union victories at Lookout Mountain (November 24) and Missionary Ridge (November 25) forced Johnston to withdraw thirty miles south to near Dalton, Georgia.
After the Federal breakout from Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to the special rank of Lieutenant General and placed him in command of all Union armies. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, DC, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of federal operations in the Western Theater. 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.
Sherman Moves into Georgia
On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman led three armies, the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General James B. McPherson; the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield; and the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General George H. Thomas, out of Tennessee in pursuit of Johnston’s army in northern Georgia.
Throughout the summer of 1864, the Confederate and Union armies engaged in a series of battles between Dalton and Atlanta in northern Georgia. Most of the fighting occurred at places on or near the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Chattanooga and Atlanta. Both sides depended on the railway for supplies throughout the campaign. In a pattern he often repeated, Sherman used flanking movements that threatened the railway to Johnston’s rear, forcing the Confederate commander to retreat south to protect his supply lines.
Sherman Presses Johnston
By June 9, 1864, Johnston had withdrawn the Army of Tennessee to an entrenched position near Marietta in Cobb County, Georgia. Over the next three weeks, Sherman continued to press Johnston, engaging his army at various locations near Marietta, including at the Battle of Gilgal Church on June 15.
Fighting at Gilgal Church
In this battle, Major General Daniel Butterfield’s 3rd Division of Major General Joseph Hooker’s 20th Corps encountered a Confederate division, commanded by General Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne’s men quickly withdrew to Gilgal Church, where the Southerners dismantled the church to use the boards and pews for defensive works. Cleburne’s men drove the Northerners from the battlefield, inflicting approximately 200 casualties while suffering only a few themselves.
While this engagement was a loss for the Union military, after the Battle of Gilgal Church and several other engagements, Sherman forced Johnston to withdraw from the area by July 3.