Prelude to the Battle
Federal Breakout from Chattanooga
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 the Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24) and the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25) forced Johnston to withdraw thirty miles south near Dalton, Georgia.
Grant Promoted to Lieutenant General
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, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of federal operations in the western theater.
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee in the west.
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.
Fighting Along the Western and Atlantic Railroad
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 that 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.
May 27, 1864 – Clash at Pickett’s Mill
Federals Attempt to Turn Confederate Right Flank
Following the Union defeat at the Battle of New Hope Church on May 26, 1864, Sherman ordered soldiers under the command of Major General Oliver O. Howard to turn the right flank of the Confederate line at Pickett’s Mill on May 27. Johnston expected Sherman’s maneuver and reinforced his right flank on May 26, with soldiers led by one of his best commanders, Major General Patrick R. Cleburne.
As Cleburne’s men dug in, Howard’s soldiers probed through dense underbrush and rough terrain trying to locate the end of the Confederate line. At about 4:00 p.m., the Federals encountered the Rebel line and Sherman sent word for them to “get on the enemy’s flank and rear as soon as possible.”
At 4:30, the Union soldiers began advancing through a deep ravine tangled with heavy undergrowth. As they struggled up the slopes of the ravine, Confederate sharpshooters, concealed by the dense vegetation, unleashed a murderous volley from above. In the confusion that followed, the Rebels pinned the Union soldiers down near Benjamin and Malachi Pickett’s family farm and grist mill.
The Confederates continued to pour a heavy fire onto the hapless Union troops until launching a counterattack at 10:00 p.m., forcing their foes to turn and run. By the end of the battle, the Federals had suffered over 1,600 casualties, including 700 killed. The Confederates suffered only 500 casualties.
Aftermath of the Battle
After the war, critics chided Sherman for ignoring the ill-fated attack he ordered at Pickett’s Mill in his memoirs. His most vocal critic was the famed author Ambrose Bierce, who fought for the Union at Pickett’s Mill. In 1888, on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Battle of Pickett’s Mill, an embittered Bierce published an essay titled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.” In the essay, Bierce detailed the carnage that occurred at Pickett’s Mill and chastised Sherman for relegating the brave men who fought there to oblivion, by ignoring the battle in his memoirs, even though Sherman ordered the attack.