Atlanta Falls to Sherman’s Army; Battles of Opequon, Chaffin’s Farm and Poplar Springs Church: September 1864
September 1864 in the Civil War
The end of the Atlanta Campaign was in sight as the month of September opened. At the end of August, Major General William T. Sherman sent six corps around Atlanta and south of the city in an all out effort to cut the last railroad supply lines still open to the city. General John Bell Hood countered with two corps under General William Hardee, and the two sides fought at Jonesborough on both August 31st and September 1st. The greatly outnumbered Confederates were defeated. With his supply lines cut, Hood’s position was untenable, and the Confederate commander pulled his troops out of Atlanta on the night of the 1st. Before doing so, the Rebels destroyed whatever military supplies and equipment that they could not take with them.
Sherman’s victorious army marched in and took possession of Atlanta on September 2nd. the general telegraphed Washington that “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won”. This was a huge victory for the north, and was celebrated as such. It also gave a big lift to Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection to a second term as president.
Sherman wasted no time in establishing Atlanta as a military base, and he did not want to be bothered with the burdens of dealing with a civilian population On September 7th, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 67, in which he ordered the remaining civilian population to leave the city. The expulsion order was met with protests by local officials and General Hood. Sherman wrote a letter to the local officials on September 12th, essentially telling them that the war was the south’s fault and that he would do whatever was necessary to defeat the Confederacy.
In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Major General Philip Sheridan attacked General Jubal Early’s Confederates at Opequon Creek east of Winchester. Sheridan had attacked the outnumbered Rebels with two corps, but it wasn’t until he brought up a reserve infantry corps and attacked with two cavalry divisions that the Federals won the day. The Battle of Opequon, or the Third Battle of Winchester as it was also known, was the largest battle in the 1864 Valley Campaign, with approximately 40,000 Federals and 12,000 Confederates engaged. Union forces sustained about 5000 total casualties; the Confederates suffered about 3600 killed, wounded, and missing.
Early withdrew south to Fisher’s Hill, near Strasburg, Virginia. Federal Forces attacked Early at Fisher’s Hill on September 21st and 22nd, and were again victorious, but were unable to destroy Early’s army which retreated to Waynesboro, Virginia.
As the Battle of Opequon was being fought, a Confederate force under General Sterling Price and 12,000 cavalry and mounted infantrymen entered Missouri from Arkansas and headed north toward St. Louis. On September 27th, Price’s Confederates engaged the Federal garrison at Fort Davidson, near the town of Pilot Knob. The approximately 1500 Union troops in the garrison stubbornly and successfully held off Confederate attacks, inflicting around 1000 casualties. During the night of the 27th to 28th, the union commander, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing withdrew from Fort Davidson, blowing up the fort’s powder magazine, and escaping.
Also in Missouri on the 27th, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson led a group of about 80 guerrillas, including Frank and Jesse James, into the town of Centralia, Missouri. Anderson’s men robbed an arriving stagecoach, looted the town and boarded a train that arrived during the raid. They killed and mutilated 20 unarmed Union soldiers on the train before setting it on fire and leaving town. Anderson’s guerrillas were pursued by 155 men of the 39th Missouri Infantry, a recently formed mounted infantry unit under a Major A.V.E. Johnston, who eventually caught up with them and decided to fight. The poorly trained infantrymen were no match for Anderson’s experienced, and ruthless fighters who killed 123 of the 155 Federals, including Johnston, and mutilated many of the dead. It was one more example of the brutal way the war was waged in Missouri.
The Centralia Raid was exceptionally brutal, but other Confederate raiding operations were carried out that were of a more conventional military nature. General Nathan Bedford Forrest led attacks against Sherman’s communication and supply lines in Tennessee and Alabama. At Cabin Creek, Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, Brigadier General Stand Waite led his Cherokee and other Native American troops in raids against Union supply trains. Waite’s men were accompanied by a Texas cavalry brigade under the command of Brigadier General Richard Gano. Waite reported that he destroyed tons of hay, captured horses and mules, and captured or destroyed over 200 wagons. Up north on Lake Erie, a Confederate plot to capture the 14 gun warship USS Michigan was discovered and stopped before it could happen. The Rebels planned on setting Confederate prisoners held at Johnson’s Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio, free and then conduct offensive operations on the Great Lakes using the Michigan.
Union forces also put an end to John Hunt Morgan, whose most famous raid had extended through southern Indiana and into Ohio in 1863. Morgan killed by Union cavalry in Greeneville, Tennessee on September 4th.
The Richmond-Petersburg front in Virginia was relatively quiet until the end of the month. On September 29th, Union forces attacked both flanks of the Confederate lines. On the south, an attack spearheaded by the Union 5th Corps and a division of cavalry fought for four days in what was known as the Battle of Poplar Springs Church, or Peeble’s Farm. The Federals were able to extend the siege lines about three miles west after fighting ended October 2nd. North of the James River outside of Richmond, Union attacks at Fort Harrison and New Market Heights, collectively called the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, resulted in the capture of those two locations. Confederates had rushed reinforcements to Chaffin’s Farm, which aided in the success of the fighting in the south at Poplar Springs Church. Fort Harrison was renamed Fort Burnham after Union Brigadier General Hiram Burnham, who died in the fighting.
The Union armies had been successful in September, and although the situation in the south was looking more grim, the war was still a long way from over. The Federals would continue to apply pressure as the war moved into October.