July 30-31, 1864 in Newnan, Georgia Atlanta Campaign
Union Forces Commanded by: Brig. Gen. Edward M. McCook and Maj. Gen. George Stoneman
Confederate Forces Commanded by: Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler
*Killed, Wounded and Captured Conclusion: Confederate Victory
As Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman approached the outskirts of Atlanta in the summer of 1864, he had no intention of laying siege to the city. Sieges took time, and for personal, as well as military reasons, he was anxious to win a quick victory. On July 27, he sent 2 columns of Union cavalry riding south on what promised to be one of the most daring raids of the war.
Led by Brig. Gen. Edward M. McCook and Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, these Union horsemen were to join forces at Lovejoy and wreck the vital railroads that supplied the Confederate army defending Atlanta. Then, if possible, they were to continue southward, to liberate 30,000 Union prisoners of war held at Andersonville.
Crossing the Chattahoochee River at Smith's Ferry, McCook's 2,400 men cut the Atlanta & West Point Railroad at Palmetto, then captured and burned 1,000 Confederate wagons at Fayetteville. Early on July 29th, the raiders reached Lovejoy, 23 miles south of Atlanta, and began wrecking the Macon & Western Railroad. That afternoon, when Stoneman failed to appear, McCook began retracing his steps toward the Chattahoochee.
Pursuing Confederate cavalry, led by Brig. Gens. William H. "Red" Jackson and Lawrence "Sul" Ross collided with the Union column just west of Lovejoy. After a sharp skirmish, McCook and his men hurriedly retreated westward on the Lower Fayetteville Road, closely pursued by Maj. Gen. "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler and several hundred Confederate horsemen who had ridden south from Decatur.
That night, gunshots echoed in the darkness at places like Whitewater Creek and Shake Rag, as hard-riding Confederate troopers repeatedly savaged the rearmost Union regiment. Sleepless and exhausted, McCook's advance guard approached Newnan early on July 30, only to find a trainload of Confederate soldiers blocking the road ahead of them.
The train, carrying Brig. Gen. Philip D. Roddey and 550 dismounted Alabama cavalrymen, had stopped at Newnan during the night due to the damage the raiders had done to the tracks at Palmetto. Roddey had posted pickets on the approaches into town, but upon receiving a report the Yankees were miles away, he had the engineer sound the train whistle to recall his troops.
At that instant, McCook's advance guard, Companies D and E of the 8th Indiana Cavalry, came charging over the hill on the Lower Fayetteville Road. Roddey's startled troopers grabbed their guns and opened fire, quickly forcing the Federals to retreat.
Late that morning, while McCook searched for a road to carry his column around the south side of Newnan, Gen. Joe Wheeler galloped into town with 720 men. Dividing his small force, Wheeler sent Col. Henry M. Ashby and 200 men down LaGrange Street and out on the Corinth Road to intercept the head of the Yankee column, while he hurried the rest of his command down the Grantville Road to strike the raiders' flank.
Shortly after noon, a flurry of gunshots erupted 3 miles southwest of Newnan, at the intersection of the Ricketyback and Corinth Roads. As Ashby's men ambushed McCook's advance guard, the rest of Wheeler's command struck the Union column?s flank, driving the Yankees into the woods south of the Ricketyback Road.
Believing he was "completely surrounded" by "an overwhelming force," McCook simply lost his nerve. "What shall we do? What shall we do?" he cried as his men dismounted to fight on foot. Turning to Col. John T. Croxton, he directed his subordinate to "Take command and do the best you can."
As the fighting see-sawed back and forth through the tangled woods, McCook suffered heavy casualties while Wheeler received substantial reinforcements. Brig. Gen. Robert H. Anderson arrived with about 400 Confederate cavalrymen who had ridden more than 50 miles by the time they reached the battlefield. They went into the fight about the same time Gen. Roddey marched up with 1,000 dismounted cavalrymen, convalescent soldiers, and medical personnel from Newnan's four military hospitals. Fighting on foot alongside Wheeler's men, these troops repeatedly charged the Union lines, steadily crowding them back.
By late afternoon, two of McCook's brigade commanders were missing in action and his men were running out of ammunition. Calling his subordinate officers together, he declared the situation was hopeless. He was going to surrender. "Gentlemen," replied Colonel James P. Brownlow of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry, "you can all surrender and be damned. I'm going out with my regiment." When other officers echoed these sentiments, McCook relented and agreed Cols. Brownlow and Croxton could try to cut their way through the Confederate lines.
Abandoning dozens of dead and wounded, and all their artillery and ambulances, McCook's men quickly mounted their horses and headed south. As they crossed Sandy Creek, near Brown's Mill, McCook mustered up enough mettle to issue a final command. "This retreat must be protected," he ordered Col. Joseph Dorr. While McCook's column disappeared in the distance, Dorr's 8th Iowa Cavalry remained behind and continued fighting until the Confederates cut off their escape, compelling the entire regiment to surrender.
Wheeler followed the fleeing Federals until dark. Leaving "Red" Jackson to gather up McCook's captured cannon, ambulances, and several hundred prisoners, he dispatched several detachments to continue the pursuit and then started back to Newnan. On the edge of town, he and his staff stopped in front of Hugh Buchanan's white-columned house on LaGrange Street. Invited inside, Wheeler sat down at a desk, spread out his maps, and promptly fell fast asleep.
But there was no sleep for the three large groups of frightened, hungry, Yankee troopers who fled toward the Chattahoochee that night. About 9:00 P.M., Maj. George Purdy and parts of the 2nd and 4th Indiana Cavalry, the 5th Iowa, and the 2nd Kentucky reached Williams' Ferry, 15 miles above Franklin. Using 3 old canoes and swimming their horses alongside, they worked all night and escaped to the far shore.
A few miles downstream, Colonel Jim Brownlow's column reached the river at Hollingsworth Ferry. Finding neither ferryboat nor ford, many of the men urged their horses into the water and tried to swim across. Scores of others were still crowded on the riverbank when Wheeler's 5th Tennessee and 3rd Arkansas Cavalry swooped down on them at daylight on July 31 and captured over a 100 prisoners after a brief skirmish.
The largest Union column, McCook and about 1,200 of his men, took the road to Corinth and then galloped toward Philpott's Ferry. They reached the Chattahoochee, 8 1/2 miles below Franklin, about 11:00 P.M. The ferryboat was gone, but a slave obligingly showed one of McCook's officers where it had been sunk at the mouth of New River, a few hundred yards upstream. Union troopers hastily refloated the frail craft and began shuttling men and horses across the river. They were still plying back and forth when Wheeler's 5th Georgia Cavalry suddenly appeared on the hills above the landing just after dawn. Shots rang out, starting a wild stampede down to the water's edge. Within minutes, the Confederates captured all the raiders stranded on the riverbank, along with several hundred horses and mules.
During the next few days Wheeler's cavalry herded 1,250 Yankee enlisted men and 35 captured officers into Newnan and confined them in a 2-story cotton warehouse on Perry Street, midway between city hall and the railroad depot. As soon as the damage to the railroad at Palmetto was repaired, trains arrived to carry the captives to Confederate prisoner of war camps at Macon and Andersonville.
The fighting at Brown's Mill cost McCook about 100 killed and wounded, while Wheeler's casualties probably numbered less than 50. Newnan's military hospitals treated injured Confederate and Union soldiers, and buried those who died of their wounds at Oak Hill Cemetery. Three years later, in 1867, the United States government removed the remains of the Union soldiers from the Brown's Mill battlefield and Oak Hill for reburial at the Marietta National Cemetery.
Wheeler would soldier again as a major general of volunteers during the Spanish-American War, but the Battle of Brown's Mill was his finest hour. His relentless pursuit of the Union raiders virtually destroyed Sherman's cavalry and kept Atlanta's vital supply lines open.
More than that, the battle at Brown's Mill changed the course of the Atlanta Campaign. It forced Sherman to abandon his efforts to use cavalry to cut Atlanta's railroads and compelled him to begin a lengthy siege, the very thing he had hoped to avoid.