Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Antietam to Atlanta: Two Antietam Personalities Fight One Another 150 Years Ago

150 years ago yesterday, two well-known Antietam personalities fought one another west of Atlanta at the Battle of Ezra Church.  Both Oliver Otis Howard and Stephen Dill Lee were, however, in much larger command roles than they were in western Maryland two summers earlier.  This time, Oliver Howard commanded an army—the Army of the Tennessee—while Stephen Lee controlled one corps of John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.  For the two, their lives often ran parallel paths, but in late July 1864, they converged in a pitched battle where, for the first time, each would be new to the commands they now controlled.
            33-year-old Oliver O. Howard had, by 1864, experienced nearly a decade of service with the United States Army.  Born in Maine, Howard, at the young age of 20, became a teacher at Bowdoin College before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Howard graduated fourth of 46 in the class of 1854 and served various roles in the antebellum army.  When the American Civil War began, Howard found himself promoted to Colonel of the 3rd Maine Infantry and he commanded a brigade at the Battle of First Bull Run.  By the spring of 1862, Howard had been appointed a Brigadier General in the Army of the Potomac.  During that army’s campaign against Richmond, Howard’s right arm was shattered by two bullets in the Battle of Fair Oaks outside the Confederate capital.  The arm had to be amputated.
            Despite the setback, the tough Mainer rejoined the Army of the Potomac by late August of that year and commanded a brigade of infantry in John Sedgwick’s Second Corps Division.  The one-armed Howard led his brigade of Pennsylvanians into the West Woods in the mid-morning of September 17 at the Battle of Antietam, where it lost 545 men in the confusing action that ensued.  However, John Sedgwick’s wounding propelled Howard into command of the division and by the Chancellorsville Campaign the next spring, Oliver Howard commanded the Union Eleventh Corps.  Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Howard and his corps were transferred to the war’s Western Theater, where he remained the rest of the conflict. 
            In the spring of 1864, Howard commanded the Fourth Corps in George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, a command he held until promoted to command the Army of the Tennessee following James McPherson’s death at the July 22 Battle of Atlanta.  Howard’s promotion became official on July 27, 1864, the very day before his first test as an army commander.
Oliver Otis Howard

            Howard’s counterpart during that first test was 30-year-old Stephen Dill Lee, a native South Carolinian.  Like Howard, Lee also attended the United States Military Academy and graduated 17th in the Class of 1854.  Thus, he and Howard had been classmates early in their military careers.  But the Civil War did not find Lee and Howard on opposing sides, just as it had done for so many other West Point classmates.  Lee was a quartermaster in the United States Army but resigned on February 20, 1861 to cast his lot with his native state. 
            The early parts of the war found Lee serving various staff positions but by the time of the Seven Days Battles, Lee commanded artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia and rose to the rank of Colonel.  By the time of the Battle of Antietam, Lee commanded six batteries of artillery placed in position on the Dunker Church Plateau, where it fought in the early stages of the battle.  Lee later coined Antietam “artillery hell,” a term derived in large part from the staggering casualties his command suffered on that open high ground—86 soldiers and 60 of his horses. 
            Following the Maryland Campaign, Lee held several posts in the war’s Western Theater and eventually became a prisoner following the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He was exchanged later in 1863 and by the spring of 1864, he commanded the Confederate Department of Alabama and East Louisiana, until promoted to command of the Army of Tennessee’s Second Corps on July 26, 1864.  The promotion came just two days before his baptism of fire in this new command role.  July 28, 1864 witnessed two former classmates and two well-known Antietam personalities pitting off against each other, both with very new commands to grasp.
Stephen Dill Lee

            The night of July 26 was busy for Oliver Howard.  At 10 pm that night, he received word from William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, that he was to take command of the Army of the Tennessee and prepare to move his new command shortly.  The Army of the Tennessee, then on the east side of Atlanta where it had beaten back Hood’s Confederates just four days earlier at the Battle of Atlanta, was instructed to move the next day to the western side of the city in an effort to cut the Macon & Western Railroad running southwest out of Atlanta.  The movement began early on the morning of July 27 and by 11 am the next day, Howard’s Army of the Tennessee positioned itself on the right of the Union Army of the Cumberland.  The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps mainly faced east towards the city while John Logan’s Fifteenth Corps refused the line, his troops facing almost due south.
            Seeing the massing of Federal forces west of Atlanta, John Bell Hood, commanding the Army of Tennessee, sought to stop the enemy from getting any closer to the railroad.  Setting the westward travelling Lick Skillet Road as the objective, Hood desired to turn the Federal flank just as he had done six days later on the opposite side of Atlanta.  The commanding general dispatched newly appointed Stephen D. Lee to take two of his Second Corps divisions and hold the Lick Skillet Road near Ezra Church, which sat at a key crossroads.  The road bisecting the Lick Skillet Road near the church was the main north-south road Sherman planned to use to cut the Macon & Western Railroad.  Following Lee and working in conjunction with him would be two more divisions, this time of Alexander P. Stewart’s Third Corps, that were supposed to “pass in rear” of Logan’s right flank “and attack.”  The Confederate movement meant to push the Federals away from the Lick Skillet Road began just as Howard’s army settled down in its new position on the road.    
            As Stephen Lee’s Confederates moved out of their Atlanta entrenchments to gain the Lick Skillet Road, he discovered that near Ezra Church, “the enemy had gained the road.”  Lee’s instructions were no longer accurate as the enemy already held the crossroads.  Recognizing this, Lee, on his own initiative, determined to attack and retake the vital position.  Oliver Howard noted, “Now the rifle firing on our front increased,” as he turned to Sherman, telling him a battle would soon commence.  About this time, the men of John Logan’s corps began constructing hastily built breastworks with any fences or tree limbs they could find.  Some Federals stationed near the church even pulled the pews out of the building for cover. 
Battle of Ezra Church, as portrayed in Haprer's Weekly
            Finally, the rebel yell was heard as Federal officers told their men, “Take steady aim and fire low at the word!”  Confederate general John C. Brown’s division advanced first and initially met success, driving the Fifteenth Corps back from the Lick Skillet Road.  Brown continued to advance, however, until he came upon the Federal breastworks, “from which he was driven back with considerable loss,” noted Lee.  Lee continued to press the attack, next sending in Henry Clayton’s division on Brown’s right.  Clayton’s attack fared no better. 
            While Lee was beating his head against Howard’s defenses, one division of Alexander Stewart’s Third Corps formed on Lee’s left.  Walthall’s division was the next in a series of failed Confederate onslaughts.  This last attack convinced Lee that Howard’s Army of the Tennessee could not be pushed away from the Lick Skillet Road.  The fight lasted only several hours in the early afternoon of July 28 and Lee’s men quietly remained on the battlefield until nightfall, when they withdrew towards Atlanta’s defenses.  In Oliver Howard’s first battle as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and Stephen Lee’s first battle in command of the Army of Tennessee’s Second Corps, the native Mainer bested the South Carolinian.
            In his after-action report of the fight, Stephen Lee wrote, “if all the troops had displayed equal spirit we would have been successful,” a statement that might seem too hopeful.  He further justified this belief because, as he rightfully put it, the Fifteenth Corps’s breastworks “were slight, and besides they had scarcely gotten into position when we made the attack.”  Perhaps Lee is correct in his assessment of the Battle of Ezra Church, but the Federal works were defensive works no matter how slight they were and they, the lack of knowledge of the Federal position, the thickly wooded terrain, Lee’s piecemeal attacks, and the zeal of the Army of the Tennessee defeated Stephen Lee on this day.
            Oliver Howard wrote after the battle that in his first fight as commander of the army, “I was delighted with the conduct of [the] officers and men.”  Howard tallied in his report of the fight that his army suffered only 642 casualties as compared to the supposed 7,000 lost by the Confederate Army (the real number is estimated around 3,000).  For his actions at Ezra Church, Oliver Howard was awarded the brevet rank of Major General in the United States Army. 
            Hood’s nose had been bloodied once again at the hands of the Army of the Tennessee and from then on, Hood “seemed satisfied to stand on the defensive as long as he held Atlanta.”  Ezra Church became yet another fight that tightened the Federal noose around Atlanta’s neck.
            For the two generals overseeing the fighting on July 28, their stories went far beyond fighting at Antietam and Ezra Church.  Oliver Howard went on to become the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and the president and founder of Howard University.  Stephen Lee became the first president of what is today known as Mississippi State University and was one of the founders of the Vicksburg National Military Park Association, an organization influential in getting the Vicksburg battlefield listed as a national military park.  Howard lived until 1909, Lee until 1908.  The two former classmates turned adversaries on many Civil War battlefields were “the last surviving commanders of independent armies in the field during the Civil War.”  On July 28, 1864, their careers had taken them a long way from the fields of western Maryland as the two men faced off against each other in very different positions than the ones they had known in mid September 1862.    
Ballard, Michael B. Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford            University Press, 2001.
Howard, Oliver Otis. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard. Vol. 2. New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1908.

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the        Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1901.

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