Jonesboro Revisited: Why did Este's assault succeed?

The Federal victory at Jonesboro was the culminating event of Sherman's Atlanta campaign and was one of the primary events that prompted the Confederate evacuation of the city. One of the most dramatic scenes of that battle was the successful charge of Colonel George P. Este's brigade from the 14th Corps on September 1, 1864. Este's charge was one of the few if only occasions during the campaign when an entrenched force had been driven from their works, a feat for which the men of his brigade took tremendous pride for the rest of their lives. (see previous post here.)

Albert Castel in his work Decision in the West dismisses the successful Union attack at Jonesboro, stating that the victory lacked “strategic value” and that the success of the assault was more due to “fortune than fortitude, although the latter was in ample supply. Had not four brigades managed almost simultaneously to strike both sides of a weakly held and poorly fortified salient that was unprotected (this was the decisive factor) by abatis or equivalent obstructions, the Union assault would have ended in another bloody repulse.”

The key point of his argument is that the primary reason the Union assault succeeded was because the Confederate line at this point was not fortified, a statement that is patently untrue. Numerous accounts from Confederate participants describe how they spent the entire afternoon fortifying their position with field works including traverses and abatis. Federal accounts likewise make frequent reference to these obstructions[1] Speaking of "fortune," luck always has a role to play in any military endeavor. That said, it begs the question as to why did Colonel Este’s assault succeed when so many previous frontal assaults made during the Atlanta campaign had failed?

 I think at Jonesboro, Colonel George Este and men of his brigade (10th Kentucky, 74th Indiana, 14th Ohio, 38th Ohio) made their own "luck" through ample guts, smart tactics, small unit cohesion, and inspirational leadership. Let's look at a few of these factors and I'll leave it to the reader to determine how much they weigh in the final result. Feedback and comments are welcome in the comments section but please, keep it civil. 

Tactics:
Este’s assault depended on two factors: speed and ferocity. Este had witnessed the previous assault of Edie’s Regulars which bogged down in the abatis just in front of the Confederate line. The attack failed when the men went to ground and tried to slug it out with the Rebels; it didn’t work and Edie’s brigade suffered heavy casualties as a result. In the initial phase of the assault, Este directed his colonels to move towards a slight ridge about 100 yards in front of the Confederate lines; in so doing, he passed the line of the Regulars who were taking potshots at the Rebel line. As the Federal line approached this ridge, Este directed the men to plunk on the ground and thus they avoided the first volley from the Rebels. At this, the men rose up and charged the Rebel works stopping at the outside line to deliver one volley.
Colonel George P. Este

At the risk of diving into the weeds a bit, let’s look at the distance of 100 yards or roughly 300 feet. The charge was made at the double quick which equates to 5.1 miles per hour, or 26,928 feet an hour. A line moving at the double-quick covers 7.48 feet per second; which means that the Federal line closed in on the Confederates in roughly 40 seconds. As we all know, a well-trained infantryman could fire his black powder rifle musket three times in a minute; the 40 seconds we speak of means that the Confederates, particularly on their left where the line lay closer to the ridge from which the Federal charge commenced, had opportunity to make two aimed shots during the charge, and we know that they received one volley at close range from Este’s right regiments (74th Indiana and 10th Kentucky). Govan’s Arkansas brigade, therefore, delivered its first volley while Este’s men lay on the ridge, and then had the chance to fire two more rounds (reports are unclear but I’m going to wager that the command ‘fire at will’ was given as soon as Este’s men showed themselves over the ridge) before the line was upon them. The surviving Federals (a third of whom went down in the charge) can attest to the ferocity of the Confederates’ fire but it was too little, too late. The bayonet and clubbed musket played a rare role in combat in this sector, and in this case Colonel Govan and a good portion of his men were overwhelmed and captured.

The left-wing regiments of Este’s assault had a much harder time of it as they were exposed to at least one more and as many as two more volleys from Lewis’ Kentuckians. As shown on the map, the Confederate works held by Lewis lay from 75 yards (235 feet) within the wood line, 20 yards (60 feet) further in that the line held by Govan. This gave Lewis’ men eight seconds more than Govan’s men, but in reality they had more time than that as the 38th Ohio reported that they got bogged down in the abatis. As recalled by Lee Rudisille of Co. H, “the works no doubt would have been reached if it had not been for the scraggy, tangled brush the line here encountered. As it was, before the advance had forced its way more than half the distance through, it received a withering fire from the works that staggered it for a moment.” The 38th Ohio lost nearly half its numbers, showing the advantage that  a little bit of distance and abatis gained for Lewis’ Kentuckians.

Unit cohesion:
The four regiments of the brigade were hardened veterans: the 14th Ohio, 38th Ohio, and 10th Kentucky had been in service for three years, the 74th Indiana for two years. The cadre of men left had learned the art of war and the regiments had seen much action together. The 14th Ohio and 10th Kentucky had been brigaded together since late 1861; the 74th Indiana had been with the 10th and 14th since it began service in September 1862, and the 38th Ohio had been in the brigade for a year. Additionally, the 38th Ohio had been raised in the same section of the state as the 14th Ohio so the men knew each other as neighbors back home, and by hard service in the field. The shared experience of war gave cohesion to this brigade perhaps more than others; the men knew each other and knew that they could count on each other in a fight.

Leadership:
Division, brigade, regimental and company leadership was experienced and competent and had been in place for a lengthy period of time.

Starting at the brigade level with Colonel George P. Este. Colonel Este assumed command of the brigade early in 1864 so the various regiments of the brigade had gained many months experience with Este at the helm. They understood how he worked and had seen him under fire. One 14th Ohio veteran remembered that Este was not particularly well-liked in camp “but he’s a whole team in a fight and he’d do so well there that all would take to him and he’d be real popular for a while.” Este had led the brigade throughout the Atlanta campaign and was considered lucky; the story of his boots being a case in point. As remembered by Whitelaw Reid, Este had begun the campaign with “a pair of high glazed cavalry boots; by the time he reached Atlanta, they were fairly shot to pieces and he had received numerous contusions from half-spent balls which they served to check; so that it came to be a saying in the division that Este’s boots were a better coat of mail than the patent bullet-proof vests which the agents and sutlers had been trying to introduce.” At Jonesboro, Este’s horse was shot out from under him and his boots were struck a few more times, but he emerged unscathed. The fact that Este had stories being told about him gives him a touch of “legendary” status, and that alone inspires men. No matter how desperate the endeavor, maybe with Este at the front, we have a chance. And make no mistake, Jonesboro was a desperate military endeavor.
General Absalom Baird

Divisional level leadership from General Absalom Baird was also noteworthy. Baird rode through the battle essentially at Este’s elbow and was able to order up critical support from the 17th New York when the attack appeared about to falter. “I accompanied Colonel Este so as to be ready to give him any assistance he might require,” said Baird. Este noted that Baird’s presence inspired the men “by his splendid courage and his almost unauthorized and reckless exposure of himself to the enemy’s fire.” Thus Baird and Este met one of the crucial tests of Civil War combat: they would go where the men went and share in the dangers with them.

At a company and regimental level, by this point in the war, the political appointees had either learned their craft or left the army. This left the upper crust of the volunteer soldiers in regimental and company commands. Many of the company grade officers had served up through the ranks and had been promoted due to bravery and demonstrated competence. Likewise, with the regimental commanders- they were experienced and had the respect of their men.

Field works, Confederate Strength, and Timing:
The Confederate line at Jonesboro had been erected that very afternoon and, as a matter of fact, was still in the process of being strengthened right up to the moment of Edie’s and Este’s assaults on the line. Gervis Granger of the 6th Kentucky (Lewis’ Brigade) reported that “we went into the ground like gophers and in a short time had improvised breastworks which, though meager, were better than none.” John Green of the 9th Kentucky recalled that “we cut and piled logs and dug for dear life. The Yanks began to shell us but we could not stop.” One wonders that Hiram Granbury’s rapidly built line at Pickett’s Mill was not stronger than Lewis and Govan’s line at Jonesboro, but Granbury had the advantage of the higher ground at Pickett’s Mill. The fortifications were strong enough to allow Govan and Lewis’ men to turn back the first Federal assault by Edie’s Regular brigade with negligible losses. As the 38th and 14th Ohio of Colonel George Este’s brigade got briefly bogged down in the abatis until the timely arrival of the 17th New York diverted the Confederate fire and allowed the men to climb through, it is clear that fortifications and abatis were present and slowed the attack, but did not stop it.  While one cannot argue with that fact that the two Confederate brigades were small at this point in the line, both Govan’s and Lewis’ brigades numbered amongst the hardest fighting troops in the Army of Tennessee. A similar line of works at Pickett's Mill held by Hiram Granbury's Texans had inflicted devastating losses on the two Federal brigades that tried to assault them. 

The timing of Este’s assault (before the Confederate works were finished) no doubt played a role in making this assault a successful one. This does circle back a bit to Castel’s argument of Dame Fortune playing a role in the outcome, but isn't that true of every military endeavor? 



[1] I highly recommend reading the account of Sergeant Major John W. Green of the 9th Kentucky who describes building works and stopping their construction to halt the first Federal attack on September 1st. Gervis Granger of the 6th Kentucky stated that the works “were meager but better than none.” See Richard A. Baumgartner and Larry M. Strayer, Echoes of Battle: The Atlanta Campaign. Huntingdon: Blue Acorn Press, 1991, pgs. 299-311

Comments

  1. I've researched this part of the battle extensively, as my 2 volume set on Granbury's Texas Infantry Brigade takes into account This assault as viewed by my "Texians" to Govan's left-rear. They had to come out of their works and drive the enemy back into the original works to re-stabilize the right flank. After the campaign had ended, Govan and his survivors were exchanged in a special arrangement between the adverse parties. When the "rackensackers" from Arkansas retired to Hood's camps, the first thing they did was to get up a memorial, which they took to Granbury's camp. In it, they felt compelled to state they still thought themselves equal to the Texans, and wanted the latter's endorsement. Should the Texans not feel they were worthy, they would demand to be sent to another division, because they would not continue to fight with men who didn't think themselves equal to themselves! And remember that Granbury at Picket's Mill had just reached their position when attacked, and had NO breastworks whatsoever! I therefore don't see a very close comparison as to the differences in outcomes. Danny Sessums, "A Force to be Reckoned With:"

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