Thursday, August 1, 2013

Surrender of Gen. George H. Stoneman at the Battle of Sunshine Church (149th Anniversary)

Sunshine Church Battlefield - Round Oak, Georgia
149 years ago today on August 1, 1864, Maj. Gen. George H. Stoneman became the highest ranking Union officer to surrender during the entire War Between the States (or Civil War).

Stoneman's surrender took place on a hilltop 10 miles north of Gray, Georgia, at the end of the Battle of Sunshine Church. The engagement, which had begun the previous day, was one of the greatest Union disasters of the Atlanta Campaign.

Maj. Gen. George H. Stoneman
The Northern politician/general had left Decatur on July 27, 1864, at the head of a column of 2,104 officers and men and only two pieces of artillery. His objective - as approved by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman - was to break the railroad between Atlanta and Macon and then liberate the thousands of Union prisoners of war being held at Camp Oglethorpe (Macon) and Camp Sumter (Andersonville).

Sherman warned Stoneman, however, to let caution be his guide. He was to focus first on breaking the railroad, but he was not to try to make the long ride to Andersonville unless he was all but assured of success. The cavalry commander did not heed Sherman's advice and paid for his mistake with his reputation.

Driving south from Decatur, Stoneman and his men broke the railroad and did as much damage as possible, but also unleashed a fury of terror on civilian families, particularly women and children. Their targeting of civilians outraged people across the South and in particular outraged the Georgia Reserves and Militia assembling to meet them at Macon.

Confederate Earthworks at Dunlap Hill
Instead of sweeping aside reserves and militia as he appears to have expected to do, Stoneman ran into a buzzsaw when he reached Macon. Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb commanded the well-fortified Confederate forces at the Battle of Dunlap Hill on July 30, 1864. The Federals tried a poorly organized attack up the Clinton Road, but Cobb's forces drove them back and the sun set to the sound of "rebel yells" coming from the Confederate earthworks on the Dunlap Farm and at nearby Fort Hawkins.

It was then that Stoneman made the mistake that would destroy his reputation. Instead of immediately falling back to the safety of Sherman's army, he began looking for another way to get across the Ocmulgee River to continue his planned raid on Andersonville - a ride that would make him a hero across the North if he could complete it with success.

Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson
Gen. Cobb, however, outsmarted his Union counterpart by sending Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson with a large force of Confederate cavalry to take up a position between Macon and Sherman's army.

Iverson, who had not performed well at the head of an infantry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg the previous year, was in his element as a commander of cavalry and was especially ready to carry out Cobb's orders. He had grown up in Clinton and knew the roads, farms and woods of Middle Georgia like the back of his hand. Swinging around behind Stoneman, he chose the site for the coming battle in an area of ravines, hills, woods and farms about 10 miles north of Gray and just south of the community of Round Oak.  A small rural chapel named Sunshine Church stood nearby.

When Stoneman learned that Confederate cavalry was moving to cut him off, he fell back from Macon to try to get to safety before it was too late. He reached Sunshine Church on July 31, 1864, to find that he had waited too long.  Iverson was entrenched along a ridge cutting off his route of retreat.

Iverson's Ridge at Sunshine Church
The Union general tried to cut his way through, but Iverson was too much for him.  A fierce battle raged through the ravines, hollows and ridges at Sunshine Church. Things got worse for Stoneman when troops sent north by Cobb to attack him from behind appeared to his rear.  With Confederates now holding the ridge ahead of him and coming up from behind, he decided he was trapped.

During the night of July 31-August 1, he met with his senior officers and ordered two of his brigades to try to cut their way out and escape while he remained behind with the rest of his men to sacrifice himself and buy time. They urged him not to resort to such action, but George Stoneman was already a a defeated man.

Sunshine Church II
Built north of the battlefield after
the War Between the States.
Capron's and Adams' brigades did break out (although Capron's brigade was soon cut to pieces at the Battle of King's Tanyard near Athens). Stoneman held on a hilltop - known today as Stoneman's Hill - for a short time before surrendering to Iverson. He barely escaped being hanged from the nearest tree by the Confederates, who were infuriated over the attacks on civilians carried out by the Union raiders.

149 years ago today, George H. Stoneman began his journey to a Confederate prisoner of war camp. It would be months before he was released and he holds the dubious distinction of being the highest ranking Union officer captured during the four years of bloody war.

To learn more about the Battle of Sunshine Church, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sunshinechurch.

To learn more about the preliminary action at the Battle of Dunlap Hill, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/dunlaphill.


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