Unfortunately, having decided to conduct a mere reconnaissance-in-force by sending in only one brigade under General Hazen with dubious and late support from Colonel Scribner’s brigade, Howard then proceeded to reinforce Hazen when it was obvious the initial attack had failed. In continuing the assault Colonel Gibson’s brigade suffered even more casualties than Hazen. Shortly after he sent Gibson forward (or acquiesced to the division commander, Brigadier General Thomas Wood sending Gibson forward) Howard received an order from Sherman to cancel the attack. This likely influenced the decision to have Colonel Knefler’s brigade advance to cover the other two brigades until nightfall. A prudent decision, but it only added to the casualty rolls and sent many of his men on their way to Andersonville prison when Granbury boldly launched a night attack to clear the ravine to his front. Instead of a feeling the enemy’s defenses, Howard ended up sending a division to attack by individual brigades and piecemeal. Had he stuck to his reconnaissance, only Hazen’s men would have suffered severe casualties. Having decided not to attack with all of his force, why did Howard then send in most of it anyway in a piecemeal fashion after the assault had begun? There has never been a satisfactory answer.
Nor did Howard perform well tactically or personally. He failed to coordinate the movement of the forces he had on hand. For one, he did not send in Scribner’s brigade to follow Hazen on the left for at least half of an hour. If Scribner’s division commander, Brigadier General Richard Johnson was too slow in issuing the order Howard certainly wasn’t on hand to demand faster action, or didn’t have the presence to do so. He also didn’t call Johnson to task for Scribner’s timid advance right there and then when it could have made a difference. In addition, Brigadier General Nathaniel McLean’s brigade of the Twenty-Third Corps had been assigned the task of connecting the two divisions to the rest of the Union army by a thin skirmish line, as well as protecting the flank of any attacking force; a nearly impossible task in its own right. However, when Hazen’s attack began McLean did not send whatever men he had on hand forward to occupy the Confederates to his front. Howard apparently did nothing to intervene and personally make sure that McLean followed through. It is interesting that McLean ended up losing his job because of his lack of aggressiveness, while Howard kept his by the mere appearance of aggressiveness. The appearance of boldness at the expense of his men’s lives at that. Finally, Howard failed to withdraw Knefler’s brigade from in front of the enemy in a timely manner. For three hours the brigade stayed in front of the enemy, ostensibly to provide cover while rescuing the wounded and trapped men from the previous assaults. However, it appears doubtful that many of the wounded actually made their way to safety, and many of Knefler’s troops ended up casualties or prisoners in their own right as a result. Howard did nothing to speed the progress of helping the wounded or recall Knefler before it was too late.
In short, Howard found the enemy’s flank shortly before nightfall. He decided on a half-hearted measure, staying neither on the defensive, nor throwing all of his men forward in a determined assault. Having chosen a timid move, he then failed to follow through and withdraw when confronted by a powerful enemy and responded aggressively at the wrong moment, all the while failing to coordinate the rest of the brigades under his command. It was a total command failure. It’s hard to image a Hancock, Gibbon, Logan, or even a Joe Hooker (who was performing well as a corps commander in Georgia) losing control of the situation in such a manner.
Would a bold attack have made a difference? It is not unreasonable to assume that five brigades attacking in column could have taken the ridge near Pickett’s Mill. Only Granbury’s Brigade and Kelly’s cavalry skirmishers opposed them at the time. Even with the ability to quickly reinforce their lines, which the Confederates took full advantage of during the actual battle, it is likely the five brigades could have stood their ground against the counterattack, and possibly have gotten pretty close to Due West Road along the level ground near Pickett’s Mill Creek. How would have the Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston have reacted? No one can say for certain. However, similar instances encountered by Johnston during the campaign may serve as a guide. The appearance of Union troops at Lay’s Ferry led Johnston to abandon the line at Resaca. Union troops making their way down the Sandtown Road close to the Chattahoochee River led Johnston to abandon the Kennesaw Mountain line later in the campaign. Is it unreasonable to guess that Johnston might have withdrawn from the New Hope Church line if his direct access to the Western & Atlantic Railroad was threatened? Of course, we’ll never know, but there is a reason the phrase “fortune favors the bold” is ancient and serves as the motto of several military units. More often than not, bold action brings positive results, and Oliver O. Howard was not a bold man.