Civil War in Georgia, Week 24: A fight at Allatoona

“The glorious sun of Austerlitz flashed not more brightly upon Napoleon’s legions in magnificent battle array, than did its brilliant beams crown the Allatoona hills on that lovely autumn morning,” recalled a Federal captain involved in the Oct. 5, 1864 Battle of Allatoona Pass.

As Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood and most elements of the Army of Tennessee camped near Lost Mountain in western Cobb County, and some Southern soldiers skirmished along the rails of the Western and Atlantic in Big Shanty (today’s Kennesaw), Hood knew the W&A railroad pass at Allatoona — just north of Acworth — provided an opportunity in his quest to break Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s line of supply and possibly compel the blue coats to abandon Atlanta.

Hood ordered Maj. Gen. Samuel French to seize the pass from its Federal defenders, and to “fill up the deep cut … with logs, brush, rails, dirt, etc.” The cut ran for 360 feet through the Allatoona Mountains, excavated out of solid rock to a depth of 175 feet; the Confederates would have needed modern earthmoving equipment to accomplish this impossible task! Undeterred, French set out on his mission with three brigades and supporting artillery.

Neither Hood nor French possessed accurate reconnaissance of what awaited them at Allatoona; even if scouting parties had ridden out earlier to reconnoiter, any intelligence gleaned would have proven faulty. By the time the Confederates launched their assault on the vital cut, Federal Lt. Col. John Tourtellotte with three regiments and one artillery battery had received reinforcements. Warned of the Confederate advance toward Allatoona, Maj. Gen. John Corse boarded five additional regiments outside Rome and proceeded toward Allatoona on the night of Oct. 4. The iron horse delivered the support Tourtellotte would surely need.

Meanwhile, French’s force struggled through the darkness. Thick terrain and a confused young guide slowed their progress to a crawl until French finally stopped the march, preferring to await the light of day to proceed. This unpreventable delay gave Corse time to reposition the combined Federal force, now numbering around 2,000 men. The Northerners took up fortified positions on the heights on both sides of the cut: The Eastern Redoubt on the east, and the stronger Star Fort on the west, connected by a wooden footbridge across the pass.

Surveying the strong defensive works around the pass, French opted to place his artillery on a nearby hill; his infantry would approach from the rear and west. Brig. Gen. Claudius Sears would swing to the left, go around the pass, and position his Mississippians to attack from the north. A young soldier in Sears’s brigade noted in his diary, after he heard one of the junior officers refer to their goal as a simple “breakfast task,” that he offered the man “my share of that breakfast.”

While Sears maneuvered into position, Brig. Gen. Francis Cockrell and his brave Missourians prepared to advance along the Cartersville Road, supported by Brig. Gen. William Young’s Texans and North Carolinians. They soon encountered their first obstacle: Rowett’s Redoubt. This stronghold astride the road was named for Col. Richard Rowett, who had accompanied Corse from Rome. It provided the initial scene of death when the battle began around 10 a.m.

Hard fighting played out in the redoubt; the Federals held for a time before superior numbers forced their retreat. As the two sides struggled, Sears’ men roared into action from the rear. Tourtellotte’s soldiers from Illinois and Minnesota in the Eastern Redoubt managed to slow the Mississippians, but the Confederate attacks continued.

Soon, most of the Federals had been forced back into the Eastern Redoubt or Star Fort. The Star Fort became so packed, soldiers stood on the bodies of the fallen – those dead, wounded, or afraid to stick the heads above the parapet. For the brave few who dared to survey the Confederates in their front, Southern lead hit the target.

Watching the battle from the signal station atop Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman saw little as fog clung to the top of the 700-foot prominence, obscuring vision and greatly reducing the Federals’ ability to communicate via signal flags. During breaks in Mother Nature’s visual barrier, a few messages got through. Corse received orders to hold, and hints at help coming lifted spirits among the frightened soldiers, especially those in the very tenuous Star Fort.

One message supposedly directed Corse to “hold the fort.” It gave birth to a popular post-war anthem, one still found in modern hymnals. Composer Philip Bliss listened to veterans’ accounts of the action at Allatoona Pass and penned “Hold the Fort” in 1870. The refrain symbolized the faith of Corse and his men, as they believed the Confederates might overtake their position at any minute: “Hold the fort, for I am coming, Jesus signals still; Wave the answer back to Heaven, By Thy grace we will.”

Perhaps God did side with the Federals at Allatoona. While French possibly could have taken the position — though he had no chance of filling the pass as Hood had ordered — a report of enemy troops approaching from his rear convinced him to halt the battle in the early hours of the afternoon. The report was in error, but French did not know that at the time and could not risk losing his only avenue of escape; he ordered his troops to begin falling back.

Both sides took prisoners. Two of Sears’ Mississippi regiments, separated from the balance of the command and trapped in a ravine, surrendered. Marching away from Allatoona Pass, French’s artillery threw shells at a blockhouse guarding a railroad bridge, thereby forcing the Wisconsin men holding the position to wave the white flag.

Marching in the direction of New Hope Church, French’s men joined the rest of the Army of Tennessee just as they prepared to move toward Van Wert. There, Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler’s cavalry reunited with the army. On Oct. 11, the Southern troops bivouacked at Armuchee Post Office, a position 10 miles northwest of Rome, and awaited Hood’s next orders.

Hood had not cut Sherman’s railroad, but he had alarmed the Northern general enough to get him to leave Atlanta, if only temporarily.

Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at:

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