The death by Federal artillery fire of Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk settled the matter for Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston: The Pine Mountain position where Polk was killed was too far forward and vulnerable. The day after “Bishop Polk’s” death, Johnston on June 15, 1864 ordered Maj. Gen. William Bate to withdraw his force from the exposed salient. The Confederates next established the Gilgal Church Line.
Here, lead elements of the Federal XX Corps attacked Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s position near Gilgal Church, in a part of west Cobb County that today is the unincorporated community of Due West. The Southern troops began tearing away logs and other materials from the church to fortify their earthworks as Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield’s Third Division led the Federal attack. The Northern soldiers — mostly men from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — struggled to take the Confederate-held high ground. Among those caught up in the fight were Col. Benjamin Harrison, a future U.S. president, and his 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment.
Rebuffed, the Federals fell back after suffering around 200 casualties; Cleburne had minimal losses. But as fighting raged near the church, Maj. Gen. John Schofield, to the right of Butterfield, managed to turn the Southern flank, bring up artillery, and make life miserable for the Confederates down the line.
This enfilading fire forced Johnston to “refuse” or re-form his left flank. Maj. Gen. William Hardee’s Corps fell back to the east, to the Mud Creek Line, along what is today Dallas Highway west of Barrett Parkway. An aide in Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland captured the nature of the fighting June 15-16 when he noted in a dispatch, “Skirmishing and artillery firing along the whole front … our lines advanced and made stronger. General Sherman worked it, and has been hammering at them to find the soft spot, which seems hard to find.”
Probing efforts continued along the Mud Creek Line, as the Federals attempted to locate that soft spot.
To make things tougher for the enemy, the Confederates adopted a novel tactic. A member of the 65th Ohio Infantry wrote, “To aid in their concealment, the rebels carried green bushes stuck in their belts. These covered a good part of their bodies and rendered them almost indistinguishable.”
In a word: camouflage.
The gray-turned-green managed to hold their position until the evening of June 18, when they fell back to the Kennesaw Mountain Line, their most formidable position yet in the Atlanta Campaign.
Constructing the Kennesaw Mountain Line earthworks fell to Confederate Maj. Stephen Presstman. Days before leaving the Mud Creek Line, Johnston, anticipating the need to again resposition the Army of Tennessee, sent Presstman to the Kennesaw Mountain range. The range extends from northeast to southwest for approximately two miles, with three prominences offering defendable ground. Big Kennesaw, rising some 700 feet above the surrounding terrain; Little Kennesaw, at 400 feet, and the 200-foot height of Pigeon Hill became key positions for Confederate engineers.
The morning of June 19, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood anchored the Confederate right, holding a position near Noonday Creek. Maj. Gen. William Wing Loring, appointed to Polk’s former command, held the line from Big Kennesaw down to Pigeon Hill. Below this point, Hardee’s Corps dug in. In total, the Southern forces stretched for almost 10 miles, as 100,000 Federals began approaching the 50,000 Confederates occupying the Kennesaw Line.
Cavalry skirmishing along Noonday Creek, between the troopers of Federal Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard and Confederate Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler, filled the day June 20. The results were inconclusive. But fearing another attempt to turn his flank — this time, the left of the Kennesaw Mountain Line — Johnston on June 21 redeployed Hood’s men from the right of the line to the far left point of the Confederate works.
Next week: the climactic battles at Kolb’s Farm and Kennesaw Mountain.
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net
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