The Civil War in Georgia, Week 9: The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

Fearing yet another of his adversary’s attempts to turn his flank, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston decided, on the evening of June 21, 1864, to move Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Corps from the right of the Confederate line at Big Kennesaw Mountain to the far left, near the farmhouse of Peter Kolb at what is today Powder Springs and Callaway roads southwest of Marietta.

Johnston had sensed correctly; Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had ordered Maj. Gen. John Schofield to search for a way around the left flank of Johnston’s Army of Tennessee.

Schofield’s men encountered Southern cavalry troopers, and skirmishing broke out in several areas. Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker brought his XX Corps up and connected with Schofield’s men. After capturing several Confederate prisoners, the Northern officers soon learned these men belonged to Hood’s Corps – a discovery that alarmed them both. Hood had a reputation as a fighter, and the Federals feared an imminent assault.

Their concerns proved legitimate. Acting without orders, and not having conducted an advance reconnaissance of the enemy in his front, Hood attacked on June 22.

Advancing across an open field with no protection for 1,000 yards, the Confederates felt the fury of 40 artillery pieces the Federals had deployed on high ground overlooking the approach. Hood’s unauthorized attack stalled, and resulted in 1,000 dead, wounded or missing Southern troops. Most of the 350 Northern casualties were borne by two divisions of Hooker’s corps under the command of Brig. Gens. Alpheus Williams and John Geary. So ended the Battle of Kolb’s Farm.

How to follow up the Federal victory? Sherman opted for the offensive.

Deciding his men had become too comfortable fighting behind earthworks, and eager to break the Confederate stronghold along the Kennesaw Mountain Line, Sherman issued orders for an attack. Artillery fire at 8 a.m. June 27 would signal the advance. Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee received the task of feinting on Big Kennesaw in hopes of forcing Johnston to redeploy troops from the center to strengthen his right. Schofield’s mission remained much the same — to continue to seek a way around the Confederate left flank.

The meat in the middle of this military sandwich was Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland. Thomas, a native Virginian who had cast his loyalties with the Union, led the largest of the three Federal armies in Georgia. Sherman gave him permission to develop the tactical strategy for his part of the attack. Reconnoitering parties provided Thomas with intelligence of the terrain and indicated the position where his army most closely approached the Confederate line. There, his men would advance.

The signal guns fired, and McPherson moved. His men fought very well for an intended demonstration, as some neared the Confederate works atop Big Kennesaw. To the south, the Federals came close to taking Pigeon Hill, but the gallant efforts of Brig. Gen. Francis Cockrell’s brave Missourians stopped the blue coats.

Thomas and his subordinates had decided upon a plan of attack involving elements of three corps from Thomas’s army: Brig. Gen. John Newton from the IV Corps, Geary with the XX Corps, and the XIV Corps’s Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis. The Northerner with a most Southern name — Davis — tapped the brigades of Cols. Dan McCook and John Mitchell to advance across John Ward Creek and scale the sloping field, up toward the Confederate earthworks.

Constructing their line initially under cover of darkness, the Confederates digging in here missed the “military crest,” which would have been just forward of the actual crest of the rise and the best position to fire on attackers. They did not even place their spades in the ground of the actual geographic crest. Instead, their vast array of trenches and traverses lay behind the top of the rise. As the battle played out, this would actually prove beneficial to the troops holding the position.

Two of the South’s best fighters, Maj. Gens. Pat Cleburne and Ben Cheatham, occupied the works in the Confederate center.

The morning of June 27, the Federals started forward — like Confederates at Kolb’s Farm, across an open field affording no cover from withering rifle and artillery fire. They immediately began taking heavy losses from Cheatham’s defenders. Hard-fighting Tennesseans repulsed the determined Federals.

Of the 3,000 casualties Sherman’s forces suffered in the battle, the majority occurred at a position that earned the name “Cheatham Hill.” McCook and Mitchell’s men neared the apex only to weather a storm of lead; McCook was shot and fatally wounded at the top of the crest as he tried to rally his men to storm the defenders’ trenches.

The Federal survivors huddled in a depression on the side of the hill. Because the Southerners had not entrenched on the military crest, the Northern soldiers lay just below the line of fire. But they were trapped; they could neither advance nor retreat.

For the next five days, the “Dead Angle” became home for these men, many of them wounded. A truce two days after the battle afforded both sides a chance to bury their dead; dirt covered far more bodies in blue than gray. (Today, the Illinois Monument — erected 100 years ago this week — marks the place where valiant Illinoisans tried to carry the Confederate works.)

In his post-battle report, Davis praised the efforts of his division, citing his men’s “courage and discipline,” “the determined manner in which they clung to the works afterward, and the noble physical endurance” that he said “have never been exceeded in modern soldiery.”

A Confederate soldier remarked, “We simply did our duty and no man shirked.”

The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain ended with the Southern forces unmoved, and the Northern troops back where they had started. Much like their counterparts along the Richmond-Petersburg front in Virginia, the two sides settled into a waiting game. But unlike in Virginia, the wait in North Georgia would not be long before the next chapter of the Atlanta Campaign opened.

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

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