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A Needless Waste of Lives
- Battle of Kennesaw Mountain June, 1864
About North Georgia

by Wayne C. Bengston
Exclusively for About North Georgia

One of the most tragic errors that William Tecumseh Sherman made during the four years of fighting in the Civil War was his order to initiate a frontal assault on Kennesaw Mountain. On the 27th of June, 1864, the red-haired Ohioan ordered two simultaneous assaults and both failed, leaving an aggregate loss of nearly three thousand men, whereas the losses in Hardee's and Loring's corps, by which the brunt of the assault was sustained, were reported by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to be about five hundred and forty. Sherman in his official report stated "Failure as it was, and for which I assume the entire responsibility, I yet claim it produced good fruits, as it demonstrated to General Johnston that I would assault, and that boldly."

Map of Marietta, Georgia, showing the area of the Marietta Operations with shaded relief.
Map of the Marietta Operation, about 9 June 1864 - 2 July 1864
The Battle begins north of Kennesaw

With ample supplies and communication lines open to the rear, on June 9th, 1864, Sherman moved to Big Shanty at the base of Kennesaw Mountain. Kennesaw Mountain is a high range of hills trending off to the northeast that was covered with chestnut trees, ending with another peak called Brush Mountain. To the right of the mountain was a smaller upcroping, Pine Mountain, and beyond it in the distance lay Lost Mountain. These mountains form a continuous chain, together having a conical appearance with Pine Mountain forming the apex and Kennesaw and Lost Mountains the base of a triangle, covering the town of Marietta, Georgia.

On each of the peaks Rebels had signaling stations. Confederate troops used flags to communicate between their corps. Cannon were placed on these peaks and in the spurs between the peaks and men dug pits and fortifications to strengthen the line. Hardee's Corps held the left of the enemy's line on Lost Mountain, Polk's the center, and Hood's the right, across from Marietta-Ackworth road. Between these three corps, a battle line of twelve or more miles was formed. Although the Union forces were superior in number, Johnston had the advantage of holding high ground.

Bishop Polk dies; Johnston consolidates his forces

On the 11th of June, Sherman's lines were formed and he determined that first he needed to break Johnston's line between Kennesaw and Pine Mountains. Extensive cannon fire from Sherman's lines raked the mountains. During this sharp cannonading beloved Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk was killed on June 14, a tragic loss to the Confederate Army.

Johnston appointed Major General Loring to command Polk's corps. During the night of the 14th and the early morning of June 15, Johnston, fearing one of Sherman's flanking tactics, moved his troops off Pine Mountain and strongly entrenched them in hills between Kennesaw and Lost Mountain.

From the heights, Confederates would look down on the Union camps and observe every movement. Their batteries sent rumbles to the enemy below, but did little harm because of the extreme height causing the shot and shell to pass harmlessly overhead. During these operations around Kennesaw Mountain, rain fell almost continuously. The narrow wooded roads were mere mud gulleys, making the situation for general movement almost impossible.

General McPherson was watching the enemy on Kennesaw and working his left forward; Thomas swinging, as it were, on a grand left wheel, his left on Kennesaw connecting with McPherson; and General Schofield's corps working to the south and east, along the old Sandtown road.

With McPherson's 15th Army Corps, under the command of Major General John "Blackjack" Logan gaining an advantage to the left, Sherman again ordered an assault to the center of Johnston's lines. Fighting was difficult as a result of the hills and ravines in addition to the dense forest on this terrain. On the 17th of June, Johnston abandoned Lost Mountain and concentrated his forces in a strong defense line on Kennesaw Mountain. Johnston's right wing covered Marietta, and his left wing behind Noyes' Creek, covering his railroad in his rear to the Chattahoochee.

Hood attacks at Kolb's Farm

On the 22nd, Hooker and Schofield were attacked by a strong Confederate force. Unknown to the Federals on the previous day Confederate General John Bell Hood moved his corps to the left of the Confederate lines, and his former position on the right was filled by Wheeler's cavalry. The result was devastating. Hood had Hindman's and Stevenson's Divisions lead the attack against Williams's Division of Hooker's Corps and a brigade in Hascall's Division of Schofield's Corps. The Union troops were then reinforced and drove the Confederates back, leaving their dead and wounded on the battlefield.
Hood's Corps then counterattacked but were driven back by the Union troops at Battle of Kolb's Farm.

"A good day to die"

Having his troops continually repulsed by entrenched Confederates, Sherman decided that he would either have to assault Johnston's lines or to turn Johnston's position. It was his conviction that Johnston would not believe that Sherman would attempt an all out assault, considering the terrain and the fortifications and entrenchments Johnston had prepared. His plan was that an assault was to be made at two locations on the south side of Kennesaw Mountain. One assault was to be made by McPherson's 15th Army Corp near Little Kennesaw, and about a mile to the south, troops from Thomas' 4th and 14th Army Corp. He gave all the details of the battle plan and was issued to McPherson and Thomas on the 24th of June, giving his corps commanders three days to make preparations for the assault. In addition to the three thousand men who died in the attack, Sherman lost two good brigade commanders, Harker (4th Army Corps), and McCook (14th Army Corps).

After the battle of Kennesaw Mountain
Little Kennesaw Mountain (left) and Pigeon Hill (right)
after the battle. Shot from the west side of Mountain Road near Burnt
Hickory Road.
Realizing now that a frontal assault was to be too devastating to his troops, Sherman pulled McPherson's Corps from its immediate position on July 1st, and directed McPherson to throw his Corps to the right and threaten Nickajack Creek and Turner's Ferry across the Chattahoochee River. But Johnston knowing his friend from the past and present adversary, and the tactics he would use, once again out-foxed Sherman and moved his troops off Kennesaw and covering his movements well, crossed the Chattahoochee and gained a tactical victory over Sherman.

Sherman could have used flanking tactics as he had done all the way from Dalton. He also had the option to by-pass Kennesaw and leave Thomas' Army of the Cumberland consisting over fifty-four thousand troops to keep Johnston busy, while the rest of his army marched onward to Atlanta. In either way, troop loss would have been significantly less than the amoun of troops that were needlessly lost on the assault of Kennesaw Mountain.

The Civil War in Georgia
Beginning with the Great Locomotive Chase and the battle of Chickamauga, to the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea

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Battle of Kolb's Farm
Chattahoochee River
John Bell Hood
Joseph E. Johnston
Leonidas Polk

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