An army lives on its stomach. For as long as man has warred, the toughest tactical feat is feeding men who fight battles. Many times important tactical and strategic decisions are based on the ability to provide food. It is this concern that caused Union Army commander William Tecumseh Sherman to launch a full-scale frontal assault on the entrenched position of General Joseph E.Johnston's Rebels at Kennesaw Mountain.
Cannon atop Kennesaw Mountain
A gunner from this position wrote, "..the valley is full of men coming towards us for as far as the eye can see."
From Chattanooga, Tennessee to Atlanta, these two men performed what Civil War historian Bruce Catton called "...a macabre dance." Sherman repeatedly outflanked his opponent, only to be stopped by a small chain of mountains
just west of the small northwest Georgia rail center of Marietta. At the end of June, 1864, Johnston sat the east side of Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman on the west.
The red-headed commander from Ohio tried to make a run around the south end of the Confederate line when an "impetuous" attack by John Bell Hood at the Battle of Kolb's Farm stopped Sherman cold in his tracks. Now, for the first time during Atlanta Campaign, Sherman couldn't outflank his opponent. He must fight. The Western and Atlanta Railroad skirted the north end of Kennesaw Mountain. Simply leaving Rebel artillery entrenched on the mountain would doom any hope of using the railroad to supply his men south of the peak. Having left the railroad once in Kingston, Sherman felt that leaving it now would spell disaster for his 100,000 man army. The Confederate position must fall. John Scofield's Army of the Ohio held the southern end of the line, George Thomas' Army of the Cumberland the middle, and James Birdseye McPherson's Army of the Tennessee the northern end, west and north of Kennesaw Mountain. They were going up against John Bell Hood to the south, William J. Hardee in the center and Polk's Corps to the north, with William W. Loring in charge after the untimely death of [Leonidas Polk|Bishop Polk]] a few days earlier.
A simple plan was devised, with Sherman giving his field commanders great leeway in their choices for attack. Schofield and Hooker, at the southern end of the line, would demonstrate to keep Hood in place. Thomas would launch the primary attack somewhere along a front nearly two and half miles long south of Pigeon Hill. To the north McPherson demonstrated and also launched a secondary attack. With his men in position and the entire Union Army on the move in front of them, Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston would not be able to reinforce the areas of attack. Sherman wanted to split the Rebel line and drive to the Western and Atlantic Railroad south of Marietta.
XV Corps commander John "Blackjack" Logan, from Illinois, decided to attack a salient in the Rebel line between Little Kennesaw Mountain and Pigeon Hill. To the south, Generals George Thomas ("The Rock of Chickamauga") and O. O. Howard personally selected a salient in the line that appeared to be misplaced. The line had formed far enough back on the hill that a "dead area" beneath the Confederates might offer the attackers relief from the hail of lead they would surely face. Also, this was the location where the two opposing lines were closest.
Fair Oaks, Joseph E. Johnston headquarters in Marietta
The morning of the 27th ranking officer's reconnoitering gave way to the artillerymen's bombardment. For fifteen minutes across parts of the five-mile front, Union cannoneers lobbed shells at Confederate positions. The barrage was designed to "soften up" Rebel defenses, but it may have done more harm than good for it forewarned of the impending attack.
Plans of the Union generals almost immediately went awry. The Army of the Cumberland did not start until an hour after schedule, and the assault on Pigeon Hill ran into unexpected physical barriers.
At 8:15 cannon fell silent at Pigeon Hill, quickly replaced by the staccato bursts of gunfire as Logan's men moved forward. Nearly 5,500 infantry poured into a small area to battle the intrenched Rebels. Noyes Creek, which runs north-south just west of Mountain Road, provided the first physical barrier for Joseph A. J. Lightborn's Union infantry.
Behind the creek sat the 63rd Georgia Regiment, along with other groups on skirmish duty. Instead of withdrawing when others fell back, the recently transferred 63rd stayed at the forward line. Six regiments of federals poured out of the forest and over the line held by the Georgians. Ordered to reinforce the skirmish line, reserves came forward as support. Brief hand-to-hand fighting routed the Georgia Regiment and forced them to return to the Rebel line followed closely by boys in blue. Punishing Confederate cross-fire halted the Federals, and the commander ordered retreat within ten minutes.
Just to the north, a second group of Union soldiers under Giles Smith tried to advance across Old Mountain Road, which still exists. The heavy woods, large rocks and a stone palisade protecting the Rebel forces at the top of Pigeon Hill doomed this assault. Even further north the men of Col. Charles C. Walcutt overran the Confederate skirmish line but failed to take the main line in the heavily wooded gap between Little Kennesaw and Pigeon Hill.
Looking from the Union position towards the Dead Angle, just over the top of the ridge.
To the south of Pigeon Hill lies land that gently slopes uphill from the Union positions. Johnston assigned two of his best commanders to defend the area. Both Benjamin Franklin Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne commanded men who are battle tested, hardened to a fine edge. Supported by an intricate web of earthworks and entanglements, these veterans see the hardest fighting of the day. To the west men under Union Generals Jefferson C. Davis and John Newton form behind Thomas' line. The plan is to rush the Confederates en masse, hopefully breaking through and routing the boys in gray.
The Union Army charge south of the Dallas Highway launched at ten o'clock on June 27, 1864. 8,000 men were committed to the assault across a two-mile front, many waiting for a breakthrough to exploit. Leading the charge for Davis was Daniel McCook, an Ohioan most noted for sharing a law office with his commanding officer, William Tecumseh Sherman. John G. Mitchell would hit the salient from the southern side, McCook from the northern side. Newton's men, led by the able Charles Harker, would try to penetrate the Confederate line to the north.
Parley D. Inman (left) was wounded in the upper left leg by a Confederate mini ball. Parley lay on the field for two days before being picked up; his leg was then amputated. On the right is Chauncey F. Inman. Both men were from Illinois. Photo courtesy Thomas Milner
Prepared for the attack by the unusual artillery barrage, the Rebel line watched the green valley become a sea of blue as the Union assault swept across John Ward Creek below them. Advancing men tried to punch holes in the Rebel line but word from the battle was not good. Harker fell 15 feet from the Rebel line, shot in the arm and chest by Patrick Cleburne's men. Further south, at Cheatham Hill, the Union boys that aren't cannon fodder were repeatedly raked by Cheatham's Tennesseans.
Wave after wave of Federals advanced towards the salient in the Rebel line on Cheatham Hill. Withering gunfire kills hundreds of boys, mostly from Illinois and Ohio. Incredibly, McCook and some of his men make it to the Rebel line, only to be shot, stabbed, or captured by the Graybacks. Later both sides would refer to this area as "The Dead Angle."
Confederate allows Yankee invaders to collect the dead"
Just to the north of Cheatham Hill some woods catch on fire during the attack. Wounded Union soldiers, left during the hasty retreat, scream as they burn to death in the blaze. A colonel from Arkansas steps on top of the entrenchments with a white flag and calls to the opposing force, "Come and get your men, for they are burning to death!" Rifleless Federals approached and began to remove the bodies, aided by men in gray. The two forces that had been killing each other less than fifteen minutes earlier now were working together to save the lives of fallen men. The next day Union commanders presented the Confederate Colonel with a matching pair of ivory-handled Colt .45 pistols.
Unable to pierce the Confederate line, what remains of the Union attackers withdraw to safer territory. Some Illinois men remain 20 yards from the Rebel line, trying to dig a tunnel to blow a hole in the entrenchments above them. In an hour and a half of battle the Federals lost more than 1,000 men, the Confederates one-third that total. McCook is returned to the field hospital, badly wounded. He will die shortly after his promotion to general a few days later. Johnston withdraws on the evening of July 2, first to Smyrna, then to the Chattahoochee River Line, in defense of Atlanta.
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