Friday, June 27, 2014

The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain at 150

SourceCivil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston had carefully arranged his Army of Tennessee in a strong position near Marietta, Georgia, on and around Kennesaw Mountain, awaiting a general attack by Gen. William T. Sherman's Federal army. On today's date in 1864, the 2 armies again clashed, this time in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

Sherman, who had been attacking and pushing the Confederates south from Dalton since early May, had at last decided to bring on a large-scale frontal attack on the Confederate line. His overall plan was to break through simultaneously at 2 points where he considered the Rebel line vulnerable, thereby preventing one part of Johnston's line from reinforcing the other.

Sherman ordered Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield to move his army to the right in the hopes that Johnston would be forced to weaken his line by extending it accordingly. Then he was to attack the Confederate left flank near the Powder Springs Road. His plan for Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson was for his army to make a demonstration on his extreme left to the north of Marietta and the northeastern end of Kennesaw Mountain, while making a major attack on the southwestern end of Little Kennesaw Mountain. At the same time, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas was to make the main assault against the Confederate fortifications in the center of their line.

Thomas had the unfortunate task of attacking 2 hardened veteran Confederate divisions of Lt. Gen. William Hardee's Corps—Maj. Gens. Benjamin Cheatham's and Patrick R. Cleburne's. My great grandfather, Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, was in Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey's Brigade in Cleburne's Division, and would be one of the units to receive the force of Thomas's attack.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
These 2 divisions were extended in a single line along a 3-mile rise, now known as Cheatham Hill. Cheatham's Division was posted on the left, with Cleburne's Division assigned to his right, extending to the Dallas Road. Lowery's Brigade was on the left, next to Chatham's Division, Gen. Daniel Govan's in the center, and Gen. Hiram Granbury's on the right. The men had fortified themselves behind a series of strong breastworks. The Federal line was 400 yards away across a small ravine. In front of Lowrey's men were open woods and dense undergrowth, while Govan's troops fronted a field with felled timber scattered on their left.

By 8 AM, Cleburne's men could see the enemy across the Federal line marching and massing behind their breastworks, readying for an attack. At 8:45, the Federals opened with a fierce artillery barrage. At 9:00, Federal soldiers directed their attack against Cheatham's and Cleburne's line. They were arranged in 2 massed columns, 5 lines deep, with a strong line of skirmishers in the front. Throughout the day, 8,000 Federals would attack the center of the Confederate defenses, aiming much of the attack toward the prominent salient on the south end of Cheatham's line.1

In Cleburne's front, his men held their fire until the enemy was within 75 yards of their defenses. Pouring sustained fire into the ranks of the approaching enemy, the Rebels turned back the advancing wave of bluecoats. At one point, under close fire of the enemy, the bold Gen. Mark Lowrey jumped on the breastworks and moved down his line encouraging his men.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Confederate cannon near Lowrey's men, covering
the direction of the Federal approach
The temperature through the day rose to 100 degrees. And the dense woods and thick undergrowth made forward movement toward the Confederate line even more difficult. In some places, exploding shells caused fires to erupt. Flames spread quickly, and many of the Federal wounded were engulfed in the inferno. Unable to watch the horrible scene, one of Cleburne's men, Lt. Col. William Martin, jumped upon the breastworks and waved a white handkerchief as a flag of truce. Immediately, there was a ceasefire while Yankees and Cleburne's men ran forward from their lines to assist the wounded and beat out the flames. The next day, the Union commanders presented the colonel with a matching pair of ivory-handled pistols in gratitude for his action.

After the brief truce, the fighting resumed.2 There was another Federal charge against Cleburne's line, but the Confederates drove it back. Unable to pierce the Rebel line, within a half hour, the last attack was called off. A thousand Federal soldiers were killed on Cheatham Hill. Cleburne's losses were only 2 killed and 9 wounded. Cheatham lost 194.

To the east, as at Cheatham Hill, the battle did not go well for Sherman. Except for some success in Schofield's front, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was a tactical defeat for his army. 6,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives on this day. Sherman's losses were 3 casualties for every 1 in Johnston's army. In front of Cleburne's men, the Federal loss was more than 9 to 1. The battle would be Sherman's last attempt at a major frontal assault against a fortified position. Going forward, Sherman will return to his flanking strategy. He will move part of his army around Johnston, forcing the Confederates to withdraw. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain is judged a failure for Sherman, who squandered his numerical superiority and the courage of his soldiers. 

For Johnston and his Confederates, the Battle of Kennesaw was the most clear-cut victories in the Atlanta campaign. However, the victory brought little actual advantage for the Southerners. Sherman continued to be well supplied by his rail line, and his force remained large and able to absorb his loss. Johnston was soon to recognize that while victorious in this battle, his strategic situation remained the same. Indeed, his line was stretched dangerously thin. He soon learned that some of Sherman's force had pushed beyond his left flank and was actually closer to the Chattahoochee River than his own army, thus potentially threatening his connection to Atlanta. So, on the night of July 2nd, he will withdraw his army from the Kennesaw line.

Within 5 days, Sherman will be ready to advance again upon Johnston's army.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Illinois Monument at "Dead Angle" on Cheatham Hill
Desperate Illinois men who made it to within 20 yards of the Rebel line, tried
unsuccessfully to dig a tunnel to blow up the Rebel entrenchments above them.

 Gen. Cheatham's men held the south end of the hill and the salient which extended outwards toward the advancing enemy. Wave after wave of Federals advance towards the salient on Cheatham's line. Relentless gunfire killed hundreds of Federal troops, most from Illinois. Incredibly, their leader, Brig. Gen. Daniel McCook, and some of his men made it up the hill to the Rebel line, only to be killed or captured. McCook was one of those mortally wounded here (397 from his brigade were lost). Later, because of the ferocity and tremendous loss of life, both sides would refer to this salient as “The Dead Angle," by which name it still is known today.
On June 30th, men from both armies joined to remove the dead. Bodies that had lain exposed for 3 days were buried in trenches. Men were forbidden to rifle the dead. When they were finished, men from both sides chatted, exchanged newspapers, and traded for coffee and tobacco. By late afternoon, many of the men shook hands, wishing each other "good luck" before returning to their respective trenches. Along some parts of the battle line opposing pickets reached an agreement not to shoot at each other, although that night musketry and artillery fire erupted along Cheatham's and Cleburne's line.
Sherman barely mentioned the sacrifices of his own men in the battle. However, in Gen. Johnston's postwar memoirs he freely acknowledged the courage of the Federal troops who attacked his line in the battle: "The characteristic fortitude of the northwestern soldiers held them under a close and destructive fire long after reasonable hope of success was gone.” 

Sources: Patrick Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Decision in the West, Albert Castel; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; A Light on a Hill, Robbie Neal Sumrall; War So Terrible, James Lee McDonough & James Pickett Jones; Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War, Joseph E. Johnston; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pt. 1


To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

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