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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta

   

KENNESAW MOUNTAIN (JUNE 7-JULY 2)

Sherman spent four days at Acworth waiting for the railroad bridge over the Etowah to be rebuilt. On June 10, that task having been accomplished, he began advancing along the line of the Western & Atlantic. With him, just arrived, was the XVII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee. Commanded by Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., its two divisions of 9,000 veterans more than made good Sherman's battle losses of the past month.

Late on the morning of June 10 the Union vanguard reached Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw) and found itself confronted by a ten-mile-long Confederate defense line that stretched from Brush Mountain on the east through Pine Mountain in the center to Gilgal Church on the west. Sherman, who had promised Major General Henry W. Halleck, the Union army's chief of staff in Washington, that "I will not run head on [against] his [the enemy's] fortifications," deployed his forces parallel to this line and instructed Thomas to have the IV and XIV Corps work their way around Pine Mountain, a move he believed would compel Johnston to retreat because that elevation constituted a vulnerable salient in the Confederate front.

PINE MOUNTAIN PHOTOGRAPHED AFTER THE BATTLE. (LC)

By June 14, despite incessant rains that turned the fields and roads into quagmires, the IV Corps was close to achieving this objective. While observing its operations Sherman noticed some Confederates atop Pine Mountain (actually a hill only about 300 feet high) who were making no attempt to conceal themselves. "How saucy they are!" he exclaimed, then told Howard to have a battery fire at them. Howard passed on the order to Captain Peter Simonson, whose cannons had checked Stevenson's Division during the first day of fighting at Resaca exactly one month before.

Unknown and unknowable to Sherman, among the "saucy" Confederates were Johnston, Hardee, and Polk, discussing whether or not to evacuate Pine Mountain. The first shot from Simonson's battery caused them to scatter, the second (probably) struck Polk in the left side and ripped through his chest, eviscerating him. (Three days later a Confederate sniper killed Simonson). The Episcopal bishop of Louisiana as well as a general—he often was referred to as the "Bishop General"—Polk had in the pockets of his uniform coat The Book of Common Prayer and four copies of a newly published tract entitled Balm for the Weary and Wounded, three copies of which were inscribed to Johnston, Hardee, and Hood. Major General William Loring assumed acting command of Polk's Corps.

THE BATTLE OF KENNESAW MOUNTAIN AS SKETCHED BY A. R. WAUD. (LC)

During the night the Confederates withdrew from Pine Mountain. On learning of this in the morning, Sherman jumped to the conclusion that Johnston was retreating all along his front and so ordered his forces to pursue, hoping to catch the enemy in the open. Once more he was overoptimistic. Johnston did fall back, but from one strong position to another, until on June 19 he reached the strongest one of all: Kennesaw Mountain. This was (is) a long ridge (two miles) slanting to the southwest and consisting of three knobs: Big Kennesaw at the northeast end, Little Kennesaw in the middle, and a spur today called Pigeon Hill at the lower end. Loring's troops occupied Big and Little Kennesaw, Hardee's covered the southern extension, and Hood's Corps and Wheeler's cavalry guarded the area to the east of the mountain and nearby Marietta.

Sherman reacted to Johnston's new defense line by deploying the Army of the Tennessee opposite Hood and the Army of the Cumberland facing Loring and Hardee. At the same time he sent Schofield with his XXIII Corps down the Sandtown road with instructions to try to find a point where Johnston's left flank could be turned. This move caused Johnston, on the night of June 21, to counter it by switching Hood's Corps from the right to the left and extending Loring's front eastward so as to cover the area vacated by Hood.

During the morning of June 22 Hooker's corps, on orders from Sherman relayed by Thomas, shifted southward to Kolb's Farm on the Powder Springs road, where it linked up with Schofield's forces on its right. Hood, evidently unaware of Schofield's presence, thought he saw an opportunity to overpower Hooker and then roll up the entire Union right flank. Hence, without notifying Johnston, he attacked with Stevenson's and Hindman's Divisions along and to the north of the Powder Springs road.

THEODORE R. DAVIS SKETCH OF SHERMAN AND THOMAS A KENNESAW MOUNTAIN. (COURTESY OF AMERICAN HERITAGE PRINT COLLECTION)

FEDERAL ATTACK ON KENNESAW MOUNTAIN BY THURE DE THULSTRUP. (COURTESY OF THE SEVENTH REGIMENT FUND, INC.)

Fiasco, not victory, awarded Hood's impulsive initiative. Stevenson's troops encountered such heavy fire from Williams's division and a brigade of Cox's division that they either broke or went to ground, and Geary's cannons alone sufficed to stop, then turn back, Hindman's assault. Altogether the Confederates suffered about 1,500 casualties whereas the Federals lost no more than 250 men. Understandably, Hood did not so much as mention the Battle (if such it can be called) of Kolb's Farm in his memoirs.

But if Hood failed in his attempt to smash Sherman's right, the presence of his corps south of Kennesaw frustrated Sherman's attempt to get around Johnston's left, And Sherman already was feeling very frustrated. A month now had passed since he crossed the Etowah expecting to reach and perhaps pass over the Chattahoochee in a few days. Yet he still had not achieved that goal and there seemed to be no immediate prospect that he would. Instead he was becoming, so he feared, bogged down in a stalemate—a stalemate that might enable Johnston to do the one thing above all he must not be allowed to do, transfer troops to Virginia to aid Lee against Grant.

So it was that Sherman, declaring that "flanking is played out," on June 25 ordered Thomas and McPherson to "break through" Johnston's line with frontal assaults. Although both generals doubted that the attacks could succeed, both dutifully proceeded to carry them out. On the morning of June 27, following a furious but ineffective artillery bombardment, Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith's division of the XV Corps, which by now had been shifted to the west of Kennesaw, assailed the Confederate positions around Pigeon Hill while further to the south Brigadier General John C. Newton's division of the IV Corps and Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis's division of the XIV Corps did the same against what had become Johnston's center (see map). Smith's and Newton's troops, despite a determined effort, failed even to reach the Rebel works, and although a few of Davis's men, thanks to favorable terrain, managed to scale the enemy ramparts on what henceforth would be known as Cheatham's Hill (named after the commander of the Confederate troops who held the hill, Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham), they either were killed or captured and their surviving comrades forced to take cover just below the crest of the hill. It was all over in less than an hour, during which the Federals suffered nearly 3,000 casualties whereas the Confederate loss came to no more than 700 men, most of them pickets overrun in the initial Union rush. Such were the results of Sherman doing what he had told Halleck he would not do—"run head on" against fortifications.

BATTLE OF KENNESAW MOUNTAIN, JUNE 27
On June 10 Sherman, his army having been reinforced by Blair's XVII Corps, launched a new offensive designed to drive Johnston back to and across the Chattahoochee. The Confederates fell back slowly until they reached Kennesaw Mountain, an immensely strong position that they made stronger still with fortifications. Here they not only halted Sherman's advance but frustrated his efforts to outflank them. Fearing a stalemate that might enable Johnston to reinforce Lee against Grant in Virginia, Sherman decided to try to break through the enemy defenses with a frontal attack. On the morning of June 27 a division of the XV Corps assailed Johnston's right at Pigeon Hill and a division each from the IV and XIV Corps did the same against his center. Both assaults failed with heavy losses. Meanwhile, however, Cox's division of Schofield's XXIII Corps worked its way to a point south of Kennesaw where it would be possible to turn the Confederate left flank. On learning this, Sherman transferred McPherson's Army of the Tennessee from his left to the right, thereby compelling Johnston to retreat on the night of July 2.

Sherman's first reaction to the repulse, which he attributed to his troops attacking with insufficient "vigor," was to ask Thomas, "Can you break any part of the enemy line today?" Politely but firmly Thomas answered in the negative. The only way, he added, that the Confederate works could be taken would be by a regular siege-style operation. Sherman, as Thomas doubtlessly expected, rejected this approach for it would prolong the stalemate indefinitely.

Thus Sherman found himself left with only one alternative—another flanking maneuver. But where? The answer came late that afternoon in a message from Schofield: Cox's division, working its way southward, had reached a point where it appeared that the Confederate line terminated. After requesting and receiving confirmation of this intelligence from Schofield, Sherman asked Thomas if he was willing to risk a large-scale attempt to turn Johnston's left. Thomas's reply was both prompt and blunt: "I think it decidedly better than butting against breastworks twelve feet thick and strongly abatized." ("Abatized" referred to abatis—sharpened stakes affixed in a crisscross fashion to logs which served the same defensive function as modern-day barbed wire.)

DURING A TRUCE IN THE FIGHTING, CONFEDERATES OF THE 1ST AND 15TH ARKANSAS OBSERVE FEDERAL TROOPS HELPING THEIR WOUNDED FROM THE BATTLEFIELD. (FROM MOUNTAIN CAMPAIGNS IN GEORGIA)

Because Schofield's corps was too small and Thomas's forces already stretched to their safe limit, Sherman also had no choice except to employ McPherson's three corps for the turning movement, even though that would mean abandoning a direct connection with the railroad. (Ironically, when Thomas on June 23 proposed taking advantage of Hood's shift to the Confederates' left by having McPherson swing around their right, Sherman refused on the grounds that it would expose the railroad and his forward supply bases to enemy seizure. Had such a move been made, almost surely it would have led to Johnston's immediate retreat, as only a thin screen of infantry and Wheeler's cavalry guarded Kennesaw and Marietta from a Union thrust from the east).


At long last the way was open for Sherman's men to "swarm" along the Chattahoochee.

Early on the morning of July 2 Morgan Smith's division of the XV Corps left its trenches west of Pigeon Hill and headed down the Sandtown road, to be followed during the night by the rest of the XV Corps and the XVI and XVII Corps. That same night Johnston, who long had anticipated precisely this movement and saw no way of countering it, evacuated his lines on and around Kennesaw and retreated southward through Marietta. At long last the way was open for Sherman's men to "swarm" along the Chattahoochee.

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