Friday, June 27, 2014

On this day in history: The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

On this day in history, June 27, 1864, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman launched an attack against the Confederate Army of Tennessee under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In this blog post, Myers Brown of the Tennessee State Library and Archives explores the history of the battle, and shares images from TSLA's rich collections featured on the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA). Look for even more images from our collection on TSLA's Facebook page.

By the spring of 1864, the Civil War was in its fourth summer. Both the North and the South had grown war weary, yet both knew that the fate of their respective causes would be determined by the campaigns for Atlanta and Richmond, the two primary manufacturing and transportation centers remaining in the Confederacy. Three Union armies under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman moved out of Chattanooga toward Atlanta in early May 1864. Two Confederate armies, the Army of Mississippi and the larger Army of Tennessee, both under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston, stood between Sherman and Atlanta.

Benjamin Franklin Cheatham map of northern Georgia, Approximately 1861-1865. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham was a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army (1861) and Major-General of the Confederate Army (1862). In 1864, he was appointed to command a corps when Hood undertook his Tennessee Campaign.
TeVA Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The previous blood lettings of 1862 and 1863 impacted the men in the ranks and their commanders. Both Sherman and Johnston hoped to avoid direct assaults. Sherman, outnumbering the Confederates by nearly 30,000 men, constantly engaged Johnston’s line while sending additional troops to turn the Confederate flanks. While heavy fighting occurred at Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca, New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill and Dallas, Sherman’s troops had nonetheless maneuvered the Confederates out of every defensive line and were over halfway to Atlanta by the last week of June.

Just north of Marietta, the Confederates entrenched on a ridge line anchored by Kennesaw Mountain, known as the “Gibraltar of Georgia.” These mountains and hills offered the Confederates their best defensive position of the campaign and were an imposing obstacle for Sherman’s armies. The divisions of General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham and General Patrick Cleburne held the center of the Confederate line.

Carte-de-visite of Confederate Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham. The image appears to be one of several taken in Nashville by Carl C. Giers.
TeVA Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

In an almost inexplicable decision, Sherman abandoned his tactics of maneuver and flank and instead decided to launch a frontal assault on the heavily-entrenched Confederate center. The focus of the Union assault would be part of the Confederate line atop a steep hillside. This part of the line would soon be labeled “The Dead Angle.” Positioned in the apex of the angle was the consolidated 1st/27th Tennessee Infantry Regiment of Maney’s Tennessee Brigade. The remainder of the brigade, as well as the rest of Cheatham’s Tennessee Division, held the area around the angle. Immediately to the right of Cheatham’s division was the brigade of Lucius Polk of Cleburne’s Division. Polk’s Brigade also consisted primarily of Tennessee regiments. The fate of the Confederate defenses would rest squarely on the men of Tennessee.

June 27, 1864 dawned sunny and hot. The Tennesseans sweltered in the heat of the trenches as Union artillery pounded their position in preparation for an infantry assault. After enduring the bombardment in their entrenched but exposed position, the Tennesseans saw the Union infantry emerge from a tree line in the hollow below.

Tintype of Pvt. Robert A. Cheatham who served in Co. C, 1st Tenn. (Feilds') Inf. Regt., CSA, during the Civil War.
TeVA Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Three Union brigades, supported in part by two other divisions, attacked the “The Dead Angle.” As the men from Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana advanced, Maney’s and Vaughan’s Tennesseans fired frantically to repulse the Union onslaught. At times the fighting was hand to hand as each side tried desperately to break the other. The Union soldiers who survived the horrendous gunfire found themselves pinned down just below the crest of the hill. After only about 30 minutes of hard fighting, the Union troops suffered over 1,800 casualties. Trapped, the Union troops dug in beneath the crest of the hill. To advance was certain death and to fall back brought a similar fate.

The Confederate line, however, remained firmly in the hands of the exhausted, weary, and bloodied Tennesseans of Cheatham’s command. Sam Watkins of Company H, 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment wrote, “I am satisfied that on this memorable day, every man of our regiment killed from one score to four score, yea, five score men… All that was necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their living men passing over the bodies of their dead…I learned afterwards from the burying squad that in some places they were piled up like cord wood, twelve deep.”

In the heat of the battle, small brush fires erupted which burned the bodies of the wounded and the dead. The stench combined with the screams of the wounded was horrific. Both sides eventually agreed to a truce. During the truce, details removed the dead and wounded and extinguished the brush fires between the lines. With the lull in the fighting, General Cheatham sat himself atop the Confederate works. The Nashville native and Mexican War veteran carried a reputation as a hard drinker and an even harder fighter. His reputation was well known even among the Union troops and during the truce several asked for his autograph. After the war, he served as post master of Nashville and became a celebrity spokesperson for Lem Motlow’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Small, leather-bound volume with handwritten will and codicils of Philip Van Horn Weems of Bon Aqua, Tenn. Weems recounts having been wounded at Missionary Ridge and has been mortally wounded on July 22, 1864, outside of Atlanta. He asks in writing that his family disinter his body and re-bury him in the family cemetery (which they did). He conveys as well "three of my likeliest negroes, except Angeline, Alfred, and Horace, whom I desire to be freed." Weems died 2 days after writing this.
TeVA Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

For the next six days, the sporadic firing between the two lines continued in the heat of the Georgia summer as the stench of the dead added to the hellish scenes surrounding the “Dead Angle.” Finally on July 2, 1864, Joe Johnston ordered a withdrawal from the line. By that date, Sherman had returned to his flanking maneuvers and once again Joe Johnston’s Confederates fell back closer to Atlanta.

Despite the fact that the Confederates eventually withdrew, Cheatham’s Tennesseans had held the center of the Kennesaw Line and had repulsed the best efforts of the Union army to take the position. The men of both sides would remember the horrors of the “Dead Angle” for the rest of their lives. To this day the hill is known as Cheatham’s Hill out of respect to those Tennessee soldiers who held that small piece of bitterly contested Georgia countryside 150 years ago.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.