The Battle of Kennesaw
Due to the very nature of the terrain, he was unable to move around General Joseph Johnston’s flank as he had done previously because the roads were impassable for large numbers of troops.
“The whole country is one vast fort, and Johnston must have at least 50 miles of connected trenches with abatis and finished batteries. We gain ground daily, fighting all the time. … Our lines are now in close contact and the fighting incessant, with a good deal of artillery. As fast as we gain one position the enemy has another all ready. … Kennesaw … is the key to the whole country.”
Sherman decided to do something that he had avoided doing throughout the entire campaign. Knowing that he had no other choice, he ordered a frontal assault against the Confederate defenses on Kennesaw Mountain. He ordered the attacks to commence on June 27, 1864 at 8:00 AM.
Click Map to enlarge.
On the Confederate side, Maj. Gen. William W. Loring had succeeded to the command Polk’s corps on June 22nd. Lt. Gen.Leonidas Polk, the “Fighting Bishop,” had been killed on June 14th when Sherman, who was on a personal reconnaissance, spotted a group of Confederate officers and ordered one of his artillery batteries to open fire. Polk was killed in the exchange, a random act of war if ever there was one.
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.
After Polk’s death, Johnston had consolidated his forces by withdrawing the troops on Pine Mountain and strongly entrenching them between Kennesaw and Lost Mountains. The Confederates had the advantage of the high ground and the Union railroad supply line was under constant threat from Kennesaw Mountain.
During most of the operations around Kennesaw Mountain, rain fell constantly. This made the roads muddy and difficult for the mass movement of troops. The narrow roads in the area became mud gulleys, exhausting the troops as they attempted to maneuver. Meanwhile, the Confederate troops were able to move around out of sight of the enemy which caused several surprises once the Union attacks began.
The initial phase of Sherman’s plan called for Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield‘s Army of the Ohio to move to the Confederate left. Sherman felt that this would force Johnston to counter this by thinning out his line and weakening his defense.
Once Schofield’s move had been successfully accomplished, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson‘s Army of the Tennessee, at the northern end of the Union line, would feint on his extreme left with his available cavalry and a division of infantry. The Army of the Cumberland under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas would make the main attack against the presumably thinner Confederate center after Schofield made his demonstration on the right.
The Union attack opened with a furious bombardment from 200 guns. The Confederates responded with counter battery fire. Lt. Col. Joseph S. Fullerton wrote, “Kennesaw smoked and blazed with fire, a volcano as grand as Etna.”
Once the infantry attacks, the Confederates realized that those at either end of the line were demonstrations and that the main attack was in the center. The attack from the Army of the Tennessee was led by a division from Maj. Gen. John A. Logan‘s XV Corps.
The three brigades of Brig. Gen. Morgan L. Smith‘s division, numbering about 5,500 men were facing against about 5,000 men from Loring’s Corps on the southern end of Little Kennesaw Mountain and the spur known as Pigeon Hill near the Burnt Hickory Road.
A successful attack would have isolated the Loring’s Corps on Kennesaw Mountain. The attack slowly proceeded due to the dense vegetation, steep slope and general lack of knowledge of the terrain. One of Smith’s brigades was hampered by the knee-deep swamp that they were forced to advance through. Logan called off the attack because he felt that his troops were being “uselessly slain” and their progress was negligible.
The Union attack in the center got off late at about 9:00 AM with two divisions of the Army of the Cumberland, about 9,000 men under Brig. Gen. John Newton and Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, advanced in column formation rather than the typical broad line of battle against the Confederate divisions of Maj. Gens. Benjamin F. Cheatham and Patrick R. Cleburne, entrenched on what is now known as “Cheatham Hill.”
Advancing in column formation, rather than the traditional broad front, gave the Union troops the opportunity of concentrating their strength at a given point and achieving a breakthrough. However, it also gave the enemy artillery a target for concentrated fire.
Newton’s Division was unable to break through the abatis defenses and was repulsed. During the attack one of his brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Charles G. Harker, was mortally wounded.
Davis’ attack reached within a few yards of the Confederate works before it too was repulsed with heavy casualties. Col. Daniel McCook and his replacement Col. Oscar F. Harmon, nearly all of its field officers, and a third of its men were either killed or wounded in the assault. McCook was killed on the Confederate parapet as he slashed with his sword and shouted “Surrender, you traitors!” A second Union brigade suffered similar casualties. The attack was called off at about 10:45 AM.
Schofield’s demonstration on the Confederate left was the most successful one of the day. He was able to put two brigades across Olley’s Creek without resistance. That movement, along with an advance by Maj. Gen. George Stoneman‘s cavalry division on Schofield’s right, put Union troops within 5 miles of the Chattahoochee River, closer to the last river protecting Atlanta than any unit in Johnston’s army.
The Union armies suffered about 3,000 casualties while the Confederates sustained 1,000. Sherman wanted to renew the attacks but Thomas demurred saying, “One or two more such assaults would use up this army.” The frontal assault at Kennesaw Mountain was Sherman’s last assault of this kind.
Considered a Union tactical defeat, Schofield’s breakthrough gave the Union armies the path that they needed to go around the Confederate left. This forced Johnston to withdraw once again to prepared positions at Smyrna. On July 8th, Sherman flanked Johnston yet again by sending Schofield across the Chattahoochee near the mouth of Soap Creek. The last major geographic barrier to entering Atlanta had been overcome.
At this point in the campaign, President Jefferson Davis relieved General Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with the more-aggressive John Bell Hood.
This ends Part One of the Atlanta Campaign. With the appointment of Hood to command the Army of Tennessee, the Confederate forces embarked on a series of offensive actions against Sherman’s army group. We will cover all of these in Part Two of the Atlanta Campaign.