The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

June 27, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals assaulted Confederates heavily defended on an eminence 15 miles north of Atlanta.

Sherman had resolved to directly attack the Confederate line anchored on Kennesaw Mountain. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, had strengthened his flanks to prevent them from being turned, so Sherman felt he had no choice but to try breaking through his center.

The 27th began hot and humid, with temperatures quickly reaching 100 degrees. At 8 a.m., 200 Federal guns opened on the Confederate lines, and Confederate gunners responded. A witness wrote, “Kennesaw smoked and blazed with fire, a volcano as grand as Etna.”

Sketch of firing on Kennesaw Mountain | Image Credit:

A half-hour later, about 5,000 Federals from Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee began advancing toward Little Kennesaw and Pigeon Hill, which were held by the Confederate corps led by Major General William W. Loring (formerly under Leonidas Polk). McPherson hoped to break the enemy defenses and isolate Loring to the northeast. About 5,000 entrenched Confederates awaited the Federals’ approach.

As the Federals scaled the steep ridges, Confederate artillerists fired down into them. When their guns could not be depressed any lower, the Confederates rolled rocks and other impediments down the hill. The Federals reached the forward rifle pits, with many using their rifles as clubs, but they could not reach the main line. The fight raged for two hours before the Federals were ordered to fall back.

About two miles south, 9,000 Federals began advancing across a mile-wide front at 9 a.m. They belonged to Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. Facing them were two divisions of Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps under Major Generals Patrick R. Cleburne and Benjamin F. Cheatham.

The Federals marched in columns to apply maximum power against specific points on the line, thereby increasing their chances for a breakthrough. However, this left them vulnerable to artillery, which cut swaths into the formations. The Confederate defenders noted the Federals’ bravery, with one recalling, “They seemed to walk up and take death as coolly as if they were automatic or wooden men.”

Only a few Federals managed to reach the Confederate lines, including Colonel Daniel McCook, who was killed after shouting, “Surrender, you traitors!” He was the fourth of 15 “Fighting McCooks” to die in combat. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued, and this area of the field became known as the “Dead Angle.”

Thomas issued orders around 10:45 for the Federals to fall back, but those pinned down by enemy fire had to wait until nightfall. Sherman wrote Thomas at 1:30, “Do you think you can carry any part of the enemy’s line today?… I will order the assault if you think you can succeed at any point.” Thomas replied, “We have already lost heavily today without gaining any material advantage. One or two more such assaults would use up this army.”

Johnston, not yet aware of the extent of his victory, wired Richmond, “The enemy advanced upon our whole line to-day. Their loss is supposed to be great; ours known to be small.” But the Confederates were not in good shape, despite their victory. One soldier recalled:

“I never saw so many broken down and exhausted men in my life. I was as sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be, and many of our men were vomiting with excessive fatigue, over-exhaustion, and sunstroke; our tongues were parched and cracked for water, and our faces blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead and wounded were piled indiscriminately in the trenches.”

The Federals sustained 2,051 casualties (1,999 killed or wounded and 52 missing), while the Confederates lost 442 (270 killed or wounded and 172 missing). These numbers were small compared to the terrible battles in Virginia, but they were the greatest losses in this campaign thus far. Sherman came under severe criticism for this failed attack, but he wrote in his report:

“I perceived that the enemy and our officers had settled down into a conviction that I would not assault fortified lines. All looked to me to outflank. An army to be efficient, must not settle down to a single mode of offence, but must be prepared to execute any plan which promises success. I wanted, therefore, for the moral effect, to make a successful assault against the enemy behind his breastworks, and resolved to attempt it at that point where success would give the largest fruits of victory.”

This was Johnston’s greatest tactical victory of the campaign. However, Sherman turned this into a strategic victory for the Federals when Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio extended its right flank beyond Johnston’s left. This allowed Sherman to turn Johnston’s flank once more, even though it would force the Federals to detach themselves from their supply line on the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

That night, Sherman wrote Thomas, “Are you willing to risk (a) move on Fulton, cutting loose from the railroad?” Thomas responded that such a move was risky, but, “I think it decidedly better than butting against breastworks 12 feet thick and strongly abatised.”

Sherman later wrote, “Satisfied of the bloody cost of attacking intrenched lines, I at once thought of moving the whole army to the railroad at a point about 10 miles below Marietta, or to the Chattahoochee River itself…” Kennesaw Mountain proved to be Sherman’s last large-scale frontal attack of the war.

Two days later, Federals and Confederates agreed upon a seven-hour truce to bury the dead and alleviate the overwhelming stench around Kennesaw Mountain. Confederates helped Federals drag bodies, using bayonets as grappling hooks, into deep trenches. The opposing soldiers fraternized, and some Federals impressed by General Cheatham’s leadership at the Dead Angle asked for his autograph.

Meanwhile, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash. It may be well that we become hardened… The worst of the war is not yet begun.”

Johnston soon learned that Sherman was trying to flank him again. But he was confident that Sherman would eventually overextend his supply line, leaving him isolated in enemy territory. This did not satisfy Johnston’s superiors, who were growing more impatient with his retreats. When Johnston told Richmond that he could not take the offensive without more men, General Braxton Bragg, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, expressed frustration:

“Every available man, subject to my control, has been sent to General Johnston, and he had retained several commands deemed absolutely necessary elsewhere, after receiving orders to move them. No doubt he is outnumbered by the enemy, as we are everywhere, but the disparity is much less than it has ever been between those two armies.”

Since this campaign began, Sherman lost nearly 17,000 men while Johnston lost just over 14,000. This represented 14 percent of Sherman’s total force and 25 percent of Johnston’s. Contrary to Johnston’s boasts that Federal supplies would soon run out, Sherman still had enough men to guard the supply line all the way back to Chattanooga.

As June ended, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown issued a third call for state militia to oppose Sherman’s drive on Atlanta. President Davis informed Brown that he had sent Johnston “all available reinforcements, detaching troops even from points that remain exposed to the enemy.” Davis did not know what else he could do.

Brown then turned to Senator Benjamin Hill, a personal friend of Davis’s. Brown asked Hill to write the president and ask him to send more troops to Johnston. Hill replied, “Time is too precious and letters are inadequate,” and announced that he would consult with Johnston and then travel to Richmond in person.



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