October 5, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman hurriedly ordered a Federal division to stop General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee from seizing important supply warehouses north of Atlanta.
Hood’s Confederates wrecked track on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the main supply line for Sherman’s Federals in Atlanta. Sherman responded by sending the bulk of his force north to confront them. When Sherman learned that Hood was targeting the warehouses at Allatoona Pass, he ordered Brigadier General John M. Corse’s division from Rome to stop him.
Corse immediately began loading his 1,000 men on 20 railcars bound for Allatoona. The troops arrived around 1 a.m. to join Colonel John E. Tourtellotte’s 1,000-man Federal garrison already there. Corse sent the train back to collect more troops but the train derailed, leaving him with just the 2,000 men on hand.
The warehouses that Corse had to defend held over a million rations for Sherman’s army. Corse’s Federals would be outnumbered, but they were armed with repeating rifles, and they held strong fortifications on either side of the railroad. The strongest redoubt was Star Fort on the left (west) of the railroad. The main line faced north and curled southward on both flanks to defend against potential attacks from any direction.
Hood had dispatched 2,000 men under Major General Samuel French to seize Allatoona on the night of the 4th. As his Confederates approached the forts along the railroad after midnight, French reported:
“Nothing could be seen but one or two twinkling lights on the opposite heights, and nothing was heard except the occasional interchange of shots between our advanced guards and the pickets of the garrison in the valley below. All was darkness. I had no knowledge of the place, and it was important to attack at the break of day. Taking the guide and lights I placed the artillery in position on the hills south and east of the railroad.”
At daybreak, French saw that the Federal garrison at Allatoona was stronger than expected. Nevertheless, he deployed his troops in a formation that nearly surrounded the redoubts, but due to the mountainous terrain, it took them several hours to get into position. The Confederates bombarded the defenses with artillery for two hours, and then French sent a message to Corse:
“Sir: I have placed the forces under my command in such position that you are surrounded, and to avoid a needless effusion of blood, I call on you to surrender your forces at once and unconditionally. Five minutes will be allowed you to decide.”
Corse immediately responded:
“Your communication demanding surrender of my command I acknowledge receipt of, and would respectfully reply that we are prepared for the ‘needless effusion of blood’ whenever it is agreeable to you.”
French ordered an assault, which came from the west and south. The fighting quickly became intense and bloody, as the Federals desperately held against a larger force. The Star Fort seemed on the verge of collapse until Tourtellotte pulled men from the other fortifications to strengthen it. Corse sent a message via signal corps to Sherman pleading for reinforcements, and a messenger replied, “General Sherman says hold fast; we are coming.”
Both sides kept up a constant fire, with Corse later reporting:
“Officers labored constantly to stimulate the men to exertion, and most all that were killed or wounded in the fort met this fate while trying to get the men to expose themselves above the parapet, and nobly setting them the example. The enemy kept up a constant and intense fire, gradually closing around us and rapidly filling our little fort with dead and dying.”
The Federals expended the last of their artillery ammunition, and Corse himself was wounded. By the end of the morning, it was clear that the Federals would have to surrender. But around noon, French was informed that a large Federal force was coming to reinforce the Allatoona defenders from Acworth to the south. French later wrote:
“I did not doubt that the enemy would endeavor to get in my rear and intercept my return. He was in the morning but three hours distant, and had been signaled to repeatedly during the battle. Under these circumstances I determined to withdraw, however depressing the idea of not capturing the place after so many had fallen, and when in all probability we could force a surrender before night; yet, however desirous I was for remaining before the last work and forcing a capitulation, or carrying the work by assault, I deemed it of more importance not to permit the enemy to cut my division off from the army.”
Thus, French ordered a withdrawal, and the Federals remained in control of Allatoona. Both sides sustained a high percentage of casualties: the Federals lost 706 (142 killed, 352 wounded and 212 missing), and the Confederates lost 799 (122 killed, 443 wounded and 234 missing). Corse wrote Sherman the next day, “I am short a cheek bone and one ear, but am able to whip all hell yet.”
The press changed Sherman’s “hold fast” message to Corse to the more sensational “Hold the fort, I am coming.” This became immortalized in Chicago evangelist Philip Paul Bliss’s hymn, “Hold the Fort.” The song gave the battle a greater level of fame than other more significant conflicts in the war.
Sherman supposedly ordered Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps to hurriedly reinforce the Federals at Allatoona. However, Sherman did not order Cox to go there until the day after the battle, and in the order, he directed Cox to only “Have a brigade ready to go there to-morrow early.” In the meantime, Sherman ordered just a cavalry division to Allatoona, but only after the battle was over. This indicates that Sherman did not place as much significance on supporting the Allatoona garrison as originally believed.
Nevertheless, French’s Confederates did not seize the vital warehouses at Allatoona; they instead withdrew to join Hood’s main army, which was moving north toward the Tennessee line.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 469; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12831-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 579-80; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 185-86; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-28