June 14, 1864 – Federal forces killed a prominent Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston contracted his Confederate line, and Major General William T. Sherman tried moving southeast around Johnston’s left.
By this time, Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had formed a line facing north, with the left on Lost Mountain, the center bisecting the Western & Atlantic Railroad (in front of Kennesaw Mountain), and the right at Brush Mountain, north of Marietta. Sherman was trying to find a way for his Federals to move around these formidable defenses, and a portion of Major General George H. Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was working its way around Pine Mountain.
Johnston and two of his corps commanders, Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Leonidas Polk, personally scaled the crest of Pine Mountain to see the three Federal armies on the plain 300 feet below. Johnston informed Hardee that his troops were overextended and must withdraw to meet the Federal threat coming around the mountain.
The commanders stood atop an artillery redoubt to get a better view. Aides warned them that the enemy Parrott rifles a half-mile way had been routinely hitting the area with fire. According to Sherman:
“When abreast of Pine Mountain, I noticed a rebel battery on its crest, with a continuous line of fresh rifle-trench about half-way down the hill. Our skirmishers were at the time engaged in the woods about the base of this hill between the lines, and I estimated the distance to the battery on the crest at about eight hundred yards. Near it, in plain view, stood a group of the enemy, evidently observing us with glasses.”
Sherman told gunners at a nearby Federal battery, “How saucy they are! Make ‘em take cover.”
A solid shot exploded near the Confederate commanders, prompting them to move for cover. Polk, bringing up the rear, was instantly killed when a second shot tore through his body. Both Johnston and Hardee mourned the loss of their friend; Hardee told Johnston, “General, this has been a dear visit. We have lost a brave man, whose death leaves a vacancy not easily filled.”
Polk was not considered a great general, but he was one of the most beloved among the officers and men as the “fighting Bishop.” That night, Johnston announced Polk’s death to the troops:
“In this distinguished leader, we have lost the most courteous of gentlemen, the most gallant of soldiers. The Christian patriot soldier has neither lived nor died in vain. His example is before you; his mantle rests with you.”
That afternoon, Federal signalmen intercepted a Confederate wigwag message: “Send an ambulance for General Polk’s body.” They forwarded this news to Sherman. The next day, Thomas’s Federals continued moving around Pine Mountain, toward Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman reported to Washington, “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and have made good progress today.”
The Confederates responded by pulling back their left to stronger defenses along Mud Creek. Frustrated, Sherman wrote Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I am now inclined to feign on both flanks and assault the center. It may cost us dear, but in results would surpass any attempt to pass around.” After a few more days of skirmishing and repositioning, Johnston had formed a new semicircular defensive line:
- Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s corps held the right, north of Marietta along the Western & Atlantic Railroad
- Polk’s corps, now commanded by Major General William W. Loring, held the center, which ran southwest through Kennesaw Mountain
- Hardee’s corps held the left, which curved southeast and ended south of Marietta
This five-mile line was Johnston’s strongest since the campaign began in May. Sherman continued to try flanking maneuvers, sending Federals around Hardee’s left to try reaching the railroad south of Marietta. Johnston responded by shifting Hood’s corps from the right to Hardee’s left and filling his right with Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. Wheeler’s Confederates harassed Sherman’s left flank, manned by Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee.
By the 21st, Hood held the area around Kolb’s Farm, southwest of Marietta. Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, supported by Major General Joseph Hooker, began probing the Confederate lines there, which would trigger a fight the next day.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-63; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 590; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20808-17; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 425-29; 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 7449-88, 8213-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 455-59; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 23-24, 155-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 521-25