Friday, June 27, 2014

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

Positioning guns on Kennesaw Mountain
After his latest retreat, Joseph E. Johnston established a new defensive line on Kennesaw Mountain. 15 miles north of Atlanta. The mountain, which rises almost 700 feet above the surrounding countryside, was another strong defensive position. Sherman called it “the key to the whole country.” He did not want to attack this position head on, so he probed the flanks for an opening through which he could flank Johnston. Eventually he decided that instead of striking on the flanks as he had before, this time he would strike at the center, where he hoped the Confederates would least expect him. The Union plan was after an hour long bombardment to launch two feints and two attacks along the 8 mile long line. McPherson would feint on Kennesaw Mountain and attack Little Kennesaw Mountain. Schofield was to lengthen the Union right and demonstrate there, while Thomas launched a main attack along the Dallas Road.

The bombardment
At 8 am on June 27, 150 years ago today, 200 Federal cannon opened fire. The barrage back and forth was terrible, as the rebel guns responded. One hour later the guns fell silent, and the Federal infantry rose from their trenches and advanced against the Confederate line. The terrain they had to cross was difficult – filled with thick brush and in some places swampy.

A captain of the 103rd Illinois wrote:
The Rebels caught sight of us as we commenced moving, and opened a battery on us. It had the effect to accelerate our movements considerably. ... The ground to be gone over was covered with a dense undergrowth of oak and vines of all kinds binding the dead and live timber and bush together, and making an almost impenetrable abatis. To keep a line in such a place was out of the question. ... Not a man in our regiment knew where the Rebel works were when we started, and I think the most of them found them as I did. ... The balls were whistling thick around us, but I could see no enemy ahead. I did not even think of them being on our flank, until one of the boys said, 'Look there, Captain, may I shoot?'  I looked to the right, and just across a narrow and deep ravine were the Rebel works, while a confused mass of greybacks were crowding up the ravine. ... I shouted "forward" to my men and we ran down across the ravine, and about one-third the way up the hill on which their works were and then lay down. There was little protection from their fire, though, and if they had done their duty, not a man of us would have got out alive. Our men fired rapidly and kept them well down in their works. It would have been madness to have attempted carrying their works then, for our regiment had not a particle of support, and we were so scattered that we only presented the appearance of a very thin skirmish line.
Union entrenchments 
The 5,500 Federals who attacked the 5,000 Confederates on Pigeon Hill did capture some rifle pits, but they were unable to gain a foothold on the Confederate lines. It was a bad place to attack. The hill was steep, so steep that in some places the rock formed cliffs, and in others the Yankees would have to climb up on hands and knees. Swept by artillery and musketry from the Confederate defenders on top, it was clear that no assault would be successful.

While McPherson's men were fighting on Pigeon Hill, Thomas's men attacked in the center of the line, the area which is now called Cheatham Hill. The Federals chose to attack it because it was salient jutting out towards the Federal line, which meant a shorter charge. The position had some weaknesses. The trenches had been built on the very top of the hill instead of on the military crest, where the Confederates would have a clear shot to the bottom. However it was still strong, and defended by some of Johnston's best troops, the divisions of Cleburne and Cheatham. Column after column of Federal troops moved upon the hill. Sam Watkins, of the First Tennessee, was stationed on what was called "Dead Angle." He wrote in his famous book, Co. Aytch:
My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued in the next two hours. Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line ...  but no sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered, and soon we had every "gopher hole" full of Yankee prisoners. Yet still the Yankees came. It seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man was true to his trust, and seemed to think that at that moment the whole responsibility of the Confederate government was rested upon his shoulders.  ... The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the thermometer being one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and a solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium.
For two hours this terrible fighting continued, and although they were hard pressed, the Confederates maintained their position. At one point the Federals reached the very parapet. Colonel Daniel McCook led his men up the hill and leapt over the entrenchment with the shout of, “Surrender you traitors!” The Confederates did not Unions and McCook was killed, sword in hand. After fierce fighting, at times hand to hand, the Northern generals finally realized after about two hours that this attack was useless. However, it would be more costly to retreat than to stay where they were, lying flat on the ground. So on this section of the line the Federals dug entrenchments a few dozen yards from the Confederate lines.

Confederate position
Sherman's attack on Kennesaw Mountain was not renewed. He lost 3,000 men in this attack, while inflicting only 1,000 on Johnston. Sherman had been shown again that his men could not storm strong entrenched positions, and that it only caused much lost of life. Sherman did not consider the attack a mistake. He thought that it was necessary to show his men that the maneuverings in the campaign were necessary and were not just because he was scared to fight. Instead of making another frontal attack or embarking a slow siege, he turned back to the flanking tactics that had gotten him all the way to Kennesaw Mountain.


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