- 27 Jun 2022 13:12
June 27, Monday
The sun rises “clear and cloudless” over Georgia. At 8 am, the silence of the Kennesaw line is shattered by the roar of more than 200 Federal cannon. From the mountain comes the Confederate artillery’s full-throated reply. On the brow of Little Kennesaw, where his men have dragged nine guns, Confederate Major General Samuel French is “enjoying a bird’s eye view.” He watches while “as if by magic,” one long, waving line of blue infantry seems to spring from the earth and advance. Along most of the curving, eight-mile front, Federal skirmishers are moving forward. But French and the other Confederate commanders quickly see that much of this is a feint. They direct their artillery fire instead on the blueclads emerging from the woods in force: a single division near the southwest slope of Little Kennesaw, and two divisions south of the mountain complex itself. Soon the sharp crack of musketry, combined with the sound of French’s own guns, produce “a roar as constant as Niagra.”
It falls to McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee to make the assault on the Confederate right center. About 8:30 am, after the artillery duel has ceased, three brigades under Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith moves east toward the southern slope of Little Kennesaw and the spur just below, Pigeon Hill. They deploy on a half-mile front astride the Burnt Hickory road, 5,500 men in two columns of regiments facing 5,000 entrenched Confederates. As soon as the Federals cross a swamp, they encounter enemy troops in two lines of rifle pits. To Smith’s right, the Federals are met by two Georgia regiments.
Though greatly outnumbered here, the defenders put up a fight, resisting with clubbed muskets and anything else within reach. In one rifle pit, eleven Georgians battle hand-to-hand until nine of them are bayoneted. In another pit, Lieutenant George A. Bailie, his ear grazed by a bullet, sees his Federal assailant standing twenty feet away, reloading to fire again. Bailie, armed only with a sword, picks up a stone and hurls it directly between the eyes of the Federal, knocking the soldier to the ground. Nearby, a little Georgia Irishman by the name of John Smith wrestles with a Federal for control of his own musket—and loses. Shoving his opponent backward, Smith shouts, “To hell with you and the gun, too!” and runs to the rear.
The Federal division soon overruns the pits, capturing or disabling more than 100 men. Then they start up the steep slope of Little Kennesaw on the left to the lesser incline of Pigeon Hill on the right. The main Confederate line stretches out above them about 500 yards distant. But the intervening ground is strewn with so many obstacles—felled timber, boulders, and spiked logs called chevaux-de-frise—that the momentum of the charge quickly falters. As the Federals struggle through and over these obstacles, they run into musket fire from the front and a vicious enfilade from French’s batteries posted on Little Kennesaw. Within about thirty feet of the enemy’s main works, the line staggers and seeks cover as best they can behind logs and rocks. Before the bugle sounds retreat, the division has lost 500 men, including seven regimental commanders. Then, shortly before 10 am, the brigades withdraw to the rifle pits they overran an hour ago and take refuge there.
A mile and a half to the south, meanwhile, below the mountain itself, the other major Federal assault is developing. At 9 am, two divisions from Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, having formed south of the Dallas road, move forward against the center of the Kennesaw line. The attack matches 8,000 Federals against an equal number of Confederates who are defending a long ridge. The two Federal divisions advance simultaneously—John Newton’s IV Corps division on the left, Jefferson Davis’s of the XIV Corps on the right. According to Thomas’s orders, the five attacking brigades advance in close-packed columns rather than in broad lines of battle. The columnar formation, what one officer calls “a human battering ram,” enhances the chances of piercing the enemy line. But it also provides a massed target for the enemy and tends to break down quickly if the leading regiments don’t keep moving. On Newton’s right, the advance becomes confused almost as soon as it gets underway. This right-flank brigade is commanded by Brigadier General Charles G. Harker, who at 27 is one of the most promising field officers in the Union army. A West Pointer, he has already distinguished himself at Stones River and Chickamauga, and he is still lame from a wound received at Rocky Face Ridge. But on this day luck deserts Harker. His tight column of five regiments breaks up as the men scramble over their chest-high entrenchments and struggle through the abatis that lines their works. Instead of charging in a solid block, they near the Confederate earthworks in a trickle of desperate men. Then Harker’s attack collapses in the murderous fire from Brigadier General Alfred Vaughan’s Tennessee brigade. Those Federals who aren’t killed or wounded huddle on the slope in front of the Confederate works. “Occasionally some gallant soldier would rise up with a stand of colors in his hand. The movement would begin to spread, when a volley would come from the works, cutting down the leaders, and the movement would then subside.” Harker, determined to renew the assault, gallops up the slope, waving his hat and shouting, “Come on, boys!” Harker and his staff ride along the Federal lines within fifteen yards of the blazing Confederate defenses, until a bullet tears through his right arm and into his chest. He topples from his horse, and now his men retreat down the corpse-strewn slope, bearing their commander with them.
Nearer the Dallas road, Newton’s other two brigades have also struggled without gain. In front of the Confederate section held by one of Cleburne’s Arkansas regiments, scores of Federal wounded lie unattended between the lines. Now these helpless men face a new danger. Gunfire has ignited the underbrush and flames are flashing through the woods, roasting some of the wounded alive and threatening to reach still others. Watching in horror from the Confederate entrenchments, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Martin, commander of a consolidated Arkansas regiment, orders his men to cease firing. He ties his handkerchief to a ramrod and jumps onto the parapet to offer a truce. “Come and remove your wounded; they are burning to death,” Martin shouts to the Federals. “We won’t fire a gun until you get them away. Be quick.” Then, while gunfire continues to roar along the rest of the line, a merciful quiet settles over this little part of the mountain. Men in blue from Illinous come out from behind boulders and fallen trees; men in gray and butternut from Arkansas clamber over their parapets. Working together, they carry the wounded men to safety behind the Federal rear. After the charred area is cleared and the flames are stamped out, a Federal major approaches Martin and presents tokens of appreciation: a pair of matched Colt revolvers. On that note, the truce ends and the men who have shared an extraordinary act of kindness go back to their savage war. In a short time, however, Newton’s three brigades—having suffered in less than two hours most of their 654 casualties for the day—fall back and dig in. In places the lines are less than forty yards apart.
Beyond Newton’s right, meanwhile, the battle has reached a crescendo with the advance of the two brigades under Jefferson Davis. Here, at a point one half mile south of the Dallas road and two miles below the mountain, is “the storm center.” Davis’s objective is a knoll defended by two entrenched brigades under Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, a hard-drinking, 43-year-old veteran. Cheatham’s line juts forward on the hill and then cuts back toward the east to form a sharp-angled salient. In his honor the knoll will later be named Cheatham Hill. For the many who die there this morning, the salient will be known hereafter as “the Dead Angle.” Davis’s advance begins on a sober note. One of his brigade commanders, Colonel Daniel McCook, Jr., walks along the lines of anxious men reciting a poem by Thomas Macaulay; the verse depicts the legendary Roman warrior Horatius as he faces battle in defense of a bridge over the Tiber:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late,
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.
The blueclads listen carefully: Their young commander is one of the famous Fighting McCooks—seventeen brothers and first cousins in Federal blue, three of whom already have died for the Union. Unlike Horatius’s men, McCook’s brigade isn’t outnumbered. The “fearful odds” that McCook contemplates are those presented by the perilous nature of the impending advance: covering 600 yards of rocky ground and a timber-covered slope to reach an open field that is commanded by Confederate fortifications.
And on McCook’s right, in Colonel John Mitchell’s brigade, the men of an Illinois regiment are also worried. They are the ones who have been taking bets that their advance will get stalled in front of the Confederate skirmish line partway up the hill. But the Illinoisans surprise themselves. They deploy as skirmishers in front of the other five regiments of Mitchell’s brigade, race ahead, and sweep over the first Confederate rifle pits with ease. The charge up Cheatham Hill—toward the southern flank of the Dead Angle—is a different matter. Mitchell’s men feel spent even before they emerge into the open field near the enemy works. Their advance began at too fast a pace, and the midmorning heat—the temperature has reached almost 100˚—has sapped their energy. A storm of missiles spews from the Confederate works: bullets and canister, entrenching tools, stones, and even clods of dirt. Soon all of Mitchell’s regiments are pinned down in front of the Confederate breastworks.
While Mitchell’s assault sputters and stalls, Fighting Dan McCook’s column—just to the north—presses on toward the point of the Dead Angle. The air seems “filled with bullets, giving one the sensation experienced when moving swiftly against a heavy wind and sleet storm.” At the same time, ten Confederate cannon posted to the left and right of the Dead Angle keep up a terrible enfilade of shell and canister. Through the crossfire McCook’s narrow column struggles, advancing to within twenty yards of the Confederate line. Making a suicidal dash, McCook himself reaches the Confederate lines, with a handful of men following. He scrambles on top of the parapet, and shouting, “Surrender, you traitors!” he slashes at the defenders with his sword. A Confederate thrusts his musket against McCook’s chest and pulls the trigger. Fatally wounded, the colonel falls backward off the works and is carried to the rear, gasping, “Stick to them, boys!” After McCook is felled, his brigade inspector, Captain William W. Fellows, shouts, “Come on, boys; we’ll take—” A volley cuts short his exhortation, and he falls dead. Colonel Oscar F. Harmon, commander of an Illinois regiment, is the next to take command of the brigade; in less than five minutes a bullet passes through his heart.
Nowhere at the Dead Angle are Davis’s brigades able to sustain their assault. The combined toll of Davis’s casualties for the day amount to 824; in McCook’s brigade alone the casualty rate reaches 35 percent. Orders come to retire. Few men go far, it is safer to dig in than to retreat. Scarcely forty yards from the tip of the dreaded Dead Angle, survivors of McCook’s brigade improvise a line sheltered by a rise in the ground, scooping out shallow trenches in the hard red clay with bayonet and tin cup.
By noon it is clear to Sherman, watching from his headquarters on Signal Hill, a mile or so to the rear, that the assault has failed everywhere. Smith, Newton, and Davis can all hold their ground but no more than that. Sherman also has reports of the appalling casualties that, when the final count is in, will mount to 1,999 killed and wounded and 52 missing—compared with possibly 270 killed and wounded and 172 missing among the Confederates. Even so, he can’t let go. Twice this afternoon he queries General Thomas about renewing the attack. In reply to the second message, the loyal and taciturn Thomas puts it bluntly: “One or two more such assaults would use up this army.” But Sherman has grown hardened to the killing. “Our loss is small, compared with some of those East,” he tells Thomas. And in a letter to his wife he’ll write in a few days, he confesses: “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash.”
As it is, by evening Sherman comes to a startling conclusion about his current tactics. Reports from Schofield on the southern flank make Sherman realize he no longer has to batter his armies against the Kennesaw line. Schofield has already outflanked it. Even before the assault was launched this morning, Schofield—demonstrating in support of the main attacks—moved two brigades across Olley’s Creek a mile or so below the Powder Springs road. This gain, which Sherman will describe as “the only advantage of the day,” puts Schofield beyond Hood’s extreme left. Sherman’s seemingly futile main assaults thus have served an ironic end. By diverting the Confederates’ attention from the south flank, the principal thrusts have inadvertently served as demonstrations that enabled Schofield to make his move. Schofield’s bridgehead on the south bank of Olley’s Creek paves the way for a major flanking operation. Before undertaking it, however, Sherman has to wait until the roads bake hard enough to permit him to break loose from his rail supply line.
The day is pretty quiet at Petersburg. Yet another flag is replaced at Fort Sumter. There are affairs at Crittenden, Kentucky; Big Cove Valley, Alabama; near Dunksburg, Missouri; and the Federals scout around Brownsville, Arkansas.
President Lincoln formally accepts the nomination for President.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.