Catching Up with Sherman and Johnston on Kennesaw Mountain

June 20, 1864 (Monday)

View on the battlefields of Kennesaw
View on the battlefields of Kennesaw

William Tecumseh Sherman, of course, wanted to attack – he lived for the advance. But if a position could be taken by maneuver, for the sake of the lives of his men, he was bound to at least attempt it. Joe Johnston’s position on Kennesaw Mountain was strong, “unusually strong,” as Sherman put it. But it was not impossibly so. The Confederate left wasn’t exactly dangling along Noyes Creek, but there was something close to certainty in Sherman that believed it could be turned.

Then there was his own left, holding close to the railroad. There, the Army of the Tennessee, helmed by James McPherson, clung to their entrenchments. It had become a terrifying tedium of potshots, small skirmishing and artillery fire. On McPherson’s left, the Rebel cavalry operated, and while they were usually kept busy by their Union counterparts, there was always the chance that they could slip beyond McPherson and fall upon the supply lines.

If he could, Sherman would maneuver. But this ground, covered in boulders, underbrush, tangles, and forest, interspersed at random with farm lots, was unkind to the notion. The Confederate left was the focus, as the center was well anchored atop Kennesaw Mountain. And even though it was maneuver, there would have to be blood. Blood was compulsory.

For the past month, so was the rain. Everything was wet and muddy and there seemed to be no end any could imagine. But the rains might also be cover. To this end, Sherman wished to push his right flank south with John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, augmented by Joe Hooker’s Twentieth Corps. As they advanced, Oliver Otis Howard, commanding now the Fourth Corps, was to feign an attack to draw attention away from the extension.

As Hooker and Schofield slogged to their new positions, Howard grew weary of two hills to his front. Already there were Rebel skirmishers plying their trade, and it grew in him that the hills should be captured. Two brigades of skirmishers were sent out and soon the hills were in Federal hands.

Sorry for the vague map!
Sorry for the vague map!

Just as soon, the Confederates, here under William Hardee, counterattacked both hills. Twice they came, and twice the Rebels were thrown back. But then, after dark, Hardee tried a third assault drove in some of the Federal lines, and actually managed to capture one of the two hills, known later as Bald Knob. And so through the night, both sides, each holding portions of the same line, grew more and more worried.

Through the day, along the rest of the Confederate line, Johnston was concerned about artillery. Kennesaw Mountain would provide a fine place to line up his guns and blast away at the Federal lines. But getting them to the top was something short of miraculous.

Confederates dragging artillery up Kennesaw. Image originally used in Battles & Leaders.
Confederates dragging artillery up Kennesaw. Image originally used in Battles & Leaders.

Major George Storrs of the artillery inspected the ground and became determined to lug twenty pieces up the side of the mountain. And while Johnston shook his head, deeming it too impossible, Storrs disagreed and began the work.

Confederate General Samuel French, described the ground in his memoirs:

“Kennesaw Mountain is about four miles northwest of Marietta, It is over two and a half miles in length, and rises abruptly from the plain, solitary and alone, to the height of perhaps seven hundred feet. Its northwestern side is rocky and abrupt. On the northerly and southerly extremities it can be gained on horseback. Little Kennesaw, being bald and destitute of timber, affords a commanding view of all the surrounding country as far as the eye can reach, except where the view is hidden by the higher peak. The view from this elevation embraces Lost Mountain. Fine Mountain, and all the beautiful cultivated plain, dotted here and there with farmhouses, extending to the Allatoona Mountains, a spur of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.”

The night, for hundreds of men, consisted of dragging and pushing, struggling, slipping and swearing, as they worked nine pieces of artillery to the heights of Little Kennesaw Mountain, and still more to Big Kennesaw Mountain. By the dawn of the 21st, the artillery was established.

Late, on the Union right, General Sherman rode to John Schofield’s headquarters to discuss crossing Noses Creek, separating the two flanks, and driving in the Rebel left. But before long, Johnston would take notice and extend his lines with John Bell Hood’s Corps, and though there would be attempts and skirmishes, there would be no Federal success in the hard days to come.1

Confederates dragging guns up Kenesaw . Drawn by Alfred Waud.
Confederates dragging guns up Kenesaw . Drawn by Alfred Waud.

  1. Sources: Kennesaw Mountain by Earl J. Hess; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Nothing But Glory by Steven Woodworth; Two Wars by Samuel French. []
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Catching Up with Sherman and Johnston on Kennesaw Mountain by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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