‘Rapidly Filling Our Little Fort with Dead and Dying’ – The Battle of Allatoona Pass

October 5, 1864 (Wednesday)

“General Sherman say hold fast. We are coming.”
-Message to ‘Commanding Officer, Allatoona,’ sent the day previous.

It was true. General Sherman, with most of his army – a force of over 60,000 – was on his way, moving north from Atlanta. They had crossed the Chattahoochee River on the 3rd and 4th and, with Jacob Cox’s Army of the Ohio in the van, they marched ever closer. But for Col. John Eaton Tourtellotte, commanding the small Federal brigade holding Allatoona, this would not be soon enough. Tourtellotte seemed hardly the man fit for the job, being but Sherman’s aide-de-camp, placed in command of the brigade in the interim.

Allatoona Pass looking south.
Allatoona Pass looking south.

On October 2nd, Sherman ordered General John Corse to move with his division from Rome to “act against Hood from Allatoona if he got on the railroad between that place and Atlanta.” John Bell Hood was most definitely on the railroad, having destroyed upwards of fifteen miles of it by the 3rd. For a time, Sherman bade Corse to pause, hoping that Hood would show his hand. But by the 4th, it was clear that it was upon Allatoona that Hood was marching.

From the perch atop Kenesaw Mountain, Sherman’s signalmen could see the smoke rising from the valleys below with Allatoona waiting as yet unscathed. Tourtellotte had constructed defenses and planned to hold if he could, from two small redoubts marking either side of the railroad, somewhat above the town itself. The town itself held provisions. Over one million rations of bread filled the stores so lightly guarded.

There was now only one engine to pull the train carrying Corse’s division from Rome. As it cuffed its way from Kingston, it was derailed and delayed until the late evening of the 4th. When it finally arrived, Corse entrained three regiments from Col. Richard Rowett’s brigade and 165,000 rounds of ammunition. They arrived at 1am and immediately returned for the rest of the brigade and more, if they could. If all went well, they would join their commander in Allatoona by dawn. But all did not go well. The train once more jumped the tracks, and all Tourtellotte and Corse had at Allatoona was all they would ever have.

In the still predawn, General Corse and Col. Tourtellotte rode the ground to see what they might do and who they might have to defend the town. The command was made of men from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Stout men, no doubt, but numbering less than 2,000.

Approximate map.
Approximate map.

They made their lines facing mostly north with the railroad bisecting them. The Union right was held along a ridge in three lines, two facing north, they other south and towards the down. Immediately across the tracks was a star fort nearer the town and a line of defenses facing north. The Federal left was held by an “L”-shaped line of works facing west and south. But what was before them they hadn’t a clue. But whatever it was, by 2am, its skirmishers had shown themselves in the flashes of the muzzles.

Through the dark could be heard the placing of Confederate artillery. In all, eleven guns were positioned by General Samuel French, commanding the force bearing down upon Allatoona. Just after midnight, French had learned that Federal reinforcements were soon to arrive, but his reports were inaccurate.

“Nothing could be seen but one or two twinkling lights on the opposite heights,” wrote French in his report, “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.”

Allatoona Pass from the Railroad.
Allatoona Pass from the Railroad.

With his artillery posted and supported by two regiments of infantry, a hired guide then tried to direct him to the heights above the Federal defenses. “Without roads or paths,” French continued, “the head of the line reached the railroad, crossed it, and began the ascending and descending of the high, steep, and densely-timbered spurs of the mountains, and after about an hour’s march it was found we were directly in front of the works and not on the main ridge. The guide made a second effort to gain the ridge and failed, so dark was it in the woods. I therefore determined to rest where we were and await daylight.”

And come the dawn, French found himself 600 yards away from the Federal works, but also saw the works much more formidable than he first supposed. Nevertheless, he formed his men, sending a brigade here and regiments there. So well positioned were they that the Federals were nearly surrounded as the artillery burst over them. But it was not until 9am, “so rugged and abrupt were the hills,” until his troops were in position. Two brigades he placed upon the Union left, against the “L”-shaped works, and one to the north, facing south to hold the rest of the Federal line in place while the left was to be caved in. And it was then when he sent to General Corse the summons to surrender.

“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.”

Early sketch of the star fort.
Early sketch of the star fort.

Corse replied immediately:

“Your communication demanding surrender of my command I acknowledge receipt of, and would respectfully reply that we ware prepared for the ‘needless effusion of blood’ whenever it is agreeable to you.”

However, by French’s telling, no reply was ever received. Perhaps the rugged and abrupt hills played a role, or perhaps the five minutes was not enough time to return with the message. Whatever the reason or cause, French meant to attack.

“I had hardly issued these incipient orders,” wrote Corse in his report, “when the storm broke in all its fury.”

On came the two Rebel brigades, Texans and North Carolinians screaming with fury toward the skirmish line. They “moved with great impetuosity along its crest till they struck Rowett’s command, where they received a severe check, but, undaunted, they came again and again.” Corse was able to throw only one regiment to their aid, but for now it had to do. It was then when he saw the Rebel brigade posted to the north step off. He quickly rerouted some of the promised reinforcements to bolster his front and right, but it was no use.

“The enemy’s line of battle swept us back like so much chaff and struck the thirty-ninth Iowa in flank, threatening to engulf our little band without further ado. Fortunately for us Colonel Tourtellottee’s fire caught Sears [the attack Rebel commander] in the flank, and broke him so bad as to enable me to get a staff officer over the [railroad] cut, with orders to bring the Fiftieth Illinois over to re-enforce Rowett, who had lost very heavily.”

Union artillery during the battle.
Union artillery during the battle.

But before any of this could be accomplished, both Confederate fronts – Young’s Texans and Sears’ Mississippians reformed and attacked. Rowlett’s line on the Union left was breaking and there was precious little Corse could do about it. A single regiment, the 39th Iowa, laid down their lives and a steady fire so as to enable the bulk of the left to retreat into the star fort. “As it was, their hand to hand struggle and stubborn stand broke the enemy to that extent he must stop to reform before undertaking the assault on the fort.”

This fighting had lasted, nearly unbroken, for two and a half hours. But now came a lull. This was, by Corse’s account due to French being “so completely disorganized.” But by French’s telling: “The Federal forces were now confined to one redoubt, and we occupied the ditch and almost entirely silenced their fire, and were preparing for the final attack.”

As French prepared his disorganized division, he received a message from Hood’s army asking when he would move upon Ackworth, along the railroad south of his current battle. He was informed that Sherman’s entire army had encamped just north of Kenesaw (and just south of Ackworth) the night previous. Before long, French received another, more timely, message telling him that Sherman was now at Big Shanty, drawing closer.

Map of the battle from French's book.
Map of the battle from French’s book.

“Here, then, was General Sherman’s whole army close behind me,” wrote French, “and the advance of his infantry moving on Ackworth, which changed the whole condition of affairs.” The assault which he had been planning was still two hours away. He needed more ammunition and because of his disorganization, it had to be carried a mile or more before it reached his men.

Though French did not yet attack, his troops maintained a constant fire – it was hardly a lull. “Officers labored constantly to stimulate the men to exertion,” recalled Corse, “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.”

Through this, and around 1pm, General Corse was shot and rendered unconscious for over half an hour. Through his haze, he heard the order to cease fire, and mistook it as his men about to surrender. This cleared the fog and he spoke, urging his men and the few officers left standing, to hold for longer – “Sherman would soon be here with reinforcements.” And “the gallant fellows struggled to keep their heads above the ditch and parapet in the face of the murderous fire of the enemy now concentrated upon us.”

Battle of Allatoona Pass by   Thure de Thulstrup, 1887.
Battle of Allatoona Pass by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887.

Finally, Corse’s artillery expended it ammunition. Now only muskets would guard them. But stepping forward, one soldier “volunteered to cross the cut, which was under fire of the enemy, and go to the fort on the east hill and procure ammunition. Having executed his mission successfully he returned in a short time with an arm-load of canister and case shot.”

In the meanwhile, General French was considering his next move, and if there should even be a move at all. “I did not doubt that the enemy would endeavor to get in my rear and intercept my return,” he would later write. “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.”

Signal tree on Allatoona Mountain.
Signal tree on Allatoona Mountain.

Though he was about to withdraw his men, the fight continued. Around 2:30, some of the Rebels were massing themselves near a house, seemingly ready to fall upon the star fort. “The dead and wounded were moved aside,” wrote Corse, “so as to enable us to move a piece of artillery to an embrasure commanding the house and ridge. A few shots from the gun threw the enemy’s column into great confusion, which being observed by our men, cause them to rush to the parapet and open such a heavy and continuous musketry fire that it was impossible for the enemy to rally. From this time until near 4pm we had the advantage of the enemy, and maintained it with such success that they were driven from every position, and finally fled in great confusion, leaving their dead and wounded, and our little garrison in possession of the field.”

By French’s account, it was not so confused. By 1:30, he had issued the orders to withdraw, though it must be remembered that time was incredibly relative. French could see that “it would be impossible to carry any wounded on litters to the road, where the ambulances were placed, owing to the steepness of the hills, the ravines and the dense woods. Accordingly, the wounded were brought to the springs near the ridge.” Those who could walk, made it to the ambulances. Those who could not were left with French’s surgeons and the Federals.

Allatoona Pass in the 1880s.
Allatoona Pass in the 1880s.

It wasn’t until 5pm (by French’s watch) that the rear guard of his force left the field. They left with 205 prisoners, one United States flag and one flag of the 93rd Illinois. His own losses totaled 122 kills, 443 wounded, and 234 missing or captured, though even these figures are suspect. Corse claimed to have buried 231 Confederates and to have handled 411 prisoners. His own losses were recorded as 142 killed, 352 wounded, and 212 missing or captured (the latter figure nearly concurring with French’s own).

Both French and Corse praised their own men. “I saw so many individual instances of heroism that I regret I cannot do them justice and render th tribute due each particular one,” wrote Corse. “I can only express in general terms the highest satisfaction and pride I entertain in having been with and amongst them on that occasion.”

“It is due to the dead, it is just to the living, that they who have no hopes of being heralded by fame,” French wrote, “and who have but little incentive except the love of country and the consciousness of a just cause to impel them to deeds of daring, and who have shed their blood for a just cause, should have this little tribute paid them by me. For the noble dead the army mourns, a nation mourns. For the living, honor and respect will await them whenever they shall be known as faithful soldiers who have for their dearest rights so often gone through the fires of battle and baptism of blood.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p762-765, 813-815; Part 3, p31, 78; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Chessboard of War by Anne J. Bailey. []
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‘Rapidly Filling Our Little Fort with Dead and Dying’ – The Battle of Allatoona Pass by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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