June 27, 1864 (Monday)
“I have been unable so far to stop the enemy’s progress by gradual approaches on account of his numerous army and the character of the country, which is favorable to this method,” wrote Confederate General Joe Johnston on this date. “Our best mode of operating against it would be to use strong parties of cavalry to cut his railroad communications. Our own cavalry is so weak compared to that of the Federal army that I have been unable to do it.”
Johnston, now back up to Kennesaw Mountain, fifteen miles north of Atlanta, was almost certain he couldn’t stop Sherman’s advance. Mile by mile, his army had been thrown back and the threat of having to defend Atlanta was indeed a real one.
But while this retreating meant that there were no Confederate gains, it also denied any substantial victory to the Federals. What Sherman needed was not the capture of Atlanta, but the destruction of Johnston’s army. But this destruction would come at a dear price, if attainable at all.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee was layered in endless lines of entrenchments up and down Kennesaw Mountain. Due to the terrain, there was no hope at all of turning the Rebel flanks, so Sherman decided upon a frontal attack augmented by feigns all along the lines.
The day dawned, already scorching and humid. The clear sky was soon filled with Federal artillery, and the ground shook with concussion. There was not long to wait before the attack came in earnest.
Sherman’s first strike came just south of Big Kennesaw Mountain, slamming 5,500 Northerners into Little Kennesaw and Pigeon Hill. If successful, it would cleft Johnston’s army in two. The Rebel skirmishers fell back at their approach and the southern artillery chewed holes in the climbing enemy lines. When they closed in and the artillery was useless, some Rebels rolled boulders down the hill to slow the progress.
The Federals took some advanced rifle pits, but were halted before they could reach the main lines. The Rebels, unable to fully throw back their foes, fired round upon round at the now stalemated columns. After two such hours of slaughter, the Federals were ordered to fall back.
But this was not Sherman’s main thrust, though neither was it a feign. Around 9am, General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, threw forward his 9,000, all advancing toward a mile-wide swath of low-rising ground. Sherman had hoped that here, the break might be easiest. He was wrong.
In three columns they came at a run, driving fast the Southern skirmishers. Charging closer, the Rebel artillery let loose its deadly cannister. Scores of Federals fell dead or exploded into pieces of unrecognizable flesh. The ranks farther back stumbled. Some Federals stopped to fire, while others simply turned back. The charge was stunted, the day was lost.
The closest the Federal dead were found to the Rebel lines was fifteen paces. They never stood a chance. It all seemed to happen so quickly, to have be halted almost before it began.
Johnston wasn’t fully sure what had just happened. He wired Richmond only the fact: “The enemy advanced upon our whole line to-day. Their loss is supposed to be great; ours known to be small.” This said little or nothing, and Richmond believed the latter.
Sherman’s men had suffered 3,000 killed and wounded. He was unable to even approach the Rebel works, but the day itself was not fully lost. On his right, the Army of the Ohio, commanded by John Schofield, had churned mercilessly close to the Confederate line of retreat.
“Satisfied of the bloody cost of attacking intrenched lines,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “I at once thought of moving the whole army to the railroad at a point (Fulton) about ten miles below Marietta, or to the Chattahoochee River itself….”
He dispatched his cavalry to exploit Schofield’s gains, hoping to cut Johnston off from Atlanta.1
- Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Kennesaw Mountain by Earl J. Hess. [↩]