The Battle for Kennesaw Mountain, June 27th, 1864 was part of the Campaign for Atlanta. That city, just 20 miles away, produced much of the arsenal for the Rebel Army. Also the intersection of four important railroad lines, Atlanta was a vital military target.
Union commander William Sherman Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman led 100,000 men against the battered 50,000-man Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had finally replaced the stupendously incompetent Gen. Braxton Bragg after more losses at the Battle of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain in November 1863.
Now, Johnston had turned the rugged terrain on Kennesaw Mountain and its surrounding steep ridges into “one vast fort, …. at least 50 miles of connected trenches – – – – fortifications with cheveaux de frise, abatis and finished batteries.” The Confederate artillery and cavalry were constantly harassing and disrupting the Union railroads and supply lines, and Sherman was frustrated.
The opposing lines were always in close contact, but he had only gained 70 miles against the vastly outnumbered Rebels in two months of flanking maneuvers and small battles fought almost every day, Sherman decided his preferred strategy of moving around Johnston’s flank was no longer viable, and, believing “Kennesaw is the key to the whole country.” ordered a large-scale frontal assault against the heavily fortified, entrenched Rebel positions at Kennesaw Mountain. If the frontal assault were successful in splitting the Confederate line, Sherman would trap Johnston in Marietta, capture the Western and Atlantic Railroad and march into Atlanta.
At 8 a.m. on June 27, 1864, with the two armies only 400 yards apart, over fifty Union cannons opened a furious bombardment on the Confederate works. On Big Kennesaw, 5,500 Union troops charged up the steep slope against 5,000 well entrenched Confederate soldiers of Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham‘s command, whose position jutted forth in an inverted V salient on a rise now known as Cheatham’s Hill.
Col. Daniel McCook‘s 52nd Ohio Infantry led the charge, directly into the heavily defended salient that both sides would refer to later area as “The Dead Angle.” The Confederates met the Union attacks with devastating infantry and artillery fire, decimating wave after wave of Federals. Incredibly, McCook and some of his men made it to the Rebel line, only to be shot, stabbed, or captured.
By 11:30 that morning, the Union attack had failed. The frontal assault cost Sherman 3,000 men in just over three hours. The surrounding field, overgrown and parched by drought, caught on fire during the attack. Wounded Union soldiers, left during the hasty retreat, screamed as they burnt to death in the blaze.
A truce was called and rifle-less Federals approached and began to remove the bodies, quickly aided by the Confederates. The two forces that had been killing each other less than 15 minutes earlier now worked together to save the lives of fallen men. Many historians believe this was Sherman’s greatest mistake as a commander.
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