Excerpt: Kennesaw Mountain, by Earl J. Hess

Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign by Earl J. Hess[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]

While fighting his way toward Atlanta, William T. Sherman encountered his biggest roadblock at Kennesaw Mountain, where Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee held a heavily fortified position. The opposing armies confronted each other from June 19 to July 3, 1864, and Sherman initially tried to outflank the Confederates. His men endured heavy rains, artillery duels, sniping, and a fierce battle at Kolb’s Farm before Sherman decided to directly attack Johnston’s position on June 27. Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, by Earl J. Hess, tells the story of an important phase of the Atlanta campaign.

The following excerpt comes from the book’s Preface (pp. xii-xvi). Here, Hess explains how the nearly three weeks of battle at Kennesaw Mountain in the face of unyielding natural elements stand historically as a pivotal representation of military strategy and adaptation for both the Union and Confederate generals.


Six weeks after setting out from Chattanooga in early May, 1864, Major General William T. Sherman hit a massive roadblock while fighting his way toward Atlanta. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was heavily fortified along a line that stretched across the Georgia countryside, anchored on the twin peaks of Kennesaw Mountain near Marietta. It was the ninth fortified position Johnston had created thus far in the campaign, and it proved to be the most difficult to bypass. For two weeks, from June 19 to July 3, Sherman tried to find a way to turn Johnston’s left flank. Both armies were stretched to the breaking point in their extended positions as artillery duels, constant sniping, and a fierce battle or two erupted. As the two sides tested each other, heavy rains descended, and the dirt roads of Georgia became quagmires. Frustrated at the delay, Sherman decided to try a major frontal assault against three points of Johnston’s line on June 27. The Federals who survived that day would remember the attack for the rest of their lives.

The assault of June 27 was a significant departure from Sherman’s mode of operations during the Atlanta campaign. He had more often maneuvered parts of his massive force, an army group consisting of available troops from the departments of his Military Division of the Mississippi, in order to turn enemy flanks and force the Confederates out of their trenches. Sherman did mix attacks with his turning strategy at Dalton, Resaca, New Hope Church, and Pickett’s Mill, but most of those assaults had been exploratory efforts to find and develop enemy lines and take advantage of opportunities that occurred. On June 27, the Federals knew what to expect and were hitting a heavily fortified, well-manned position. It was, in a way, an experiment, and Sherman arrived at the decision after many days of deliberation.

Sherman threw eight brigades of veteran troops, some fifteen thousand men, at three locations along the heavily fortified Confederate line on June 27. They failed to make a dent in the defenses, losing about three thousand casualties in the process. Only at one location, a small rise of ground that came to be called Cheatham’s Hill, did the Federals stay close to the Confederate works after their attack. They dug new field works within yards of the Rebels. Here they stayed for the remainder of the Kennesaw phase of the Atlanta campaign, sniping, digging a mine with the intention of blowing up an angle in the Confederate works, and cooperating with their enemy in burying the many bodies of Union men killed in the attack. When Sherman resumed his practice of flanking Johnston out of his works, the Confederates evacuated the Kennesaw Line on the night of July 2 and retired a few miles to the next fortified position. The Chattahoochee River, the last natural barrier to Sherman’s approach to Atlanta, lay only a short distance farther south.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of Kennesaw Mountain in the Atlanta campaign. It is based on extensive research in archival collections and published primary sources. The works of previous historians who have written on the campaign is also incorporated for context. Special attention is devoted to the engagements at Kolb’s Farm on June 22 and Sherman’s assault on June 27. The battlefield itself presented a valuable resource for understanding the action around Kennesaw in late June and early July 1864. Although the area where Sherman’s right wing tried to find and flank Johnston’s left has been developed, the ground within the park is well preserved. The locations of the three attacks on June 27 are in a natural state, even if the site of the battle of Kolb’s Farm is a mix of natural landscape and housing development.

The aim of this book is not only to describe the actions along the Kennesaw Line but to explain the significance of the Kennesaw phase of the Atlanta campaign and understand the outcome of operations along the line. By necessity, it is a study of high-command problems, decisions, and triumphs on both sides of no-man’s-land. But it is also a story of common soldiers enduring and adjusting to the special rigors of continuous contact with the enemy, living within holes while spring weather did its worst overhead. The endurance of the Federal rank and file was most severely tested by the order to approach well-constructed earthworks filled with Confederate soldiers, and the attack of June 27 serves as an excellent case study of the experience of battle. The use of field fortifications on the minor tactical and the larger strategic level is a major feature of this story, and the failure of column formations to give the Federals an advantage in their risky assault is highlighted. Sherman’s recurrent fights with newspaper correspondents came into play during the Kennesaw phase of the Atlanta campaign, and neither he nor Johnston could ever forget that higher-level authorities in Washington and Richmond kept watch over their every move. For Sherman, Kennesaw was a dangerous phase of his career, a time when he feared that weather conditions and Confederate fortifications had slowed his advance so much that Johnston might send reinforcements to General Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia. For Johnston, Kennesaw represented the best evidence he could muster to prove that his Fabian tactics were working to slow the Union advance into Georgia and were punishing the enemy with heavy casualties. There was much to be gained or lost for both commanders, depending on how this phase of the struggle for Atlanta came out.

“The most severe and trying experiences of the Campaign,” remembered John C. Arbuckle of the Fourth Iowa, “were those we endured in the trenches in front of Kennesaw. For 26 days, 17 of which were days of continuous rain, we never had our clothes off, or a chance to wash.” For Arbuckle, and for thousands of other men in blue and gray, Kennesaw Mountain loomed large in the lexicon of battle as much for its challenges to the campaigning life of the common soldier as for its threat of injury and death from bullets or shell fragments. “Such was our condition and personal appearance from grime, mud and burnt powder,” Arbuckle concluded, “that we were all but a fright to ourselves.”[1]

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is one of the most valuable Civil War resources in the country. I first became acquainted with its riches in the summer of 1986 while traveling from West Lafayette, Indiana, to my first teaching appointment at the University of Georgia. On visiting the park, I was impressed by the remnants of earthworks preserved within its boundaries. Those earthworks in a sense haunted me, for they were the first major collection of these relics of Civil War military operations I had seen. During the course of my one-year stay at the University of Georgia, I made many trips to Kennesaw to study the system of fortifications, take field notes, and expose many photographs. This experience resulted in a major research project (still ongoing) to write books about Civil War field fortifications. It also eventually led to the writing of this battle book.

The significance of the ground enclosed within the Kennesaw Mountain Park cannot be overstated. It contains the most important collection of surviving Civil War earthworks in the Western Theater, remnants that are as important as those in the best battlefield parks of the Eastern Theater. It is remarkable that the large park at Kennesaw is perched so close to the con-urban expanse of Atlanta. If not for the veterans who initiated preservation efforts in the 1890s, and the efforts of those who followed them, the battlefield would likely be under concrete, houses, and commercial buildings by now.


From Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign by Earl J. Hess. Copyright © 2013 by Earl J. Hess.

  1. [1]Arbuckle, Civil War Experiences, 65.