Assault on Cheatham Hill
by Hilary Butschek
June 28, 2014 04:00 AM | 2319 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Leading visitors early Friday morning on a “real-time tour” of Sherman’s assault on Cheatham Hill during the Civil War Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was Dr. Keith Bohannon, a history professor at the University of West Georgia, who grew up in Smyrna and has been volunteering at the Kennesaw Mountain Preserve since the 1980s.

He led several hundred visitors in the footsteps of Union troops as they tried to break the Confederate lines on the morning of June 27, 1864 and take Marietta as part of their larger goal of capturing Atlanta.

Friday’s tour was a highlight of activities at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park this weekend in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the battle.

June 27, 1864

8 a.m.: It has been raining for the past 19 days. The morning sun is hot, and the fields are soggy. Confederate troops lie in wait in trenches at the bottom and top of Cheatham Hill, next to Kennesaw Mountain. Union troops of General William T. Sherman’s army get ready to attack.

“You can imagine how miserable that would make the soldiers — knee-deep in mud for a month. The armies were becoming worn down,” Bohannon said.

9 a.m.: At ground level about 600 yards away from the hill, which is obscured by thick forest, the Union troops moved toward Confederate lines. There were five brigades marching in a narrow formation about 100 yards wide. Their initial goal was to break through a thin line of Confederate troops waiting at the bottom of Cheatham Hill.

“The idea was that these columns could rush through and have enough force to punch through the line, then get enough men behind them to get control,” Bohannon said.

9:30 a.m.: The five brigades of Union soldiers reach the Confederate screen of trenches at the bottom of Cheatham Hill (part of a seven-mile long chain of fortifications anchored on Kennesaw Mountain), and break through it while both sides are under fire.

The main Confederate line at the top, commanded by Gen. Ben Franklin Cheatham, comes to a hooked angle, or salient, atop the hill. That leaves it exposed to Union fire from two sides and it thereby was considered by the attacking Union generals to be a possible weak point. It becomes known as “The Dead Angle.”

10 a.m.: Union soldiers have nowhere to go but up the hill, straight at the line of Confederate soldiers firing from well-fortified trenches at the top. They charge to the top of the hill and near the Confederate line. Some Union soldiers even mount the Confederate fortifications and shoot down into the trenches at the Rebels.

“Imagine the bravery of crossing the open field, climbing straight toward the enemy’s trenches and firing straight down,” Bohannon said.

10:30 a.m.: Unable to fully penetrate the Confederate line, the Union infantrymen fall back a few yards down the hill to a point just below the crest where a slight dip in the terrain shields them from enemy fire as long as they hug the ground. There, they scoop out shallow trenches with knives, bayonets and even metal cups, and the fighting continues for hours.

“The Yankees made it all the way up this hill, and they lay on their bellies. They were out of reach of the Confederate’s fire,” Bohannon said.

Noon: The fighting dies down for the day, but the two lines stay in place for six more days less than a stone’s throw apart.

During that time, the Union troops try to dig a tunnel under the Confederate trenches to attack their enemy from underneath. But, the tunnel was never completed.

Unbeknownst to the men on the hill, Yankee cavalry had outflanked the Confederate line further south near present-day County Services Parkway, putting part of Sherman’s army closer to Atlanta than was the army of Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston. Johnston eventually decides he has no choice but to evacuate the Kennesaw line and Marietta and fall back to a new line through Smyrna.

After two weeks of fighting, the Union forces had 3,000 killed, missing and wounded men, compared to the Confederates’ 1,000, most of them suffered on June 27 on Cheatham Hill and during a smaller simultaneous Union attack on Pigeon Hill (a spur of Little Kennesaw Mountain).

“As the Confederates celebrated a victory here, in the larger context of things — in the Atlanta campaign — Sherman does succeed in taking Atlanta with an army that is very large,” Bohannon said.

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