Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pickett's Mill State Battlefield

On January 8, the last full day of my visit to Georgia, I took time in the morning to go visit the Pickett's Mill State Battlefield. Pickett's Mill was fought on May 27, 1864, exactly one month to the day before Kennesaw Mountain. It occured when Sherman's forces were bogged down in an area known as the "hell hole" due to dense terrain, heavy rains, and fierce opposition from entrenched Confederate defenders. The battle was a result of a flanking movement made by Oliver Howard's 4th Corps. Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood's Division led the flanking movement, with two divisions from the 23rd Corps in support. During their movement northward, Howard's men were spotted by Confederate scouts. Thus, when they made their turn to attack the Confederate flank, they encountered a heavy Confederate presence in the thick forests surrounding Pickett's Mill on Little Pumpkinvine Creek. What occured that day was the most lopsided defeat Sherman's forces suffered during the campaign.


The visitor center for Pickett's Mill is small, yet it has a relatively nice museum, complete with battle maps, artifacts, examples of uniforms, etc. The above picture is one of the many battle maps that chronicle the several phases of the battle. The fight at Pickett's Mill occured from late afternoon through the night on May 27. This map shows the opening phases of the battle. For the most part, as can be seen on the map above, Union troops were attacking south and southeast, while Confederate counterattacks later in the day would push into the Federal left flank. In the middle of the map, the small words labeling "the ravine" can be made out. This ravine played a major role in the battle. It was dense with trees, brush, and undergrowth, and it made any offensive action extremely difficult. Also identified on the map are several clearings; these were used primarily for Confederate and Union troops to organize for attacks and counter attacks. Very little of the actual fighting occured in these areas.

Pickett's Mill is unique because it is one of the only battlefields I have ever been to where the only option to see the field is to hike. No driving maps, no auto tour, just hiking. At first, due to cold temperatures and time constraints, I was hesitant to go on one of their long hiking trails. However, in hindsight I am quite glad that I made the hike, as the experience of hiking the field was quite instrumental in aiding my understanding of the battle and of the men who fought and died there. I took the 1.5 mile blue trail, which traced the routes of attacking Union soldiers, many of whom were from Ohio. The above picture was taken at the start of the hike, and it shows one of the several clearings identified on the map above. As Union troops moved into the dense ravines near Pickett's Mill, Confederates layed waiting in open clearings such as this one. The advancing Union soldiers were in for quite a surprise.

Once at the bottom of the ravine, the trail I took meandered along Little Pumpkinvine Creek for quite awhile. It was a beautiful, clear, and cold Saturday morning, and I was literally the only visitor on the battlefield that day. It was surreal to be alone in the forests along the creek, as it was both picturesque and solemn. Seeing the terrain made an indelible impression on me, as I firmly maintian that no one can understand how or why Civil War battles were fought without walking in the footsteps of those who endured the terrible ordeal of battle 150 years ago.

Another shot of Pumpkinvine Creek, at roughly the same spot where Pickett's Mill sat at the time of the battle.

At the top of the ravine, on the northern side, one can view what remains of Union rifle pits from the battle. Following the initial Union attack into the ravine and along the creek, Howard's 4th Corps men fell back to the top of the ridge and dug in. These rifle pits are not nearly as apparent now as they were then, and they are in significantly worse shape than the Confederate trenches at Kennesaw Mountain that I described in my last posting, but they are still there and still visible. Once dug in, Union soldiers lay in waiting for a Confederate counterattack. Many lay there in shock after the terrible firefight they had just survived. Some sat grieving the loss of comrades, men with whom they had grown up and who were now left to die and be buried by enemy soldiers. Such was the nature of Civil War combat.

A black and white view of Union rifle pits. 

These last two photographs are perhaps the most interesting of any that I took. They show in full view the ravine through which Union forces were ordered to attack that day. I was fortunate to be there in January, as it afforded me the opportunity to see just how daunting a task attacking over such terrain must have been. Set aside the trees, brush, and undergrowth that slowed any advance: the terrain alone made attacking over these positions nearly impossible. This picture was taken on the side from which the Union forces were attacking. Confederate forces were dug in on the far ridge, pouring fire into the advancing Union ranks. Imagine, if you will, a mass of soldiers clad in blue, moving swiftly down into the ravine only to struggle up the opposing side amid terrifying musket fire. The sight was surely surreal, and as hard as we try, we have no means of truly replicating it. On that day, there were 1,600 Union casualties, 1,400 from Wood's division alone. Of those 1,600 casualties, an estimated 800, or 50%, were killed, many due to head wounds. Because they were advancing uphill against entrenched forces, these men faced a daunting challenge that was simply too great to overcome. Sergeant Andrew Gleason described the experience of moving uphill against entrenched musket fire in his diary in a manner which portrays the desperation of that day:

Moving forward to the crest of a ridge, a severe cross fire was encountered and the line advanced into a ravine close to the rebel works, where it met with a decided check, and having little protection was in a literal slaughter-pen…The only protection available was to lie close to the ground or seek cover behind trees and rocks—by no means plenty—until the fire had slackened. No supports had come up and our bugle had sounded the recall as soon as it was apparent the works could not be carried. A galling fire scorched the ravine and ridge alike, rendering it almost useless to seek shelter of tree or rock.

This final photograph, taken near the end of my hike, is another view of the ravine at Pickett's Mill. Just over the far ride sits the modern visitor center. This final leg of the hike was the most impressive, as it allowed a broad view over the battlefield.

Late on the night of the 27th, Confederate forces swept forward upon unsuspecting Union troops, driving them from their positions and ending the threat they posed to the Confederate flank. Several more days of fierce fighting would occur in this area, but Sherman would soon break free of the stranglehold by back tracking and moving north to reconnect with the railroad his men relied on for supplies. Soon, he would make another push towards Atlanta, this one resulting in the bloody struggle at Kennesaw Mountain in late June.While Pickett's Mill was a relatively small battle in the course of the war, for those who fought there on May 27, 1864, it was no small feat. Sergeat Gleason fittingly described it by noting, “This is surely not war, it is butchery." [1] Pickett's Mill is a reminder that even at the smaller battlefields of the war, the sacrifice paid by those who fought was still enormous and worth commemorating and studying.  

[1]Andrew Gleason Diary, May 27, 1864, in Echoes of Battle, The Atlanta Campaign: An Illustrated Collection of Union and Confederate Narratives, edited by Larry M. Strayer and Richard A. Baumgartner (Huntington, WV: Blue Acorn Press, 2004), 113.

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