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)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"The Dead Angle": The Confederate Perspective

One of the best things about studying Civil War history is reading the words of the men who fought the war themselves. Among those works, Private Sam Watkins memoir, "Company Aytch", is one of the finest written by any participant of the war. Watkins has provided generations of historians and students of the war a first hand account of the fighting in the West.

On June 27, 1864, the fiercest fighting at Kennesaw Mountain was actually just south of the mountain itself, on a hill just off of the Dallas Road. Today, that hill is known as Cheatham Hill, after Confederate General Benjamin Cheatham. This was the bloodiest spot on the battlefield that day, and it is a haunting place to this day. The fighting was worst at a place where the Confederate lines formed a slight angle, known afterwards as "The Dead Angle." This is where Union Colonel Dan McCook led his brigade uphill against entrenched Confederates. Among those Confederates was Sam Watkins.

I would equate the feeling at Cheatham Hill with the same feeling I get every time I visit the Mule Shoe at Spottsylvania, the fields of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh, the Deep Railroad Cut at Second Manassas, and the Cornfield at Antietam. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I keep telling myself, "Something terrible happened here." While that is certainly the case at every Civil War battlefield, some sites just seem more haunting because of the especially fierce brutality of what occured there. At Cheatham Hill, Union soldiers were pinned down by Confederate fire for days after their charge. Men died out in the Georgia sun. Fire broke out among the brush, burning men alive. It was a thoroughly brutal and unforgiving place.

The fight at Cheatham Hill is for me the most intruiging aspect of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. It is one of the things we will look at on this blog as I write my book. This post, using the words of Sam Watkins, serves as a way of looking at the fighting there from the Confederate perspective.

Looking up toward the Deal Angle. The Confederate works were built just behind the crest of the hill. On the crest itself sits the Illinois monument, dedicated on June 27, 1914.


The First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee Regiments will ever remember the
battle of "Dead Angle," which was fought June 27th, on the Kennesaw line,
near Marietta, Georgia. It was one of the hottest and longest days of
the year, and one of the most desperate and determinedly resisted battles
fought during the whole war. Our regiment was stationed on an angle,
a little spur of the mountain, or rather promontory of a range of hills,
extending far out beyond the main line of battle, and was subject to the
enfilading fire of forty pieces of artillery of the Federal batteries.
It seemed fun for the guns of the whole Yankee army to play upon this
point. We would work hard every night to strengthen our breastworks,
and the very next day they would be torn down smooth with the ground
by solid shots and shells from the guns of the enemy. Even the little
trees and bushes which had been left for shade, were cut down as so much
stubble. For more than a week this constant firing had been kept up
against this salient point. In the meantime, the skirmishing in the
valley below resembled the sounds made by ten thousand wood-choppers.

Well, on the fatal morning of June 27th, the sun rose clear and cloudless,
the heavens seemed made of brass, and the earth of iron, and as the sun
began to mount toward the zenith, everything became quiet, and no sound
was heard save a peckerwood on a neighboring tree, tapping on its old
trunk, trying to find a worm for his dinner. We all knew it was but the
dead calm that precedes the storm. On the distant hills we could plainly
see officers dashing about hither and thither, and the Stars and Stripes
moving to and fro, and we knew the Federals were making preparations for
the mighty contest. We could hear but the rumbling sound of heavy guns,
and the distant tread of a marching army, as a faint roar of the coming
storm, which was soon to break the ominous silence with the sound of
conflict, such as was scarcely ever before heard on this earth. It
seemed that the archangel of Death stood and looked on with outstretched
wings, while all the earth was silent, when all at once a hundred guns
from the Federal line opened upon us, and for more than an hour they
poured their solid and chain shot, grape and shrapnel right upon this
salient point, defended by our regiment alone, when, all of a sudden,
our pickets jumped into our works and reported the Yankees advancing,
and almost at the same time a solid line of blue coats came up the hill.
I discharged my gun, and happening to look up, there was the beautiful
flag of the Stars and Stripes flaunting right in my face, and I heard
John Branch, of the Rock City Guards, commanded by Captain W. D. Kelly,
who were next Company H, say, "Look at that Yankee flag; shoot that
fellow; snatch that flag out of his hand!" My pen is unable to describe
the scene of carnage and death that ensued in the next two hours.
Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line,
and by referring to the history of the war you will find they were massed
in column forty columns deep; in fact, the whole force of the Yankee army
was hurled against this point, but no sooner would a regiment mount our
works than they were shot down or surrendered, and soon we had every
"gopher hole" full of Yankee prisoners. Yet still the Yankees came.
It seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man was true
to his trust, and seemed to think that at that moment the whole
responsibility of the Confederate government was rested upon his
shoulders. Talk about other battles, victories, shouts, cheers, and
triumphs, but in comparison with this day's fight, all others dwarf
into insignificance. The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the
thermometer being one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and a solid
line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being
poured right into our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot
blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and
stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion
causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all,
the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium. Afterward I heard a
soldier express himself by saying that he thought "Hell had broke loose
in Georgia, sure enough."

Remnants of earthworks built by Union soldiers who came close to the Dead Angle and stayed there because they were pinned down by Confederate guns

I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee during the war
they were not aware of it. I am satisfied that on this memorable day,
every man in our regiment killed from one score to four score, yea,
five score men. I mean from twenty to one hundred each. All that was
necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the
reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their
living men passing over the bodies of their dead. The ground was piled
up with one solid mass of dead and wounded Yankees. I learned afterwards
from the burying squad that in some places they were piled up like cord
wood, twelve deep.

The Illinois Monument
After they were time and time again beaten back, they at last were
enabled to fortify a line under the crest of the hill, only thirty yards
from us, and they immediately commenced to excavate the earth with the
purpose of blowing up our line.

The trenches where Watkins and his fellow Confederates fought

We remained here three days after the battle. In the meantime the woods
had taken fire, and during the nights and days of all that time continued
to burn, and at all times, every hour of day and night, you could hear
the shrieks and screams of the poor fellows who were left on the field,
and a stench, so sickening as to nauseate the whole of both armies,
arose from the decaying bodies of the dead left lying on the field.

We remained here three days after the battle. In the meantime the woods
had taken fire, and during the nights and days of all that time continued
to burn, and at all times, every hour of day and night, you could hear
the shrieks and screams of the poor fellows who were left on the field,
and a stench, so sickening as to nauseate the whole of both armies,
arose from the decaying bodies of the dead left lying on the field.

Looking from the point of view of the Confederates toward the field through which Federals had to advance

We remained here three days after the battle. In the meantime the woods
had taken fire, and during the nights and days of all that time continued
to burn, and at all times, every hour of day and night, you could hear
the shrieks and screams of the poor fellows who were left on the field,
and a stench, so sickening as to nauseate the whole of both armies,
arose from the decaying bodies of the dead left lying on the field.

Every member of the First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee Regiments deserves
a wreath of imperishable fame, and a warm place in the hearts of their
countrymen, for their gallant and heroic valor at the battle of Dead
Angle. No man distinguished himself above another. All did their duty,
and the glory of one is but the glory and just tribute of the others.

Confederate trenches

After we had abandoned the line, and on coming to a little stream of
water, I undressed for the purpose of bathing, and after undressing
found my arm all battered and bruised and bloodshot from my wrist to my
shoulder, and as sore as a blister. I had shot one hundred and twenty
times that day. My gun became so hot that frequently the powder would
flash before I could ram home the ball, and I had frequently to exchange
my gun for that of a dead comrade.

Colonel H. R. Field was loading and shooting the same as any private in
the ranks when he fell off the skid from which he was shooting right
over my shoulder, shot through the head. I laid him down in the trench,
and he said, "Well, they have got me at last, but I have killed fifteen
of them; time about is fair play, I reckon." But Colonel Field was
not killed--only wounded, and one side paralyzed. Captain Joe P. Lee,
Captain Mack Campbell, Lieutenant T. H. Maney, and other officers of the
regiment, threw rocks and beat them in their faces with sticks. The
Yankees did the same. The rocks came in upon us like a perfect hail
storm, and the Yankees seemed very obstinate, and in no hurry to get away
from our front, and we had to keep up the firing and shooting them down
in self-defense. They seemed to walk up and take death as coolly as if
they were automatic or wooden men, and our boys did not shoot for the fun
of the thing. It was, verily, a life and death grapple, and the least
flicker on our part, would have been sure death to all. We could not be
reinforced on account of our position, and we had to stand up to the rack,
fodder or no fodder. When the Yankees fell back, and the firing ceased,
I never saw so many broken down and exhausted men in my life. I was as
sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be, and many
of our men were vomiting with excessive fatigue, over-exhaustion, and
sunstroke; our tongues were parched and cracked for water, and our faces
blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead and wounded were piled
indiscriminately in the trenches. There was not a single man in the
company who was not wounded, or had holes shot through his hat and
clothing. Captain Beasley was killed, and nearly all his company killed
and wounded. The Rock City Guards were almost piled in heaps and so was
our company. Captain Joe P. Lee was badly wounded. Poor Walter Hood and
Jim Brandon were lying there among us, while their spirits were in heaven;
also, William A. Hughes, my old mess-mate and friend, who had clerked
with me for S. F. & J. M. Mayes, and who had slept with me for lo! these
many years, and a boy who loved me more than any other person on earth
has ever done. I had just discharged the contents of my gun into the
bosoms of two men, one right behind the other, killing them both, and was
re-loading, when a Yankee rushed upon me, having me at a disadvantage,
and said, "You have killed my two brothers, and now I've got you."
Everything I had ever done rushed through my mind. I heard the roar,
and felt the flash of fire, and saw my more than friend, William
A. Hughes, grab the muzzle of the gun, receiving the whole contents in
his hand and arm, and mortally wounding him. Reader, he died for me.
In saving my life, he lost his own. When the infirmary corps carried him
off, all mutilated and bleeding he told them to give me "Florence Fleming"
(that was the name of his gun, which he had put on it in silver letters),
and to give me his blanket and clothing. He gave his life for me,
and everything that he had. It was the last time that I ever saw him,
but I know that away up yonder, beyond the clouds, blackness, tempest
and night, and away above the blue vault of heaven, where the stars keep
their ceaseless vigils, away up yonder in the golden city of the New
Jerusalem, where God and Jesus Christ, our Savior, ever reign, we will
sometime meet at the marriage supper of the Son of God, who gave His life
for the redemption of the whole world.

Grave of an uknown Union soldier near the Dead Angle, believed to be 21 year old Mark Carr, 34th Illinois
For several nights they made attacks upon our lines, but in every attempt,
they were driven back with great slaughter. They would ignite the tape
of bomb shells, and throw them over in our lines, but, if the shell did
not immediately explode, they were thrown back. They had a little shell
called _hand grenade_, but they would either stop short of us, or go
over our heads, and were harmless. General Joseph E. Johnston sent us a
couple of _chevaux-de-frise_. When they came, a detail of three men had
to roll them over the works. Those three men were heroes. Their names
were Edmund Brandon, T. C. Dornin, and Arnold Zellner. Although it was
a solemn occasion, every one of us was convulsed with laughter at the
ridiculous appearance and actions of the detail. Every one of them made
their wills and said their prayers truthfully and honestly, before they
undertook the task. I laugh now every time I think of the ridiculous
appearance of the detail, but to them it was no laughing matter. I
will say that they were men who feared not, nor faltered in their duty.
They were men, and today deserve the thanks of the people of the South.
That night about midnight, an alarm was given that the Yankees were
advancing. They would only have to run about twenty yards before they
would be in our works. We were ordered to "shoot." Every man was
hallooing at the top of his voice, "Shoot, shoot, tee, shoot, shootee."
On the alarm, both the Confederate and Federal lines opened, with both
small arms and artillery, and it seemed that the very heavens and earth
were in a grand conflagration, as they will be at the final judgment,
after the resurrection. I have since learned that this was a false alarm,
and that no attack had been meditated.

Previous to the day of attack, the soldiers had cut down all the trees in
our immediate front, throwing the tops down hill and sharpening the limbs
of the same, thus making, as we thought, an impenetrable abattis of vines
and limbs locked together; but nothing stopped or could stop the advance
of the Yankee line, but the hot shot and cold steel that we poured into
their faces from under our head-logs.

One of the most shameful and cowardly acts of Yankee treachery was
committed there that I ever remember to have seen. A wounded Yankee was
lying right outside of our works, and begging most piteously for water,
when a member of the railroad company (his name was Hog Johnson, and
the very man who stood videt with Theodore Sloan and I at the battle of
Missionary Ridge, and who killed the three Yankees, one night, from Fort
Horsley), got a canteen of water, and gave the dying Yankee a drink,
and as he started back, he was killed dead in his tracks by a treacherous
Yankee hid behind a tree. It matters not, for somewhere in God's Holy
Word, which cannot lie, He says that "He that giveth a cup of cold water
in my name, shall not lose his reward." And I have no doubt, reader,
in my own mind, that the poor fellow is reaping his reward in Emanuel's
land with the good and just. In every instance where we tried to assist
their wounded, our men were killed or wounded. A poor wounded and dying
boy, not more than sixteen years of age, asked permission to crawl over
our works, and when he had crawled to the top, and just as Blair Webster
and I reached up to help the poor fellow, he, the Yankee, was killed by
his own men. In fact, I have ever thought that is why the slaughter was
so great in our front, that nearly, if not as many, Yankees were killed
by their own men as by us. The brave ones, who tried to storm and carry
our works, were simply between two fires. It is a singular fanaticism,
and curious fact, that enters the mind of a soldier, that it is a grand
and glorious death to die on a victorious battlefield. One morning the
Sixth and Ninth Regiments came to our assistance--not to relieve us--
but only to assist us, and every member of our regiment--First and
Twenty-seventh--got as mad as a "wet hen." They felt almost insulted,
and I believe we would soon have been in a free fight, had they not been
ordered back. As soon as they came up every one of us began to say,
"Go back! go back! we can hold this place, and by the eternal God we
are not going to leave it." General Johnston came there to look at the
position, and told us that a transverse line was about one hundred yards
in our rear, and should they come on us too heavy to fall back to that
line, when almost every one of us said, "You go back and look at other
lines, this place is safe, and can never be taken." And then when they
had dug a tunnel under us to blow us up, we laughed, yea, even rejoiced,
at the fact of soon being blown sky high. Yet, not a single man was
willing to leave his post. When old Joe sent us the two chevaux-de-
frise, and kept on sending us water, and rations, and whisky, and
tobacco, and word to hold our line, we would invariably send word back to
rest easy, and that all is well at Dead Angle. I have ever thought that
is one reason why General Johnston fell back from this Kennesaw line,
and I will say today, in 1882, that while we appreciated his sympathies
and kindness toward us, yet we did not think hard of old Joe for having
so little confidence in us at that time. A perfect hail of minnie
balls was being continually poured into our head-logs the whole time we
remained here. The Yankees would hold up small looking-glasses, so that
our strength and breastworks could be seen in the reflection in the glass;
and they also had small mirrors on the butts of their guns, so arranged
that they could hight up the barrels of their guns by looking through
these glasses, while they themselves would not be exposed to our fire,
and they kept up this continual firing day and night, whether they could
see us or not. Sometimes a glancing shot from our head-logs would wound
some one.

But I cannot describe it as I would wish. I would be pleased to mention
the name of every soldier, not only of Company H alone, but every man in
the First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee Consolidated Regiments on this
occasion, but I cannot now remember their names, and will not mention
any one in particular, fearing to do injustice to some whom I might
inadvertently omit. Every man and every company did their duty. Company
G, commanded by Captain Mack Campbell, stood side by side with us on this
occasion, as they ever had during the whole war. But soldiers of the
First and Twenty-seventh Regiments, it is with a feeling of pride and
satisfaction to me, today, that I was associated with so many noble and
brave men, and who were subsequently complimented by Jeff Davis, then
President of the Confederate States of America, in person, who said,
"That every member of our regiment was fit to be a captain"--his very
words. I mention Captain W. C. Flournoy, of Company K, the Martin Guards;
Captain Ledbetter, of the Rutherford Rifles; Captains Kelly and Steele,
of the Rock City Guards, and Captain Adkisson, of the Williamson Grays,
and Captain Fulcher, and other names of brave and heroic men, some of
whom live today, but many have crossed the dark river and are "resting
under the shade of the trees" on the other shore, waiting and watching
for us, who are left to do justice to their memory and our cause, and
when we old Rebels have accomplished God's purpose on earth, we, too,
will be called to give an account of our battles, struggles, and triumphs.

Reader mine, I fear that I have wearied you with too long a description
of the battle of "Dead Angle," if so, please pardon me, as this is
but a sample of the others which will now follow each other in rapid
succession. And, furthermore, in stating the above facts, the half has
not been told, but it will give you a faint idea of the hard battles and
privations and hardships of the soldiers in that stormy epoch--who died,
grandly, gloriously, nobly; dyeing the soil of old mother earth, and
enriching the same with their crimson life's blood, while doing what?
Only trying to protect their homes and families, their property, their
constitution and their laws, that had been guaranteed to them as a
heritage forever by their forefathers. They died for the faith that
each state was a separate sovereign government, as laid down by the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of our fathers.*

*It should be noted that Sam Watkins's memoir portrays the war in the traditional Confederate interpretation of events, as seen in this final sentence. Namely, it was about states' rights, not slavery. I of course disagree with this, and just wanted to add this note to that effect.

Sam Watkins, "Company Aytch": A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War (1882, reprint, New York: Touchstone, 2003), 142-150. 

1 comment:

  1. I find it interesting that you can say with such confidence what was in the hearts of Confederates that inspired them to join "The Cause". The "traditional Confederate interpretation" we must presume then must be mythological in its origins. Indeed!