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)

Friday, April 29, 2011

A January visit to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

In early January, while I was in the midst of researching and working on my thesis, I made a several day Civil War trip to Atlanta, Georgia to visit some dear family members, hike some battlefields, and immerse myself in the few aspects of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign that I could with my available time. I thought that I would share some of my photographs and memories of that trip over the course of a few blog posts. So often, students of the war become caught up in the major battles in the east. As a ranger at Antietam, I know I fall victim to that tendency from time to time. However, the battlefields of the western armies also offer an array of excellent places to visit, study, and learn from. In many instances, such as the Atlanta Campaign, what occured in the west was just as important, if not more so, than what occured in the east. If you haven't been to some of these sites, I highly recommend making the trip. Some of the sites I visited in January were Kennesaw Mountain, the Atlanta History Center, Pickett's Mill State Battlefield, Chickamauga National Military Park, and the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History (located in Kennesaw, Georgia). I had hoped to hit a few more sites around Atlanta itself, but a snowstorm (yes, a snowstorm in Georgia) cut my trip short by a day.

Before I get to the history, I must say that this trip would not have been possible without the hospitality of my wonderful Uncle Jeff and Aunt Paula who live in Kennesaw, Georgia, just a few miles away from Kennesaw Mountain. They were extremely generous in welcoming me, and I am very blessed to have them as family.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is located roughly 20 miles northwest of Atlanta. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was fought on June 27, 1864, and resulted in a lopsided defeat for Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's forces. While there is a town of Kennesaw today, in 1864 it was simply the rail junction of Big Shanty, located near the town of Marietta (Big Shanty was the site where the famous railroad chase involving The General began in April of 1862). Today, the park encompasses a number of significant sites from the 1864 battle (while important spots are protected, development infringes upon the park at nearly every angle). The most striking feature of the park played a very small role in the actual fighting on June 27. Big Kennesaw, the primary mountain, was not the object of any major frontal assaults that day, and anyone who has seen it can easily figure out why. As any visitor can tell, it is clearly the most imposing feature of the landscape, and it has a summit of roughly 1,800 feet. The options for getting to the top include both hiking and driving. On my visit, I decided it was better to drive to the top, as it was a chilly day and I didn't feel like making the several mike hike...

Once on top of Kennesaw Mountain, the view is tremendous. It was my good fortune that after flying from Cleveland to Atlanta I happened to go to the top on a cloudy and dreary day, impeding my view of the surrounding area. The above photograph shows one part of the mountain's excellent view. In the distance (although not clearly visible in the photograph) is downtown Atlanta, with Stone Mountain (the largest piece of exposed granite in the world, beautifully adorned with the engraved images of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis) off to the left hand side of the picture (barely visible). 

All along the summit of the mountain are remnants of gun emplacements made by Confederate soldiers dating back to the battle in 1864. My journey to the top was made in a comfortable car on a paved and winding road; such was not the case for the Confederate artillerymen of Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee. These artillery positions atop the mountain have a remarkable view of the surrounding area. During the several week long standoff between the two armies near Kennesaw Mountain in June of 1864, artillery duels were a daily occurence, as each side made use of the mountainous terrain to lob shells at enemy gunners. In fact, on June 14, at nearby Pine Mountain (the name is deceiving, it is not as much a mountain as a large hill), Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk was killed instantly by an artillery shell fired by an Indiana Battery. According to eye witness reports, Sherman himself ordered the shelling, as he and others spotted Polk along with General Johnston and General William Hardee. Polk was also an episcopal priest, and one of the more eccentric generals in gray during the war. Needless to say, the story illustrates the effectiveness of long range artillery during the campaign, of which the above photograph shows one piece.

In my opinion, the most impressive part of the Kennesaw battlefield is the area known as Cheatham Hill, named after Confederate Major General Benjamin Cheatham, whose men defended the position during the battle. The above picture shows the Illinois monument at that location. Several hiking trails criss-cross the area, and it is a very picturesque place. In the background is the open field over which Union soldiers from Major General John Palmer's 14th Corps charged on the morning of June 27, 1864. It sits at the focal point of Colonel Dan McCook's brigade's attack that day. McCook's brigade was composed of men from both Illinois and Ohio, but the first lines of assault were composed primarily of Illinois troops. The Illinois monument is one of the few that exist on the Kennesaw battlefield. There are also monuments to men from Georgia and Texas.

This photograph, taken at the base of the Illinois monument, shows what remains of a tunnel dug by Union soldiers in the aftermath of their attack on Confederate positions on Cheatham Hill. As the Union attack lost momentum against the Confederate trenches, a large number of the Federal troops chose to dig in rather than fall back to their starting position. At a distance of less than 100 yards from the Confederate lines, men from Ohio and Illinois dug trenches with their hands, bayonets, cups, plates, and anything else they had access to. Initially, the trenches were not very sophisticated, as the primary goal during daylight hours was to shelter oneself from enemy fire. However, once the sun set, tools were brought up and the trenches were strengthened. On June 29, a truce was called so that the dead of both sides could be buried. Other than that truce, there was little respite from the constant strain of lying so close to enemy works. As can be seen in the picture above, during that period of time an effort was made to dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate lines so as to detonate explosives and end the stalemate. Confederate evacuation of the line on July 2 made such an effort unnecessary, but the opening of the tunnel still remains to this day on the battlefield.

A black and white view of the Illinois Monument from the front. The Union troops were attacking towards the monument from the direction where this photograph was taken. Confederate trenches lay just beyond where the monument stands today.

Along side a hiking trail near the Illinois monument rests the lone grave of an unknown Union soldier, fittingly adorned with American flags and remembrances. The setting of this soldier's grave is really quite remarkable. Rarely does one find a marked grave still on an actual battlefield. Yet here this unknown soldier lies, in all likelihood not far from where he fell during the battle. As the soldier's identity is not known, it is impossible to say which regiment or state he was from, but based on maps of the Federal movements on June 27, it is likely that he was a soldier from Dan McCook's brigade of the 14th Corps. Such a sight gives one cause to stop and reflect on the meaning of what occured at such a hallowed place.

A short distance from the Illinois monument, one can still see what is left of Confederate trenches from 1864. These trenches are a common sight on the battlefields of that year, as 1864 saw a major transition away from open field assaults towards trenches and defensive warfare.

This photograph allows for a more detailed veiw of those same Confederate trenches. It is difficult to guage their depth, but I would estimate that this specific portion was still at least 2 to 3 feet deep (not bad considering they are about 150 years old). As with any remaining historical features at a Civil War battlefield, it is always best to observe and leave well alone so as to allow future generations of visitors to enjoy the same remnants of battle from so long ago.

I will post more photogrpahs from this trip in the days and weeks to come (even a few more from Kennesaw Mountain). As my thesis on the 1864 Atlanta Campaign is now complete, think of this as a way for me to reflect on my past few months of work while I prepare to switch gears back to 1862 for another season at Antietam.

For more information on the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield, visit the Kennesaw NPS website here.

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