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Chapter 9:

  • Kenesaw
  • -- ungenerous treatment of Thomas -- inaccurate statements.

There was no military movement made by Sherman, from the time he began the Atlanta campaign till the end of the war, which brought such severe criticism upon him from the armies which he commanded as the assault upon Kenesaw Mountain. By the almost universal verdict along the lines, it was adjudged an utterly needless move, and so an inexcusable slaughter. Before the assault he had Thomas, with sixty thousand men, in front of the enemy's center. That enemy was not over forty-five thousand strong, and he had Schofield and McPherson, with over thirty-five thousand, to operate on the flank, and force the evacuation of Kenesaw without a battle, exactly as was done a few days after the assault. And these three armies, which had been fighting for three years, did not appreciate then, and have never appreciated Sherman's reasons for hurling two of them against an impregnable mountain, which were mainly, as he wrote, to teach his own army that it was sometimes necessary to assault fortified lines, and show the enemy that, on occasion, ‘he would assault, and that boldly.’

And it cost over two thousand veterans killed and wounded to teach those who survived such a lesson as this!

Those who read Sherman's Memoirs from the stand-point of the three armies then operating under him, will naturally look for his account of Kenesaw, and all material points are hereby given in full:

During the 24th and 25th of June, General Schofield extended his right [108] as far as prudent, so as to compel the enemy to thin out his lines correspondingly, with the intention to make two strong assaults at points where success would give us the greatest advantage. I had consulted Generals Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield, and we all agreed that we could not, with prudence, stretch out any more; and, therefore, there was no alternative but to attack “fortified lines,” a thing carefully avoided up to that time. I reasoned, if we could make a breach any where near the rebel center, and thrust in a strong head of column, that with the one moiety of our army we could hold in check the corresponding wing of the enemy, and with the other sweep in flank and overwhelm the other half. The 27th of June was fixed as the day for the attempt, and in order to oversee the whole, and to be in close communication with all parts of the army, I had a place cleared on the top of a hill to the rear of Thomas' center, and had the telegraph wires laid to it. The points of attack were chosen, and the troops were all prepared with as little demonstration as possible. About 9 A. M. of the day appointed the troops moved to the assault, and all along our lines for ten miles a furious fire of artillery and musketry was kept up. At all points the enemy met us with determined courage and in great force. McPherson's attacking column fought up the face of the lesser Kenesaw, but could not reach the summit. About a mile to the right, just below the Dallas road, Thomas' assaulting column reached the parapet, where Brigadier-General Harker was shot down mortally wounded, and Brigadier-General Daniel McCook (my old law partner) was desperately wounded, from the effects of which he afterward died.

By 11:30 the assault was, in fact, over, and had failed. We had not broken the rebel line at either point, but our assaulting columns held their ground within a few yards of the rebel trenches, and there covered themselves with parapet. McPherson lost about five hundred men and several valuable officers, and Thomas lost nearly two thousand men. * * * *

While the battle was in progress at the center, Schofield crossed Olley's Creek on the right, and gained a position threatening Johnston's line of retreat; and to increase the effect, I ordered Stoneman's cavalry to proceed rapidly still further to the right to Sweetwater. Satisfied of the bloody cost of attacking intrenched lines, I at once thought of moving the whole army to the railroad at a point (Fulton) about ten miles below Marietta, or to the Chattahoochee River itself, a movement similar to the one afterward so successfully practiced at Atlanta. All the orders were issued to bring forward supplies enough to fill our wagons, intending to strip the railroad back to Allatoona, and leave that place as our depot, to be covered as well as possible by Garrard's cavalry. General Thomas, as usual, shook his head, deeming it risky to leave the railroad; but something had to be done, and I had resolved on this move, as reported in my dispatch to General Halleck on July 1st:

General Schofield is now south of Olley's Creek, and on the head of Nickajack. I have been hurrying down provisions and forage, and to-morrow night propose to move McPherson from the left to the extreme right, back of [109] General Thomas. This will bring my right within three miles of the Chattahoochee River, and about five miles from the railroad. By this movement I think I can force Johnston to move his whole army down from Kenesaw to defend his railroad and the Chattahoochee, when I will (by the left flank) reach the railroad below Marietta; but in this I must cut loose from the railroad with ten days supplies in wagons. Johnston may come out of his intrenchments to attack Thomas, which is exactly what I want, for General Thomas is well intrenched on a line parallel with the enemy south of Kenesaw. I think that Allatoona and the line of the Etowah are strong enough for me to venture on this move. The movement is substantially down the Sandtown road straight for Atlanta.

McPherson drew out his lines during the night of July 2d, leaving Garrard's cavalry, dismounted, occupying his trenches, and moved to the rear of the Army of the Cumberland, stretching down the Nickajack; but Johnston detected the movement, and promptly abandoned Marietta and Kenesaw. I expected as much, for by the earliest dawn of the 3d of July I was up at a large spy-glass, mounted on a tripod, which Colonel Poe, United States Engineers, had at his bivouac close by our camp. I directed the glass on Kenesaw, and saw some of our pickets crawling up the hill cautiously. Soon they stood upon the very top, and I could plainly see their movements as they ran along the crest just abandoned by the enemy. In a minute I roused my staff, and started them off with orders in every direction for a pursuit by every possible road, hoping to catch Johnston in the confusion of retreat, especially at the crossing of the Chattahoochee River. * * * *

‘As before explained, on the 3d of July, by moving McPherson's entire army from the extreme left, at the base of Kenesaw, to the right, below Olley's Creek, and stretching it down the Nickajack toward Turner's Ferry of the Chattahoochee, we forced Johnston to choose between a direct assault on Thomas' intrenched position, or to permit us to make a lodgment on his railroad below Marrietta, or even to cross the Chattahoochee. Of course, he chose to let go Kenesaw and Marietta, and fall back on an intrenched camp, prepared by his orders in advance, on the north and west bank of the Chattahoochee, covering the railroad crossing and his several pontoon bridges.’

The points of this narrative are very clearly made, but most contradictory of each other, as even a causual reading will reveal, and wholly at variance in important particulars with the official record, as will shortly be made to appear. They may be fairly summed up as follows:

1. During the 25th of June, the assault being on the morning of the 27th, General Schofield had extended his right as far as prudent.

2. After a consultation with Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield, it was agreed, because the line was then extended [110] as far as prudent, that there was no alternative but to assault the mountain.

3. Notwithstanding it was so imprudent to stretch out any more, that an assault was necessary instead, still Schofield, while the assault was in progress, moved off to the right, across Olley's Creek, while the cavalry extended his line still further, to the Sweetwater.

4. Satisfied of the bloody cost of assaulting the position at Kenesaw, General Sherman concluded to flank it by extending his lines to the right as far as Fulton, and possibly to the Chattahoochee River, still further beyond.

5. ‘General Thomas, as usual, shook-his head, deeming it risky to leave the railroad,’ but something had to be done, and so he (Sherman) decided to extend his lines as above.

6. The moment Johnston detected this movement, he promptly, and as a matter of course, let go Kenesaw and Marietta without a fight.

In answer to the contradictions implied by the third point above, it may be claimed that it was the assault which fixed Johnston's attention, and required help from his flanks, that made it possible for Schofield to extend his lines. But the official records show that Schofield was actually prolonging his lines the whole day preceding the battle—that is, during the 26th—in spite of the statements in the text that, ‘during the 24th and 25th, he had extended his right as far as prudent.’ If, on the other hand, it be claimed that Schofield's movement on the 26th was to compel the enemy to withdraw part of his force from Kenesaw to strengthen the flank in front of Schofield, and thus make the assault practicable, it would appear that a stronger flanking movement might have caused the enemy to withdraw entirely, without the necessity of an assault, exactly as did occur a few days after.

The records have much to say about Kenesaw that is not even referred to in the Memoirs.

The following field dispatches from General Sherman to General Schofield, who was operating on the right, will be [111] sufficient to show that the latter was extending his lines during the 26th and also during the 27th, the day of the assault:

Sherman to Schofield, June 26: ‘Is the brigade across Olley's Creek above the Sandtown road, or at the road?’

Sherman to Schofield, June 26: ‘All right. Be careful of a brigade so exposed, but I am willing to risk a good deal.’

Sherman to Schofield, June 26: ‘Good bridge should be made to-night across Olley's Creek, where the brigade is across, and operations resumed there in the morning early.’

Sherman to Schofield, June 27, 11:45 A. M.: ‘Neither McPherson nor Thomas has succeeded in breaking through, but each has made substantial progress at some cost. Push your operations on the flank and keep me advised.’

The following parts of dispatches to General Thomas bear upon the same point:

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 1:30 P. M.: ‘Schofield has one division close up on the Powder Spring road, and the other (division) across Olley's Creek, about two miles to his right and rear.’

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 4:10 P. M.: ‘Schofield has gained the crossing of Olley's Creek on the Sandtown road, the only advantage of the day.’

Sherman to Thomas, June 27; evening: ‘Schofield has the Sandtown road, within eleven miles of the Chattahoochee, and we could move by that flank.’

As will be seen from the extracts quoted from the Memoirs, General Sherman claims that the assault was the result of a consultation and agreement between himself and Generals Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield. As a matter of fact the latter did not favor an assault but earnestly discouraged it. Two of these officers are now dead, but the field orders of General Thomas are accessible, and the whole tenor of these disputes General Sherman's claim, as will now appear.

From his telegraph station, on a hill in rear of Thomas' [112] center, General Sherman communicated with him throughout the day. Of these dispatches the following bear upon the question at issue:

Thomas to Sherman, 8 A. M., June 27: ‘The movement of my troops against the enemy's work has commenced.’

Which was answered as follows:

‘Every thing moving well on this flank, and Schofield reports the same. Push your troops with all the energy possible. W. T. S.’

Thomas to Sherman, in the field, 9 A. M., June 27: ‘General Howard reports that he has advanced and is doing well. I have not yet received report from Palmer.’

Answered as follows:

All well. Keep things moving.

9:50 A. M.
W. T. S.

Thomas to Sherman, 10:45 A. M., June 27: ‘Yours received. General Harker's brigade advanced to within twenty paces of the enemy's breast-works, and was repulsed with canister at that range, General Harker losing an arm. General Wagner's brigade of Newton's division, supporting General Harker, was so severely handled that it is compelled to reorganize. Colonel Mitchell's brigade of Davis' division captured one line of rebel breastworks, which they still hold. McCook's brigade was also very severely handled, nearly every colonel being killed or wounded. Colonel McCook wounded. It is compelled to fall back and reorganize. The troops are all too much exhausted to advance, but we hold all we have gained.’

General Sherman upon receiving this urged another attempt to break the line, as follows:

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 11:45 A. M.: ‘McPherson's column marched to the top of the hill through very tangled brush, but was repulsed; it is found almost impossible to deploy, but they still hold the ground. I wish you to study well the positions, and if it be possible to break the line do it; it is easier now than it will be hereafter. I hear Leggett's guns well behind the mountain.’


A little later Sherman again urged Thomas to make a second assault, as the following dispatch shows:

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 1:30 P. M.: ‘McPherson and Schofield are at a dead-lock? Do you think you can carry any of the enemy's main line to-day? McPherson's men are up to the abattis, and can't move without the direct assault. I will order the assault if you think you can succeed at any point. Schofield has one division close up on the Powder Spring road, and the other across Olley's Creek, two miles to his right and rear.’

To both of these dispatches General Thomas sent the following reply, expressing himself decidedly against a second assault:

Thomas to Sherman, 1:40 P. M., 27th June:

Your dispatches 11:45 A. M. and 1:30 P. M. received. Davis' two brigades are now within sixty yards of the enemy's intrenchments. Davis reports that he does not think he can carry the works by assault on account of the steepness of the hill, but he can hold his position, put in one or two batteries to-night, and probably drive them out to-morrow morning. General Howard reports the same. Their works are from six to seven feet high and nine feet thick. In front of Howard they have a very strong abattis. Davis' loss in officers has been very heavy. Nearly all the field officers of McCook's brigade, with McCook have been killed or wounded. From what the officers tell me I do not think we can carry the works by assault at this point to-day, but they can be approached by saps and the enemy driven out.

Very respectfully,

George H. Thomas, Major-General.

General Sherman replied as follows, still suggesting another assault by intimating that the difficulties were not sufficient to warrant the use of time enough for regular approaches:

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 2:25 P. M.; ‘Secure what advantageous ground you have gained; but is there any thing in the enemy's present position that if we should approach by regular saps, he could not make a dozen new parapets before our saps were completed? Does the nature of the ground warrant the time necessary for regular approaches?’

To this Thomas returned the following very decided answer:

Thomas to Sherman, June 27:

Your dispatch of 2:25 received. We still hold all the ground we have gained, and the division commanders report their ability to hold. They also report the enemy's works exceedingly strong; in fact, so strong that they can not be carried by assault, except by [114] immense sacrifice, even if they can be carried at all, I think, therefore, the best chance is to approach them by regular saps, and if we can find a favorable approach to batter them down. We have already lost heavily to-day without gaining any material advantage. One or two more such assaults would use up this army.

G. H. Thomas, Major-General.

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 4:10 P. M.: ‘Schofield has gained the crossing of Olley's Creek, on the Sandtown road, the only advantage of the day. You may order all ground of value gained to-day to be secured, and prepare batteries in the manner proposed by Davis. I doubt if we can resort to regular approaches.’

Thomas to Sherman, June 27, 6 P. M.: ‘The assault of the enemy's works in my front was well arranged, and the officers and men went to their work with the greatest coolness and gallantry. The failure to carry them is due only to the strength of the works, and to the fact that they were well manned, thereby enabling the enemy to hold them securely against the assault. We have lost nearly two thousand officers and men, among them two brigade commanders, General Harker, commanding a brigade in Newton's division, and Colonel Dan. McCook, commanding a brigade in Jeff. Davis' division, both reported to be mortally wounded, besides some six or eight field officers killed. Both General Harker and Colonel McCook were wounded on the enemy's breastworks, and all say that had they not been wounded we would have driven the enemy from his works. Both Generals Howard and Palmer think that they can find favorable positions on their lines for placing batteries for enfilading the enemy's works. We took between ninety and one hundred prisoners.’

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, evening: ‘Let your troops fortify as close up to the enemy as possible. Get good positions for artillery, and group your command as conveniently as you can by corps and divisions, keeping reserves. Schofield has the Sandtown road within eleven miles of the Chattahoochee, and we could move by that flank. The question of supplies will be the only one. I regret beyond measure the loss of two such young and dashing officers; as Harker and Dan. McCook. McPherson lost two or three of his young and dashing officers, which is apt to be the case in unsuccessful assaults. Had we broken the line to-day it would have been most decisive; but, as it is, our loss is small compared with some of those East. It should not in the least discourage us. At times assaults are necessary and inevitable. At Arkansas Post we succeeded; at Vicksburg we failed. I do not think our loss to-day greater than Johnston's when he attacked Hooker and Schofield the first day we occupied our present ground.’

The excuses made to General Thomas for the assault in the last part of the above dispatch are significant.

The same evening he telegraphed Halleck, intimating as a [115] reason for the assault that the position could not well be turned without abandoning the railroad:

‘I can not well turn the position of the enemy without abandoning my railroad, and we are already so far from our supplies that it is as much as the road can do to feed and supply the army. There are no supplies of any kind here. I can press Johnston and keep him from reenforcing Lee, but to assault him in position will cost us more lives than we can spare.’

And yet at 9 o'clock the same evening he telegraphed General Thomas:

‘Are you willing to risk the move on Fulton, cutting loose from our railroad? It would bring matters to a crisis, and Schofield has secured the way.’

But his excuses to Generals Halleck and Grant a few days later cap the climax of all which the records contain in regard to Kenesaw. Witness the following:

Sherman to Halleck, July 9: ‘The assault I made was no mistake. I had to do it. The enemy, and our own army and officers, had settled down into the conviction that the assault of lines formed no part of my game, and the moment the enemy was found behind any thing like a parapet, why, every body would deploy, throw up counter-works and take it easy, leaving it to the “Old man” to turn the position. Had the assault been made with one-fourth more vigor, mathematically, I would have put the head of George Thomas' whole army right through Johnston's deployed line, on the best ground for “go-ahead,” while my whole forces were well in hand on roads converging to my then object, Marietta.’

And the following:

Sherman to Grant, July 12: ‘I regarded an assault on the 27th June necessary, for two good reasons: first, because the enemy, as well as my own army, had settled down into the belief that “flanking” alone was my game; and second, that on that day and ground, had the assault succeeded, I could have broken Johnston's center and pushed his army back in confusion and with great loss to his bridges over the Chattahoochee. We lost nothing in morale in the assault, for I followed it up on the extreme right, and compelled him to quit the very strong lines of Kenesaw, Smyrna camp ground, and the Chattahoochee in quick succession.’

But Sherman states that the enemy lost only eight hundred [116] and eight in killed and wounded during the attack. So it could not have been the assault that finally induced him to leave, but the ‘flanking.’ And this was just as practicable before the assault as after it, and was subsequently made without the cost of a battle.

The above dispatches and extracts suggest all needed comment.

In the extract from the Memoirs quoted above, there is a slur upon General Thomas, which deserves notice.

Says General Sherman:

‘Satisfied of the bloody cost of attacking intrenched lines, I at once thought of moving the whole army to a point (Fulton) about ten miles below Marietta. * * * * General Thomas, as usual, shook his head, deeming it risky to leave the railroad’ * * * *

For this insinuation there is no excuse. The following is the telegram from Sherman to Thomas, proposing this very move to the latter:

headquarters, June 27, 9 P. M.
General Thomas:
Are you willing to risk the move on Fulton, cutting loose from our rail-road? It would bring matters to a crisis, and Schofield has secured the way.

W. T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.

In the first place, as General Sherman communicated with General Thomas upon this subject by telegraph and in cipher, it is evident that Thomas could not have shaken his head through that medium; and second, while a figurative shaking might have been communicated in very plain terms, the dispatches show not only that this indication of dissent was wholly wanting, but that on the contrary, Thomas approved the plan in the following exceedingly suggestive and emphatic manner:

headquarters Department of the Cumberland, June 27.
General Sherman:
What force do you think of moving with? If with the greater part of the Army I think it decidedly better than butting against breastworks twelve feet thick and strongly abattised.

Geo. H. Thomas, Major-General U. S. V.


Immediately after the above, Thomas telegraphed the following inquiry, having in view, evidently, the possibility that his pontoons might be needed:

June 27.
General Sherman.
How far is Fulton from the crossing of Olley's Creek? Will we have to cross any other streams of much size? When do you wish to start?

Geo. H. Thomas, Major-General

And yet with these telegrams in the record, showing prompt approval of his move, and a disposition to cooperate in it immediately, General Sherman ventures the above fling at General Thomas.

These last dispatches were answered as follows, Sherman to Thomas, June 27th, 9:30 P. M.: ‘According to Merrill's map it is about ten miles. Nickajack the only stream to cross. Time for starting day after to-morrow.’

Sherman to Thomas, June 27, 9:45 P. M.: ‘If we move on Fulton, we must move with the whole army, leaving our railroad on the chance of success. Go where we may, we will find the breastworks and abattis, unless we move more rapidly than we have heretofore.’

The dispatches thus far quoted, have been at all times accessible to General Sherman, and they are quite sufficient to show that the correct history of the battle at Kenesaw is not set forth in his Memoirs.

Of the immediate effect of the flanking movement on Kenesaw, begun on the night of the 2d of July following the assault, General Sherman says:

‘As before explained, on the 3d of July, by moving McPherson's entire army from the extreme left, at the base of Kenesaw to the right, below Olley's Creek, and stretching it down the Nickajack toward Turner's Ferry of the Chattahoochee, we forced Johnston to choose between a direct assault on Thomas' intrenched position, or to permit us to make a lodgment on his railroad below Marietta, or even to cross the Chattahoochee. Of course he chose to let go Kenesaw and Marietta, and fall back on an intrenched camp prepared by his orders in advance on the north and west bank of the Chattahoochee, covering the railroad crossing and his several pontoon bridges. I confess I had not learned beforehand of the existence of this strong place, [118] in the nature of a tete-du-pont, and had counted on striking him an effectual blow in the expected confusion of his crossing the Chattahoochee, a broad and deep river then to his rear. Ordering every part of the army to pursue vigorously on the morning of the 3d of July, I rode into Marietta, just quitted by the rebel rear guard, and was terribly angry at the cautious pursuit by Garrard's cavalry, and even by the head of our infantry columns. But Johnston had in advance cleared and multiplied his roads; whereas ours had to cross at right angles from the direction of Powder Springs toward Marietta, producing delay and confusion. By night Thomas' head of column ran up against a strong rear guard intrenched at Smyrna camp ground, six miles below Marietta, and there, on the next day, we celebrated our Fourth of July, by a noisy but not a desperate battle, designed chiefly to hold the enemy there till Generals McPherson and Schofield could get well into position below him, near the Chattahoochee crossings. It was here that General Noyes, late Governor of Ohio, lost his leg. * * * * During the night Johnston drew back all his army and trains inside the tete du-pont at the Chattahoochee, which proved one of the strongest pieces of field fortification I ever saw.’

This ‘noisy but not desperate battle’ of July 4th was nothing less than an attack upon the strong works at Smyrna camp ground by the Sixteenth Corps under General Dodge, who pressed close up, and then sent a storming party of two brigades over them. It was one of the most gallant and successful fights of the Atlanta campaign, and one of the very few instances where heavy intrenchments were carried by direct assault. General Sherman ordered General McPherson to attack these lines, and he in turn, forwarded the order to General Dodge, directing the latter to move against the works if he thought he could carry them. They were stormed, General Noyes of Ohio, having prominent command in the charging column, and carried. As a consequence, the rebels' let go the strong line of Smyrna camp ground and retreated.

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