The creation of Lake Allatoona in 1950 necessitated a shift in the Western & Atlantic Railroad slightly to the west in places. The abandoned pilings on the Etowah River are one indication of this; the abandoned Allatoona Pass, further to the south, is another.
You can see the location of the current track, rendered as a faint horizontal line just below Old Allatoona Road SE. The darker dotted line to the north mostly follows the track as it was in the nineteenth century.
I’m not sure why the railroad ever took this route in the first place, because it necessitated the creation of a deep cutting. But these days it provides a nice setting for a walk. Andrews’ Raiders would have driven the stolen General through here.
But the place is far more significant historically for the Battle of Allatoona, fought on October 5, 1864. This took place after Sherman occupied Kingston (in May), after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June-July), and after the Battle of Atlanta (which fell September 2) – all engagements in the Atlanta Campaign. (Sherman, who had worked as a young army lieutenant in the region, knew about Allatoona Pass and that it would be “very strong, and hard to force, and resolved not even to attempt it.” So he simply went around it on his way to Atlanta. The Confederates retreated, and the Union troops took Allatoona unopposed on June 1.)
The real fighting took place as part of the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, an attempt by the Confederacy to disrupt Union supply lines. Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood abandoned Atlanta to Sherman and retreated to Lovejoy’s Station south of the city. Near the end of September, he moved his troops to Palmetto, Ga. where he met with CSA President Jefferson Davis to devise strategy. They decided that they would retrace the steps of the the Atlanta Campaign, but in reverse – Hood would move his troops north along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, wrecking property now held by the Union and hoping to entice Sherman to follow him, and to force an open battle on ground favorable to the Confederates. As the historical marker makes clear, on Oct. 3, Lt. Gen. Alexander Stewart seized Big Shanty (i.e. Kennesaw) and Acworth, and on Oct. 4 Samuel French moved towards the Union garrison at Allatoona. Unlike Sherman, French was not prepared to outflank it.
Union troops occupied positions on the tops of the hills on either side of the cutting. These are “Rowett’s Redoubt” and “Eastern Redoubt” on the map. To the east of Rowett’s Redoubt is the so-called “Star Fort” that Union troops retreated to. To the west of the Eastern Reboubt is “Headquarters – Fourth Minnesota,” a wood-frame “dog-trot” cabin where Lt. Col. John Eaton Tourtellotte stationed himself. The two sides of the railway cutting were connected by a footbridge.
Contrary to Confederate hopes, Sherman did not give chase to Hood, but did order Gen. John M. Corse to move his troops from Rome, Ga. and to assume command of the defense of Allatoona. Corse and his men arrived by rail just hours before the Confederate bombardment began in the early morning of Oct. 5. After two hours of this, French declared a truce and sent a message to Corse:
I have the forces under my command and in such positions that you are surrounded and, in order to avoid a needless effusion of blood, I call upon you to surrender your forces at once, and unconditionally. Five minutes will be allotted you to decide. Should you accede to this , you will be treated in the most honorable manner as prisoners of war.
According to Sherman’s memoirs, Corse replied:
Your communication demanding surrender of my command I acknowledge receipt of, and respectfully reply that we are prepared for the “needless effusion of blood” whenever it is agreeable to you.
Such a response is rhetorically edifying, no doubt, which might cause one to suspect whether it actually happened. Certainly, the interpretive sign claims that Corse gave no response, and after fifteen minutes French called off the truce and began a ground assault.
This map gives a general sense of what happened next. French ordered Francis Cockrell and William Young, commanding troops from Missouri and Texas, to attack from the west, and Claudius Sears, commanding troops from Mississippi, to attack from the north. Troops under Richard Rowett defended the hill on the western side of the cutting, while Tourtellotte’s troops defended the hill on the eastern side.
On the western side the fighting was intense. Union troops made effective use of their Henry Repeating rifles and Napoleon gun, but the Confederates would not quit, and despite taking enormous casualties, they eventually reached Rowett’s Redoubt. Soon “fierce hand-to-hand fighting with clubbed muskets, fists, swords, and even rocks” forced the Union troops to retreat to the Star Fort dragging their Napoleon with them. The fighting continued, even injuring Gen. Corse, who lost a cheek bone and one ear. Despite receiving some supplies and men over the footbridge, by the early afternoon Union troops in the Star Fort were pinned down, out of water, and almost out of ammunition.
(Events unfolded a bit better for the Union on the eastern side of the cutting. From their trenches, Union troops managed to repulse two Confederate regiments and deliver enfilading fire against a third. Some Confederate troops took refuge in a gulley where they could neither attack nor be attacked; they surrendered and were taken prisoner after the battle.)
What brought the battle to a close was not a decisive military maneuver on either side, but the receipt of a piece of intelligence by French, which stated that Union troops were on the march from Big Shanty. Fearing that he would either be overwhelmed by this force or cut off from the rest of the Confederate army encamped at Dallas, Ga., and in need of more troops and supplies for a final assault on the Star Fort, French reluctantly ordered a withdrawal around 2:00 PM. Thus is the Battle of Allatoona considered a Union victory – they held the position, and prevented over one million rations stored there from being taken or destroyed by the Confederates.
But this victory came at an immense cost. Of Corse’s 2000 men, some 700 (an astonishing 35%) were casualties of the battle. Numbers on the Confederate side were not much better: of 3300 men, 900 were casualties, for a rate of 27%. The Battle of Allatoona was “one of the most deadly and stubbornly contested of the war.” Private Harvey M. Trimble of the 93rd Illinois wrote that:
The scene in that ravine after the battle was ended, was beyond all powers of description. All the languages of the earth combined are inadequate to tell half its horrors. Mangled and torn in every conceivable manner, the dead and wounded were everywhere, in heaps and windrows. Enemies though they were, their conquerors, only a few minutes removed from the heat and passion of battle, sickened and turned away, or remaining, looked only with great compassion, and through tears, upon that field of blood and carnage and death, upon that wreck of high hopes and splendid courage, that hecatomb of human life.
French did get his surviving troops back to Dallas, but the rest of the Franklin-Nashville campaign went about as well as the Battle of Allatoona did for the Confederates. Hood ended up resigning his commission in early 1865, having been chased to Tupelo, Mississippi after a major defeat at the Battle of Nashville (Dec. 15-16, 1864). Sherman, for his part, did not really bother with Hood – he began his March to the Sea on November 15 and took Savannah on December 20. By this point in the war, there was little doubt which side would eventually win it.
One final detail about this battle deserves mentioning. Communication was possible between Sherman and Allatoona on account of the Crow’s Nest, a signal tower atop a Georgia pine, which could send and receive messages from Kennesaw Mountain (with, presumably, further relays to stations southwards).
Popular legend has it that either prior to or during the battle General Sherman signaled “Hold the fort, I am coming,” which stiffened Corse’s resolve and dissuaded him from surrendering. Again, this information did not make it onto the interpretive sign, perhaps because no contemporary record or such communication can be found (note the “citation needed” comments at Wikiquote). Apparently, though, this quotation inspired Chicago evangelist Philip Bliss to compose a hymn. I had never heard “Hold the Fort” before, perhaps because such explicitly militaristic hymns are no longer in fashion:
Ho, my comrades, see the signal, waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.
“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”
See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;
Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone!
See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over every foe.
Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!
Allatoona is much more tranquil today, of course. It is reforested, and the trenches are faint – and unfortunately iPhone photos do them even less justice. But it is good to be able to see what remains, and remember why they were constructed in the first place.
The information above has been gleaned from Wikipedia and from the numerous interpretive signs throughout the battlefield. We commend Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites for its historically accurate flag graphic on these signs.
The U.S. flag has 35 stars, for the number of states claimed at the time, the most recent being West Virginia (1863; flag updated July 4 of that year). The CSA flag is its second national flag, which debuted in 1863. They’ve even got the proportions right!
Alas, the canton of the “Stainless Banner” features the ever-controversial battle flag, prompting its effacement on some of the signs. But objecting to its presence in such a neutral and didactic context is just dumb.
Fortunately, vandalism has not yet been visited upon the Memorial Ground, which features monuments for all the states of the soldiers at the Battle of Allatoona – five Union and six Confederate. Interestingly, Georgia is not represented among them.
I reproduce photos of some of the monuments below. If I had better software I would edit out my reflection as it appears. (As an aside: isn’t it interesting how Americans love the shapes of their states?)
Another monument, the Grave of the Unknown Hero, may be found at a location marked by the blue star on the map.
An interpretive sign at the red star on the map gives further information:
Local families once recalled that a few days after the battle, a wooden box addressed “Allatoona, Georgia” arrived at the station with no information as to its origin. Six local women found a deceased Confederate soldier in the box and buried him alongside the railroad in a location lost to history. Local historians believe that the burial on this spot is not the soldier the ladies buried, but Private Andrew Jackson Houston of Mississippi, who died here in the battle and was buried where he fell.
Forgotten to time for several yers, in 1880 this site was marked with an iron fence and a marble headstone inscribed “AN UNKNOWN HERO, He died for the Cause He thought was right.” Railroad employees maintained the grave for many years and later moved the grave to its present site when the rail line was relocated.
It is interesting that nothing Confederate currently decorates the grave of the Unknown Hero – despite that he was originally designated as Confederate by the people who buried him. By the early twentieth century the idea was that he could have been on either side, as expressed in this poem by Georgia Governor Joseph M. Brown – a seeming attempt at “reconciliation.”
But I guess he was ultimately “Unionized.” I assume there’s a lesson of some sort here.
Most of the other victims of the battle were buried where they died in unmarked graves, although some Union soldiers were eventually reinterred in the Marietta National Cemetery.
The railroad, as my students are fond of saying about various historical things, is “still in use today.”