The Atlanta Campaign

From May through September 1864 northwestern Georgia witnessed a major event in the American Civil War: the Atlanta Campaign, whereby General William Tecumseh Sherman, recently appointed Union commander of the Western Theater, marched his troops towards Atlanta in order to strike at the Confederates in their heartland and destroy their capacity to wage war. In this project he was opposed first by CSA General Joseph E. Johnston, and then by Gen. John Bell Hood. Both occasionally impeded the advance but they never succeeded in stopping it, and certainly not reversing it. 

Wikipedia.

One can follow the Atlanta Campaign Heritage Trail from Chattanooga to Atlanta, but this post will be restricted to examining some engagements around the middle of the map – i.e. the ones closest to Reinhardt – which took place in late May and early June of 1864. I have noticed that there is a certain fractal quality to military history, whereby one can “zoom in” on a particular episode and examine it in terms of the units and personalities involved and on an almost hour-to-hour basis. I have nothing but respect for people who can do this, but I confess that I have never had the patience to master it. Instead, this post will be more about how these places are signified today.

Adairsville, in northeastern Bartow County, saw some action on May 17, 1864. According to Wikipedia (and every other website that copies it), the battle consisted of skirmishing between entrenched units of CSA Gen. William J. Hardee’s corps and Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s IV Corps, and included an unsuccessful assault by regiments under Union Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur against a division commanded by CSA Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham. Unfortunately for Johnston, Adairsville did not provide the terrain for the staging of a more forceful defense, and so on May 18 the Confederates continued their retreat southwards. Johnston then devised a plan: he hoped to entice Sherman into dividing his troops into two groups, one of which would take the road to Cassville, the other the road to Kingston. Johnston would then concentrate his attack on one of the weakened columns. This is more or less what happened: on May 19, Sherman ordered James B. McPherson and George Henry Thomas to Kingston, and John Schofield to Cassville. CSA Gen. Leonidas Polk was to meet Schofield’s troops head-on on the Cassville-Adairsville Road, while Hood was to attack them from the east. It might have worked, except that Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield somehow discovered Hood’s troops, blowing their cover, forcing them to retreat, and ruining their plan to attack Schofield. Shortly thereafter, Johnston took his army across the Etowah River, in the hopes of finding a better place to make a stand against Sherman. Apparently such cautiousness was not very good for morale and was one reason why Johnston was eventually relieved of his command. 

Adairsville Cemetery may be found on Poplar Springs Road, just off US-41, and just south of GA-140. I assume some of the Confederate graves therein are for the victims of the Battle of Adairsville, although there is no separate Confederate plot as one finds at Kingston or Cassville. At the corner of the cemetery, three Georgia state historical markers give information about Adairsville’s role in the Atlanta Campaign.

Wikipedia claims that the cemetery is a “site of the part of the battlefield” but the map on the page indicates that the battle took place further to the north. Perhaps this explains why no sign in the cemetery addresses the events of May 17 (although if they’re going to be talking about Mosteller’s Mills, five miles out of town, then why not talk about the actual Battle of Adairsville too?). Instead, the markers just talk about troop movements on May 18 – the Confederate retreat, and the Union chase – in as bloodless a manner as possible! I realize that these markers have a limited amount of space, but it’s a shame that this fact, plus an apparent desire to record the precise units involved, leads to such stilted prose. (The Georgia Historical Commission could have at least taken a cue from the Bartow County Cultural Arts Alliance and utilized both sides of the sign.)

UPDATE: The Georgia Historical Society’s online catalogue of historical markers reveals that there is a marker to the north of town, on US 41 in front of the Adairsville Church of God, entitled “Original Site Adairsville 1830s,” but continuing:

May 17, 1864, Johnston’s forces [CSA] retreated S. From Reseca and paused here on an E. – W. line, the intention being to make a stand against the Federals in close pursuit.

Finding the position untenable due to width of Oothcaloga Valley, Johnston withdrew at midnight. Hardee’s Corps [CSA] was astride the road at this point.

In rear-guard action, detachments from Hardee’s Corps held the stone residence of Robert C. Saxon, 0.2 mi. N. of the County Line, until midnight.

So I guess that describes the Battle of Adairsville, such as it was. I would have given it a different title though.

• A few days later, in order to avoid attacking Allatoona, and in the hopes of outflanking Johnston, Sherman sent his troops in a wide arc to the west. But Johnston anticipated this move, and sent some of his own troops to check them. 

On May 25, near Dallas, Georgia, Sherman’s troops met the Confederates well entrenched at New Hope Church (and unentrenched across the road in the New Hope Cemetery – the troops were not willing to dig among the graves, instead using the headstones for cover). The GHC historic marker tells what happened next.

An Atlanta Campaign Heritage Trail marker gives more detail. The subtitle “A Costly Failure” just about sums it up. Sherman did not believe that the Confederates had gotten so many troops to New Hope in time, and ordered his subordinates to attack. The Confederates successfully repulsed them, causing some 1650 casualties while suffering only 450 of their own. 

New Hope Church still exists, and may be found at the intersection of the Dallas-Acworth Highway and Bobo Road in Dallas, Georgia. If its website is any indication, the church is far more interested in knowing Christ and making Him known than in maintaining the legacy of its eponymous battle. Yet immediately to the south of the parking lot is a little park quite full of monuments. 

It seems that everyone wants a piece of this battle. Not only are there markers from the Georgia Historical Commission and the Atlanta Civil War Heritage Trail, but also from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the National Parks Service, and even the Works Progress Administration. 

In other words, Confederate sympathizers want to claim the victory, while others want to make sure that “both sides” are remembered – or at least prove their magnanimity as the ultimate winners of the Civil War. 

Across Bobo Rd. one finds the original New Hope church building, now in use as a church hall.

To the south of this parking lot stands another monument to the battle (a “Confederate Victory”), erected by the SCV at the sesquicentennial in 2014…

…and a well-defined and prominently-labeled Confederate trench. 

Across Dallas-Acworth Highway to the north is New Hope Cemetery, also the site of fighting on May 25 (and on May 26, as the GHC marker indicates). 

Just to make sure that everyone knows who won this one, someone has hoisted a Bonnie Blue flag over the sign. 

There is also a Confederate plot elsewhere in the cemetery, with standard-issue tombstones and a large Battle Flag (apparently flying upside-down, although nineteenth-century Confederates were not particularly fastidious about the orientation of the stars). 

By early June, Union troops abandoned their positions and retreated eastwards, with the Confederates moving parallel to them. 

• On May 27 another battle took place at Pickett’s Mill, to the east of New Hope Church. Union General Oliver O. Howard faced off against Confederate General Patrick Cleburne, with similar results: Howard’s men were repulsed suffering 1600 casualties, as opposed to Cleburne’s 500. Interestingly, there are no monuments here that I noticed, although an account of the battle by author Ambrose Bierce can tell you more about it. The whole battleground is a state park maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The hiking trails are wonderful but as a historic site it leaves something to be desired. You encounter little signs with numbers on the trails, but they are not marked or explained on the map that you get. Otherwise, there is a dearth interpretive signage. This was one of only three that I found. 

And its map is badly oriented. North is actually behind the reader! Why not align the map with reality?

Presumably the visitor center can tell you more, but it is only open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and I was there on a Tuesday. Sad!

• The Battle of Marietta comprised a series of military operations from June 9 through July 3. One of the more significant of these occurred on June 14, when Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk was killed atop Pine Mountain (which is not to be confused with Bartow County’s Pine Mountain). 

Living Hope Church, at the corner of Stilesboro Rd. and Mack Dobbs Rd. in Kennesaw, has an undeveloped back yard in which one may see the remains of the Union trenches that shelled Pine Mountain.

A mile and a quarter away, atop Pine Mountain, one sees a historic marker detailing the fateful day. It’s true, Leonidas Polk was killed by a shell – not by a shell fragment, but by a direct hit from an actual shell, which essentially cut him in two. It was an extremely lucky shot.

Just off the road, on private property, one sees a monument to Gen. Polk. It was put up in 1902 by the property owners, who consulted with veteran witnesses to ensure that it was placed on the precise spot where Polk was killed. It is one of the most interesting Confederate monuments I think I’ve ever seen. The south-facing side reads:

It continues, in the usual elevated style:

Folding his arms across his breast, he stood gazing on the scenes below, turning himself around as if to take a farewell view.

Thus standing a cannon shot from the enemy’s guns crashed through his breast and opened a wide door through which his spirit took its flight to join his comrades on the other shore.

Surely the earth never opened her arms to allow the head of a braver man to rest upon her bosom.

Surely the light never pushed the darkness back to make brighter the road that leads to the lamb.

And surely the gates of heaven never opened wider to allow a more manly spirit to enter therein.

This is rather a different view of Polk than one that his contemporaries might have held. Polk was noted for his willfulness, his violent disagreements with fellow officers, and for his general lack of success in battle, including “one of the great blunders of the Civil War,” when he marched his troops to Columbus, Kentucky in September 1861, thereby prompting the state to abandon its declared neutrality by requesting Federal aid and thus becoming a de facto member of the Union for the remainder of the war. Yet he was popular with his troops, and his death was a great blow for morale. (Military historian Steven E. Woodworth claimed that it was bad for the Union too, as Polk’s incompetence meant that he was much more valuable alive than dead!)

As the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana and the main force behind the establishment of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., Polk also has a built-in audience from other quarters. Perhaps this explains the items left at the base of the monument: magazines in plastic bags, laminated sheets in praise of Polk, and numerous examples of “Polk’s flag” (i.e. that of First Corps, Army of Tennessee). 

The north-facing side of the monument simply reads:

North

Veni, vidi, vici

With 5 to 1

This is remarkable. I’ve never seen a Confederate monument run down the opposing side like this – or offer a reason why it won (apparently the North cheated by having a numerical advantage, although it was not quite 5 to 1). 

My thanks to Don Bergwall and Melvin Dishong for showing me around this one. 

1 thought on “The Atlanta Campaign

  1. Interesting and well explained summary through Bartow and Cobb counties as Sherman made his march to Atlanta. It is difficult to grasp what it must have been like in June and July of 1864 to have to move through the woods, the very hilly terrain, cut down trees, dig the trenches and pile trees atop of the earthworks for protection all ahead of battling the enemy. All of this history is in our back yards, so to say, and we seem to be caught up in all the current distractions to reflect and understand it all.
    In Union County, Ohio a Veterans Monument has the names of all Veterans that were killed, missing, or taken as prisoners from all wars to date. More than 1/2 of those names were from the Civil War.

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