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Cheatham Hill

This page describes the Union's assault on Cheatham Hill and the fighting around the "Dead Angle".

 

 


Cheatham Hill Visual Resources

The area picked for the main attack did not appear promising. The Union line here faced east, overlooking a small valley containing a creek. Beyond, the ground sloped upwards to a wooded ridge and hilltop where the Confederates were dug in. Their formidable position consisted of solid earthworks of banked-up dirt, entanglements placed out front, and on either flank of where earthworks bulged out to follow the hill's contours, a fort containing smoothbore cannons to sweep the approaches. Defending this sector south of Dallas Road were the two seasoned divisions of Maj. Gens. Patrick R. Cleburne and Benjamin F. Cheatham, about the toughest Rebels in the whole Confederacy. The only consolation was that everywhere else Union Generals Thomas and Howard had examined in their reconnaissance looked even worse.

The reason for selecting this area to penetrate was that here the opposing lines were closest together. Taking into consideration the factors of distance and time, an attacking force's best chance to punch through would be to rush a compact mass of troops up on the defenders' parapet quickly. Speed was vital. If the Union attackers paused in the open to exchange fire with thoroughly protected Confederates, they would be destroyed in no time.

To force open Johnston's line so reserves could reach the railroad, General Thomas made arrangements to employ two infantry divisions totaling about 8,000 soldiers. Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis' 2d Division, XIV Army Corps, would strike the salient on the hill. Brig. Gen. John Newton's 2d Division, IV Army Corps, would hit just to his left. Thomas had abundant troops prepared to exploit a penetration. The general idea was for two parallel assault columns to rush for the enemy's works the moment the artillery ceased, with no stopping until they overran the Rebels' position, when reserves would start forward.

By sunrise Generals Davis and Newton had marched their units a couple of miles to open fields serving for assembly areas, not far in rear of the Union front and about a third of a mile from the enemy. Newton formed his brigades side by side into close-packed columns of massed regiments resembling, as one officer noted, "a human battering ram. " Davis arranged his units into successive lines of regiments, ten-pace interval between lines. Some men did not know they were about to fight until instructions came to check cartridge boxes and fix bayonets. Their leaders had no opportunity to conduct personal reconnaissance. Preparations were running behind schedule. The 15-minute preparatory bombardment came and went. So it was agreed to start by firing two cannons from the line.

The Union bombardment may have done Cheatham's Tennessee Confederates more benefit than harm, for it gave warning an attack was imminent. They took up their weapons and manned the parapet.

From the blunt-nosed tip of the angle the open valley below resembled a giant amphitheater. Out of the far curtain of trees at nine o'clock suddenly burst a dense cloud of Yankee skirmishers, followed close behind by wave upon wave of blue regimental battle lines, all running, yelling, some stumbling as the Tennessee riflemen began shooting them. In front of Cleburne's division down on the right at the same time, cannon crews waited silently amid a rising racket of musketry as Yankee columns came shouldering through a tangle of thickets. At 40-yards range the cannons roared into action.

In Newton's division, it had been decided to use regimental columns to rapidly approach the Confederate position through difficult terrain. But once in the enemy's presence, the regiments had to abruptly redeploy into lines for the final charge. In the dense undergrowth and the hell- ish pandemonium of combat, tactics broke down. Confederate firepower smashing the heads of the columns made orderly redeployment impossible. As they ran, men at the rear pushed and crowded those up front, and from then onward it was every man for himself.

General Newton had committed two brigades to his attack, withholding his third to the left rear. Harker's and Wagner's brigades managed to push through a line of abatis to the foot of the Rebels' works but were unable to fight their way inside. After a fierce struggle they drifted back to the refuge of a ravine, where they regrouped, and surged forward a second time.

The right brigade was led by Brig. Gen. Charles G. Harker, a 27-year-old West Pointer, strict disciplinarian, and courageous nearly to a fault. As Rebel bullets decimated his command, General Harker galloped ahead to encourage the 42d Illinois, within fifteen yards of Cleburne's fiery works, waving his hat and calling, "Come on, boys!" Then he toppled, shot through his arm and chest.

When Harker's beaten soldiers fell back a second time, alert Confederate officers led their troops forward, spun them toward the right, and poured a highly destructive flanking fire into Brig. Gen. George D. Wagner's brigade.

Reports filtering back to General Newton indicated a desperate conflict in progress: enemy works strong, fire heavy, Harker down mortally wounded, the two brigades crippled and disorganized and closely engaged in a standoff. To tip the balance, he committed his third unit. But the Rebels saw Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball's brigade deploying at the edge of a wood line and raked its first two regiments when they charged, repulsing them. Newton then concluded his mission was hopeless and suspended further attacks.

As Newton's battered division disengaged and headed for the rear, it left behind many wounded. The floor of the woods had caught fire, threatening them with being burned alive. An Arkansas colonel shouted for his regiment to cease fire, and for a few moments Northerners and Southerners alike went out to drag the helpless men to safety.

South of Newton's battle, meantime, the hot-tempered Union general with the coincidental same name as the Confederacy's president, Jefferson C. Davis, also advanced two brigades, holding one back. His plan to crush the angle stressed hitting the toe with four successive regiments of McCook's brigade, maintaining momentum by replacing the first line with the second when it faltered, and so on. Mitchell's brigade, to McCook's right, would pivot and turn to its left, uncovering from an echelon formation as it wheeled, to simultaneously attack the angle's south flank. One colonel coached his men, when they scaled the parapet, to kick the Rebels' head logs down on them and go at them with the bayonet; a loud cheer would signal the reinforcing brigade to move forward.

The two Union brigades had started out neatly enough, entering the open space under heavy fire. As the Yankees ran up the hill's slope Rebel rifles noticeably fired faster and faster. McCook's skirmishers sprang on the outlying entanglements and worked in a frenzied haste to tear open lanes for the leading regiment, the 125th Illinois, to rush through and mount the Rebels' breastworks just a few paces beyond. A savage brawl erupted between them and the 1st & 27th Consolidated Tennessee Regiment.

The pivot element for Col. John G. Mitchell's brigade, the 113th Ohio, meantime topped the hill's crest and opened a close-range fire, while behind them the second regiment, the 121st Ohio, began executing its wheeling maneuver. Crouching in the trenches just ahead, grayclads of the 19th Tennessee paused momentarily waiting with leveled, cocked rifles for the Federals to nearly get on line. Then at a shouted command, a crashing blast leveled six Ohio officers and scores of other ranks. Some men panicked, and when they turned to flee, they broke into the 98th Ohio's ranks, spreading confusion. Two Confederate batteries added flying cannon shots and airburst munitions as Mitchell's tramping regiments wheeled.

Once again, tactics broke down, and in a common impulse Mitchell's Federals surged for their enemies. Those who made it through the maelstrom and entered the trenches the Tennesseans shot, clubbed down, bayoneted, or took prisoner. Most of Mitchell's men fell back twenty paces or so to where the conformation of the ground offered a little protection, lay down, and kept up a spirited return fire, alert to the possibility of counterattack.

Atop the hill, where the trench took a bend, McCook's brigade and the 1st & 27th Tennessee fought face to face, in-fighting of the most brutal sort. Though the Federals had an advantage in numbers they were jumbled and winded from their long run up the hill in the heat. Said one Tennessean, "It was verily a life and death grapple, and the least flicker on our part would have been sure death to all. " Both sides discharged their weapons into one another's faces, stabbed with their bayonets, swung their rifle butts like bats, and threw stones or chunks of wood. Dead bodies collapsed on top of the wounded. Rifles became foul with burnt powder from being fired so continuously that reloading became difficult.

No sooner did the Tennesseans manage to beat down one Union regiment than another replaced it without a letup. The 125th Illinois joined by the 85th Illinois were first beaten, then the 86th Illinois and the 22d Indiana had their turn, followed by the 52d Ohio, until all merged together into a struggling formless mass. For the Confederates, the 6th & 9th Consolidated Tennessee Regiment rushed into the melee, reinforcing the embattled defenders.

Leaping to the top of the parapet came Col. Daniel McCook, Jr., the handsome young Union brigade commander and another of the Fighting McCooks family, popularly called by his troops, "Colonel Dan." Slashing with his dress sword at Rebels trying to bayonet him, for an instant he must have sensed victory. He bellowed above the din, "Forward the flag."

An Illinois private below him shook his coattail. "Colonel Dan, for God's sake get down, they will shoot you." God damn you," roared the Colonel, "attend to your own business."

The bullet a Rebel deliberately fired into his chest a few seconds later staggered and whirled McCook backwards off the works. Gasping, "Stick it to them, boys," he was carried to the rear with a sucking chest wound.

With McCook down, Col. Oscar F. Harmon probably never even knew he succeeded to command, for within five minutes a bullet through the heart killed him. Col. Caleb J. Dilworth, now the senior officer, and Col. Allan J. Fahnestock hastily consulted. Obviously the Confederate line would not break, casualties were mounting at a horrific rate, and to retreat under fire would increase the bloodshed. Fahnestock urged they dig in where they were. Dilworth saw no alternative, and the two separated to disseminate orders.

The Federals pulled back slightly in the smoky woods to a fold on the hillside about thirty paces from the angle. While one half of the men took cover and kept up a heavy volume of suppressing fire, the rest frantically began digging with bayonets, tin cups and plates, spoons, sticks, sword points, anything that would move dirt. The Confederates, exhausted and low on ammunition, slackened their fire. The fighting had lasted less than a half hour and cost the Federals nearly 1,800 casualties.

Tools were later brought up to the front under the cover of darkness and two lines of earthworks were completed. For nearly a week the two sides huddled tensely in the ground hardly a stone's throw from each other, always alert, only exposing themselves momentarily to take a quick pot shot. The ground between them looked like it was coated with a layer of bodies. Here and there they lay in heaps. After two days the stench grew so nauseating a truce had to be called to bury them.

The Illinois and Tennessee soldiers never forgot their terrible experience that June 27 morning. They grimly named the place where they had struggled the "Dead Angle." For them, in their experience, Kennesaw Mountain was the toughest single battle of the Civil War.

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This site was created by Patrick Jenkins as part of CSIS 4490 at KennesawState University.