American Civil War: Battle of Kennesaw Mountain

Joseph E. Johnston during the Civil War
General Joseph E. Johnston. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was fought June 27, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:



Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - Background:

In the late spring of 1864, Union forces under Major General William T. Sherman concentrated at Chattanooga, TN in preparation for a campaign against General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee and Atlanta. Ordered by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to eliminate Johnston's command, Sherman had under his direction Major General George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland, Major General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, and Major General John Schofield's small Army of the Ohio. This combined force numbered around 110,000 men.  To defend against Sherman, Johnston was able to gather around 55,000 men at Dalton, GA which were separated into two corps led by Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and John B. Hood. This force included 8,500 cavalry led by Major General Joseph Wheeler.  The army would be reinforced early in the campaign by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk's corps.  Johnston had been appointed to lead the army after its defeat at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863.  Though he was a veteran commander, President Jefferson Davis had been reluctant to select him as he had shown a tendency to defend and retreat in the past rather than take a more aggressive approach.

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - Roads South:

Commencing his campaign in early May, Sherman employed a strategy of maneuver to force Johnston from a series of defensive positions.  An opportunity was lost in the middle of the month when McPherson missed a chance to trap Johnston's army near Resaca.  Racing to the area, both sides fought the inconclusive Battle of Resaca on May 14-15.  In the wake of the battle, Sherman moved around Johnston's flank forcing the Confederate commander to withdraw south.  Johnston's positions at Adairsville and Allatoona Pass were dealt with in a similar fashion.  Slipping west, Sherman fought engagements at New Hope Church (May 25), Pickett's Mill (May 27), and Dallas (May 28).  Slowed by heavy rains, he approached Johnston's new defensive line along Lost, Pine, and Brush Mountains on June 14.  That day, Polk was killed by Union artillery and command of his corps passed to Major General William W. Loring.

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - The Kennesaw Line:

Retreating from this position, Johnston established a new defensive line in an arc to the north and west of Marietta.  The northern part of the line was anchored on Kennesaw Mountain and Little Kennesaw Mountain and then extended south to Olley's Creek.  A strong position, it dominated the Western & Atlantic Railroad which served as Sherman's primary supply line north.  To defend this position, Johnston placed Loring's men in the north, Hardee's corps in the center, and Hood to the south.  Reaching the vicinity of Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman recognized the strength of Johnston's fortifications but found his options limited due to the impassable nature of the roads in the area and the need to control the railroad as he advanced. 

Concentrating his men, Sherman deployed McPherson in the north with Thomas and Schofield extending the line south.  On June 24, he outlined a plan for penetrating the Confederate position.  This called for McPherson to demonstrate against most of Loring's lines while also mounting an attack against the southwest corner of Little Kennesaw Mountain.  The main Union thrust would come from Thomas in the center while Schofield received orders to demonstrate against the Confederate left and possibly attack up Powder Springs Road if the situation warranted.  The operation was scheduled for 8:00 AM on June 27 (Map).

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - A Bloody Failure:

At the appointed time, around 200 Union guns opened fire on the Confederate lines.  Approximately thirty minutes later, Sherman's operation moved forward.  While McPherson executed the planned demonstrations, he ordered Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith's division to commence the assault on Little Kennesaw Mountain.  Advancing against an area known as Pigeon Hill, Smith's men encountered rough terrain and dense thickets.  One of Smith's brigades, led by Brigadier General Joseph A.J. Lightburn, was forced to wade through a swamp.  While Lightburn's men were able capture a line of enemy rifle pits, enfilading fire from Pigeon Hill halted their advance.  Smith's other brigades had similar luck and were unable to close with the enemy.  Halting and exchanging fire, they were later withdrawn by Smith's superior, XV Corps commander Major General John Logan.

To the south, Thomas pushed forward the divisions of Brigadier Generals John Newton and Jefferson C. Davis against Hardee's troops.  Attacking in columns, they encountered the entrenched divisions of Major Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Patrick R. Cleburne.  Advancing on the left over difficult terrain, Newton's men made multiple charges against the enemy on "Cheatham Hill" but were repulsed.  To the south, Newton's men succeeded in reaching the Confederate works and were repelled after extended hand-to-hand fighting.  Retreating a short distance, the Union soldiers entrenched in an area later dubbed the "Dead Angle." To the south, Schofield conducted the planned demonstration but then found a path that allowed him to advance two brigades across Olley's Creek.  Followed by Major General George Stoneman's cavalry division, this maneuver opened a road around the Confederate left flank and placed Union troops closer to the Chattahoochee River than the enemy.

Battle of Kennesaw Mountain - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman suffered around 3,000 casualties while Johnston's losses were approximately 1,000.  Though a tactical defeat, Schofield's success allowed Sherman to continue his advance.  On July 2, after several clear days had dried the roads, Sherman sent McPherson around Johnston's left flank and forced the Confederate leader to abandon the Kennesaw Mountain line.  The next two weeks saw Union troops force Johnston through maneuver to continue retreating back towards Atlanta.  Frustrated with Johnston's lack of aggression, President Davis replaced him with the more aggressive Hood on July 17.  Though initiating a series of battles at Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Ezra Church, and Jonesboro, Hood failed to prevent Atlanta's fall which finally came on September 2.  

Selected Sources:

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Kennesaw Mountain." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Kennesaw Mountain." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).