A Bitter Pill on Kennesaw Mountain

     In regard to the assault on Kennesaw Mountain, the major thrust of Sherman’s attack was to be performed by the 14th Army Corps at what became known as the Dead Angle, but the assault also took place on several other scattered parts of the line as well with fighting just as bitter if the losses were not as heavy. As remembered by Adjutant William Styles of the 111th Illinois of Giles Smith’s brigade of the 15th Army Corps, it quickly became evident to the troops that the position was simply too strong to be taken by frontal assault.

          “Their entrenchments were very strong, and they extended from the top of a high rocky hill to and over a second and smaller hill, equally rough and broken. Minie balls were now flying thick and fast, but our men marched nobly forward to the works with a yell, such a yell as none but brave men know how to give. Charging up to within a short distance of the works, many falling to rise no more, we then lay down, protecting ourselves as best we could behind logs or anything that would afford cover. After remaining there a short time under a hot and murderous fire, some part of the line gave way on the left and we were compelled to fall back,” he wrote.

The 111th Illinois Infantry mustered into service in September 1862 as part of the state’s response to President Lincoln’s call for 300,000 troops. For their first year of service, they performed guard duty at Columbus and Paducah, Kentucky before traveling south in October 1863 to participate in the occupation of Decatur, Alabama. The regiment smelled its first powder during the Battle of Resaca in May 1864 and by the time of Kennesaw Mountain considered themselves veterans.

As part of General Giles A. Smith’s First Brigade of the Second Division of the 15th Army Corps, the 111th Illinois found themselves in a crossfire of two Confederate brigades, General Francis Cockrell’s all-Missouri brigade near Pigeon Hill and Claudius Sears all-Mississippi brigade entrenched on Little Kennesaw.  The Confederates laid down an exceedingly hot fire that drove the 111th into a ravine in front of the Confederate works; the regiment lost 17 casualties as they hunkered under the Confederate fire, and it quickly became evident that the assault was fruitless. “We were ordered to fall back some 200 yards and form for the second charge which was done by officers and men with a breathless anxiety for the bugle sound to up and at them, feeling, however, that it was a bitter pill and almost an impossibility, but willing to try again,” Adjutant Styles wrote. “In the meantime, our generals consulted and decided that the works could not be taken.”

Adjutant Styles’ account of the assault on Kennesaw Mountain first appeared in the July 28, 1864, edition of the Centralia Sentinel published in Centralia, Illinois.

 

This corps badge of the Second Division of the 15th Army Corps would be worn by some members of the 111th Illinois later in the war. The emblem of the corps was the cartridge box labeled with 40 rounds reflecting back to a story from when troops from the corps met Hooker's troops in November 1863. Noticing all the stars and crescent moons on the hats of the eastern troops, a grizzled veteran asked what they were and when told that they were corps badges, he reportedly patted his cartridge box and replied that the box was his corps badge. 
 

Headquarters, 111th Regt. Illinois Infantry, Camp near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia

July 1, 1864

         

When leaving home, I have a faint recollection of promising to write to you, but up to the time of starting out on this spring’s campaign, items of interest were scarce and since then, time and opportunities for writing have been few and far between. I don’t propose, now, to give you a history of all our marches, skirmishes, and battles, but give you a short account of 24 hours and one fight.

          On the afternoon of last Sunday June 26th, we were ordered to be in readiness to march at dark. Accordingly, soon after sundown, we were all ready and waiting orders; they soon came, and we silently began to move. We marched until 11 p.m. then halted and stacked arms and were allowed to lay down and get what rest we could until daylight. At 6 a.m. on the morning of the 27th, our colonel and major were summoned to brigade headquarters.  They soon returned, convened the officers of the regiment, and informed us that our division and one brigade [Walcutt’s] of the Fourth Division were to make an assault on the line of the enemy’s works.

          We began to move at 8 a.m. over very broken ground with an occasional swamp covered with a heavy growth of timber and dry, thick, underbrush. Our skirmishers drove the enemy’s pickets before them under a heavy fire of musketry. After marching nearly a mile, we came in sight of the Rebel works and position. Their entrenchments were very strong, and they extended from the top of a high rocky hill to and over a second and smaller hill, equally rough and broken. Minie balls were now flying thick and fast, but our men marched nobly forward to the works with a yell, such a yell as none but brave men know how to give.

This painting of the action at Kennesaw Mountain gives some idea of the rugged terrain and thick forests through which Sherman's men had to cross to contact the Confederate line. 

Charging up to within a short distance of the works, many falling to rise no more, we then lay down, protecting ourselves as best we could behind logs or anything that would afford cover. After remaining there a short time under a hot and murderous fire, some part of the line gave way on the left and we were compelled to fall back. While here, Captain Jacob V. Andrews of Co. A was shot near the Rebel works in advance of his men, but we did not succeed in getting his body off of the field. [Andrews died on the field] Captain William H. Walker of Co. B was severely but not fatally wounded. Seventeen other of our brave boys were wounded and had it not been for the small ravine protecting a portion of our regiment, it must have been very nearly a total loss.

We were ordered to fall back some 200 yards and form for the second charge which was done by officers and men with a breathless anxiety for the bugle sound to up and at them, feeling, however, that it was a bitter pill and almost an impossibility, but willing to try again. In the meantime, our generals consulted and decided that the works could not be taken. Our regiment was then ordered to fortify themselves on a ridge fronting the enemy’s works which the boys went at with a hearty good will.

First Lt. Erastus W. Lapham
Co. G, 111th Illinois

We had just finished our works when the Rebels, concluding that we were not going to charge again, opened upon us with two batteries of six guns each and for more than an hour, the air seemed filled with exploding shells, and it rained grape and canister. Fortunately, our works were completed, and they protected us; but for that, we would have been swept from the face of the earth and the 111th numbered among the things that were. It was awful, yet grand.

Dark finally relieved us and under the cover of night, we were withdrawn out of range, and we were thankful we had a body wherewith to obey the order. Our officers and men acted the part of the brave and noble, having won a reputation in the army second to none.

Johnston’s army is so strongly posted on Kennesaw Mountain that it is difficult to get him started. I think General Sherman will again flank him, and I hope soon to be able to write you from Atlanta. Our army is cheerful and fully confident of success. The 111th is all o.k. and in good health.

Readers are encouraged to visit the 2,965-acre Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park located at 900 Kennesaw Mountain Dr., Kennesaw, Georgia, 30152. The ground over which Giles Smith's brigade charged is partially preserved while the positions held by Sears' and Cockrell's brigades are both located within park boundaries; the closest stop is stop 4 on Pidgeon Hill. You might want to visit the Illinois monument over on Cheatham Hill erected on the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1914. 

Source:

Letter from Adjutant William C. Styles, 111th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Centralia Sentinel (Illinois), July 28, 1864, pg. 2

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