In late June 1864, the progress of Major General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign had slowed down. When the campaign began in early May, Sherman would advance, engage the Confederates of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army, and maneuver south along the Western and Atlantic railroad, forcing Johnston to withdraw and form a new defensive line. In the middle of June, Johnston had established a strong defensive line on Kennesaw Mountain and associated high ground outside of Marietta, Georgia. Frontal assaults were not Sherman’s preferred tactic, but with the army’s progress slowed by muddy roads, he decided to change things up by attempting an assault upon Johnston’s Kennesaw Mountain defenses. Sherman believed that, although the Confederate trenches and earthworks were formidable, the men occupying them were spread thin and an attack on the center coupled with diversionary attacks on the flanks would result in a breakthrough. He also believed that breaking from his usual tactics would keep him from being too predictable.
One of the units leading the attack on the center was the five regiment brigade of Colonel Daniel McCook, Jr., one of the 17 “Fighting McCooks” of Ohio, all members of the same family who fought in the Civil War. This brigade was the 3rd brigade of Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis’ 2nd Division of the 14th Corps of the Union Army of the Cumberland. McCook’s command included the 85th, 86th, and 125th Illinois infantry regiments, plus the 22nd Indiana and 52nd Ohio. McCook’s brigade would have to charge up the steep slope of what became known as Cheatham’s Hill, named after Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, the commander of the Confederate division of Tennesseans defending the position.
The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain opened with Union artillery shelling the Confederate defenses, followed by a general assault. Sergeant Nixon B. Stewart of the 52nd Ohio who would go on to write a history of his regiment after the war, described the assault on Cheatham’s Hill:
At 8 o’clock, we moved rapidly to position in rear of our main works. A general attack all along the lines had been ordered, as a diversion in favor of the main assault. The second brigade of our division, Col. John G. Mitchell commanding, was on our right. Our brigade was formed in column of regiments in the following order, 85th Illinois, Col. C. J. Dilworth, deployed as skirmishers; 125th Illinois, Col. O. F. Harmon; 86th Illinois, Lieut. Col. A. L. Fahnestock; 22nd Indiana, Capt. W. H. Snodgrass; 52nd Ohio, Lieut. Col. C. W. Clancy…
Five regiments, not quite 1,800 men…The rebel line was almost in the shape of a fishhook, on what is now known as Cheatham’s Hill or the Dead Angle. The charge was made on Cheatham’s division, composed of Vaughn’s, Maney’s, and Strahl’s brigades. We were to strike the circular bend of the works or the lower end of the fish hook…
Just as the batteries ceased firing, we dressed our lines into column, and Col. Dan McCook, standing in front of the brigade, repeated from McCauley’s poem in Horatius…
Departing briefly from Stewart’s narrative, the poem verse McCook recited to inspire his troops was from “Horatius at the Bridge” by 19th Century British historian, writer, and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay. Stewart had a few errors in his quotation of the verse, so here is the correct version (and the one McCook more likely recited:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”
It was fifty paces from McCook’s to Morgan’s line. We moved promptly on signal, going at quick time, then doublequick, on coming to the creek, which was marshy and sluggish, our lines were somewhat broken.
Firing began immediately. From the crest both musketry and artillery, but we pushed on capturing the line of rifle pits, taking the men prisoners. The batteries opened right and left, as we pushed on up the hill. It is dreadful to think about. Grape and canister, shot and shell sowed the ground with rugged iron and garnished it with the dead. The first to fall was Sergeant John T. Fowler, of Co. B. As he fell, his tongue protruded from his mouth, casued by a contraction of the muscles in his throat. I longed to take him in my arms and minister to his sufferings, but we were to push for battle. The race of flags grew every moment more terrible. Four color-bearers were either killed or wounded. Linley H. Street, a brave boy, beloved by his comrades, fell, pierced to death. Sergeant Wm. J. Bradford snatches the flag and is wounded in the strong right arm as he leads the charging column. Poor boy, he goes back to Nashville to die with the dread gangrene. David U. McCullough of Co. E, seizes the old banner and is wounded in the shoulder. Thus three of our color-bearers are shot down. The line wavers like a great billow and up comes the banner again. Now it is in the hands of James Lynne of Co. C. He loses an arm and on we go…our brave men are climbing steadily on–upward still. Things are growing desperate. The enemy began to throw stones upon our heads. They light the fuse and throw hand grenades in our faces. One of these struck James Sheets, of Co. E, tearing away all the flesh from his cheek.
They shout down upon us “Chickamauga”. Our brave Dan McCook was in the lead, when our front line had reached the fortifications, only to find a barrier which was calculated to make a weak man falter and a brave man think. The works were fringed with pikes, sharpened pins driven into logs, standing like a hay rack, pointing toward your face. Four lines of these stood one behind the other, so arranged that they overlapped each other. In a moment the front line grasped the barrier of pikes, and carried them endways, thus opening the way to the line of earth works.
Our brave Colonel urging his men on, was struck as he said, “Come on boys, the day is won,” as he reached the earth work. He was shot about four inches below the collar bone, in the right breast, falling outside of the fortifications. After the fall of Col. McCook, the voice of Captain Charles Fellows of McCook’s staff was heard, but his half finished, “come on boys–we’ll take”–was cut sort, and brave Charley fell only a few feet from the ditch…
Col. Harmon, of the 125th, took command. He gave the command “Forward” and fell into the arms of his men, pierced through the heart. Deadly volleys mowed us down. The ground was strewn with the dead and dying. The living crouched behind the dead comrades. Col. Dilworrh of the 85th Ill., was now the ranking officer, and no sooner in command than he was wounded, and the command was assumed by Lieut. Col. J.W. Langhley, of 125th Ill.
The order had been given to fall back twenty paces and thus straighten our lines which had swung to the right and rear, owing to the galling fire from the lower depression of the enemy’s line in that direction. When the order was given to re-form our lines we had lain down right under the enemy’s works, and everyone of us would have been killed or captured, had it not been that the line formed twenty-five yards below us with the advantage of the depression of the slope. They, by firing over our heads, soon had control of the line in our immediate front. Probably one half of our regiment that were unharmed, lay within twelve feet of the earth works and not in a position to load and fire. One by one our men crawled back to the new line below while many of us, with the dead and seriously wounded, lay near the works. Three of my comrades were struck just as our men lay down. Joseph Hanlon lay dead on my right. Isaac Winters, who was shot in the temple, but living, lay within reach on the left. Franck Grace of Co. D, lay dead just below me, and Joseph E. Watkins of the 22nd Indiana Regiment, rose to start for the line below, when he fell dead across my feet, as I lay near a chestnut stump, within ten feet of the earth works…
While lying here with a dead soldier across my feet, who could describe the sensations of the forty minutes that passed. To run the gauntlet might be death, to lie there, a movement of the body would draw the fire of the enemy on the “Dead Angle” to our right…
We took our chance for the line below and landed safely. A portion of the new line kept up the firing. The remainder lying on their faces, working with bayonet and tin cup. managed to throw up a light breastwork, sufficient to protect their prostrate bodies. This work was accomplished while under a severe fire from our right in the angle of the enemy’s works. The distance in the charge was made in about forty minutes, but it was two o’clock when we had sufficient protection to feel safe.
Our loss in the 52nd was 34 killed and 102 wounded and three prisoners, total 139. The loss in the brigade was 419. The other four regiments, in the aggregate. losing 280 men; the 52nd, 139, almost one-third of the total loss. Of those who fell, 34 were killed, 11 died of wounds received in the charge.
Night came, we were glad of it. Our canteens were empty, so were our cartridge boxes. The enemy fired a volley of musketry, which no doubt was to prevent our working on the fortifications. An hour after dark they rolled cotton balls in turpentine and threw them over, setting the dry twigs and leaves on fire, burning and charring our dead. The cries of some, who were wounded and not dead, was horrifying to us.
In Stewart’s account, he mentions that Colonel Caleb Dilworth of the 85th Illinois took command of the brigade at one point, but was wounded almost immediately and relinquished command. Actually, Dilworth remained in command of the brigade for the rest of the battle and beyond, earning praise from his division commander, General Davis.
Another member of the 52nd Ohio, Lieutenant Frank B. James, estimated the Union entrenchments to be just 40 yards away from the Confederate works. “And here we remained for six long days and nights” recalled James “for although the offer was made, the men declined to be relieved, preferring to guard what had cost so much to gain”. Some of the men in the brigade were armed with 16 shot Henry repeating rifles, purchased by the soldiers themselves. The regimental historian of the 85th Illinois wrote that “it cannot be doubted that the rapid, accurate fire from these guns was an important factor in enabling the men to hold and fortify a line so close to the enemy’s main line of works”.
Early in the morning of July 3rd, Union troops on Cheatham’s Hill discovered that the Confederates had abandoned their defenses. Sherman had resumed flanking maneuvers, and after successfully going around the Rebel left, Johnston withdrew from Kennesaw Mountain.
The seriously wounded Colonel Dan McCook was taken to his home in Steubenville, Ohio. On his deathbed, he received word on July 16th that he had been promoted to Brigadier General. McCook died on July 17th, 1864.
Dan McCook’s Regiment, 52nd O.V.I. A History of its Campaigns and Battles From 1862 to 1865 by Nixon B. Stewart.
Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864
by Albert Castel
History of the Eighty-Fifth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry by Henry J. Aten
McCook’s Brigade at the Assault Upon Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, June 27, 1864 by F.F. James. In Sketches of War History 1861-1865: Papers prepared for the Ohio Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume IV.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVIII, Part 1.