The Kennesaw Line: Hell Breaks Loose in Georgia

Sam Watkins
Sam Watkins

The focus of General Thomas’s attack was the angle in the Confederate line manned by troops of Gen. Frank Cheatham’s Tennessee Division. Thomas intended to break the line and push on toward Marietta—a move that could rip Johnston’s army in two and spell disaster for the Confederates. The division chosen for the assault was Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’s, which had come through the campaign relatively unscathed in prior battles. The three brigades of the division would attack in a column of regiments, and the brigade that would strike the bend of the angle was that of Col. Dan McCook.

A little after 8 am, the order to advance was given, and the men moved forward toward the imposing heights where the Tennesseans of Gen. George Maney’s Brigade awaited them. In the Confederate trenches watching the assault stood Sam Watkins, arguably the most famous enlisted man of the Civil War. Watkins would write in his famed memoir, Company AYTCH:


The First and Twenty Seventh Tennessee Regiments will ever remember the battle of “Dead Angle,” which was fought June 27th, on the Kennesaw Line, near Marietta, Georgia. It was one of the hottest and longest days of the year, and one of the most desperate and determined resisted battles of the whole war. Our regiment was stationed on an angle, a little spur of the mountain, or rather promontory of range of hills, extending far out beyond the main line of battle, and was subject to the enfilading fire of forty pieces of artillery from the Federal batteries. It seemed fun for the guns of the whole Yankee army to play upon this point. We would work hard every night to strengthen our breastworks, and the very next day they would be torn down smooth with the ground by solid shots and shells from the guns of the enemy. Even the little trees and bushes which had been left for shade, were cut down as so much stubble. For more than a week this constant firing had been kept up against this point. In the meantime, the skirmishing in the valley below resembled the sounds made by ten thousand wood choppers.

Well, on the fatal morning of June 27th, the sun rose clear and cloudless, the heavens seemed made of brass, and the earth of iron, and as the sun began to mount towards the zenith, everything became quiet, and no sound was heard save a peckerwood on a neighboring tree, tapping on its old trunk, trying to find a worm for his dinner. We all knew it was but the dead calm that precedes the storm. On the distant hills we could plainly see officers dashing hither and thither, and the Stars and Stripes moving to and fro, and we knew the Federals were making preparations for the mighty contest. We could hear from the rumbling sound of heavy guns, and the distant tread of marching army, as a faint roar of the coming storm, which was soon to break the ominous silence with the sound of conflict, such as was scarecely ever before heard on this earth. It seemed that the arch angel of Death stood and looked on with outstretched wings, while all the earth was silent, when all at once a hundred guns from the Federal line opened upon us, and for more than an hour they poured their solid and chain shot, grape and shrapnel right upon this salient point, defended by our regiment alone, when all of a sudden, our pickets jumped into our works and reported ‘that yonder comes forty lines of coffee and hardtack!’ and almost at the same time a solid line of blue coats came up the hill. I discharged my gun, and happening to look up, there was the beautiful flag of the Stars and Stripes flaunting right in my face, and I heard John Branch, of the Rock City Guards, commanded by Captain W.D. Kelly, who were next Company H, say, ‘Look at that damn Yankee flag; shoot the damned fellow snatch that flag out of his hand!’ My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued in the next two hours. Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line, and by referring to the history of the war you will find they were massed in column ten columns deep…. They came like the blue billows of old ocean when navies are stranded. They came like storms come when mighty forests are rended. In fact, the whole force of the Federal army was hurled against this point, but no sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered, and soon we had every ‘gopher hole’ full of Federal prisoners. Yet still the Yankees came. It seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man was true to his trust, and seemed to think that at that moment the whole responsibility of the Confederate government was rested upon his shoulders. Talk about other battles, victories, shouts, cheers, and triumphs, but in comparison with this day’s fight, all others dwarf into insignificance. The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the thermometer being one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and a solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium. Afterward I heard a soldier express himself by saying that he though ‘Hell had broke loose in Georgia, sure enough.’

I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee during the war they were not aware of it. I am satisfied that on this memorable day, every man in our regiment killed from one score to hour score, yea, five score men. I mean from twenty to one hundred each. All that was necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their living men passing over the bodies of their dead. The ground was piled up with one solid mass of dead and wounded Yankees. I learned afterwards from the burying squad that in some places they were piled up like cord wood, twelve deep.

After there were time and time again beaten back, they at last were enabled to fortify a line under the crest of the ill, only thirty yards from us, and they immediately commenced to excavate the earth with the purpose of blowing up our line. We remained here three days after the battle. In the meantime the woods had taken fire, and during the nights and days of all that time continued to burn, and at all times, every hour of day and night, you could hear the shrieks and screams of the poor fellows who were left on the field, and a stench, so sickening as to nauseate the whole of both armies, arose from the decaying bodies of the dead left lying on the field.

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