The gently rolling hills and fields that made up the Oothcalooga Valley south of Calhoun offered a scene of pastoral beauty—and frustration to Joe Johnston. The wide valley offered some strong points, but it was too wide to take up a position where his flanks could be secure. So, having no option, he continued to retreat southward toward the town of Adairsville on May 17, 1864.
Throughout the day, Johnston’s cavalry fought a futile delaying action against the advance of Sherman’s forces, building barricades to block the roads and offering a few shots before mounting up and withdrawing. By the afternoon of the 17th, the bulk of the Confederates had reached Adairsville, with Gen. Hardee’s Corps bringing up the rear, when it was decided that a stand would be made to stall the Union advance. The assignment for a rear-guard action went to three brigades of Gen. Frank Cheatham’s Division.
“In the evening it clouded and commenced raining,” Van Buren Oldham of the 9th Tennessee noted. “Soon the canon were heard and it was known that the enemy was pressing our cavalry. We had commenced stretching our blankets when were called into line…. We were formed in an open field where the enemy’s shooters had fair play at us where their batteries were in full range.”
Cheatham deployed his men along arise just north of Adairsville. Leading the advance of the Union division of Gen. John Newton was the 24th Wisconsin of Colonel Francis Sherman’s brigade, led by its young major, Arthur MacArthur (the father of Douglas MacArthur). Seeing the line of red battle flags upon the rise in his front, MacArthur deployed his men in the cotton fields along the road.
In MacArthur’s front was the estate of Robert C. Saxon, an unusual home made of gravel, known locally as the Octagon House because of its unique eight-sided design. The house could be a strong point for anyone who occupied it, and there was a race for it that the Confederates won. Rushing into the house were the men of the 1st and 27th Tennessee Infantry; among them was Pvt. Samuel R. Watkins who later wrote of what followed in his memoir Company AYTCH:
We reached it, and had barely gotten in, when they were bursting down the paling of the yard on the opposite side. The house was a fine brick, octagon in shape, and as perfecta fort as could be desired. We ran to the windows, up-stairs, downstairs, and in the cellar. A portion of the regiment ran into a old log stable just across the road from the house and the mortality there was very great. Nearly all that went into the stable were killed or wounded. The Yankees cheered and charged, and our boys got happy. Colonel Field told us we had orders to hold it until every man was killed, and never to surrender the house. It was a forlorn hope.
As MacArthur’s men began to fall in the young cotton, he ordered a charge. “This was a regular ‘Indian fight,’” noted Captain Edwin Parsons. “We could not dislodge them.” Sgt. Eugene Comstock called it a “fearfully mixed up mess…. They fired from the windows and also had a cross fire on us, which made it very hot….”
Inside, Sam Watkins recalled:
At every discharge of our guns, we could hear a Yankee squall. The boys raised a tune…as they loaded and shot their guns. Our cartridges were almost gone, and Lieutenant Joe Carney, Charly Ewing, and Billy Carr volunteered to go and bring a box of one thousand cartridges. They got out of the back window and through that hail of iron and lead, made their way back with the box of cartridges. Our ammunition being renewed, the fight raged on. Men looked on said the roof of the house looked as if it was on fire and that columns of smoke towered from the vortex of battle as from a volcano….
At other points along the line, the fighting built to rage. A member of the 73rd Illinois Infantry wrote:
a battery planted in the road, just west of the stone house…. Our commander had a section of a battery-two rodman guns—brought up and put into action…. The enemy silenced our section, but we were reinforced by one section after another until we had all the artillery of our division (thirty-six pieces) in position, then we silenced the rebel battery. This artillery dueling and firing was the sharpest and closest we had ever known; the rebels did the best and accurate shooting we had ever seen them do.
More men were drawn into the fight on both sides, and the contest continued as the sun set. Watkins noted, “it being night, the blazes and flashes of fire from our own the Yankee guns looked like hell on earth.”
The fighting continued unabated until around 11 p.m. Around midnight, Confederates slipped away. “The firing had ceased, and we abandoned the Octagon House,” Watkins recalled.
Our dead and wounded—there were thirty of them—were a strange contrast with the furniture of the house. Fine chairs, sofas, settees, pianos, and Brussels carpeting, being made the death bed of brave and noble soldiers, all saturated with blood. Fine lace and damask curtains, all blackened by the smoke of the battle. Fine bureaus and looking glasses and furniture being riddled by the rude missiles of war. Beautiful pictures in gilt frames, and a library of valuable books, al shot and torn by musket and cannon balls. Such is war.
Cheatham’s division had done their job, and they continued their journey south as Johnston cast about for a new position and a more advantageous place to try to bring Sherman to battle. The affair at Adairsville has largely been forgotten, but serves as another example of the many small but brutal engagements in the long road toward Atlanta.