The experience of combat was something many veterans wished to forget. For the Union soldiers that experienced the fighting in the Hell Hole, this would be particularly true—especially the unfortunate ones who were involved in the battle of Pickett’s Mill. It has been said that General Sherman wanted to forget it so much that he left it out of his memoirs, but that might be more because of the disaster it was than the horrific fighting that occurred there.
After the bloody repulse of the XX Corps at New Hope Church, both sides began to maneuver for position, extending their lines to the east and digging in. Throughout May 26, fighting consisted of skirmishing and the constant threat of enemy sharpshooter fire—something that was becoming a deadly everyday occurrence. Major Lewis Warner of the 154th New York to describe the situation as being like “Two belligerent cats . . . face to face, their advance lines within easy musket range, and each growling and spitting night and day at each other, so the men dug in and endured the oppressive heat, humidity, gnats, and mosquitoes as they tried to stay alive.”
Unhappy at being blocked again by Johnston, Sherman decided on attacking the Confederate right flank on May 27. To make this attack, Sherman selected Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s IV Corps and Schofield’s XXIII Corps. However, a reconnaissance by Generals Thomas and Howard discovered that the Confederates had extended their flank eastward as well. They sent word back to Sherman about the new situation. Sherman revised his orders, sending word to Howard to take Thomas Wood’s 3rd division of his corps and Richard Johnson’s 1st Division of the XIV Corps and move further to the east and attack the Confederate flank and rear.
Howard formed Wood’s division in a column of brigades. Gen. William B. Hazen’s 2nd brigade formed in front, followed by Col. William Gibson’s 1st (formerly August Willich’s), and finally Col. Frederick Knefler’s 3rd. Johnson’s division formed behind and to the left of Wood’s.
The move took the Federals through rough and heavily wooded terrain and was fiercely opposed by two divisions of Gen. Joe Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry. As they advanced, they were joined by the XXIII Corps brigade of Gen. Nathaniel McLean.
By 3:30, they had reached the end of the Confederate flank and, after a brief reconnaissance to confirm this, Howard ordered the attack to begin. What was to follow was a debacle of epic proportions.
Earlier in the day, Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne ordered a reconnaissance by Brig. Gen. Daniel Govan’s Arkansas Brigade to develop the Union positions in their front. Govan advanced and made contact with the skirmish line along the flank of the XXIII Corps as Howard ordered his advance. This move startled Govan, who sent an urgent request back to Cleburne that he be allowed to withdraw. Cleburne did not believe that such a considerable force was confronting them, but he nonetheless gave Govan his permission to withdraw. Govan fell back to take up his position as the right flank brigade of the army and began to pile up logs and dig in.
Though Cleburne remained unconvinced, he moved Brig. Gen. Hiram Granbury’s Texas brigade from behind Govan to extend the line further to the east. “General Cleburne did not know of the approach of them, not did Granbury’s brigade, until a moment before they opened fire,” noted a member of Govan’s staff:
We afterwards ascertained that the Yankees advanced in six lines of battle with the intention of turning our right by storm. If any but the very best troops in the army had opposed them, they would have been successful. The woods seemed alive with Yankees and the first line advanced to within fifteen or twenty paces of Granbury’s brigade and called on them to surrender. These brave Texans did not understand the meaning of those words . . . . A heavy and constant fire was kept up between the opposing lines.
Hazen’s brigade entered the mouth of a ravine with steep sides that funneled his men toward Granbury’s Texans. As they moved up the slope toward the Texans, who were forming into line to confront them, some of Hazen’s men called out, “Ah! Damn You! We have caught you without your logs now!” The Texans response was a galling fire.
“Our men kept such a shower of minnies in their faces that flesh and blood could not stand it,” Lt. Sebron Sneed of the 6th and 15th Texas Consolidated Regiment recalled. “Again and again they attempted to charge us and approached their line within ten paces of ours, but with shouts and volleys they were forced to retire. The balls flew as thick as hail and death stalked all around.”
Adding to the slaughter in the ravine, Capt. Thomas Key’s Arkansas Battery wheeled two of his 12-pounder howitzers to the western edge the ravine and opened fire into the flank of Hazen’s massed men, who were attempting to seek shelter as best they could from the fire in front. Blasts of canister rolled the flank into the center as the 5th and 13th Arkansas Consolidated moved into line beside the guns and opened fire. The scene in the ravine beggared description.
“I had an unobstructed view of the narrow, open space across which the two lines fought,” observed one of Hazen’s staff, Lt. Ambrose Bierce:
It was dim with smoke but not greatly obscured; the smoke rose and spread in sheets among the branches of the trees. Most of our men fought kneeling as they fired, many of them behind trees, stones and whatever cover they could get, but there was considerable groups that stood. Occasionally one of these groups, which had endured the storm of missles for moments without perceptible reduction, would push forward, moved by a common despair, and wholly detach itself from the line. In a second every man of the group would be down. There had been no visible movement of the enemy, no audible change in the awful, even roar of the firing-yet all were down. Frequently the dim figure of an individual solder would be seen to spring away from his comrades, advancing alone toward the fateful interspace with leveled bayonet. He got no farther than the farthest predecessors.
The bodies of United States soldiers soon formed an almost even line a few paces in front of the Texans. It became called “The Dead Line.”
With his front regiments stalled, Hazen shifts his rear column regiments to the east, hoping to flank the Confederates through an old rutted Cornfield that was divided by another ravine. One soldier in the 23rd Kentucky recalled later, “Away we went-through the timber, up a hill, over a fence to an open field, down to a ravine, up another hill to another fence. Many brave comrades fell before reaching that second fence. What a shower of bullets met us! We fought each other through that fence.”
The 8th and 19th Arkansas Consolidated of Govan’s brigade were shifted over by Cleburne when Granbury detected Hazen’s move. Then they were joined by the Alabama and Mississippi Regiments of Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey’s brigade, arriving just in time to stop Hazen’s push. More troops arrived to strengthen and secure the flank on the steep high slope that lead down to Pickett’s Mill Creek.
In the Ravine in front of Granbury, the slaughter continued as Gibson’s brigade pushed in, joining Hazen’s bloodied regiments. Then Knefler’s men were ordered in to hold the line, enabling Hazen and Gibson to withdraw. Knefler held his position until about 10 p.m. when Granbury launched an attack to clear them out.
By 10:15 p.m., the fighting had ended. More than 1,600 United States soldiers were killed or wounded, while only 500 Confederates could be counted as casualties. Ambrose Bierce would label the fight as “A Criminal Blunder.” It was one more bloody repulse for Sherman on the long road to Atlanta.