In the aftermath of the debacle in the Hell Hole, General Sherman decided to move back to the railroad and press on. Johnston, meanwhile, moved south and east into a series of ridges and hills covered in dense forests, cut by deep ravines and seemingly covered with flooded streams of red muddy water—good defensive positions for his soldiers. Orders were sent out for the construction of a new series of defensive lines as a sort of lull finally broke the seemingly endless days of combat that started near Dalton, weeks before. Sherman would spend almost two weeks concentrating his forces and preparing for his next move at the little town of Acworth on the Western and Atlantic railroad. The United States forces were now within 30 miles of Atlanta.
Johnston’s line, drawn up in front of Sherman, was strong, with the right flank anchored just north of the railroad on Brushy Mountain then moving south and west for ten miles to the aptly named Lost Mountain. In the center and slightly forward of the main line, Gen. William Bate’s Division occupied the prominent Pine Mountain—the strongest natural positions that Johnston had come to yet. However, what concerned Sherman most now loomed close behind Johnston’s line: the high rocky peak of Kennesaw Mountain, visible from more than twenty miles away and an obstacle that blocked the move down the railroad to the final river before Atlanta, the Chattahoochee. “Kennesaw is the key to the whole country,” Sherman noted.
Sherman did not expect Johnston to make a stand before then. He soon learned otherwise, though, when he discovered Johnston’s new red earthen fortifications.
On June 10, Sherman set his men out into the rain-soaked landscape on a broad front. McPherson moved along the railroad, Thomas headed due south toward Pine Mountain, and Schofield moved against lonely Lost Mountain. Sherman moved to break the line between the railroad and Pine Mountain, but found Bate’s men up for a fight. Pine Mountain was described by a member of the 5th Company, Washington Artillery, as “a pointed knob, wooded, that stood out from the Kennesaw Range like the apex of a triangle. It afforded an admirable view of the enemy’s lines, but it was a place of great peril.”
And indeed it was for the next several days. The veterans of the Army of the Cumberland fought an intense skirmishing and long-range artillery war with Bate’s men, described by Johnny Green of the 9th Kentucky (C.S.) as “ daily fights with them but their batteries got our range & made it very hot for us.”
The Cumberlanders slowly fought their way to the east around the foot of the mountain and began to isolate the position. Fearing that the position might be cut off entirely, Gen. Hardee requested that Johnston to come look at the position to see if Bate ought to be withdrawn.
The morning of June 14 finally saw a break in the rain that seemed to many soldiers to have been endless, although the day remained gray and overcast. Johnston left his headquarters, accompanied by Gen. Leonidas Polk, to join Hardee at the fortifications of the Washington Artillery on the summit of Pine Mountain, where they intended to investigate the Union positions. When the generals gathered to look, a nearby officer in the Orphan Brigade called out that they shouldn’t be there. “They have accurate range of this hill & they will soon kill many of your party,” the officer said. Observing the situation, Johnston quickly concluded that the position did need to be abandoned.
Below, General Sherman was riding along the lines and happened to take notice of the Mountain. “I noticed a rebel battery on its crest, with a continuous line of fresh rifle trench about half way down the hill,” Sherman later recalled. “Our skirmishers were at the time engaged in the woods about the base of this hill between the lines, and I estimated the distance to the battery on the crest at about eight hundred yards. Near it, in plain view, stood a group of the enemy, evidently observing us with glasses. General Howard, commanding the IV Corps, was near by, and I called his attention to this group, and ordered him to compel it to keep behind its cover . . . and ordered him to cause a battery close by to fire three volleys. I continued to ride down our line and soon heard, in quick succession, the three volleys.”
Phillips D. Stephenson in the Washington Artillery noted what followed: “Generals Johnston, Hardee, Polk, and W.H. ‘Red’ Jackson ride up to our positions . . . . Their staffs accompanied them and that made a considerable cavalcade. Johnston mounted . . . works and with a field glass was looking to our left, when a shot came from a battery directly in our front . . . . He immediately turned his glass upon the battery firing, at the same time telling the crowd which had gathered around him to disperse as they were attracting the enemy’s fire. They did so, General Polk moving off by himself, walking throughtfully along, his hands folded behind him. His left side to the enemy. A second shot came, struck Polk in the left arm, tore through his heart, and through his body. It then struck a tree and exploded. It was, I think, a three inch parrot shell. Johnston and Hardee, uttering exclamations, ran to him. He had fallen on one knee and Johnston caught him in his arms as he was toppling over.”
General Johnston overcome with grief, muttered, “We have lost much. I would rather anything than this.” Johnston and Hardee then both broke down and cried.
Polk’s death was the highest-ranked Confederate death in the campaign, and despite his controversial nature as a commander, he always remained beloved by rank and file of the Army of Tennessee. When Pine Mountain was abandoned, the Union troops who occupied the heights discovered a note tacked to a tree: “YOU YANKEE SONS OF BITCHES HAVE KILLED OUR OLD GEN. POLK.”