The line defensive line that Joe Johnston established beneath the shadow of Kennesaw Mountain presented Sherman with the largest obstacle he had yet faced in his drive to Atlanta, and he noted that it was “unusually strong.” Johnston’s right flank was anchored on Noonday Creek and his center rested along the lower slopes of Big Kennesaw, Little Kennesaw, and Pigeon Hill before running southward along hills and ridges to the muddy banks of Noyes Creek. Sherman now was faced with a ten-mile front—not to mention concerns for protecting his supply line back to Chattanooga, the Western and Atlantic Railroad.
Sherman once again decided that he would look to turn Johnston’s left flank, and once again—as he had since the beginning of the campaign—he looked to use Joe Hooker’s XX Corps to extend his line southward. He then wanted Schofield’s XXIII Corps to move into position south of there and push forward to link up with Hooker’s line somewhere near the Widow Kolb Farm. The move began on the morning of June 22nd, the first day to dawn with no rain in over two weeks.
Growing to anticipate his opponent’s move, Johnston sent John Bell Hood’s Corps from the army’s right flank to the left. Hood’s men moved behind Kennesaw Mountain and through the streets of the little town of Marietta southward along the Powder Springs Road, coming into position into line late in the afternoon right in front of the newly arriving Union forces.
Hood saw a great opportunity before him now if he acted quickly: he could stop the Union advance toward Marietta. Once again, he would attack Hooker in an attempt to turn Sherman’s flank, just as he had done at Resaca, a month earlier. Hood, without notifying Johnston of his intentions, sent orders to his divisions to prepare to advance.
When Hooker and Schofield discovered Hood in their front, it appeared as if he was preparing to attack. They immediately prepared their lines to meet the expected assault and, as a new habit, the troops began to dig in.
A little after 5 p.m., Hood advanced his three divisions, and the first big fight for the Kennesaw Line began: the battle of Kolb Farm.
The bulk of the fighting would fall upon the four brigades of the division of Virginian Carter L. Stevenson. Stevenson’s division advanced along the Powder Springs Road, westward, toward the point where Schofield’s and Hooker’s lines met. The attack would be through farm fields with little cover except for tangled growth along a ditch that ran across the Union front.
Out in front of Hooker’s line the 123rd New York, deployed as skirmishers, were the first to make contact with the Confederate juggernaut. “As we silently waited the noise increased in volume,” recounted Sgt. Rice Bull. “I could hear men marching, the giving of orders in a low voice, the neighing of hoses, and further back bugle calls. There was no question what was going on in our front . . . .”
Shortly after five a bugle sounded ‘forward,’ when we heard low command given by their officers, followed by the rustle of many feet, as they marched through the underbrush. They had not far to go before they reached the crest of the hill on the opposite side of the ravine where we could see them. They came without skirmishers which meant an attack in force. We fired and dropped back through the woods . . . and into the open field over which we would have to retreat for nearly half mile to reach our battle line on the hill . . . . The Rebel line advanced rapidly for they were in light marching order…When we reached the buildings we halted long enough to load our guns but the enemy was so close we continued to run, with them calling on us to surrender.
An onlooker, Chaplain Edward O. Bartlett of the 150th New York, noted that “the skirmishers . . . came running back as through the devil himself was after them. The cause was soon evident as Hood’s Corps (Stevenson’s Division) emerged from the woods into the open, advancing at the double quick, forming into three lines as they came on. The sight was inspiring and from our concealed positions . . . .”
Another member of the 150th, Richard Van Wyck wrote,
A whole division came pouring down upon us. I saw the Rebels at Resaca come up to the charge cool and firm, but this mass with their officers waving their swords and heroically marching up to the cannon’s mouth with such gallantry, it gave us no small opinion of their courage. We saw them at a distance but had no orders to fire till they had approached within three hundred yards, when the battery opened with grape and canister.
The rushing pageantry of Hood’s men soon changed as they came into the open: five Union batteries opened fire on the mass of gray clad soldiers. In Schofield’s lines, the 19th Ohio opened fire. One of its members, Theodore Tracie, described what followed: “[L]ike a tornado, volley after volley were sent plunging and tearing through the massed lines, strewing the ground with fallen men. It was a magnificent range for canister, and the effectiveness of the gunners’ aim was made terribly manifest. They trembled under the awful fire, wavered . . . .”
Gunners in Hooker’s line rained shot and shell down upon the lines from both front and flank. Sgt. Henry Morhouse of the 123rd New York, watching the onslaught, described the scene:
Crashing through the long lines of the enemy go the solid shot . . . now screaming and yelling goes a broadside of shells, tearing and smashing in the solid columns, who stagger and waver before it, yet the brave rebels press on. Why do they dare come further into such a hot hail of lead and iron? But hear that cracking, rattling, hissing volley from the cannon as stands of canister shot goes sowing death among the enemy. Yet they still advance.
Musketry now joined the blasts of artillery tearing gaps through the lines of the advancing Confederates. Major John McGuire of the 32nd Tennessee recalled that “we were in the midst of one of the fiercest battles of the war . . . a perfect torrent of lead and iron . . . .” Many Confederates desperately sought shelter in the muddy, rocky, tangled ravine in a desperate attempt to find shelter, but soon Union artillery was sending shells screeching down the length of it, turning it into a slaughter pen. The attack had now reached a point where human endurance could not withstand it any longer, and Hood’s men broke and fled to the rear, leaving the ground covered with their dead and wounded.
After the battle, one witness found “the ground for several acres covered with blood and stripped clothing.” A correspondent for the New York Herald, meanwhile, painted a more complete picture. “Along the little stream ran a rail fence,” he reported. :”The rebels had crowded behind this for protection, but were literally mowed down. The torn, bloody knapsacks, haversacks, and frequent pools of blood were ghastly evidences of how they suffered. The stream was choked up with bodies and discolored with blood. In the ravine and around the house, where they had crowded for shelter, their bodies lay piled on one another.” A Wisconsin soldier simply stated that “The Slaughter of the rebels was actually murderous . . . .”
The first major engagement for Kennesaw Mountain was a bloody one, and one that set the tone for the fighting that would occur in the coming week.