Battle for the Octagon House, Adairsville, Georgia, May 17, 1864.

On May 17, The Federal IV Corps encountered Hardee’s Corps just north of Adairsville, which resulted in a sharp fight of about two hours duration. The action developed primarily in and around the impressive, modern home of Robert C. Saxon. Here, Federal Col. Francis T. Sherman’s brigade opposed Confederate Col. George T. Maney’s Tennessee brigade, of Frank Cheatham’s Division, in Hardee’s Corps.

Hardee was still caught off-guard by Newton’s sudden arrival. William Trask recorded that while the general “and the rest of us were quietly lying on the grass in the shade intending to take a nap, General Wheeler[‘s] . . . cavalry . . . was rapidly driven back until the enemy was directly upon us. . . . Hardee . . . was in his saddle in an instant and off at full speed.”[1]

Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee, one of Maney’s men, was equally surprised. “We had stacked arms . . . and had started fires to cook supper,” he recalled, “when I saw our cavalry falling back I thought rather hurriedly.” Recognizing some friends among the troopers, Watkins “ran to the road and asked them what was the matter? . . . ‘Matter enough: Yonder are the Yankees, are you infantry fellows going to make a stand here?’” With that, Watkins raced off to notify Colonel Feild, only to find the regiment already falling in, and indeed, all of Maney’s brigade moving briskly forward into line of battle.[2]

Georgia historical marker at Adairsville

Feild’s 1st/27th Tennessee took position near Saxon’s distinctive dwelling, a two-story, eight-sided stone structure. It was, noted Watkins, “as perfect a fort as could be desired.” Across the road sat “an old log stable,” while other outbuildings dotted the property. Racing to occupy the grounds just ahead of a line of Federal skirmishers, Watkins’s company tumbled into the house, while Company C occupied the stable.[3]

In 1856, Saxon, a well-to-do local planter, decided to construct his spacious new residence based on the concept promoted by noted American phrenologist Orson Fowler, who published a book promoting octagon houses in 1848, thereby creating something of an enduring architectural fad. The house rose two stories, its walls “constructed of cement, gravel, and lime to a thickness of several inches,” around a central chimney. Each floor contained four hexagonal rooms, each of “330 square feet,” and four smaller triangle-shaped chambers. This floorplan allowed each of the larger rooms to have its own fireplace, all using the chimney, as well as access to natural light. Saxon furnished the house handsomely, “with fine furniture, Brussels carpeting, lace and demask curtains, a piano, paintings, and a library.”[4]

Construction was completed in 1857, but just two years later Saxon, “an ardent advocate of education,” moved his growing family down the road to Cassville in order to send his children to that town’s “very fine” male and female academies. The Octagon house was left in the hands of a caretaker. By 1864, Saxon was a lieutenant colonel in the Georgia Reserves, while his family had refugeed south of Atlanta.[5]

The ensuing fight, primarily between Maney’s and Francis Sherman’s men, was bloody. Expecting to meet only more cavalry, when Sherman confronted an entire Rebel division he sent word of their presence up the chain of command. Lieutenant Turnbull of the 36th Illinois, then serving on the brigade staff, recalled that “Howard, our corps commander, was in constant communication with the front.” When Turnbull reported that “the enemy’s line covered more than our front and seemed strong at all points . . . . Sherman said, ‘let us see General Howard.” He was near and we went over and reported. The General seemed nervous and irritable. . . . ‘Your brigade must move forward. We are to go on to Adairsville tonight.’”[6]

 

Colonel Fancis T. Sherman

Dutifully, Colonel Sherman pressed the issue. A number of outbuildings were fired during the action, but the “Gravel” house proved virtually impregnable. It was largely immune to even field artillery, though some rounds did penetrate the walls. Sherman’s brigade suffered 167 casualties before dark ended the fighting. About midnight, as planned, Hardee’s men retreated, leaving the field to the Federals. The next morning members of the 36th, 44th, 73rd and 88th Illinois, as well as the 24th Wisconsin, viewed the scene, exploring the house and grounds. One rumor spread that the house was owned by General Hardee—perhaps he may have used it as a headquarters for a time. In any case, the Federals were angered that it had been used as a strongpoint. On the morning of the 18th, before marching after Hardee’s column, “time was taken,” wrote the regimental historian of the 73rd Illinois, “to burn the octagon gravel wall house on the Graves farm; also all the outbuildings. This was done by way of retaliation.” “Incendiarism,” tartly noted a subsequent article, “took toll of all inflammable material. Nothing was left but ruins.”[7]

 

 

[1] Hafendorfer, Civil War Journal of William L. Trask, 144; OR 38, pt. 3, 723.

[2] Watkins, Co. “Aytch,” 164-165.

[3] “Entry for May 17,” Van Buren Oldham Diary, UT Martin. Chrstopher Losson, Tennessee’s Forgotten Warriors, Frank Cheatham and his Confederate Division (Knoxville, TN: 1989), 146-147; “Site of the Robert C. Saxon House” historical marker, Adairsville, GA; Watkins, Co. “Aytch,” 165.

[4] C. W. Howard, “Concrete Buildings—Mr. Saxon’s Octagon House,” The Southern Cultivator, vol. 15 (1856), 18-19; Lulie Pitts, “Unique and historic ‘Gravel’ House, Atlanta Journal, May 17, 1936; Beaudot, 24th Wisconsin Infantry, 300. Saxon, who was living in Cassville by 1861, served as an officer in the Georgia Reserves.

[5] Pitts, “Unique and historic ‘Gravel’ House.”

[6] Bennett and Haigh, The Thirty-Sixth Illinois, 588.

7] Sherman, Quest for a Star, 114; Newlin, History of the Seventy-third Regiment, 297; Pitts, “Unique and historic ‘Gravel’ House.”

 

 



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