Newspaperman’s Eyewitness Account of Wagner’s Assault on Kennesaw Mt.

This is a great account of the assault by Wagner’s brigade on Kennesaw Mt. from a relatively unknown Will County, IL. history book. The account before the newspaperman’s is from a veteran of the 100th Illinois Infantry. Link to the book:

“Fifteen years ago; or, The patriotism of Will County, designed to preserve the names and memory of Will County soldiers, both officers and privatesboth living and dead: to tell something of what they did, and of what they suffered, in the great struggle to preserve our nationality”  By George H. Woodruff, Published for the author by J. Goodspeed, Joliet, Ill., 1876; pp 337 -341

Chapter VIII – History of the One Hundredth (Illinois); or, Will County Regiment 

“We have come now to the memorable “assault on Kenesaw” the 27th of June, when our division was moved to the right, and made a charge on the enemy’s works in front of the line occupied by Gen. Stanley’s division. Other charges were made in other parts of the line, all of which were unsuccessful. But that of our division was the severest. Our regiment was in the hottest of it. The division charged in solid mass, and found the enemy posted behind heavy earthworks with an abatis of brush in front, and three rows of sharpened stakes driven in front of their works, so that our men could not pass without stopping to pull them out; and to stop while making a charge is almost certain death. With grape and canister raking our boys both in flank and front, nothing but a depression in the ground kept them from being annihilated. Capt. Bowen and Major Hammond with the colors rallied about 150 men just under the hill, after the main part of the division had fallen back, and sent for entrenching tools, and would have made good their position within 60 yards of the enemy’s works. But instead of sending them tools, Gen. Wagner, commanding the brigade, thought it wiser to order the Major to bring the men in. When they got back behind the entrenchments they found the rest of the brigade forming their lines, and the belief current that the Major, Capt. Bowen, and the men, had been killed, and the colors lost, and their return was an agreeable surprise. Our color-bearer, Michael Murphy, carried the colors within ten steps of the rebel works and brought them safely away again.” In this charge which was equal in daring and hopelessness to the famous “charge of the 600;” and which now at least, in the cool distance, seems to have been uncalled for, and made without adequate promise of compensating good, and which Gen. Sherman labors somewhat in his report to justify, – the assaulting column suffered so severely as to draw tears even from the eyes of the enemy. For, as an eye witness relates, (one of the officers of the 100th) “The rebels sent our men word that the woods were on fire, and we had better come and take care of our killed and wounded. Lieut. Bartlett went with a detail of men, and while thus engaged conversed with a noble looking captain of the rebel army, who, as he looked upon the scene, said, with tears rolling down his cheeks, ‘This is awful, awful – but we had to do it.'” In this assault, the severest in which the 100th was ever engaged, the regiment lost three killed and 16 wounded, as in list below. Among the valuable lives lost that day was Gen. Harker, commanding one of the brigades in our division, a man and an officer greatly beloved, not only by his own command, but by all who knew him, and who only four days before had shed tears over the remains of our colonel. The following graphic description of the assault of the 4th corps was written immediately after by the correspondent of the “Cincinnati Commercial,” and is so truthful and interesting that I cannot forbear copying it entire.

“The 4th and 14th corps, the staunch center of the army, were called upon to give fresh proof of their valor to-day. These two corps, though originally in front of Kenesaw, had been pushed by the converging advance of our army to the southward of that frowning peak. The noble 4th corps, though by heavy odds the heaviest sufferer of the army, was the one of the three from which the assault was demanded. The boys were tired of heavy skirmishing; it had grown tedious, and lost its excitement, and I believe when they were apprized that their corps was to furnish two or three assaulting columns, they received the intelligence with a quick interest – nothing more. This thing of killing and being killed, had become an every day affair. Every platoon in the corps had bled freely since the campaign opened. They felt probably, as all veterans must feel, some apprehension, for the result of an assault upon a heavily fortified enemy, but none for themselves. Early in the gray of the morning, the preparations for the assault commenced, the first symptom being an unusually early breakfast. There was no evidence in the movement or bearing of the men, that they were so soon to essay “the deadly imminent breach;” though they must have been conscious that the task laid out for them was one which none but men hoping to meet death would covet. Between 7 and 8 o’clock the lines were formed. Newton’s division, consisting of Generals Wagner, Kimball, and Harker’s brigades, being selected as the storming parties. Kimball’s being on the left and somewhat retired, to act as a support of the other two. Wagner’s held the center, and Harker’s the right. Wood’s and Stanley’s divisions of the 4th corps furnished supports on the flanks of the assaulting brigades, but they were not seriously engaged, and their loss is trifling.

Assault of Wagner’s Brigade

“This splendid brigade, composed of the 40th Ind., 57th Ind., 97th Ohio, 26th Ohio, 100th Ills., and 28th Kentucky, was thrown into columns of regimental divisions, thus giving the brigade a front of two companies, and a depth of 30 lines. The advance regiment was the 40th Ind., commanded by the fearless Blake. The column was formed in good season, and during the brief respite that ensued before the word “charge” was given, the men rested silently in their places, and no one could have guessed from their undisturbed faces, that all the latent gallantry of their natures could be aroused, and lashed into a fury of heroism during the next ten minutes. Here was a man carefully replacing his shoe and tucking away the strings; the proposition that “forlorn hopes” should be well and tightly shod plainly expressed in his movements. Letters were torn and crumpled and thrown furtively aside. Doubtless miniatures came from their hiding places for a moment that morning, but such things are done in the army in profound secrecy. The soldier hates a scene, and none more than the purely sentimental variety.

“At half-past eight the men spring to their feet at the word fraught with death to many. Thirty consecutive lines of blue leaped forward with impetuous strides making their way through the scattered trees and underbrush in splendid order. Before them on the crest of the ridge was the silent, and to the sight, the untenanted convex salient of the enemy’s works, for which they were aiming. They neared it rapidly, their enthusiasm rising with every step, and their hearts rising high as each indistinct object grew plain, as the slopes of the parapet became a mere furrow over which it seemed they must go. At the next moment the gates of hell opened in their very faces! A close, concentrating blast of musketry swept over the front line, leaving it indented, but unwavering! With the momentum of a mighty river, the brigade swept on until but two hundred paces – a mere stone’s throw it looked – divided the assailants from the assailed. The musketry of the enemy died to a mere pattering – muskets must be reloaded, and this fact sometimes looses battles. But palisades and abatis must be passed; and with the next rebel volley fired, as the fearless 40th Ind. reached a point within a hundred paces of their works, came a more awful thunder! Squarely in the teeth of the inspired brigade opened a battery of six guns, belching forth grape and canister, every shot ploughing through the devoted ranks, and the thick fume of their guns enveloping the interval of ground over which our brigade must pass. Every ball from those guns infiladed sixty men, the column of attack as I have already said, being thirty lines deep. The front lines shattered to pieces, slackened their furious onset, which brought those in the rear, jamming up in one confused mass of men – confused – but still bent on their fearfully grim and bloody task. It was intended when the head of the column reached a point within pistol shot of the enemy’s parapet, to deploy into a column of regiments. This was no longer feasible, for organization was lost, and the whole column was a tightly closed surging mass of men, ragged at the edges – but all moving one way – toward the enemy! The rebel battery fired a second volley, completing shattering Wagner’s column, as a column, the cannon blowing aside every animated thing in their front. Masses of men moved to the right and the left of the range of the battery – still bent upon one object. Many struggled up within twenty yards of the enemy’s works, some penetrated the lines of the palisades, and abatis at their base, and a devoted few planted the foot of a color-staff on the slope of a parapet! But the assault had failed – failed heroically in less time than I have taken to relate it. For nearly an hour portions of the brigade held points within fifty yards of the enemy’s line, but all such were thinned out by the deadly rifle men, who nearly secure himself, was at liberty indulge in the uncommon luxury of gloating over a foe, before firing with cool, deliberate and unerring aim. As the remnants of the brigade started back, long lines of rebels swarmed from their trenches, pursuing rapidly with infernal yells. They soon swarmed back, and faster than they emerged, when our reserves opened on them with a withering fire of small arms and artillery. The brigade fell back to the line vacated in the morning, leaving over two hundred killed and wounded. The proportion of officers lost was larger than the average, and here, as elsewhere during the assault, an unusual number were hit in the head. Wagner’s brigade left winter quarters last spring, nearly 2000 strong, but it was reduced to half that number,over fifty percent having been killed and wounded during the campaign. Gen. Wagner fought, where he always fights, at the head of his brigade, and his escape from hurt is most miraculous. Two or three hours after the assault, his men were bustling around their camps, making their coffee, having already exhausted conversation on the great topic which the morning had furnished. ‘D–n the assaults in column,’ I heard one remark as he punched the blaze under his coffee, ‘they make a man more afraid of being trampled to death by the rear lines, than he is of the enemy, they might do on a marble floor.’

“His comments would offend Jomini and Monticella, but the speaker as a member of one of the advanced regiments in the assaulting column had a clear right to speak his mind.”


2 Responses to “Newspaperman’s Eyewitness Account of Wagner’s Assault on Kennesaw Mt.”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I recently visited the Dead Angle where this assault occurred as I live not too far away. I’m curious to know if you’ve ever come across any written records that the Confederate officer (Lt. Colonel William H. Martin of the 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment) who gave the cease fire to clear Union wounded from the woods fire did so because he received a Masonic hail sign of distress from those wounded. He being a Mason himself acting to save those fellow enemy Brothers. I have only heard of this story but am seeking actual evidence of its truthfulness for research I am conducting in a new book.

    • 40thindiana Says:

      Hi Michael, No I have not, but have heard the same story before. There were quite a few in the 40th that were Traveling Men. The most noted I know of that served at Kennesaw was Captain Kirkpatrick of Co. G, he was killed on the field. He belonged to the Pleasant Hill Lodge in Montgomery County. After the war the town name was changed to New Richmond, they still have a lodge there (New Richmond #604 F.&A.M. It is also the resting place of Kirkpatrick. As a side note, if you have ever seen the basketball movie “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman, New Richmond, IN. is the small town used for the movie. One blinking stop light. lol If I run across any Masonic information at Kennesaw, i’ll be sure to let you know.

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