Saturday, January 18, 2020

'Sad havoc': A reporter's 1882 visit to Atlanta-area battlefields

1864 view of Kennesaw Mountain battlefield from behind Confederate lines. 
(The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Three, The Decisive Battles)

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From atop Kennesaw Mountain, newspaper reporter George Morgan had an awe-inspiring view in the fall of 1882: spires of Atlanta in the far distance to the south, a "network of red road-beds," brown fields, and a sea of swaying trees. On ground within sight of the Philadelphia Times correspondent, blood was shed two decades earlier by thousands of soldiers from both sides during William Sherman's Atlanta Campaign.

At Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864, Sherman's army suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties; Confederate commander Joseph Johnston's roughly 1,000. "Each acre of ground between us and New Hope's forests, indistinguishable at their distance of twenty miles, belongs to the battlefield," Morgan wrote.

Nearby, at Kolb's Farm, where the opposing forces fought on June 22, 1864, Morgan and his guide found bullet-scarred trees and remains of earthworks.

At New Hope Church, where Union General Joseph Hooker's XX Corps suffered heavy losses on May 25, 1864, the war-time church was a casualty, too.  "... even the foundation stones had been torn up [by soldiers]," Morgan recalled. ".... Every plank had been spirited, as though by Satan himself, clear away." But earthworks still stood in 1882 --  "as high as one's neck," the reporter wrote -- within a short distance of a new church built on the site.

On a bush-covered slope nearby, Morgan discovered bullets, a rusty canteen and an artillery shell; and in the "dark corner of a black-jack woods," his young guides directed him to a ghastly sight.

Here's Morgan's Page 1 story in the Philadelphia Times about his three-day visit to Kennesaw Mountain and other nearby Georgia battlefields -- one of a series of accounts of his trips to hallowed ground in the South in 1881-82. (Note: Morgan used an alternate spelling of Kennesaw throughout his story.)

Special Correspondent of The Times

MARIETTA, Ga., September 28 -- Jack Boxer gave a chirrup, held the lines taut so that his horses would prance impressively through Marietta's court house square and then reined the span out on the Kenesaw road, along which he sent them scurrying. The old guide was a thing to look at. With a stovepipe hat no less shiny than his eyes, and a swallow-tail coat of cloth, he seemed just to have sprung from the bandbox of polite plantation days.

"I'so much a-bleege, sah," he said, as when we had got into the country I held out a cigar; "I'se much a-bleege, but I nebber smokes befoah gemmen; no, sah, praise de Lawd I diden get fotch up like dese heah sassy town nigguhs. I was fotch up in a place like dat yo' see, sah, ober dare."

''That nice old house, with the man sitting under the oaks?"

"Yessah; dat man dare had mo'an six hunnered slabes, but de Yankees cotched 'im an' was gwine to hang 'im on one ob dem oaks. He passed fru de Red Sea, he did."

While Jack dwelt upon the war trials of the planter, who seemed to be a typical baron of the South's past, we moved along the grove of oaks and, trotting a mile beyond, drew sharply up at the base of the battle-scarred mountain for the summit of which we had set out.

A climb up Kenesaw

         GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view of Kennesaw Mountain terrain.

Kenesaw rises from the level land like an uneven dome. Its cap of stone touches the lower folds of the clouds and every side of the acclivity has a garb of green. So steep did the slope appear that I thought our ascent would be difficult, but the ride half way up was easy and in the climb that followed we stopped once only to catch our wind.

The entrance to the summit road is through a farm, which a darkey has blazed out near the foot of the eastern slope, the thrifty owner having paid for his land from the sale of timber, cut at the crest and hurled down the mountainside. Even among the stripped stalks of corn that stand in this little patch thus stolen from the wilds we struck heavy earthworks, rifle-pits and a continuous parapet that reaches up and over Kenesaw and along the crest of Little Kenesaw, encircling Marietta on the west. As we rode upward it was at the edge of this line, nor did we lose sight of it until we came to great piles of rocks on the summit.

Sights from Kenesaw's summit

       GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view from near Kennesaw Mountain summit.

That which was before us when we had clambered to the top of the mountain's tip-topmost boulder ought to have been a sight to brighten even the eye of the eagle which we happened to discover perched in the crotch of a dead tree within a stone's throw of our rocky outlook. But that bird of patriotic song seemed to be using the long-range spy-glasses, affixed by nature above his beak, rather in mousing out small creatures to pounce upon than in drawing thrills of delight from the grand panorama down on level earth -- the rivers shining in the sun, the network of red road-beds, the tops of trees swaying as waves of a sea, brown fields in the sedgy skirts of which one fancied he could see the rabbit coax his young to a frolic, and the many objects given strange beauty because thus looked upon in unaccustomed view.

Nor were these marked parts of the landscape long in our eyes. All the stretch of land from the rocks at our feet to the far sky-line in the west was the field of a whole month's combat, wherein a score of men fell between every two strokes of the clock --  a place of hot maneuvers with constant clash of arms, of continuous skirmish, of ceaseless crack of rifle and scream of shell. Each acre of ground between us and New Hope's forests, indistinguishable at their distance of twenty miles, belongs to the battlefield. Dim in the south rise the spires of Atlanta, as they appeared to [William] Sherman when he stood here gazing at the goal of his three grand armies, while just at the edge of Marietta, so near that we can count tombstones until  I tire, is a green hillside dotted with the graves of more than ten thousand Union dead.

Twenty miles of battleground

It was not long after sunrise the next day that we started on a long drive through this famous stretch of battle-fields. At Culp's Place [also known as Kolb's Farm] we found such evidences of the hot fight there as earthworks and chipped trees. Near towns as populous as Marietta war relics quickly disappear and even in timbered sections the darkeys have scraped up most of the lead.

At a debating society in Georgia not long ago a question before the members was: "Am fire more useful dan iron?" It is said that the champions of fire were about to carry the day when an old Solomon scattered them "as though with a bombshell by the remark: "Hole on dar, feller-citerzens! Ef hit haden' been furr iron de white fokes would 'er been lickin' de niggers yit!" And the old fellow might have added that if it had not been for the iron and lead left on the battle-fields many persons, white as well as black, living in their impoverished vicinities, would have fared worse than they did.

Endless lines of earthworks

While such uncanny things as the skull and cross-bones no longer bleach at Culp's nor by the side of the Dallas road to New Hope Church, whither we drove that day, they are found sometimes in ravines, as well as in untilled fields. Moreover, lines of earthworks extend for about twenty-five miles, from Kenesaw to Dallas and beyond.

When Sherman would outflank [Joseph] Johnston the Southern strategist straightway would settle down behind a new line. A witty girl once said that all men are like lobsters -- break a lobster's claw and another will sprout; break a man's heart on the back piazza at night, when the romantic stars look down, and it heals again for breakfast. So, too, Johnston could mend his heart, his claw and his earthworks. These fortifications were seen in their undiminished strength when, after passing the foothills of Lost Mountain, which, seeing that it has such a name, must be the Charlie Ross of rocks, we left the Dallas road and came out of the woods at New Hope Church.

Sad havoc at New Hope

Earthworks at New Hope Church in 1864.  Reporter George Morgan found well-preserved earthworks
 here  18 years later. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
It is likely that between 75,000 and 100,000 men, who were minute parts of the vast armies that confronted each other at this famous church, are yet living, and if they can recall what the county around looked like then, they have in mind a clear idea of what the place looks like now. Few changes have come about. After the battle the Baptists who had been accustomed to gather at the meeting house looked in vain for their church. Even the foundation stones had been torn up for use in the earthworks that still stand as high as one's neck within ten feet of the new building. Every plank had been spirited, as though by Satan himself, clear away. But the Christian fights a great fight.

The New Hope congregation met one Sunday on the spot where their church had stood. They knelt amid ashes, and who shall say that the prayer then sent up by the good preacher did not go higher than the stars! Getting up from their knees they built a house with oak limbs and cedar branches, and under the arbor they met for years. Now a small frame building, paid for this very year, is the church of New Hope. It has taken the congregation just eighteen years to recover from the blow that the myriad black imps, riding in Sherman's sulphur, gave it.

Confederate entrenchments at New Hope Church, Ga., in 1864.
(National Archives and Records Administration)

Queer things for a churchyard

It would be easy to dwell to the length of a column in The Times upon the battle-field objects that are within sound of the singing and the hallelujahs. Around the church are oak, pine and black-jack trees cut by bullets. A few paces from the church door are rifle-pits, now pawed deeper by the horses that bring their masters hither on Sundays, and just across the road is a fort of white clay soil and overgrown with smart-weed.

Confederate General Leonidas Polk was killed 
at Pine Mountain (Ga.) by a Federal artillery shell
on June 14, 1864.  
(Collections of the Alabama Department 
of Archives and History)
Not less notable is the graveyard, with some of the mounds housed in, through which runs the ever-present line of earthworks. The occupants of this graveyard were by no means as jolly as three boys whom I met a little later. While Boxer slept in the buggy the boys took me to the slope, now covered with bushes, where [Joseph] Hooker made his fierce charges, as well us to the place where the countercharges of the enemy occurred. We picked up bullets, found a shell, examined a rusty canteen, and visited a dark corner of a black-jack woods where the skeleton toes of a soldier stick from the sod.

Similar sights came up at Pickett's Mill, the other end of the battle-field, and having seen them Boxer whipped his horses into Dallas. In passing over the same ground on the following day, being then bound back to Kenesaw and Marietta by way of Gilgal Church, I noticed that the armies left Egyptian cloverseed at New Hope, as they did at Resaca. The New Hope farmer prizes the plant also, and he regards it as a sort of recompense made by Providence for the destruction of the church.

The return ride by Gilgal had in it little of interest, except a good view of Pine Mountain, halfway up the northern side of which we drove. If Boxer could have pointed out the spot where fell General [Leonidas] Polk, who goes down in history as a good officer as well as a Bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church and a brother of a President of the United States, I should have gone to it, but Boxer was honest enough to confess that he did not know where to find the place. [Leonidas Polk was actually a second cousin of the 11th U.S. president.] One of the cannon balls sent by [George] Thomas killed the Fighting Bishop as he stood talking with [William J.] Hardee near the mountain top. So, too, when further along, we would have visited the place where General [Charles] Harker and Dan McCook got their death-wounds, but none save comrades may indicate where they lost their lives.

Confederate General William J. Hardee (left) was near Leonidas Polk when "The Fighting Bishop"
 was killed by Federal artillery. Union generals Charles Harker (middle) and Daniel McCook suffered
mortal wounds at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. (Credits: LOC | Unknown | Ohio History Connection)

Red flowers in Kenesaw's Crest

Our second ascent of Kenesaw was made to get a good-bye glimpse of the ground across which we had come. On the road Boxer passed the time in telling me how Mr. V. J. Hames had cleared a tract of sixteen acres at an elevation of 1,800 feet and had succeeded in bringing up a thousand peach trees in the way they should grow. He showed me, moreover, after we had passed the orchard, millions of cypress vines, which plant was not known on the mountain before Johnston's men occupied it, and said that in July the whole crest is crimson with the little red cypress flower. In fact, I was so interested in this duplicate wonder of the clover story that not until we had gained the summit did I notice a thunder-storm swiftly approaching from the West. The sky had been dark with clouds all day, but the new cloud, bearing so close down upon us that it looked as though it would envelop our heads, was like an immense strip torn from the smutty curtains of Pluto's darkest chamber.

Heaven's artillery on Kenesaw

Union entrenchments in foreground, Kennesaw Mountain in the distance.
(The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Three, The Decisive Battles)
As one ear-splitting crack of God's own great guns came fast and hard upon another I could not help letting fancy fly to the days when the mock thunder of Sherman's cannon roared against this same stronghold. Then, throughout the hot time when Sherman had his hand on Johnston's throat here, the parapets flashed in lines of red, the earth shook under close recoil and battle-clouds in sulphurous folds swathed the green. But now forks and streaks and zig-zags of white fire dance among the rocks or fall in bolts to the lowlands, whence roll deafening booms reverberating up and down tho sky.

"See heah, honey," protested old Jack, edging up and pointing to the western slope, where the rain had begun to roar like the rush of a cataract, "ain't we gwine to git outen dis?"

"Oh, it'll pass over. You said there were many things yet to see up here."

"Bress yer soul, honey, dar ain't nuflin moah up heah -- we'se seed hit all," continued the old man, who had changed his tune from that of an hour before.

In spite of the wild storm about to burst I thought of one Jim Duke, a scapegrace darkey, known in Western Pennsylvania as the biggest rascal out of jail, who once likewise changed his tune in a manner entirely worthy of Falstaff. Duke, being a rogue himself, thought everyone else a rogue. Going into a store one day to buy a plug of tobacco, Duke pulled from his pocket a purse which contained a handful of dimes. As he held the purse upside down the clasp gave way and out dropped the coin in a silver shower, scattering from one end of the room to the other. Duke stood aghast for a second and then, fearing that the crowd present would pick the money up, shouted: "God-a-mitey, gentlemen, let's all be honest!"

So my guide Boxer, fearful lest his beaver would be ruined by the rain, or lest his hard coconut of a head would be split by one of the thunderbolts waltzing around, had changed his tune.

Chased down the mountain

But Boxer's plea really was not needed. The storm was on and it was time for our heels to do quick work. We left the crest, struck down the mountain and with rocks rolling after us made two-forty time for the half-way place where the horses were hitched. Boxer led the way. Neither Phipps nor Arabi could have made better time in their flight than we did down Kenesaw.

At a particularly near crack of the storm's whip Boxer would redouble his wild leaps, as though hit in the back by a full-grown thunderbolt. His stovepipe stuck on the back of his head like a tin cup on cucumber, his long coat-tails flapped at half-mast horizontally in the breeze and his whirling legs seemed at every stride to measure off enough earth for a circus ring.

At last we got to the buggy and as Boxer thrust his stovepipe and his cloth coat under the seat, taking the storm bareheaded and in his shirt-sleeves, while he unhitched he said: "Bress de Lawd, honey, dat was wuss'erna hornet's nest or a fight at a co'n shuckin' down on de ole Ocheco-bee."


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