Atlanta marks 150th anniversary of key Civil War battle

06/14/2014 12:00 AM

06/14/2014 9:02 PM

Deer graze in a meadow alongside a red dirt path in the shadow of Civil War-era artillery. The hum of cars ebbs as you walk a dirt path farther and farther away from busy Route 120, a major byway in the northern Atlanta suburbs of Kennesaw and Marietta.

It is not easy to imagine that 150 years ago this place was filled with bloody bodies and spent ordnance, where men tromped through mud, the result of weeks of torrents of rain; gunned down their fellow Americans; and fought hand to hand in the suffocating humidity of Georgia. But the bumpy remains of Confederate earthworks at Cheatham Hill, site of some of the fiercest combat, are tangible reminders of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the battle, and numerous commemorative events are slated for the weekend of June 27-29.

If the Union victory a year earlier at Gettysburg turned the tide of the war, the fall of Atlanta, the manufacturing and railroad hub of the Deep South, foreshadowed its end. The Civil War dragged on for eight more months, but when the Confederates lost Atlanta, they had lost the war. Northerners celebrated and two months later, once-unpopular President Abraham Lincoln was reelected.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is one of two major sites where visitors today can experience the Atlanta campaign. The other is the immense Atlanta Cyclorama in the city’s Grant Park. When it was completed in 1887, it was state-of-the-art technology, and one of several Cycloramas depicting Civil War battles. Today it is one of only two Civil War Cycloramas still in existence. (The other is in Gettysburg.)

The campaign for Atlanta, long and brutal, began with the first steps of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on May 7, 1864. There were upwards of a dozen battles and skirmishes over the course of the summer as Sherman and his men marched south. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain raged between June 18 and July 2. Sherman captured Atlanta two months later.

A visitor following the stages of the Atlanta campaign has a very different adventure than those who visit the site of the siege of Vicksburg, for example. The site of the battle of Kennesaw Mountain is the only preserved battlefield of the campaign.

And unlike entirely preserved Civil War hallowed ground like that of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the battlefield here has been split in two by encroaching suburban sprawl, and one has to travel a few highways outside the national battlefield park property before reentering it. Don’t be surprised to pass joggers or people out for a morning or afternoon walk; the battlefield site is viewed by locals as an unofficial city park.

Like most National Park Service sites, the best place to start is the visitor center, and like many this one is a mini-museum. It has artillery and a photo gallery of the principles of the battle including a future president, young beardless Benjamin Harrison.

Not far away, next to a photograph of a solemn Abraham Lincoln, is a reproduced recruitment poster printed in New Jersey, imploring African-American men to sign up with Uncle Sam. It reads in part, “Colored Men of Burlington Co. Your Country calls you to the Field of Martial Glory. Providence has offered you an opportunity to vindicate the Patriotism and Manhood of your Race.”

A quote from General Sherman dominates a vintage photo of devastated Atlanta: “We have been tearing up some more Rail Road and utterly destroying evry (sic) thing in the City that can be of any use to the Armies of the South.”

Yet the Union army was not so lucky at Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman’s march hit a bump in the road here. He lost three times the amount of men that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson did, and gained no ground.

Of the seven stops on the battlefield park roads, the two most significant are Kennesaw Mountain (naturally!) and Cheatham Hill. A drive up the mountain, 1,808 feet above sea level, affords a lofty view of the city and suburbs below. Consider walking a short but steep trail to the summit to see gun emplacements dug by the Confederate army; artillery and expository historical markers.

Cheatham Hill was the site of most of the fiercest fighting; both sides referred to this spot as the dead angle, after a protruding angle the Confederates created in their lines. An easy walk takes you further and further away from car noises and closer to the Confederate earthworks that remain a century and a half after they were built. On the edifice of the stately Illinois Monument here are sculpted likenesses of a Union soldier and a pair of allegorical figures.

While Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield National Battlefield Park allows visitors to walk through the woods where the blue and gray marched, the Atlanta Cyclorama, officially titled the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum, lets them take a seat in front of the 19th century version of a wide screen television to watch the entire campaign. This is the closest one can get to experience the battle because modern-day Atlanta has been built over the battlefields. For example, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is on grounds where Union troops shelled the Confederates near Sherman’s headquarters.

The booming voice of actor James Earl Jones in the introductory film mirrors the sounds of booming cannons in the actual Cyclorama presentation, a 20-minute-long narrative accompanying the 358-foot-high, 6,000-square-foot circular oil painting, the world’s largest. The seating section rotates as the narrator addresses the action in each of five Cyclorama pieces that form the 360-degree artwork. A spotlight shines on the subject of every minute of the narrative.

The cotton bales used as barriers by Confederate Gen. Arthur Manigault’s South Carolina’s brigade are easy to see, but one needs sharp eyes to spot Union Brig. Gen. William Harrow in silhouette atop his horse in a stew of battle smoke.

There are times when it seems one must be a West Point graduate to comprehend all the military maneuvers and minutiae; the story is complex and there is also a lot to focus on. In addition to fighting men, there is non-human war wreckage such as abandoned wagons, wounded horses and scattered, broken wagon wheels.

Look at the horizon in the first Cyclorama segment to see Kennesaw Mountain.

Fronting the painting is a three-dimensional diorama adding 30 feet of depth to the battle recreation. During a 1939 visit by the lead cast of the epic film Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable said to then-mayor William Hartsfield, “The only thing missing to make the Cyclorama perfect is Rhett Butler,” referring to his character in the movie. Hartsfield called for a special plaster of Paris figure of Gable, and one can see today a model of Gable dressed as a fallen Union soldier.

In the Cyclorama building lobby is a small, low-tech, low-key museum. The highlight is the locomotive Texas, whose claim to notoriety was its role in a long and arduous chase by Confederate soldiers in 1862.

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