It was desperate times for the Confederate Army of Tennessee in late September of 1864. Sherman’s army had "fairly" won the city of Atlanta on September 1, leaving the newly installed Confederate commander, General John Bell Hood to consider his options. His army had been weakened by the battle for Atlanta, losing an estimated 8,000 casualties. Therefore, turning to wage another face-to-face battle was out of the question. In addition, his army suffered from low morale and was badly in need of supplies. The plan he chose was a simple one -- one that would invite the Federals out of their strong defenses at Atlanta, while perhaps solving his supply dilemma. He would wreak such a havoc on Sherman's supply lines that it would force the Federal army in pursuit. In this way, Hood reasoned, his army could choose the battleground and possibly catch Sherman's army divided.
At the end of September, Hood moved quickly, gobbling up Federal garrisons at Acworth and Big Shanty. Sherman's response was to move the Federal Army of the Tennessee south of Marietta, and the Army of the Cumberland was shifted to the base of Kennesaw Mountain.
Now, Hood saw the opportunity to win a greater prize. The town of Allatoona was rumored to contain a large quantity of Federal supplies -- supplies his army so desperately needed. Having discovered the supplies were being guarded by only a small garrison of around 900 troops, Hood assumed the prize could be easily taken. Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French's division, consisting of nearly 5,000 men, was sent to take the garrison on the evening of October 4, 1864.
From atop Kennesaw, Sherman immediately surmised what Hood's next target would be and signaled Brig. Gen. John B. Corse, in Rome, with elements of his 4th Division, XV Corps, to entrain for Allatoona at once. Shortly after midnight, on the morning of the 5th, Corse arrived in Allatoona with an additional 1,084 troops, bringing the number defending the town to 1,944. (1) But even before his arrival, French's skirmishers had already begun fighting with elements of the Eighteenth Wisconsin Infantry south of the railroad depot.
Allatoona was a small village, consisting of seven to eight houses, a railroad depot, and the crossroads leading to Cartersville and Pumpkinvine Settlement. The Western & Atlantic Railroad ran in a fairly deep cut, in a northwesterly direction through the town. This cut created two slopes on either side, which were fortified by trenches and fieldworks. Atop each hill was a redoubt formed by interlacing railroad ties.
Prior to Corse's arrival, a Colonel J. E. Tourtellote was in command of the Federal forces in Allatoona. When Corse saw that Tourtellote's picket lines were already being pushed hard, a battalion of the 7th Illinois was called in for support. This stabilized the Federal front until daybreak, buying Corse time to get his regiments into defensive positions. On the eastern slope, Tourtellote was given the 4th Minnesota, the 12th and the 50th Illinois to command. On the western slope, a Colonel Richard Rowett was in command of the 7th Illinois, 39th Iowa and the 93d Illinois.
While Corse was getting ready for battle, Sherman fretted over the situation at Allatoona (thirteen miles northwest of Kennesaw). From his position, he could see that the small town was being surrounded by Confederates. Since the telegraph wires north of Marietta had been cut, Sherman had sent the orders to Corse by signal. At this point, he couldn't be certain that Corse had received them and was on his way to reinforce Allatoona. Messages sent to Allatoona on the afternoon and evening of the 4th went unanswered.
The first message, sent to the commanding officer of Allatoona at 2 P.M., said: "Sherman is coming. Hold out." At 6:30 P.M., this additional one was sent: "General Sherman says hold fast. We are coming." More messages were sent on the morning of the 5th, but they went unanswered. Finally, at 10:30 A.M., this message was received from the signal officer: "We hold out. General Corse here." This exchange of signal messages has often been embellished by turning the message from Sherman into : "Hold the fort; I am coming." (2)
Unaware that Allatoona had been reinforced, French's division arrived from Ackworth around 3 A.M.. Although French had battle seasoned brigade commanders in Francis M. Cockrell, Claudius W. Sears, and William H. Young, French knew before daylight that he could not charge the two slopes from the south. Leaving enough troops to annoy the 18th Wisconsin and 7th Illinois, he marched his three brigades around to the north and west, where he planned to make his assault.
At 6 A.M., the opening of the battle of Allatoona began with Confederate artillery fire, which had been placed 1,500 yards north of the cut and on a ridgeline. The intensity of the fire drove the 93d Illinois up the west hill in confusion. French then moved in for the main attack. Young, a brigade commander who had been wounded once at Stone’s River, once at Chickamauga, and twice during the battles around Atlanta, brought his brigade in from the northwest. Cockrell brought his troops straight in from the west, and Sears brought his brigade into the attack astride the railroad off to the northwest.
Under a brisk Cannonade, French worked a brigade around to the north of Corse, while keeping up skirmish fire on his west and south fronts. With the Cartersville Road sealed, French then cut the telegraph and the railroad, effectively sealing Corse off from outside communications. Assuming he had every advantage, French then sat down to write a message to his adversary. Shortly after 8 a.m., a Confederate officer walked down the Cartersville Road under a flag of truce. He carried French's message to Corse, which read: "Sir; I have placed the forces under my command in such a position that you are surrounded, and to avoid a needless effusion of blood, I call on you to surrender your forces at once and unconditionally. Five minutes will be allowed you to decide. Should you accede to this, you will be treated in the most honorable manner as prisoners of war." (3)
Though Corse could clearly see he was outnumbered, he also had confidence in his officers and the men they commanded. The Federal general wasn't about to capitulate without a fight. Like Sherman, Corse knew that war was often a bloody affair. His reply to French was written accordingly: "Your communication demanding surrender of my command I acknowledge receipt of, and would respectfully reply that we are prepared for the "needless effusion of blood" whenever it is agreeable to you." (4)
No sooner had the courier returned to French with Corse's reply, when all hell broke loose on the northern spurs of both slopes. Initially, Sears and Young's attack drove in the outer skirmish lines of the 7th and 93d Illinois troops, exposing the 39th Iowa to a flanking fire from the east. But Corse managed to position the 12th and the 50th Illinois where it could fire westward, and into the attacking Confederates. Effectively outflanked, the Confederates now retreated down the Cartersville Road. In the brief respite, Rowett ordered the 12th and 50th Illinois to move across to the western redoubt to support troops on that slope.
The shuffling of Federal troops from one slope to the next would not be quick enough this time. Before the 12th and 50th could get across the cut, the Confederates hit again. This time, Rowett's right flank was crushed and Rowett himself wounded in the melee. But as before, the 39th Iowa rallied with a vengeance and hand-to-hand broke out along the front lines. In minutes, Lt. Col. James Redfield and four other officers of the 39th were killed and two more wounded. This desperate fighting gave Corse the break he needed, as Confederates stopped to reform their lines before assaulting the fort. Quickly, the Federals retreated into the safety of the redoubt on the western slope.
It was now close to 11 a.m., and essentially three regiments (39th Iowa, 7th and 93d Illinois), being attacked from three directions, managed to hold off Young's and a portion of Sear's and Cockrell's brigades for over two hours. The cost was heavy for Corse with the loss of over 160 in killed and wounded. According to his own account of the events, following their retreat into the fort, the Confederates were, "so completely disorganized," that "no regular assault could be made on the fort till I had the trenches all filled and the parapets lined with men." (5)
>From the north and west, French's division filled every hollow and broken piece of ground that afforded shelter, firing into the ditches around the fort. As French tightened the noose around the western redoubt, it meant almost certain death for those Union troops who raised their heads above the parapet walls. But the Confederates could make little progress or come within 100 yards of the fort, as the battery of the 12th Wisconsin laid down a deadly fire.
At approximately 1 p.m., Corse received a wound to the face, which tore away part of his cheek and ear. The wound knocked him unconscious for thirty minutes, in which time there was no senior commander on the western slope. Thinking he'd heard someone give the order to "Cease firing," Corse rallied to continue urging his men to renew their exertions. In addition, the Federal artillery now fell silent for want of ammunition. Eventually, a brave volunteer made his way over to the eastern slope, bringing back an armload of canister and case-shot.
Throughout the drama enfolding on the western slope, Tourtellotte's command continued to fight on the eastern slope, Tourtellotte himself being wounded. For a short time, he would defend his redoubt with only the 4th Minnesota Infantry.
It was now past 2 p.m. and French had decided he'd almost had enough. Recalling Sear's and Cockrell's brigades, he reformed them behind Young's brigade in preparation for a retreat. When Corse observed these movements he believed the Confederates were preparing for another assault. Placing an artillery piece in an embrasure, he threw a few shots into French's troops. When the Confederates scrambled for cover, Corse rallied his men to a small counterattack. This was all French needed to make the decision to withdraw.
Sherman, who was still atop Kennesaw, could see the fire from the battle in the distance. Shortly after 2, he noted the firing had subsided and feared Corse had been overwhelmed. Ironically, it was at that precise moment that an officer was climbing to the signal platform at Allatoona to send the message; "We still hold out. General Corse is wounded."
By 4 p.m., French had withdrew entirely from the battlefield, leaving Corse and his determined garrison still in possession of the redoubts and the one-million rations stored in the town. Corse would send another message to Sherman, saying; "...I am short a cheekbone and an ear, but am able to whip all hell yet!" (6) Though Corse exuded confidence, the action had taken a heavy toll on his forces, with 706 in killed, wounded and missing.
French would write in his battle report that his losses exceeded no more than 120 in killed, but this number was refuted by Corse's accounts, who stated; "We buried 231 rebel dead, and captured 411 prisoners, 3 stand of colors, and about 800 stand of arms.
Amongst the prisoners brought in was Brigadier-General Young, who estimated the enemy's loss at 2,000 killed, wounded, and missing." (7) Young, the unfortunate Confederate commander who had survived four wounds, was found on the battlefield with a badly shattered foot--the fifth and last of his battlefield wounds.
While the defense of Allatoona inspired Federal forces, it served only to dishearten the Confederate army, who desperately needed a boost of morale. The rations would have been invaluable to Hood's hungry soldiers, but instead Allatoona was added to the growing list of Hood's failures.
1. Page 8-9, Boatner, Mark M. "The Civil War Dictionary," David McKay Co. Inc. New York, 1959
3. Page 763, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion: Series 1, vol 39, Part 1 (Allatoona) Correspondence between French and Corse.
5. Page 763-764, OR's: Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, North Georgia and North Alabama
6. Page 9, Boatner's "The Civil War Dictionary."
7. Page 764, OR's, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1.