(October 8, 2017) Last Thursday evening I spoke to the Cobb County (Georgia) Civil War Roundtable and visited the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park earlier in the day. Since my annotated and illustrated version of Confederate Private Sam Watkins’s Co. Aytch was my first Civil War book I was especially interested in visiting the battlefield’s “Dead Angle.” It was the Union army’s chief attack point and Sam’s was one of two defending regiments, assaulted from three sides.
For about ninety minutes on the morning of June 25, 1864 about 5,000 (mostly Illinois) Yankees attacked 1,000 Rebels at a defense line salient. Despite enduring murderous fire a minority of the attackers reached the opposing entrenchments where the fighting devolved into hand-to-hand struggles. Notwithstanding undeniable bravery, the attackers could not dislodge the defenders who were too well entrenched. Casualties totaled 825 Federals as compared to 170 Confederates.
Sam Watkins described the fighting as follows:
It seemed that the archangel of Death stood and looked on with outstretched wings, while all the earth was silent, when all at once a hundred guns from the Federal line opened upon us, and…poured their…shot, grape and shrapnel right upon [us] when, all of a sudden, our pickets jumped into our works and reported the Yankees advancing, and almost at the same time a solid line of bluecoats came up the hill.
My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued…Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line…but no sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered…
Yet still the Yankees came. It seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man was true to his trust…Talk about other battles…but in comparison with this day’s fight, all others dwarf into insignificance…[A] solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns poured into our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium.
I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee during the war they were not aware of it. I am satisfied that on this memorable day, every man in our regiment killed….All that was necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their living men passing over the bodies of their dead. The ground was piled up with one solid mass of dead and wounded Yankees.
Watkins went on to add, “a Yankee rushed me and said ‘You have killed my two brothers and now I’ve got you’…I heard a roar and felt a flash of fire and saw…Willam A. Hughes, grab the muzzle of the gun, receiving the whole (blast)…He died for me.
As Sam watched the litter carriers take Hughes away the dying soldier kept telling them, “Give me Florence Fleming,” his name for his rifle, which was engraved on it in silver lettering. “It was the last time I saw him,” Watkins wrote. “But I know away up yonder…in the blue vault of heaven…we will sometime meet at the marriage supper of the Son of God.”
Although twenty-first century traffic around Kennesaw is heavy, the Dead Angle is peaceful and thickly wooded. The weathered remains of the Confederate entrenchments stand as remnants of the original earthworks much as the Appalachians are the residue of a range that was once as mighty as the Himalayas.
As I walked around the area I gradually became aware that there were no Confederate monuments. Although markers that described the action would mention both Union and Confederate participants, all the memorials were for Union soldiers. The most prominent was the Illinois monument pictured above. But there were also memorials for two slain Union generals and a third one for an unknown Federal soldier.
When I first visited the Gettysburg battlefield long ago, the spot where Joshua Chamberlain’s regiment turned back a part of the Rebel attack on Little Round Top was an obscure, seldom visited point. After Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels, however, the spot became one of the most popular sites on the park and a monument was added to memorialize Chamberlain and his troops. Even though the PBS Civil War Documentary in the early 1990s similarly popularized the Watkins memoir, there is no memorial to him and his comrades at Dead Angle.
The absence of Confederate monuments at Dead Angle reflects three factors.
First, Union veterans originally organized the site as a private park in 1898. For many years after the war Republican politicians “waved the bloody shirt” to remind Northern voters of Civil War casualties in order to gain political support among such veterans to promote hatred of Southerners, who were generally Democrats. Consequently, former Union soldiers formed the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) as their veterans association. It successfully lobbied for generous, federally funded Union veterans pensions paid from the taxes of all Americans, including their former, impoverished, Southern enemies. Not until1890 did the GAR gradually start relaxing its advocacy for universal censorship of Confederate displays such as Rebel battle flags and Confederate statues.
Second, Southerners were too poor to pay for memorials after the war. It was not until the decades between1890-1920 that they had even modest sums available while the declining influence of “bloody shirt” politics relaxed opposition thereby enabling most of the Confederate statues remaining today to be erected.
Third, the present political climate is an amplified echo of the “bloody shirt” dogma of long ago. It demands hatred toward the memory of Rebel soldiers as well as the censorship and destruction of Confederate iconography.