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Battle of Allatoona Pass

On the top of the hill is the star fort where the final battle took place. Center left is the Clayton-Mooney House (still standing) and in the center is the train depot. At the top of the hill is the eastern redoubt. Along the tracks are warehouses. Photographed George N. Barnard, late October, 1864

The Battle of Allatoona Pass

'...Sweep it o'er the hills of Georgia
To the mountains of the North,
Teach the coward and the doubter
What the blood of man is worth.
Hail the flag you pass!
Let its stained and tattered mass
Tell the story of the terror and the glory of the battle
of the Allatoona Pass.'
Sargent Major Solomon T. Flint
7th Illinois Infantry Regiment

October 5, 1864
Allatoona, Georgia
Commanding Officer
U.S. Forces, Allatoona, Georgia

Sir: I have the forces under my command in such positions that you are now surrounded, and, to avoid a needless effusion of blood, I call upon 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.

Samuel G. French, Major General, C.S.A.

Of the 5,301 men engaged in the Battle of Allatoona Pass on October 5, 1864, there were 1,603 casualties. The Union troop loss was 35% and Confederate's was 27%, for a combined percentage of casualties equaled only by the Battle of Gettysburg. Many have lingered on General French's prophetic reference to this almost forgotten battle as 'a needless effusion of blood.'

By the fall of 1864, the Union Army had conquered Atlanta and was poised to execute Major General William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea." The Western & Atlantic Railroad survived the Atlanta Campaign intact and provided the Union Army a vital supply and communications line with the north. The railroad went through the Allatoona Pass, a cut through the Allatoona Mountains about thirty-five miles north of Atlanta. The pass was approximately 360-feet long and 175-feet deep. It was the deepest rail cut along the W&A between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and Sherman greatly admired its strategic value. It had been garrisoned since the Union Army seized it in May 1864. At that Time, Sherman wrote to General John E. Smith: 'I regard Allatoona of the first importance in our future plans. It is a second Chattanooga; its front and rear are susceptible of easy defense and its flanks are strong.'

In fact, Sherman had been familiar with the terrain around Allatoona since the 1840's. He had ridden through the area en route to a visit to some 'peculiar Indian mounds' known today as Cartersville, Georgia's Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site. Ironically, this prior 'tourist outing' gave him the knowledge to avoid Allatoona during the Atlanta Campaign. In May 1864 the Union Army withdrew from the W&A near Cartersville, disappointing Confederate Lt. General Joseph E. Johnston's strongly entrenched army just to the south at Allatoona. With Union Forces flanking Atlanta from the west, Johnson withdrew from Allatoona in pursuit. Sherman sent in troops to strengthen the fortifications the Confederates had built and garrison the site.

The Union's main supply depot was established at Allatoona. By the fall of 1864 the site warehoused at least one million rations of hardtack and approximately 9,000 head of cattle were pastured just to the north.

Allatoona's strategic importance was enhanced after the Atlanta Campaign. Before the Battle of Atlanta, Major General John B. Hood replaced Johnston in command of Confederate forces in Georgia. After Atlanta fell, Hood launched a campaign to re-capture Nashville. His decision to drive north necessitated that the Confederates break Sherman?s line of supplies and communication, and the best place to do that was to severe the W&A Railroad lines at Allatoona Pass. A Confederate assault on the forts at Allatoona would be the first battle in Hood's disastrous Nashville Campaign.

Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, CSA President Jefferson Davis detailed this plan in a speech to troops in late September. That speech was re-printed in Southern newspapers. After reading the Confederate plan in the newspaper Sherman detached reinforcements to Allatoona.

On October 4th, CSA Major General Samuel French received orders from Hood to proceed with his division of approximately 3,000 men from Big Shanty, several miles north of Marietta, to Allatoona. Not only was he to take the forts there, but fill the massive pass with debris, march five miles north to burn the Etowah River bridge, and then rejoin Hood the next day at New Hope Church. By French's estimation, this was a round-trip 96-mile mission through enemy territory to be accomplished in less than two days.

From his post on Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman learned of this massive deployment of Confederate troops and artillery northward from Marietta. He telegraphed his officers ?The enemy is moving on Allatoona, thence to Rome.?

Soldiers guard the fort at the top of Allatoona Pass Soldiers at Allatoona Pass

Brigadier General John Corse was instructed to move his division from Rome to back up Lt. Colonel John E. Tourtelotte's garrison of fewer than 1,000 men at Allatoona. Corse and his troops reached Allatoona at 1:00 a.m. on October 5th. He assumed command of better than 2,000 men but expected more. Twice the previous day Tourtelotte had received telegraph messages from Sherman at Kennesaw to '...Hold out,' and '...We are coming.' (These messages inspired the almost immediately popular hymn "Hold the Fort, I am coming!" by Phillip P. Bliss.)

French arrived at Allatoona at about 3:00 a.m. At daybreak he witnessed what he later described as a 'mountain fortress.' Two earthen forts sat atop steep ridges on either side of the Allatoona Pass. The walls of each were 12-feet deep and six feet high, surrounded by ditches six feet deep. The forts were connected by a wooden footbridge across the 60-foot breadth of the pass, and the entire garrison was surrounded by trenches and outworks of rifle pits.

In the words of CSA Lt. George Warren, 3rd Missouri Infantry, 'As I looked across the intervening space to the existing forts and viewed the rugged mountainside of the interminable abatis that lay between, and then cast my eyes along our slender line, I thought to myself, this will not work if those regiments are made up of resolute men.'

Within a few hours of French's arrival, the 'needless effusion of blood' began.

The strongest Confederate offensive came from the north and west, forcing a main contingent of Union troops inside the western-most fort, but at a terrible price. French's forces made four assaults on the western fort, coming within 100 yards of taking it each time. All later agreed that a fifth assault would have been successful.

However, the Confederates had intercepted signal communication confirming Sherman was indeed sending reinforcements to Allatoona. French had no hope of a backup; only orders to join Hood at New Hope Church and men who had marched and fought fiercely for three days and two nights without rest. The Confederates could take Allatoona Pass, but they couldn't hold it. Rather than propel his troops into a fortress slaughterhouse, French withdrew.

At 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, the enemy ceased firing....The scene in that ravine in front of the fort after the battle was beyond all powers of description. All the languages of earth combined are inadequate to tell half its horrors....The dead and wounded were everywhere...Enemies though they were, only a few minutes removed from the heat and passion of battle, sickened and turned away, or remaining, looked only with great compassion, and through tears, upon that field of blood and carnage and death, upon that wreck of high hopes and splendid courage...and the dead were buried, from day to day, until the 22nd of October.

Harvey M. Trimble, 93rd Illinois Regiment

After the Civil War, the Battle of Allatoona continued as a War of Words. Generals Sherman, Corse, Hood and French, as well as hundreds of enlisted men, wrote prolifically on what really happened and what might have been at Allatoona.

More information
Overview of the battle of Allatoona Pass
Battle of Allatoona Pass