COLUMN: Waltzing backward through the South
The morning was cold and wet as I set out for a closer look at Kennesaw Mountain, the modest elevation dominating the landscape above Marietta, Ga., a lively municipality beside I-75 running from Atlanta to Chattanooga.
Marietta is the home of our daughter Kim, whose condominium sits within sight of the mountain and its adjunct, Little Kennesaw Mountain.
The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain set the stage for the capture of Atlanta and therefore provided the overture for “Gone with the Wind.” It also was the penultimate swan song for Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, a man of frustrated promise among a galaxy of Southern stars.
I visited the small museum at the foot of the mountain and then drove a mile, up 800 feet in elevation, to the summit. I drove because it was cold, and I am old.
I passed an aging man with a flowing white beard and khaki trousers, napping on a park bench by the roadway. He could have passed, I thought, for a straggler languishing after the battle to possess the mountain in June of 1864.
Joe Johnston’s men defended the mountain against the Army of the Tennessee, led by William Tecumseh Sherman. Johnston and Sherman would meet again nearly a year later at the Bennett Place near Durham, N.C. That meeting gave the coup de grace to the mortally wounded Confederacy.
Civil War historian T. Harry Williams wrote of Johnston: “He possessed every quality but the vital one: the ability to destroy the enemy.” But he was also a master of the art of keeping his army alive against great odds.
I think of him as Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. It was said that Ginger could do everything Fred could do, but she did it backward and in high heels.
Johnston’s career was mostly a waltz with superior federal armies that were constantly trying to envelope and destroy his forces. They moved forward and sideways; he moved backward.
On the eve of the First Battle of Manassas, Johnson brought his men by rail up from the Shenandoah Valley to join General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of the Rebel army threatening Washington, D.C. Johnston outranked Beauregard but deferred to the Louisiana Creole, who was more familiar with the terrain. Beauregard led his raw troops in a rout of the Yankees. After chasing them into their Washington defenses, the disorganized Rebs didn’t try to move in for the kill.
After that, Union General George McClelland tried to enter Richmond via the back door, moving up the narrow peninsula between the York and James rivers, which flowed into Union-held Hampton Roads.
Johnston’s strategy was to withdraw before the Yankees until their supply lines were stretched thin, then to strike and destroy.
He retreated successfully to within a few miles of Richmond, then struck back in the battles of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. There he may have made his greatest contribution to the Confederate cause: He was wounded and put out of action for several months, providing President Jefferson Davis with the opportunity to replace him with Robert E. Lee, then holding a desk job in Richmond.
Johnston next took the field in Chattanooga, replacing Gen. Braxton Bragg, who, having lost the city and the confidence of his staff, gave up his command.
Johnston skillfully dueled with Sherman on the road from Chattanooga to Atlanta. By that time, Union strategy was not the occupation of territory but the destruction of Rebel armies. Sherman repeatedly tried to turn the flanks of his outnumbered foe, cut off his supply lines and smash his army. Johnson elected to retreat – as he had done on the Virginia Peninsula – and hope for a chance to lure the ruthless Yankee into a trap.
At Kennesaw Mountain he baited the trap. As I drove up the paved trail to the top, I could see to my left the top of adjacent Little Kennesaw Mountain. It was there that a crew of Rebel axmen cleared the way through trees and underbrush for Confederate soldiers to manhandle a cannon to the top. Meanwhile, Big Kennesaw Mountain was turned into a Confederate fort.
Sherman attacked but was unable to dislodge the Rebs. The Yankee hosts then swarmed around the mountain, threatening Johnston’s supply line. The canny Rebel, though unbeaten, had to retreat again.
A frustrated Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with Gen. John Bell Hood, who at the time was an apt metaphor for the Confederate cause: He had a mangled arm and a missing leg, souvenirs of Gettysburg; but he was a fighter, and that’s what Davis wanted.
Winston Groom, in his book, “Shrouds of Glory,” has documented Hood’s valor as a soldier and his ineptitude as the commander of an army.
Sherman took Atlanta without destroying Hood’s army. Then he scornfully turned his back on Hood and began his infamous march to the sea.
Hood then turned his back on Sherman and headed north, hoping to defeat a Union army under George Thomas in Nashville and then, perhaps, drive to the Ohio River and eastward to join up with Lee in the vicinity of Richmond.
Hood’s march to Nashville was a nightmare of blown opportunities. His zeal for battle resulted in a pyrrhic victory at Franklin, Tenn., then to utter defeat at Nashville. George Thomas, a Virginian who stuck with the Union, sent Hood’s disorganized army fleeing southward.
The Confederacy was able to scrap together an army of 20,000 men or so, and Davis assigned Johnston the hopeless task of stopping Sherman on his devastating march through the Carolinas.
There was no Kennesaw Mountain in Piedmont North Carolina, and on April 26, 1865, Johnston surrendered the largest number of Confederate troops in the war.
The backward waltz was over.
Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.