The battle of Kenesaw Mountain was the least impressive moment on Sherman’s 1864 advance towards Atlanta (American Civil War). After forcing his Confederate opponent, Joseph Johnston, out of his lines around New Hope Church, Sherman had resumed his advance towards Atlanta, now tantalisingly close. However, continual heavy rain now set in, turning the Georgia roads to deep mud, and making Sherman’s normal flanking moves impossible.
Johnston now had a strong position on and around Kenesaw Mountain. Worse, the slow progress was starting to get to Sherman. At last he decided to make a frontal assault on the strong Confederate positions. He justified this in two ways. First, he was worried that the continual manoeuvring was blunting his army's fighting edge. His second argument was that the Confederates were now used to him launching attacks on the flanks, so if he feinted at the flanks and attacked the centre he might catch them by surprise.
He did not. The Confederate positions around Kenesaw were now very strong. Johnston had the advantage of slave labour, which he could use to construct his series of defensive positions without weakening his main army. The Federal attack on Kenesaw Mountain was one of the most one-sided of the war, a re-run of Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg or the even bigger Federal disaster at Fredericksburg.
At 9.00 a.m. the Federal divisions advanced into the face of devastating Confederate musketry. The most advanced Union men reached within a few feet of the Confederate line, but none breached it. After two and half hours of this futile attack, Sherman called off the assault. He had suffered between 2,500 and 3,000 casualties, while only inflicting around 800. This was a ratio of losses that the Confederacy could afford.
Confederate elation at this victory was short lived. The rains soon stopped, the roads dried out, and Sherman was able to resume his outflanking manoeuvres. Johnston was forced to abandon the Kenesaw Mountain position on 3 July. On 9 July Sherman was across the Chattahoochee River, a barrier Johnston had just promised to hold for two months! Johnston’s new position was at Peach Tree Creek, four miles from Atlanta. Not unsurprisingly this caused a mass panic in Atlanta, whose civilian population now began to flee south.
At this crucial moment, President Jefferson Davis intervened. Johnston’s strategy was not popular in the south, where Robert E. Lee’s determination to offer battle was the popular image of a general. On 17 July, Davis replaced Johnston with General John Hood, a much more aggressive commander, but one who Lee considered to be too reckless for such an important command. Sherman agreed with Lee, later describing Davis’s decision as having ‘rendered us most valuable service’. Sherman was now wary of attacking entrenched Confederates, but he was confident of the result if those same Confederate would emerge from their trenches.