So Fell the Captain of the Gate. The Assault on Cheathams Hill -150 Years Ago Today

by Phil Spaugy

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Colonel Dan McCook Image from – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_McCook,_Jr.

While my focus over the last several posts has concentrated on Gettysburg, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize today’s 150th anniversary of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Below is an excerpt from the regimental history of the 52nd OVI by Nixon B. Stewart. The 52nd which was once commanded by brigade commander Colonel Daniel McCook, a member of the famed Ohio family of “Fighting McCooks. With great gallantry General McCook led his command across the killing fields below the Confederate position ( soon to be known as the “Dead Angle”) on Cheathams Hill and charging up the steep slopes of the hill was mortally wounded just feet from the top of the enemy’s line of entrenchments:

That beautiful morning was half gone when we were told that all things were ready. The hostile army grimly waited for our coming, as slowly we marched into the jaws of death. Just as the batteries ceased firing, we dressed our lines into column, and Col. Dan. McCook, standing in front of the brigade, repeated from McCauley’s poem in Horatius the words:

“Then out spoke bold Horatius, the captain of the gate,
To all men of the earth cometh soon or late.
But how can man die nobler, when facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temple of his Gods.”

It was fifty paces from McCook’s to Morgan’s line. We moved promptly on signal, going at quick time, then double-quick, on coming to the creek, which was marshy and sluggish, our lines was somewhat broken.

Firing began immediately. From the crest both musketry and artillery, but we pushed on capturing the line of rifle pits, taking the men prisoners. The batteries opened right and left, as we pushed on up the hill. It is dreadful to think about. Grape and canister, shot and shell sowed the ground with rugged iron and garnished it with the dead. The first to fall was Sergeant John T. Fowler, of Co. B. As he fell, his tongue protruded from his mouth, caused by a contraction of the muscles of the throat. I longed to take him in my arms and minister to his sufferings, but we were to push the battle. The race of flags grew every moment more terrible. Four color-bearers were either killed or wounded. Linley H. Street, a brave boy, beloved by his comrades, fell, pierced to death. Sergeant Wm. J. Bradfield snatches the flag and is wounded in the strong right arm as he leads the charging column. Poor boy, he goes back to Nashville to die with the dread gangrene. David U. McCullough of Co. E, seizes the old banner and is wounded in the shoulder. Thus three of our color-bearers are shot down. The line wavers like a great billow and up comes the banner again. Now it is in the hands of James Lynne of Co. C. He loses an arm and on we go. Sheets of flame baptize us. Plunging shot tear away comrades on left and right. It is no longer shoulder to shoulder, it is God for us all. We are facing the steady fire of two thousand infantry, pouring down upon our heads as if it were the old historic curse from heaven. We wrestled with the mountain, but our brave men are climbing steadily on — upward still. Things are growing desperate. The enemy began to throw stones upon our heads. They light the fuse and throw hand grenades in our faces. One of these struck James Sheets, of Co. E, tearing away all the flesh from his cheek.

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View of the field from the confederate earthworks crossed by the 52nd OVI during their assault on Cheathams Hill.

They shout down upon us “Chickamauga.” Our brave Dan McCook was in the lead, when our front line had reached the fortifications, only to find a barrier which was calculated to make a weak man falter and a brave man think. The works were fringed with pikes, sharpened pins driven into logs, standing like a hay rack, pointing toward your face. Four lines of these stood one behind the other, so arranged that they overlapped each other. In a moment the front line grasped the barrier of pikes, and carried them endways, thus opening the way to the line of earth works.

Our brave Colonel urging his men on, was struck as he said, “Come on boys, the day is won,” as he reached the earth work. He was shot about four inches below the collar bone, in the right breast, falling outside of the fortifications.

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Marker designating the spot just outside the confederate earthworks where Colonel McCook Fell mortally wounded. Authors Photo

After the fall of Col. McCook, the voice of Captain Charles Fellows of McCook’s staff was heard, but his half finished, “come on boys—we’ll take”—was cut short, and brave Charley fell dead only a few feet from the ditch.

Regiment after regiment breasted the storm as we came upon the mountain, until all four of the regiments in front of our line had tried and failed, and when we reached the works, we were in the front line. Several colors were planted in the loose earth at the foot of the ditch. We learned from a member of the ist Tennessee Infantry, that Capt. Beasley of that regiment lost his life while attempting to grasp the colors of the 52nd Ohio. Our regiment preserved a fair allignment to the last, and was undoubtedly assisted in the final stand by many members of other regiments. No braver and better behaved men ever attempted to storm an impregnable fortress than the Illinois and Indiana boys who were slaughtered in that terrible assault.

Col. Harmon, of the 125th, took command. He gave the command “Forward” and fell into the arms of his men, pierced through the heart. Deadly volleys mowed us down. The ground was strewn with the dead and dying. The living crouched behind the dead comrades. Col. Dilworth of the 85th Iil., was now the ranking officer, and no sooner in command than he was wounded, and the command was assumed by Lieut. Col. J. W. Langhley, of 125th 1ll.

The order had been given to fall back twenty paces and thus straighten our lines which had swung to the right and rear, owing to the galling fire from the lower depression of the enemy’s line in that direction. When the order was given to re-form our lines we had lain down right under the enemy’s works, and everyone of us would have been killed or captured, had it not been that the line formed twenty-five yards below us with the advantage of the depression of the slope. They, by firing over our heads, soon had control of the line in our immediate front. Probably one half of our regiment that were unharmed, lay within twelve feet of the earth works and not in a position to load and fire. One by one our men crawled back to the new line below while many of us, with the dead and seriously wounded, lay near the works. Three of my comrades were struck just as our men lay down. Joseph Hanlon lay dead on my right. Isaac Winters, who was shot in the temple, but living, lay within my reach on the left. Frank Grace of Co. D, lay dead just below me, and Joseph E. Watkins of the 22nd Indiana Regiment, rose to start for the line below, when he fell dead across my feet, as I lay near a chestnut stump, within ten feet of the earth works. Col. Clancy was on my left, and in an opportune moment, he started for the line below, catching his foot in the belt of a sword, plunged into our line below, taking the sword with him. It proved to be Capt. S. M. Neighbor’s, he, having been seriously wounded a short time before, stripped off his sword and belt and staggered to the rear.

While lying here with a dead soldier across my feet, who could describe the sensations of the forty minutes that passed. To run the gauntlet might be death, to lie there, a movement of the body would draw the fire of the enemy on the “Dead Angle” to our right. The comrade shot in the temple sat up and began to talk in delirium, which attracted the enemy. He plead for water. I pushed my canteen toward him and he reached out but failed to get it.

As mentioned in the above the 52nd fell back to a new line which thanks to a slight fold or depression in the ground offered a bit of protection from the savage confederate small arm and artillery fire. The 52nd’s loss during the assault on the Dead Angle and Cheathams Hill was 34 killed and 102 wounded and three prisoners, total 139.  The regiment remained on this line for six more days, under confederate fire most of the time, save for a truce to bury the dead…….

Wednesday morning a truce lasting from 9 a. m. to 4 p. m. was arranged to bury the dead. Unarmed guards, detailed from each side, were stationed in two lines, facing outward, to prevent the passing of other than the burial party, which worked between. A general exchange of news papers, coffee and tobacco while a jolly good feeling abounded everywhere. Our dead had lain upon the ground forty hours and the smell was terrible. Thirty-seven of our brigade were buried in the four hours in which we worked. It was my good fortune to be on the detail and to be able to identify all who belonged to the 52nd Ohio. We dug the graves, right where they lay, covering them over and marking the spot with the name and regiment. Our men sat upon the head logs and crowds of armed men from the commands near by thronged our works. The rebel line was crowned with sightseers of high and low rank. Generals from both sides circulated freely between the lines, although this was in direct violation of the terms of the truce. Hindman, Cheatham and Maney were prominent. I was particularly interested in Pat Cleburne, who afterwards lost his life at Franklin. He was tall, with a genial face and a good fighter, as we had a chance to know. We sat down and chatted with the detail and enjoyed ourselves like friends. A challenge came from a rebel who wanted to wrestle with any yank in the crowd. It was accepted by one of our boys, a recruit. He threw the Johnny, amid the shouts of our boys. The signal gun was fired and we were pecking away at each other in five minutes.

Colonel McCook would be transported to the family home in Steubenville Ohio, only to die of the lingering affects of his wound on July 17th, 1864. He was 29 years old.

Sources –Stewart, Nixon B. Dan McCooks Regiment, 52nd OVI, Alliance Ohio, Review Print 1900. Reprint by Blue Acorn Press

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