Battle Your Way through the Traffic and Visit Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
Sherman needed 100,000 troops to take Atlanta in 1864, and you’ll need patience and good humor when you visit the best park commemorating the Atlanta Campaign. Established as a national battlefield 92 years ago today, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park offers many delights, despite being engulfed by urban sprawl and plagued with awful traffic.
The summer of 1864 found Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his 100,000-man army – actually the combined forces of the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio – hell bent on capturing Atlanta, the Confederacy’s second most important city. Opposing this Union juggernaut was a roughly 63,000-man force commanded by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. With the fate of the Confederacy pretty much hanging in the balance, both sides fought with an extra measure of determination.
A series of memorials arrayed along the generally north-south axis of Sherman’s advance commemorates various battles and skirmishes of the Atlanta Campaign, but no single battlefield has been better preserved -- or is more worth visiting -- than the one that commemorates the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain took place not far west of Marietta at a place whose strategic importance traces to the huge logistical needs of the Union army. Simply put, Sherman’s campaign to take Atlanta was primed to succeed only if his army could advance along the north-south trending axis of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and rely on rail transportation to move troops, munitions, food, and the general wherewithal needed to sustain it in the field.
Kennesaw Mountain was so close to the railroad that Confederate observation posts and artillery emplacements atop the mountain could easily prevent Sherman from using it to supply his army and continue his advance on Atlanta. Johnston entrenched his troops in strongly fortified positions atop and near the mountain, creating a nightmare situation for the Union army. It was a very clear case of “come and take it if you can.”
During a two-week (June 19 through July 2) in the early summer of 1864, Sherman’s troops took a good crack at it, but came up short. At this late stage of the war, troops on both sides had turned the defense of prepared positions into a deadly art, ensuring that opposing forces would pay a horrible price for attacking them. Heavy Union losses were tallied on various battlefields on and near Kennesaw Mountain, including Kolb Farm, Pigeon Hill, and Cheatham Hill (aka Dead Angle). While heavy fighting took place on Kennesaw Mountain itself, the preponderant share of the fighting and dying took place elsewhere, especially on Little Kennesaw and in areas lying to the south.
The Union’s June 27 frontal attack on the strong Confederate position atop Kennesaw Mountain failed conspicuously at the cost of around 3,000 casualties. Many historians have called this particular fight a needless waste of lives. Confederate losses were relatively light.
Johnston didn’t have enough troops to hold Kennesaw Mountain and prevent his main line from being outflanked. Having punished Sherman’s army at Kennesaw, he withdrew toward Atlanta to preserve his options. As it turned out, the Confederate tactical victory at Kennesaw only delayed the inevitable. Atlanta was surrendered to Union forces on September 2 and much of the city was burned, rendering it of little use to the Confederacy, before Sherman began his audacious March to the Sea.
Because the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was one of the more significant battles of the Civil War, and since the area had an overwhelmingly rural character for many years after the battle, preserving the battlefield presented relatively few problems. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Site was designated on February 8, 1917, and placed under the supervision of the War Department. The battlefield was transferred to the National Park Service on August 10, 1933, and also enlarged with the addition of Cheatham Hill property (historically known as the Dead Angle). The park acquired its present title via a redesignation on June 26, 1935, and was again enlarged in1939.
Today this 2,885-acre park is a member of the Park System’s “million club” (over 1.3 million visitors in 2007), not least because it’s one of the more readily accessible national parks. Kennesaw is not only near the Barrett Parkway and close to Interstate 75 (the main north-south route linking the Middle West to the Deep South and the Florida vacationlands), but also within the urban sprawl and day-tripper zones of the great urban center that Atlanta has become.
Kennesaw Mountain’s geographic situation virtually guarantees that there will be heavy traffic in the vicinity much of the time, and this means that park visitors should expect a certain measure of aggravation. Depending on the time of year, the day of the week, and the hour of your visit, you may encounter traffic conditions ranging anywhere from mildly annoying to absolutely maddening. If you encounter the latter instead of the former, you may leave with a very unflattering opinion of the place. That would be a shame.
Despite the traffic issues that so commonly plague Kennesaw Mountain -- even driving to some stops within the park can require negotiating dangerously crowded roads -- this battlefield park has a great deal to offer in the way of recreational/education worth. Yes, it’s a “must see” for Civil War buffs, but a visit can also be richly rewarding for those who simply want to satisfy their curiosity about the fighting that went on there and perhaps gain some deeper understanding of Atlanta Campaign strategies and tactics.
Consider these plusses:
• A fine orientation to the battle. The visitor center’s 18-minute AV presentation provides a good overview of the battle’s strategic significance and tactical situations.
• An intelligently designed and well maintained system of roads and trails. The park’s road system offers four self guided driving tour stops at strategic points, and there are nearly 18 miles of interpretive walking trails.
• Abundant markers/memorials and related signage. Like nearly all Civil war battlefields under NPS supervision, Kennesaw is well equipped with appropriate markers.
• An extensive system of exceptionally well preserved earthworks and cannon emplacements. Within the park borders are about 11 miles of Union and Confederate earthworks in various states of preservation.
• Excellent interpretive services. The park rangers are knowledgeable and friendly, and the volunteers are well trained and motivated. You can reasonably expect to have your questions answered authoritatively, and you’ll find the guided tours and ranger walks & talks maintaining high standards.
• Plenty of parking. There’s no guarantee you’ll find that parking place you need, but the chances are pretty good.
This is not to say that visitors won’t find some things to grouse about besides the ubiquitous traffic congestion. Urban sprawl has yielded development right to the very edge of the park in nearly every direction, and that imparts an uncomfortable degree of hemmed-in look and feel. While in a griping mood, we’ll not forget to point out that the park’s visitor center is way too small.
Civil War buffs arrive at a battlefield park more thoroughly prepared and with a greater eye to historical detail than the general public. If you are one of those, you probably already know that Kennesaw has some witness trees, some easily recognizable Civil War photo locations (accessible via the foot trails), and a very cool hidden battery location that had a Union tunneling operation nearby. Rangers can help you locate all of these.
Allow plenty of time for your visit. You’ll need half a day if you take time, as you should, to see the excellent AV presentation on the Atlanta Campaign, check out the exhibits, do some trail walking, peruse the various markers and memorials, and chat with volunteers and staff. The views at the mountain top are pretty nice, so you may want to linger there a while.
Traveler tip, no extra charge: Try to read Sam Watkins’ wonderful book Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War before you go. Watkins, who fought in this battle (one of many he survived), described the action vividly and with an extraordinarily human touch.