May 27, 1864: The Battle of Pickett’s Mill

150 years ago today, one of the more desperate and grim attacks of the Atlanta Campaign took place. Union forces under William T. Sherman had left the Western and Atlantic Railroad behind several days earlier, swinging out into the Georgia countryside amidst dense forests and streams, attempting to flank Confederates out of strong positions in the Allatoona Mountains. Joseph Johnston had quickly shifted his men into Sherman’s path, starting several days of fierce fighting in what many veterans remembered as the “Hell Hole” of Georgia.

On May 27th, one month to the day before the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman attempted to shift around Johnston’s positions in the forests surrounding Dallas, Georgia. Sending part of the 4th Corps to the north with elements of the 23rd Corps in support, Sherman hoped to catch the Confederates off guard and resume his advance on Atlanta. Instead, his orders resulted in a terrible mistake for Union forces. Confederates picked up on the move and adjusted their lines. Thus, late in the afternoon on May 27th, when soldiers of the 4th Corps, Army of the Cumberland, advanced on Confederate positions held by the men of Patrick Cleburne’s command, there was little hope for success. In a rather short engagement, Union forces suffered 1,600 casualties, many of whom were killed due to the close nature of the fight, as well as the difficult and dense terrain the men encountered. That evening, once darkness settled, Confederates launched their own assault, driving back Federal lines.

The story of the battle is perhaps best told in the words of one of its participants, Bill Raff of the 19th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who lost a close childhood friend at the battle. Raff wrote home to his parents on June 1, 1864, describing the action at Pickett’s Mill from his perspective, reminding us of the human cost of war.

 

Near Pickett’s Mill
June 1, 1864

Dear Parents,

If I am not molested any by the enemy, I shall tell you of what we have been doing since I wrote you last. I will not have the time to tell you all that we have been doing.
I think that it was May 26th when we moved up to the front. We were not engaged any with the Rebs that day. There was a brigade in our front that had to do some skirmishing with the enemy. They threw some shells where we lay, but no one was hit. This ended the day with us. I do not know what was done on our right or left. We could hear the cannon booming on our right and left.
Morning of May 27 we did not move out very early. When we did, it was to our left, and we continued to our left through the woods, and in places the underbrush was so thick we could scarcely move through, and we had to keep our formation of line of battle until about two o’clock in the afternoon. The advance brigade became engaged with the enemy, and now we were all moving forward in five or six lines of battle. Our brigade formed the two rear lines called the reserve lines. The two brigades of our division in our front made a charge on the enemy fortified position, which was partly through cleared ground across a ravine. These two brigades were repulsed with heavy loss in killed and wounded.
Our brigade, being in reserve, were now ordered forward to high position in the open field opposite the enemy in a fortified position. Before advancing we were ordered for each one of us to carry a rail to the psotion to fortify ourselves as best we could under fire of the enemy. While doing this we had a number killed and wounded, for the Rebs were letting into us for all they could. We were exposed to a flank fire from our right as well as the front. Just as we reached the high ground in the open field, quite a number of our boys were shot.
My bunk mate, who had enlisted while we were home on furlough, and this was his first engagement, was shot through the neck and he died very soon after being shot. The ball came out the back of his neck and lodged in his blanket, which was strapped on top of his knapsack. As we advanced to this position with rails, Scott dropped his rail with the rest of us, he dropped to one knee, raised his gun to fire. I do not know if he discharged his gun or not, for just as he dropped to his knee he was shot, falling backward near where I was. At first glance I thought it was August Hay, but on closer examination I saw that it was Scott. You have no idea how I felt for a few minutes.
The boys were being shot all around me. Bill Sherman’s lower jaw was shot away. I felt that I might be the next, but I was one of the fortunate ones.
In the death of Scott Wyandt I lost a very dear friend. We went to school together and lived in the same town. The night of the 26th was our last night together under the same blanket.
We were not ordered to charge the Confederate works in our front. Darkness was now on us and we were ordered to hold the position. A great many dead and wounded of the 1st and 2nd brigades lay between us and the Confederates, and we could not bring them back as both sides kept up a continuous firing, but finally ceased and just occasionally a shot would be fire.
At this time Jas Clewell and I took Scott’s body back a short distance to examine where he was shot, which I have stated. I have the ball and his memorandum book, which I shall send to his father as soon as I can. Jim and I took Scott’s shelter ten out of his knapsack and wrapped it around his body, carried it back a few rods and laid his body under a large tree, and returned to place in the line of battle, for we were expecting the enemy to make a charge on us.
It must have been some time after midnight we heard a bugle call for attention in the Confederate camp to our right. We knew that something was going to happen. The next call was forward. Here they come, said the boys. To our right was woods. We had no protection on our right. We held ourselves in readiness and held our guns in the direction that they were advancing from. We did not need to wait very long as we were not very far apart, and we could hear them coming by the noise of the leaves. When near enough, we fired in the direction they were advancing from. The night was dark, and in a very short time after we fired, the Rebs were mixed in with our boys on our right. The night being so dark, we could not distinguish foe from friend.
We soon received orders to fall back and every fellow seemed to get out the best he could. Had we been attacked from the front, we could have held our ground, but when they came in on us from the flank and rear, we had to get out and leave our dead and wounded in the hands of the Confederates. I disliked very much to leave my bunk mate fall into the enemy’s hands.
It was not expected of us to hold the position we left, but only until part of our army would throw up a line of works in our rear. We could hear them chopping down trees for this purpose. As we were falling back, some of the boys fell into deep holes and ravines. We finally got back to the works. We passed on through to the rear of the works and went into camp.
The next morning, 28th, we threw up some works, and in the evening we moved further to the right and threw up more fortifications. We lay here until the eve of the 30th. We then moved up on a line with the 23rd corps, joined this corps on their left. We were encamped that night in the woods, but this time without any works to lay behind, but plenty of underbrush all around us.

The Rebel pickets can shoot into our camp. For the past few nights we have been routed out into line of battle some three or four times. You can judge by this that we have very little rest. What the next will be I cannot tell. Our pickets keep up a firing all the while, and there has been sharp cannonading on our right.
This morning Bill Sherman has died, and Miller, a recruit I think, has died also. We had one killed and five wounded the 27th of May out of our company.
May 31st, I went over in the direction that we had the battle May 27th to see if our men had retaken the ground that we had the battle on, but I soon found out that the enemy still held the ground. As I was walking along through the different camps, I came to a regiment camped in an open space, and I also noticed that they all kept down behind the works, and they soon told me to get down behind the works or I would get shot, as the enemy had a good range of that ground and had shot a number of the boys. I was not very slow on getting down behind the works. Here I learned that the enemy still held the ground where we had the battle of May 27th, so I concluded to return to the regiment again. When I did go, I left there in a hurry and the Rebs sent some bullets after me, and they more than made the ground fly around me.
Will write again in a few days,
Bill Raff

Source: OH-35 file, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park Library

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