June 19, 1864: Death Along the Kennesaw Line

150 years ago today, Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee fell back to what would become known as the Kennesaw Line. This was in reality the third of their lines around Kennesaw Mountain and its surrounding peaks west of Marietta, but it was the most prominent, the best defended, and the most difficult for Federal forces to break. For the next two weeks, the Atlanta Campaign–the most prominent fighting in the Western Theater of the Civil War during 1864, the final and crucial year of the war–would center around Kennesaw Mountain.


Over those two weeks, many men wearing either blue or gray would die in combat. Yet, not all these deaths occurred in the midst of brave and daring charges. Some would occur as soldiers simply went about the daily business of war. Skirmishing and picket fire were intense affairs at Kennesaw, and they took the lives of many brave men, including David Gilmer Watts of the 88th Illinois. Below are several selections from letters which David wrote home to his wife, Clara, in Illinois in the days and weeks leading up to June 19th, when he was killed by a sharpshooter’s bullet on the first day that the armies had settled in at Kennesaw Mountain…


Near Dallas Georgia, Thursday June 2, 1864
I wrote you just a line yesterday but knowing how anxious you will be I will write another today. We are still skirmishing with the enemy. There has been heavy fighting to our right and left but not much in our immediate front. Our regiment is in front today but we are behind temporary defenses and are comparatively safe while there is no general battle. It is raining and I cannot write. If I had time which I have not. Good bye. Put your trust in God.
I have had no letter from you later than May 15.
Your loving Gilmer
“Let not your heart be troubled.” John XIV Read the whole chapter.
The Lord bless you.



Vicinity of Dallas Georgia, Friday June 3 1864
I wrote you a few words yesterday and also a sentence or two the day before. Having now some prospect of time to write a little more at length I commence. I don’t think I can give you a very definite idea of our position here. This is now the 10th day that we have been in the immediate presence of the enemy. Skirmishing is constantly going on throughout the day and often a considerable portion of the night.
There are men killed or wounded in our immediate vicinity every day but the number hurt in proportion to the whole number here is small. Our line of battle is probably 10 to 15 miles long. The heavy fighting thus far has been on the flanks except the day that we came here. Hooker’s Corps in advance of ours encountered the enemy and one of his divisions had a severe fight in which they lost quite heavily. We have thrown up several lines of breastworks. Our regiment as all the others is in front half the time 24 hours at a time. We came from the front last night and will go out again tonight. Our regiment has not lost any men during a day or two past. We have two or three killed and perhaps a dozen wounded since we came here. Our greatest loss was May 17 at Pleasant Hill when our Reg. lost more than 40 men in the span of about two hours.
There will probably be a great battle here before very long in which we, no doubt, will have a part, with whatever result, to each of us, we cannot even anticipate. But we are in the hands of our Father “who doeth all things well.” I may be killed or wounded or I may escape unhurt. Let us trust in God. Should I be called away, I know that you will grieve deeply. I would not have it otherwise. But I trust that God will enable you to bear whatever you may be called upon to endure with Christian fortitude. O may the Lord help us both to be ready for whatever may befall us.
I would try to fill another sheet, but my paper is nearly gone and I don’t know when I shall be able to get any more. I have written you quite often lately but the mails are so liable to interruption that you may fail to receive some of my letters. If you get the last five you will find them dated May 20, 22, 29, June 1, 2. The last I have from you is May 15. I hope to get one this morning.
You as my advice about a paper. I hardly know what to advise but if you only think of taking a weekly, I think the N.Y. Independent would be the best. If you could afford it I would like you to get the Chicago Journal bi-weekly, but perhaps you cant possibly spare the money. It costs $5.00 per year.
Good bye. The Lord bless you.



In the woods, Georgia
Wed June 8, 1864 6 o’clock pm
Dear Clara—having now the prospect of an hour’s leisure, and not when there is prospect of another I will write a few sentences to you—
I wrote you last Sunday the 5. There has been no fighting near us since then. I do not know that any part of the Army has been engaged during the last four days. The Rebels have fallen back among the mountains farther toward Altoona. I suppose we are getting ready to try to drive them still farther. We have moved 8 to 10 miles since Sunday. Our brigade has been in the rear of the whole Army guarding the Hospitals while the sick and wounded were being removed.
For nearly 48 hours preceding this morning our little brigade (about 1200 men) lay around these hospitals entirely isolated from the remainder of the army while it was said that a force of at least 3000 rebel cavalry was constantly menacing us only a mile or two away. They did not however attack us. Occasionally some of their scouts and pickets were seen hovering around our picket line and a few of them were captured. The pickets of our regiment brought one of them in. He had first captured one of our men who was outside the picket line unarmed, was moving off with him when he suddenly sprang upon him, disarmed him, and with the aid of some of the pickets who were nearby captured and brought him in. This morning at 7 ½ o’clock we moved forward to form our division moved slowly 6 or 7 miles. Came here at 3 pm drew rations and cooked and ate supper between 4 and 5 the first morsel of food that most of us had eaten today. During the last two weeks our corps has been receiving only about half the usual allowance of food. Of course we have been hungry many times. There is a good deal of complaint about it as it is believed to be unnecessary. Other corps in our immediate vicinity having received the usual allowance ever since the commencement of the campaign. You wrote of having heard that Sheridan’s division had fought a severe battle. He was our division commander but is not now in the army. He is chief of the cavalry forces in the Army of the Potomac.
We are now in the 1 Brigade (Gen’l Kimball) 2 Division (Gen Newton) 4 Army Corps (General Howard)
I don’t know what you are to do about money. There is now more than five months pay due us but it is extremely doubtful whether we will be paid soon. I hope father’s folks will send you the money they owe you before what you have is gone. If every other means fails I think I would avail myself of Mrs. Pennel’s proffered kindness rather than leave school or suffer for want of necessities. The money that is due me will surely be paid at some time. In any view of the case but especially of the sad, possible one that I may die on the battle field or in hospital and thus never be with you again I think you would better remain at school as long as you possibly can. I trust however that God will continue to spare my life as he has hitherto and that we shall be permitted to spend many happy days together serving God and doing good. Let us hope for this while we at the same time try to cultivate that spirit of submission that will enable us to say and feel “Thy will be done…”
Good bye.
The Lord bless and guide you
Your loving



7 miles west from Marietta, Ga
Monday June 13, 1864
My darling wife,
It has now been four days since I wrote you last and knowing that you will be very anxious to hear often I will write a little. The Rebels have again moved toward Atlanta and we have moved likewise. We now be opposite a portion of their lines though our brigade is not in the immediate front. We have not been engaged with the enemy since the 4 inst. The weather is extremely bad. During the last four days it has rained almost constantly. When I wrote you last we were on limited allowance of food. Since then we have had all we wanted. You know, I suppose, that on e a campaign soldier’s fare consists of a few articles of food, hand bread, meat, coffee, and sugar, but when we get plenty of them there is no dissatisfaction on that score. There is constant slight skirmishing along the lines but it is not supposed that there will be any great general battle until we get nearer Atlanta. The last letter I have received from you was dated May 22 Received June 5. I hope I will get another today. Most of the company get their letters 5 to 7 days after they are marked which mine for a good while have been from 8 to 14. This must be owing to the criminal carelessness of some P.M.
A short note was included for Gilmer’s daughter


Dear Alpha
Father received your little letter of May 15. Was very glad indeed to get a letter from my little daughter in her own handwriting. Very glad indeed that you are learning to write. Hope you will soon write well. I want you to be a very good little girl and to try to learn all you possibly can. If your Father lives to get home it will be a great pleasure to him to buy you nice good books if you will read them and take good care of them. I hope you will always think more of books than of fine clothes. But above all things try to be good. You should ask God, for Christ’s sake to give you a pure heart and try every day to be like God. If you don’t understand this ask mother and she will tell you. Good bye. Kiss Wally for father. Your loving Father



This was the last letter which Clara received from Gilmer. On July 14th, a letter was sent to her to inform her that her husband was killed on June 19th and that his grave rested at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain. The death and loss at Kennesaw Mountain began 150 years ago today, and Sherman’s main assault was still over a week away.




Source: David Gilmer Watts Letters, Atlanta History Center


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