While his regiment was not directly engaged in the main assault at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Columbus Sykes of the 43rd Mississippi was a keen observer of the events before, during, and after the battle. His letters home paint a poignant portrait of a Confederate warrior mired in a crucial campaign. Sykes remained incredibly optimistic despite many of the hardships surrounding him and his men. He maintained a strong belief in Joseph Johnston that only began to fade once the Confederates had fallen back from Kennesaw Mountain. Portions of his letters are excerpted below:
In line of battle, 5 miles west of Marietta
June 8 1864
My precious darling
I sent off my last letter to you day before yesterday, the 6th. Shortly after starting it we were ordered to “fall in” and marched a mile or so to Lost Mountain. While we took position, Polk’s Corps extending entirely across the crest and reaching out in the plain on each side. It was a magnificent position, such an one in which a soldier loves to fight. The prospect was splendid, commanding an excellent view of the surrounding country for miles and miles. Marietta—a distance of ten miles—could be seen, and some said they could see Atlanta 30 miles off, while the conical peak of Stone Mountain, still farther off, would be distinctly seen, looming up grandly and gloomily against the horizon. We were in hopes that the big fight would come off here, but on yesterday this corps was ordered to take position on the right of the Army, so at 1 o’clock we commenced the march in mud and mire and under a tolerably warm Sun, reaching here about sunset. But I suppose the enemy still continues his flanking process on our right, as this morning Hood’s corps was moved from the left to the right, thus as you perceive rapidly extending our lines in that direction. Let Sherman move as he will, Gen. Johnston is cognizant of it, and is as ready to meet strategy with strategy as he is to return blow for blow. The troops still retain almost unlimited confidence in their chieftain, and I verily believe no general ever commanded a finer army. The heroic fortitude, unflinching courage and patient endurance of the men, amid the dangers, toils, privations, hardships, mid-day and mid-night marches, of a campaign, which is now at the end of the sixth week, and will probably continue as much longer, is not only wonderful, but will excite admiration in the most stoical and unfeeling heart. It is said that Gen. Johnston has said that it is the best and bravest army he ever saw.
It has rained on us now for seven days. The roads are so muddy as to considerably retard military operations. Prisoners are coming in almost every day. I suppose about an average of 100 per day. Wm. Received a small box from Augusta two or three days since containing cake, biscuits and a cup of jelly. It was altogether acceptable. It was brought by Dr. Teasdale, who is a sort of missionary to the Army of Tennessee. Orders have this moment been received to be in readiness to move towards the right.
We moved last evening about ½ mile to the right, and I think we may probably go a little further in that direction this morning. Sherman seems very averse to a direct attack and will try the flanking process as long as possible. I had intended writing as usual a tolerably long letter but as Mr. Perkins from Columbus leaves from Selma this morning where he will mail it so I must abbreviate. If you could see us this morning you would see a pretty rough set though. I look and feel tolerable as I put on clean underclothing last night. I have not seen my valise for five weeks today and have not pulled off my clothes in that time except to change them. As long as this unprecedented campaign continues we will have to rough it in the same way, marching, lying, and sleeping in line of battle ready to move at a moments notice, day or night. I am now using Paul’s horse, the celebrated “Plug Ugly” as he calls him, as near no horse has ever troubled a man in or out of the army. What sort of a stand of corn, peas, and millet have you in the pasture? How I wish, my darling, I could be with you and see for myself how you all are getting on. It rained on us again yesterday evening and this morning, cloudy and threatening—but as we are neither sugar nor salt, rain don’t hurt us in the least, neither does sleeping on the wet ground annoy us in the least. I reiterate don’t be uneasy about me—but take care of yourself and the babies and get along the best you can. My love to all, and tell them to write. Good bye, my precious wife.
I send you a Yankee letter captured from their mail bad last Monday, We obtained a large number of letters and dispatches.
How are they getting on at the plantation? Tell your sister G. she might let a humble individual like myself hear from her occasionally.
In line of battle, 3 miles west of Kennesaw Mts.
Monday June 13, 1864
My precious darling,
I received your dearly cherished letter of June 6th by Kinchen day before yesterday; it is unnecessary for me with how much pleasure, with it came pa’s letter and the box of provisions for which accept my thanks. Such things as it contained afford an excellent variation with bread and meat. I very much regret Ma’s condition. I had indulged the hope from the last letters I received that she would soon be well, but I am afraid that she will have now to undergo another long painful operation. I so trust that she will not be as tedious as the first. By the by how many of my letters have reached you? I sent one from Cassville, one from New Hope Church, one from near Lost Mountain, and one from here last Friday. The great difficulty in writing is to get the paper which is very very scarce. Could I get more I would be glad to write to your mother, but I have used every scrap I can get in writing to you. Further more a large portion of my letters is of so general a character, giving all the information I have, that they will do for the entire family. Pa’s letters I answer in mine to you. We have by no means the same facilities for writing as those at home, and many allowances must be made.
The army is in status quo, neither side doing much apparently. We have not fallen back an inch for the last three weeks. The enemy are lying in front of our line, making no demonstrations whatever. I think Sherman’s flanking process has nearly played out, and he must soon come down to his work by making a direct attack on our front; for this purpose he may some day suddenly mass his troops on some given point, and attempt, by mere brute force, to break thru’ our lines. I think, however, he will find us ready for him at all points of the line. The “on to Atlanta” movement has become very slow as well as dangerous. I don’t remember that I have ever mentioned the organization of this army. It is composed of three Corps, commanded by Hardee, Hood and Polk—Hardee’s Corps consists of Walker’s, Cleburne’s, Cheatham’s, and Bate’s Divisions, numbering about twenty-two thousand men—Hood’s of Stevenson’s, Stewart’s, and Hindman’s Divisions numbering about 18,000 men—Polk’s of Lorgin’s, French’s, and Canty’s Divisions, numbering about 17,000 men. There are in addition, about 12,000 cavalry and four or five thousand artillery men—there are nearly two hundred and forty pieces of artillery; 56 pieces attached to Hardee’s Corps, 48 each to Hood’s and Polk’s. 48 in a reserve corps of artillery, and 35 or 6 attached to the cavalry. The transportation of the army when stretched out in line is said to extend fifty miles. Some of the figures in these estimates are official, but are given from the best information I can obtain, and I doubt not they are approximate the best number. The wagons, gear, and transportation animals are in excellent condition. The men are generally well, armed, clothed, and fed.
It has been raining on us now for twelve successive days and since Friday morning, day and night. You may imagine how unpleasant our situation has been, without tents—I hope you have had enough in Miss. Have you heard whether they have it in Noxubee?
Wednesday 8 o’clock AM
June 15, 1864
We moved yesterday morning early about 1 ½ miles to the right thro’ a tolerably good shelling a part of the way. We had scarcely taken our present position when Gen. Polk was instantly killed by a shell. He, together with Gen. Johnston and Hardee, were on Hardee’s line, in front of Bate’s division, examining the relative position of the opposing armies, when the enemy discovering it is supposed from the cavalcade accompanying them, that they were General Officers, opened on them with musketry and artillery, unfortunately too much effect. The shell passed entirely through the General entering not far below the arm-pit, breaking, I understand, both arms. His death is a sad calamity, and a great loss to the country. Gen. Loring now commands the Corps and Featherson the Division. Each has assumed command by virtue of Seniority in rank, and will only hold, I suppose, temporarily.
We sometimes while away the tedium of idle hours by reading Yankee letters. I mentioned to you that a large number were taken from their knapsacks in Cleburne’s fight on 27th May: since then our cavalry have captured two-three mail bags. I enclose you two or three—one from Ellen to “Dear Will”. Her “Dear Will” perchance is sleeping beneath the sod of the Empire state, put forever at rest by a rebel ball. Another lively sprightly epistle from “Tim AA” to “Dear Bell”. Belle little thinks that a rebel officer’s wife has possession of this little piece of her property. Should it ever be convenient I am entirely willing to return it to Belle with my compliments, for I am altogether to gallant to withhold a lady’s letters. “Tim” as you perceive is a Commissary and occupies a “Safe place” one half mile in rear of the regiment and can therefore afford to write in a cheerful strain. Tim, however, who seems to be a goodhearted, clever fellow, had better take my advice and not go too often to the skirmish line, for the purpose of getting a hole in his hat; a rebel sharpshooter might make an unpleasantly larger one on his empty cranium—they are sometimes guilty of such indiscretions to officious visitors. Tim complains of living on hard tack, blue beef, and coffee without sugar. Well, I am not sorry for him; he might have stayed at home with “Dear Belle” and perhaps would have feasted sumptuously on “Onions.” Is it possible that a people who luxuriate on onions can ever subjugate the freemen of the South? By the by, today is the time fixed for Tim to get to Atlanta. How disappointed he must be as he is now no nearer than he was three weeks ago! And the same lion lies in his path to dispute his passage to that devoted city. The enemy have opened their batteries with unusual vigor on us this morning and it is thought by some that they may attempt to carry our works by assault. Tell ma that we are very much obliged to her for the cakes and light bread. Say to Pa that Kinchin’s expenses were fifty-three dollars in new issue—the balance $47. Cracker writes me he handed to Turner Saunders whom I have not seen. If Featherston can sell any corn at two dollars per bushel in new issue, he had better do it. By the way, when will you be done with Willis in Aberdeen? Have you paid Pa that money? I will send Wesley to LaGrange as soon as I have a chance. And so you think that my many inquiries about your condition are highly complimentary. Well, my darling, the long delay has surprised me fully as much as you, and I begin to think you must be a little lazy in such affairs. I have been expecting to hear of the event in every letter. But do not suppose from my reticence that my anxiety is any the less intense. I had hoped never to have been away from you in such an occasion, a time when of all others, a husband ought to be with, to sustain and cheer, his wife. I trust in Providence and believe that you will be brought safely thro’ all your dangers and troubles.
June 16, 1864
Say to pa that I hired Wesley to a mess in the Regiment temporarily for $25 a month. Ask him if this suits him or must I send him back to the hospital.
I visited the Kennesaw Mountain this morning situated about 1 ½ miles in rear of our line. Here one of the Signal Corps is stationed, and have a fine field of observation. I could see the enemy’s wagon train distinctly, and their line of entrenchments. There was lively artillery and picket firing most of the day, yesterday, and it was through at one time that the enemy would probably make an advance. The 20th Miss. Reg. lost about 40 killed and wounded while out skirmishing. Among the killed as Maj. Massey of Nuxubee County, who was considered a good officer. George Tindall, son of Dr. Tindall, was slightly wounded.
June 19, 1864,
Last night at 11 o’clock, the centre of the army retired about one mile to their present position at the base of Kennesaw Mountain. We are now about 2 miles from Marietta. Today there has been lively artillery firing on the right and left. On yesterday there seemed from the sound to be a heavy fight on our left, but I have heard none of the particulars. We are on picket today, except to be relieved tonight. It has been raining almost incessantly since Friday night—This is the 39th day we have been in line of battle in front of the enemy, of which it has rained on us 14 days and almost as many nights, making our time much more unpleasant than it otherwise would have been.…
June 26, 1864
“It is Sunday afternoon, 4 ½ o’clock—the day is beautiful, bright, warm—a brass band is discoursing sweet music from the mountain and its strains, mellowed and softened by distance, come floating gently down the valley, while an occasional cannon, deep and loud, plays the bass, accompanied with 2 enormous Minnie balls from the enemy’s sharpshooters. Rather a strange and incongruous combination of sounds for a lovely Sabbath evening. Is it not? But this being the 46th day we have been listening uninterruptedly at the two last, they fail to attract our attention, while the first, now but seldom heard, cheers and enlivens the men and is received with shouts of joy. This morning we had a sermon near the trenches from our chaplain, the first I have heard since we left Montevallo.
June 29th, 1864
The 43rd is on picket duty today about 700 yards in advance of our main line. We go on this kind of duty every fifth day and night. About an hour ago I was saved providentially from instant death. I had been lying for two or three hours under the shade of a small tree, near the picket line, in full view of several batteries of the enemy in position on an opposite hill. I was lying on my oil cloth with my blanket folded up under my head for a pillow. Suddenly one of the enemy’s batteries opened on the party with me (consisting of Wm and Capt. Blackwell and one or two others) and the first shell came so close that I distinctly felt the concussion, tho’ nearly asleep. Of course, we changed our position as expeditiously as possible, leaping into a rifle-pit nearby. I had barely done so, when another shell came along and tore my blanket to pieces, which I left lying by the tree. Had I been a few moments later in moving, my head would have probably been blown to atoms. We have escaped to many imminent dangers during this campaign, that I can but gratefully attribute our escape to a special interposition of Providence. Our army still presents a bold and defiant front to Sherman’s numerous columns—His “On to Atlanta” movement has been very, very slow for the last five weeks, having advanced only about three or four miles in that time. At that rate he will not reach there before sometime next year. The army is cheerful, and their confidence in General Johnston unabated. On day before yesterday, the 27th, the enemy made a fierce assault on a part of Hardee’s corps and were repulsed with heavy loss—our loss very slight. Our men having fought altogether behind their breastworks—enemy’s loss estimated at from 5,000 to 7,000.
Gen. Johnston is obtaining all the vegetables for his army that he can, but when distributed the smallest sort of a fragmentary particle falls to the share of each soldier—His army however is finely supplied with meat and bread—No complaint among the men on the score of provisions. He is a great commissary as well as a magnificent General—…
“A vigorous effort will be made by some of the leading officers of this corps to have Loring made Lt. Gen. and assigned to the command of this corps—the Atlanta papers are advocating the claims of Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, for that position. Brig. Gen. Walthall has recently been made a Major Gen. and now commands a Division in this corps.
We were relieved from picket duty last night at 1 ½ o’clock. The regiment lost two men killed; or at least one killed and the other was mortally wounded—the last, freeling Johnson, a member of my old company, and son of Mrs. Julia Johnson, who lives near Smithville. He was an excellent soldier and his loss is greatly regretted. This is the fiftieth (50) day we have been on line of battle, confronting the enemy, and the loss in the regiment thus far has been five killed and eleven wounded. The loss in Polk’s corps will not exceed, I am informed, 6 or 700 in killed and wounded—the loss in the two other corps has been much heavier; the enemy, for some reason, has never assaulted any portion of various lines occupied by this Corps—the loss in our entire army is unprecedentedly small for such a campaign—the enemy’s losses unquestionably exceed ours four or five to one. The army is as strong and jubilant today as it was at Resaca. Gen. Johnston has managed it splendidly; otherwise we could never have successfully resisted the overwhelming forces of Sherman whose strength must have exceeded ours more than 40,000 men at the beginning of the campaign. The enemy last night at 2 o’clock made a fierce assault upon Cleburne’s and Cheatham’s divisions at the same point they assaulted last Monday—They were easily repulsed with very heavy loss—our’s again very flight comparatively. A few more such assaults upon our works filled with the glorious veterans whose breasts rise up as a living wall of fire, will soon exhaust the enemy’s strength—all that as is that he may continue it. The assault was made to obtain possession of an important angle in our works. …
“As soon as you are done with Willis, you had better hire him out. He ought to be worth $40 or $50 per month at present prices.”
My most precious darling
Your sister G’s letter was received today informing me of the safe arrival of another illustrious scion of our noble house, but above all that his mother was doing well. I am truly glad that you are through with that, the greatest of all woman’s numerous trials, and trust that your restoration to strength may be sure and rapid. Could I only have been with you how much better pleased we both would have been, but on that day I was listening to the rattle of Cheatham’s and Cleburne’s musketry and the roar of their artillery as they mowed down the advancing legions of the enemy. I should like to see the little chap. What is his weight, and the color of his complexion, hair, and eyes. I send him his father’s compliments and tell him to be a good fellow and not to be too noisy of nights—How are George and Lilla pleased with the new acquisition to the household?
In line of battle, Chattahoochee River
Just as I had written the above I was interrupted by the calling of some friends at my quarters (that is to say, at my little arbor which I had erected to keep off the sun) who remained until dark. You will perceive from the caption above, that Gen. Johnson has abandoned the line of the Kennesaw Mountains. This was done Saturday night, July 2, at 11 o’clock. The army slowly retired to five miles below Marietta, where we took position and remained until 2 o’clock yesterday morning, when we gracefully retired to our present line. I presume the everlasting flanking process induced these changes. One thing is certain, the enemy have never driven us an inch by force of arms—and I doubt their ability to do so, as largely as they outnumber us. I understand, tho’ my information is not altogether reliable, that this is the only corps on the Marietta side of the river. Hood’s and Hardee’s being on the Atlanta side. I don’t know what disposition has been made of the cavalry. They are, I suppose, principally employed in guarding the flanks and protecting along the river. We all surmised that the Yanks would probably make a grand assault on the glorious 4th, “the day we celebrate,” but it passed off very tamely. The Yankees seemed ot be having a good time from the music and shouting in their lines—we captured a drunken lieutenant on picket yesterday, who reeled as he walked—he said they had a lively time the day before with plenty of whiskey. How long Gen. Johnston intends to occupy this position or how much farther he will fall back, I know not. I hope not much farther, as the army is now getting somewhat tired of this retrograde movement though they are not at all dispirited, notwithstanding the length and time of this campaign, this being the 62nd since it commenced.
Source: MS-4 file, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park