Standing beside the breastworks on that summer evening, under the shadow of grim and silent Kennesaw, with twilight deepening into night, there were shadows on all our hearts as well, shadows that stretched beyond us and fell on hearts and hearthstones far away, shadows that rest there still and never will be lifted.
In 2016, I visited Cheatam Hill, near Atlanta; it was the site where colonel Daniel McCook, Jr. was fatally wounded in battle in 1864. After being shot by Confederate forces, McCook, a Colonel with the Illinois Regiment, was carted off of the field and later succumbed to his injuries. His sword was collected and passed among family members until it ended in the hands of his relatives in Connecticut. Their family home is now a museum where I work.
The Butler-McCook House archive preserves more than 100 letters sent from McCook cousins and uncles while they served in the Union army. The archive holds other artifacts from the war sent by these men, including enemy flag tassels and a map of Atlanta. The Hartford McCooks (then Butler and Sheldon), like any typical Victorian family, kept mementos from their relatives, several of whom did not survive the war.
I had heard the story of Daniel McCook’s demise many times and had repeated the story to visitors. I had even read to them a stanza of the epic poem McCook read to his brigade. However, I was unaware of the details of McCook’s death; the laminated copy of an illustration, which we used to visually represent the moment, is inaccurate. That image suggests McCook had made himself an easy target, raised high above the other men; the illustration also implies that both sides were fighting on an even slope.
Seeing the site itself was essential to understanding what actually happened: on Cheatem Hill, there was a steep gradient that was nicknamed the Dead Angle; there, Union troops were temporarily protected in the lee of the hill but were unable to hit the Confederates. Dan McCook, Jr. was shot in his attempt to charge his brigade uphill. 2
The outcome of this battle had much to do with the earth’s formation. Earthworks (referred to as breastworks in the epigraph) are embankments used as protection during battle. Most visible is the mound of dirt; less visible is a shallow trench that runs along the inside, where soldiers crouch. Earthwork on the hilltop protected the Confederate men and their cannons; the Confederates also had wooden barriers through which they could discharge weapons. They were also able to see the oncoming attacks.
McCook’s brigade made attempts to manipulate the soil for their own defense as well; after McCook’s death, his men dug for protection using cups, plates—anything at hand. Subsequently, the new leader of McCook’s brigade directed an unsuccessful attempt to tunnel underneath the Confederates, who safely withdrew from the battle site. The tunnel is now preserved by a stone arch.3
Close to Cheatem Hill is another site with extensive Confederate earthworks: Kennesaw Mountain. On Kennesaw Mountain, the earthworks snake across the mountainside. Covered with leaves and vegetation, these long, manmade swells of earth are clearly visible. Dug earth has an air of impermanence; piles of dirt and rock are often quickly trampled down or washed away. Because they are so well-preserved, there is an illusion that the earthworks were finished only a few months ago. In truth, over 150 years has passed since their creation. The smaller earthwork mounds, made for an individual to crouch behind, are also visible. They are scattered through the mountainside. Because of their small size, these small mounds are difficult to spot; the strategic concealment is evident. As a visitor, it is easy to imagine half-hidden soldiers.
The earthworks give visitors the opportunity to clearly visualize the events of the past.
As a reward for hiking to the top of Kennesaw Mountain, one can clearly see the sprawl of modern Atlanta and mentally trace Sherman’s path to the city.