The Battle of Allatoona Pass, Georgia

Allatoona Pass Battlefield

The earthworks of the Eastern Redoubt at Allatoona Pass Battlefield in Georgia.

The Battle of Allatoona Pass was the first engagement of John Bell Hood’s Franklin and Nashville Campaign. Fought in the mountains northwest of Atlanta, it took place even before Sherman started his infamous March to the Sea.

The site is preserved at Allatoona Pass Battlefield near Cartersville, Georgia. Trails, monuments and interpretive signs help visitors understand the tactics of the battle and the significance of the battlefield’s well-preserved Civil War fortifications.

The Battle of Allatoona Pass was triggered on September 2, 1864, when the Union army of General William Tecumseh Sherman finally took Atlanta. The transportation center fell after months of hard fighting between Sherman’s men and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, led first by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and later by Gen. John Bell Hood.

The W&A tracks approach the Deep Cut at Allatoona Pass in this 1864-1865 photo by George Barnard. National Archives

Sherman noticed Allatoona Pass as he fought his way through the mountains to Atlanta, recognizing it as a choke point where the trains of the Western & Atlantic railroad passed through a “cut” excavated 175 feet down through solid rock. If the Confederates gained control of the pass, they would stop the flow of supplies to Sherman’s army as it made its final drive for Atlanta.

The high ridges on either side of the pass were naturally advantageous to its defense and Sherman sent Capt. Orlando M. Poe to design and build fortifications to protect the pass and the key supply depot in the community at its southern entrance. Poe was the chief engineer for Sherman’s army and quickly developed a plan for the defenses ordered by his commander.

Poe supervised the building of two primary fortifications at Allatoona Pass. The East Redoubt and the Star Fort stood on the hilltops east and west of the pass. Artillery was mounted in these strong earthwork positions and infantry trenches were dug to connect them. Trees were cut from the slopes of the ridge, opening a wide field of fire and leaving entangled limbs and branches that would break up any enemy attacks up the slopes.

The entrance to Allatoona Pass as it appears today. The Clayton House, visible at left, is also seen in the Civil War photograph of the pass.

The decision to fortify the pass proved to be prophetic. Confederate President Jefferson Davis met with Gen. Hood after the fall of Atlanta and approved a plan for the army to take a strong position on the Western & Atlantic between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The move would break Sherman’s line of supplies and, they believed, force him to come out of Atlanta and fight on ground much more advantageous to the Confederate army. That Sherman had already driven the Southern army out of these same hills was not a consideration, probably because this time it would be between him and his supplies.

The plan might have worked. The Union general was not yet fully committed to his “March to the Sea” and worried about just such an effort by Hood. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Hood changed the plan that Davis approved and instead sent only the 3,276 man division of Gen.Samuel G. French to take Allatoona Pass. He was told to destroy the bridge over the Etowah River and then reunite with the main army at New Hope Church.

The Deep Cut of Allatoona Pass divided the two sides of the battlefield.

The expedition required French to march his division 96 miles in two days. Since infantry forces of the time normally marched around 15 miles per day, the orders from Hood were unrealistic at best. Covering that distance through mountain terrain in two days was virtually impossible, especially with Union troops and cannon waiting to fight for control of the Allatoona Pass defenses.

French nevertheless deployed north from Big Shanty near Marietta to begin his expedition. His movement was immediately spotted by the Union observation post on Kennesaw Mountain which telegraphed the news to Sherman’s headquarters. Reinforcements were immediately ordered to Allatoona Pass, the obvious objective of the Confederate effort.

Lt. Col. John E. Tourtelotte commanded the 976 Union soldiers at the pass and learned of the impending attack when signal flags sent the message “we are coming.” The message of encouragement inspired the writing of the well-known Christian hymn “Hold the Fort.” Composed by Evangelist Philip Paul Bliss, the hymn includes the words:

Ho, my comrades, see the signal,
Waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing,
Victory is nigh.

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”
Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By thy grace we will.”

Please click here to read the real story of “Hold the Fort” and learn Sherman’s thoughts about it.

Brig. Gen. John M. Corse arrived with Union reinforcements just hours before Confederate troops reached the field.

Fulfilling Sherman’s promise, Union Brig. Gen. John M. Corse reached Allatoona Pass at 1 a.m. on October 5, 1864. He brought with him 1,000 reinforcements and quickly assigned them positions in the earthworks and trenches atop the ridge. The first Confederates arrived two hours later at 3 a.m.

French could not see the Union lines to reconnoiter in the darkness and waited for daybreak to launch his attack. When the first rays of sunlight broke over the ridge, however, he was stunned that before him lay a “mountain fortress.” Preparing the best he could, the general sent part of his division to the left with orders to attack Union positions east of the Deep Cut. The rest of the Confederates prepared to storm the Star Fort on the west ridge.

The 35th and 39th Mississippi Infantry regiments tried to storm Union trenches between the Eastern Redoubt and a footbridge over the Deep Cut. Waiting for them were the 4th Minnesota and 12th Illinois.

The gully where men of the 35th and 39th Mississippi were trapped and captured.

The Confederates rushed across open ground and up the steep ridge, blasted the entire time by Federal musket and cannon fire. The attack deteriorated into a bloody disaster. The Mississippians fought bravely but were driven back. Col. R.J. Durr of the 39th Mississippi and a number of his men were pinned down in a gully and taken prisoner.

The rest of the Confederates, meanwhile, tried to storm the heavily defended Star Fort on the opposite side of the Deep Cut. French tried to send three attacking columns against the powerful earthwork from three directions at once. The Federals, however, has built a position called Rowett’s Redoubt 200 yards down the ridge from the main fort. Col. Richard Rowett held the redoubt with the 39th Iowa, 7th Illinois and five companies of the 93rd Illinois. A 12-pound field gun gave added firepower and many of the Union soldiers held repeating rifles.

The earthworks of the Star Fort are remarkably well preserved.

Brig. Gen. Francis M. Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade and Brig. Gen. William H. Young’s Texas and North Carolina Brigade stored Rowett’s Redoubt at 10:20 a.m. The fighting was hand to hand with the men of both sides using musket butts, rocks and even their fists as weapons. Cockrell and Young took the position, driving the survivors of Rowett’s command back to the Star Fort, but suffered heavy casualties in the process.

The Confederate line now pushed forward to the Star Fort, taking heavy fire from the men there as well as those of the 12th Illinois firing from the other side of the cut. As French planned, his men attacked from three sides at once, pouring so much fire into the Union fort that the U.S. flag flying over it was perforated with 192 bullet holes. Still the Union lines held. French threw his men against the earthworks four times, but each time they were driven back by a hail of musket and cannon fire.

The battlefield trail leads through the Deep Cut at Allatoona Pass. The trains of the W&A once steamed through the 175-foot deep excavation.

The strong earthworks, artillery, repeating rifles and high ground of the Union position proved too much for the Confederates. When he learned that additional Federal reinforcements were approaching, Gen. French called an end to the battle and by 3:30 p.m. was on the march to reunite with Hood’s main army. He lost nearly one-third of his men in the ill-fated attack.

The Confederates lost 897 men, including the 80 Mississippians captured in the gully near the Eastern Redoubt. The Federals lost 706 men, roughly 200 of whom were captured. It took nearly three weeks to find and bury the bodies of all those killed.

Allatoona Pass Battlefield is on the western shore of Lake Allatoona in Bartow County, Georgia. Developed through the work of the Etowah Valley Historical Society, the park features trails, monuments, interpretive signs, the “Deep Cut” and the well-preserved earthworks of both the Eastern Redoubt and Star Fort. The infantry trenches that connected the main forts are remarkably intact and can be seen along the walking trails that lead through the site.

The battlefield is maintained by staff from Red Top Mountain State Park and is heavily wooded. The trails lead along a mountain ridge and can be strenuous. Be sure to carry water in the summer months as no drinking water is available on the battlefield.

To reach Allatoona Pass Battlefield from I-75 north of Atlanta, take Exit 283 (Emerson-Allatoona Rd.) and follow it east for 1.5 miles to the battlefield, which will be on your left. Free parking is available and there is no charge to walk the well-marked trail. See the map below for directions.

Nearby is the grave of the Unknown Hero of Allatoona Pass and no visit is complete without first reading the story of the Ghost of Allatoona Pass!