The Battle (and regretful march) of Pickett's Mill
"Daddy," my daughter said, "while you're resting for a couple of days, would you like to go to a Civil War Battlefield?" After a solid month on the road, a few days of rest punctuated with an historical tour sounded like a splendid idea to me. Besides, neither one of us had been to this place and it would give my two-year old grandson a chance to run off some surplus energy. So, after the little fellow and I watched his favorite movie, "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," we loaded up a few provisions and set out for Pickett's Mill.
History records that this was a battle which the Union lost. Pressing quickly toward Atlanta in 1864, General Sherman decided to veer away from the heavily fortified and waiting Confederate forces of Confederate General Joseph Johnston at Altoona Pass, opting instead to steer due south from Marietta to Dallas, Georgia. Searching for an adequate route, Sherman's forces encountered the forces of Confederate General John Bell Hood, at New Hope. Hood's forces stood their ground, surprising Sherman, who dispatched 14,000 of his men, under the command of Union General Oliver O. Howard to attack General Hood's forces from their right flank.
On the morning of May 27th, 1864, while artillery rained down on Confederate forces at new Hope, General Howard ordered Brigadier General Thomas Wood to move his men to the right flank of the Confederates, a task that was easier said than done through the thick brush and lopsided North Georgia terrain. General Wood's forces became disoriented, as their uncertain progress slowed considerably and allowed time for Confederate forces to shift in bulk toward the approaching Union soldiers.
Advancing on the farm of Benjamin and Malachi Pickett, Union soldiers ran smack into forces of one of the best commanders of the Civil War, Confederate General Patrick Cleburn. Venturing into what little open real estate there was, Union forces came under withering fire. With support forces delayed by the nearly impassable terrain, the order to retreat was given and Union forces fell back. Within the hour, a second attack by support forces was ordered, which attack met the same fate as the first. That evening, at 10PM, Confederate forces went on offense, running Federal soldiers still further north. It was a loss which set back General Sherman's plan to make a big bonfire of Atlanta by about a week, at the cost of approximately 1,600 Union and 500 Confederate casualties.
I was standing outside the Information Center, trying to visualize the area engulfed in the thick smokey chaos of battle, with disparate orders being shouted simultaneously, the crack of tree limbs broken by incoming shots, primal cries of war mixed with cries of anguish, when through the tumult in my mind I heard, "Grandpa!" It was my little grandson, Daniel, with my daughter, Christie. "I got pinecone!" he bragged. Happily uninformed of the savagery that once shook the ground where he stood, the little guy had mistaken our expedition for a pinecone inventory. Picking them up can be a prickly experience though, so he instead would call one out and then kick it.
The map showed three walking trails behind the Visitor Center, traced in white, blue, and red, with red being the longest at almost 2 miles and white being the shortest at one mile. It looked like the red trail would bring us to an open battlefield before intersecting with the blue trail that would take us back to the Visitor Center. So, after viewing a short video and looking at a few relics inside, we set out on a walking tour of the property.
The last actual historical battlefield I had toured on American soil was Yorktown, and it was an unforgettable experience. To see the trenches, to learn the tactics, the challenges, and get some insight into the incredible courage of the soldiers was a singular inspiration and I was anxious to soak it all in again. The trail at Pickett's Mill consisted of a dirt path that varied in width. It started out level enough, and wide enough for three of us to follow the painted red marks on the trees in front of us. Our progress was slow as Daniel determined that there were many pinecones in need of kicking, but in time we were far enough down the trail that the Visitor Center was no longer in sight. The trail narrowed significantly and the terrain became decidedly more difficult.
Climbing a particularly steep hill, using exposed roots as steps, I was convinced that the top of the hill would open up to a vast field with defensive fighting positions, perhaps signs that explained what took place exactly where that fateful day in 1864, and a chance to catch our breath. I was wrong. The top of the hill revealed nothing more than the next hill. The trail was now narrow enough for only a single file procession, and Daniel had to abandoned the pinecones after tripping and falling face first into the dirt. But he's a tough customer. He brushed himself off, saying, "Grandpa, I almost fall down!" We decided it would be best if he held an adult's hand while we walked, which of course he resisted until my daughter told him that Grandpa needed his help. So he took my hand and began mimicking every groan and grunt I made.
Trudging up the next hill, I was eager to finally lay eyes on the battlefield and see for myself where the Federals ran into the cutting firepower of General Cleburn. Perhaps there was a water fountain up there too, for old soldiers and their families to rehydrate for just a moment on this increasingly arduous trip. The brush was thick over the trail, and I caught just the slightest scent of some sort of animal upwind. This was more of an adventure than a tour, but the top of the hill was in sight and we knew from the map that there were some sort of buildings at the battlefield as well. Finally, we crested the peak and beheld, …a steep descent into an area so overgrown with brush that it was difficult to see the trail. Still there, were little red marks on a tree every 25 yards or so.
Then came the bugs. Some were dive bombing Christie, and making little bites. Others were buzzing around my ears. I could hear them but couldn't swat them away because I had a grandson in one hand and a backpack of grandson supplies in the other. After a few more hills and ravines, our red trail finally joined with the blue one, giving us hope that the blue trail would double back toward the Visitor Center. It didn't. We crossed a creek of some sort, and then embarked on steep climb that no one with a small child should undertake. Grandpa carried Daniel and Christie carried Daniel's supplies. Evidently the union forces had needed a break at about that point as well, because there were two old park benches at the top of the hill. Winded and tired, we sat down. Daniel and Christie had chips and juice, and I began to worry. We had already followed the trail to a dead end before realizing that it had branched the other way. The thickness of the woods and winding hills made it nearly impossible to get one's bearings. Using the compass on my smartphone, I had a general idea which direction the Visitor Center was, but the trail was proving increasingly difficult to determine and navigate.
"I'll run up the trail just a little and see if there's anything there," Christie said. I was too winded to argue. A few minutes later, Daniel and I decided she had been gone too long. I've read too many headlines where someone runs ahead to scout the trail only to have something bad happen. Daniel and I were re-packing his bag when she came back and reported that she found some other visitors who said they were also lost and trying to find their way back to the Visitor Center. So rather than continue, we gave up on ever finding a battlefield and, indeed, gave up on the notion that one even existed. We saw no historical signs explaining what happened that awful day in May of 1864. No trenches. No cannons. No grassy areas where a respectable battle might be fought. We saw no battlefield, but only a damnable intermediate terrain navigation course.
Maybe there was a battlefield somewhere. The history books talk about it, after all. But the Visitor Center must have been built in the next county over. Little Daniel was just worn out and had to be carried. He's tall for his age, and must have weighed around 35 pounds when we began carrying him back to the car. I judge that he gained a couple hundred pounds by the time we got there.
"How did you like your tour of the battlefield?" the sadistically smiling bearded swindler behind the cash register asked as we staggered into the Visitor Center. I managed a rather undiplomatic response to the effect that it didn't exist, whereupon he took me outside and pointed to various points of interest that existed "over there" someplace. It was all fine by me, as long as we could, …just, ….leave. Some 30 years ago, I would have had a walk like that for breakfast, with 70 pounds of gear on my back and a 23 pound M-60 machine gun in hand. And I would have been paid to do it, rather than pay for the privilege as we had on this day. But those days are gone, and the trail wasn't fit for small children, either.
Then again, our bug bites, aching legs, exhausted bodies and diminished spirits were but a minor inconvenience, a trifling insignificance compared with what the men who died at Pickett's Mill endured. They fought every element of nature we had encountered that day without the benefit of a trail, or painted marks on trees. Laboring under the weight of their own gear, each hill taller and more steeply treacherous than the last, these men pressed on until finally, exhausted and confused, they were cut down by the thousands. Author Ambrose Bierce served with the Union Army at Pickett's Mill. Here's what he had to say about it:
The battle, as a battle, was at an end, but there was still some slaughtering that it was possible to incur before nightfall; and as the wreck of our brigade drifted back through the forest we met the brigade (Gibson's) which, had the attack been made in column, as it should have been, would have been but five minutes behind our heels, with another five minutes behind its own. As it was, just forty-five minutes had elapsed, during which the enemy had destroyed us and was now ready to perform the same kindly office for our successors. Neither Gibson nor the brigade which was sent to his "relief" as tardily as he to ours accomplished, or could have hoped to accomplish, anything whatever.