The Battle of Pickett’s Mill was a brutal Union loss. Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site is a time capsule from this forgotten battle.
In Paulding County, a sprawling suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, is the site of a nearly forgotten Civil War battle. For a brief moment, this battle threw a significant roadblock before General William T. Sherman and his march to capture Atlanta.
The Battle of Pickett’s Mill was a brutal conflict. It is often credited with introducing trench warfare to what was largely a more traditional war. It was also a bloody battle deep in untamed forest. Due to its reclaimed wildness, visitors to the Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site can absorb what such a terrifying battle must have been like.
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The Battle of Pickett’s Mill
In May 1864, Union troops under General William T. Sherman invaded Georgia as part of the Atlanta Campaign. The goal was to capture Atlanta, the heart of the Confederacy, and therefore bring an end to the Civil War. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston opposed Sherman.
Many battles took place near the Western & Atlantic Railroad, a crucial northwest supply line for both armies. Sherman’s strategy was to engage in a series of flanking maneuvers, threatening supply lines to Johnston’s rear. As a result, these threats forced Johnston to retreat further south.
But the nearby Battle of New Hope Church stopped Sherman in his tracks (along with terrible fighting in a wooded ravine Union forces dubbed the “Hell Hole”). New Hope Church was roughly 35 miles from Atlanta – an eternity for slow moving armies. Therefore, in hopes of circumventing Johnston again, Sherman sent troops under Major General Oliver O. Howard on a flanking maneuver to the right of Confederate forces.
Brutal Forest Combat
After an exhausting five hour march, Union troops ran into some 10,000 Confederate forces under the command of Major General Patrick Cleburne. They were entrenched in a rugged, thickly forested area near Benjamin and Malachi Pickett’s grist mill.
However, Johnston had become aware of Sherman’s flanking tactics, and reinforced exposed flanks with freshly dug positions. But Howard ordered Federal brigades to attack anyway. What followed was unimaginatively brutal, one-on-one combat within overgrown forest, boulders and steep ravines. And at nighttime, no less.
Union troops retreated from Pickett’s Mill. When morning broke, nearly 1600 Union troops were dead, compared to 500 Confederates. Pickett’s Mill was the last major Confederate victory of the war. But in reality, it only delayed Sherman’s march to Atlanta by a week.
A Forgotten Defeat
Nevertheless, defeat at Pickett’s Mill was an embarrassment to Sherman, who notably left the battle out of his memoirs. This enraged famed writer Ambrose Bierce, who fought at Pickett’s Mill and considered Sherman’s orders foolish. What followed was Bierce’s searing, nonfiction memoir “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”
Bierce wasn’t alone in his anger. Other Union veterans were frustrated with Southern mythologizing of the battle as an example of Confederate bravery (aka the “Lost Cause”). Newspapers of the time considered it a small battle – not like the epic conflicts at Kennesaw Mountain or Chickamauga. What’s worse, Union defeat did not fit the narrative of an unstoppable assault on Atlanta.
These Union veterans argued that even in defeat, there was still bravery, bloodshed and honor.
Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site
The Battle of Pickett’s Mill remained largely forgotten until the 1970s. Then, Civil War historians and local enthusiasts helped the State of Georgia purchase the land for an historic park. Today, the 765-acre Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site is one of the best preserved battlefields in the United States.
Visitors to Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site see a battlefield nearly identical to the one from over 100 years ago. Actual roads used by Union and Confederate troops, along with earthworks they built and ravines where they died, are still there. There’s a furnished, 1800s pioneer cabin similar to what would have been on site. Archeologists are still recovering military items in the park, trying to understand what happened in the heat of battle.
The Battle of Pickett’s Mill showed that war is rarely the clean, organized affair seen in Hollywood movies. It is frequently nasty, dirty business in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Pickett’s Mill was one such battle, taking brave men on both sides to survive its fury.