Cheatham Hill, Georgia: The Illinois Civil War Soldiers and their Monument
It is an easy 200-yard walk from the parking lot at the Cheatham Hill section of the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield to the Illinois Monument. Ironically, the stroll meanders through a placid oak-hickory forest that is so like the woodlands of Illinois that one could imagine the setting is in the Land of Lincoln instead of fifteen miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Similarly, one could easily misconstrue the low ridge beside the path as a soft, natural rise in the landscape. But a sign instructing visitors to stay on the trail sets the record straight about the ridge: “CONFEDERATE EARTHWORKS,” the plain wooden message declares in all capital letters, “PLEASE KEEP OFF.” At a preserved Civil War battlefield, pains are taken to preserve everything.
Footsteps trod upon this path today traverse the site where fighting in late June of 1864 claimed the lives of nearly four hundred men from a brigade largely composed of Illinois soldiers. When the survivors of the fierce battle were much older, they sought to commemorate their fallen comrades. Thanks to their efforts a sixty-acre parcel was purchased; it was the first step of a historic preservation movement that resulted in the protection of nearly three thousand acres of American history. Today, Kennesaw Mountain is one of the nation’s most visited Civil War battlefields, hosting over one and a half million guests annually.
Along the path, which runs mostly parallel to those Confederate earthworks, there are several interpretive panels describing the awful carnage of that early summer nearly 150 years ago. It is easy to be taken aback by one particular sign’s reminder that nature bears the scars of battle long after the humans who fought have gone. This graphic says that a dead oak removed from that spot in 1980 was found to have a number of Civil War bullets imbedded in its trunk; several still-living trees are deformed at their canopies due to scars from the firefight.
Presently, the visitor arrives at the focal point of the trail, the Illinois Monument itself. An article in the Atlanta Constitution in 1922 opines that “(it) is one of the finest memorials in the country,” high praise indeed coming from a southern paper whose readership included a few people old enough to remember the conflict and perhaps still disturbed by the actions of the Yankee soldiers. The spirit of the Monument represents Illinois, but its composition is strong, beautiful marble from Georgia. Rising twenty-six-feet high and covering eighteen square feet at its base, the Monument is no larger than some similar memorials in cities, but it is striking how standing here, the only manmade structure in a woodland clearing, the Illinois Monument commands a presence it would not have in an urban town square.
The layout of the trail mandates an approach to the Monument from its rear face, which bears a long inscription. One might stop here to read this text, but the brightness of the open field ahead tends to exert a subtle forward pull, leading the visitor to first encircle the Monument and look at it from the front, where it rises above two flights of a dozen steps each. Here, with a grassy field sloping gently downhill at his back, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the main feature of the work, a grouping of three prominent bronze figures. Standing seven feet tall, the central figure is an austere soldier in the parade rest position, his rifle at his right hand. On either side he is flanked by a six-foot-tall female figure. The woman to the soldier’s left represents Illinois; she holds the state’s coat of arms snugly with both hands. To the soldier’s right, the woman has a more universal representation–she symbolizes peace. Above the figures, framed by a wreath, the word “Illinois” appears in bold relief on the marble. Soaring over it all are two eagles: one contained in the medallion bearing another Illinois coat of arms, the other, crowning the Monument, a magnificent bird with wings outstretched.
What exactly happened here at Cheatham Hill? The story is told by that inscription on the back of the Monument and by several signboards posted nearby.
Named after Major General B.F. Cheatham of the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee, Cheatham Hill was the site of one of the battles waged during the Atlanta Campaign. In early May 1864, nearly one hundred thousand Union troops under the command of General William T. Sherman, set off from Chattanooga, Tennessee, intent on taking the city of Atlanta, about 120 miles to the south. Along the way, Union troops encountered determined resistance, but they overcame it. By June 27th the Northern forces had reached the ground upon which the Illinois Monument now stands.
The fighting that spring of 1864 was widespread—indeed, the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park includes several sites of conflict—but the inscription on the Monument concentrates on the clash at this particular spot. In part, it reads:
“On this field the men of Col. Dan McCook’s 3rd brigade, 2nd Div. 14th Army Corps assaulted the Confederate works on the 27th day of June, 1864, losing four hundred and eighty killed and wounded, including two commanders… (The) brigade reached Confederate works and at less than one hundred feet from them maintained a line for six days and nights without relief, at the end of which time the Confederates evacuated.”
McCook’s brigade included five volunteer infantry regiments: the 85th, 86th, and 125th Illinois; the 22nd Indiana; and the 52nd Ohio, plus a volunteer light artillery regiment, Battery I, 2nd Illinois. So composed, the majority of the troops in the brigade were from Illinois; Colonel McCook, however, was from Steubenville, Ohio.
A daunting and hazardous task faced McCook’s brigade: attacking Cheatham’s Tennessee troops at a protruding point of their earthworks that both sides ominously nicknamed “The Dead Angle.” While the Monument’s inscription stresses that the Third Brigade held the line for six days, it does not mention that the real horror of war was manifested in a twenty-minute charge on the 27th; nearly all of the soldiers in the brigade who lost their lives were killed in that short span. Particularly hard hit was the 125th Illinois, with 54 killed, 63 wounded, and seven missing in action.
Following the initial carnage, the Northern and Southern troops hunkered down and faced each other separated by just one hundred feet. In pursuit of a plan to approach the enemy underground to plant explosives, the Union soldiers began digging a tunnel towards Cheatham’s lines. Laudable as the effort of the McCook brigade to hold the line may have been, it was actually Union troops moving in from elsewhere that led the Confederate forces to finally evacuate the earthworks, which, in turn, caused the Third Brigade to abandon their unfinished tunnel.
Colonel McCook—affectionately known as “Colonel Dan” to those he commanded—was a well-educated man; prior to the war he was a law partner with General Sherman. And he knew his poetry. To inspire his troops, he recited from Horatius, a poem about a hero of classical Rome written by the nineteenth-century Englishman Thomas Macaulay. Stanza 27 of this long poem contains the lines McCook hoped his men would take to heart:
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,'”
McCook himself was among the casualties of the battle, suffering a mortal wound, but living long enough to be carried back home to Steubenville to die.
The Union pressed ahead and took Atlanta that summer. In the spring of the following year, 1865, the Civil War ended.
Three and a half decades passed. Then in 1899, survivors of the Third Brigade’s Illinois regiments bought the sixty-acre Cheatham Hill parcel. As these gentlemen aged, perhaps it tugged at them that they had a solemn responsibility to preserve the site where many of their comrades fell in combat. In any case, the following year, the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans, held its national encampment in Chicago. Illinois veterans in attendance formed the Colonel Daniel McCook Brigade Association for the express purpose of raising funds to build a monument. When they were unsuccessful securing sufficient donations, they turned to the General Assembly of the State of Illinois for help, and in 1911 the legislators approved the expenditure of $20,000 for the project. The resolution authorizing these funds noted that the Third Brigade was “largely composed of Illinois troops, conspicuous for their courage and gallantry” and declared that “It is a patriotic duty for people of this State to keep in perpetual remembrance the heroism of our fallen soldiers.”
Propelled by that government assistance, a monument was commissioned. Illinois’ own state architect, James B. Dibelka was the designer; sculptor J. Mario Korbel created the striking bronze figures. Interestingly, both Dibelka and Korbel were Czech immigrants, a reminder of the great impact of immigration to America following the Civil War.
On June 27th, 1914—the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Cheatham Hill—the Illinois Monument was unveiled. One week earlier, an article appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune describing the upcoming event; it remarked that a special train had been arranged to carry Governor Edward Dunne and other Illinois dignitaries to Georgia for the dedication. Among these VIPs were the men who formed the monument commission, those fortunate few who survived the battle and were still alive that half century later: W.A. Payton of Danville, Captain L.J. Dawdy of Peoria, J.B. Shawgo of Quincy, and H.F. Reason of Mason City. The names of all these veterans are inscribed on the Monument except, inexplicably, for that of Shawgo. No further information about the service of Shawgo or of Reason appears in the Tribune piece, but it does report that Payton served as a drummer boy and that “Capt. Dawdy was wounded while so close to the Confederate breastworks that he fell across the trenches, where he was seized and made a prisoner.” The Tribune also mentions the touching way the ceremony stressed the importance of the Civil War to those for whom the conflict was part of a distant, unfamiliar past—Payton’s eleven-year-old granddaughter Sarah Fadely would do the unveiling.
In 1935, more than twenty years after dedication of the Illinois Monument, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park was established by Congress; the designated land included the original Cheatham Hill purchase. Subsequent acquisitions led to the 2,923-acre historical park that exists today, but the work of preservation began when the Illinois veterans sought to honor their lost comrades.
Kennesaw Mountain is certainly not the only Civil War battlefield with a memorial for Illinois troops. There are monuments commemorating the service and valor of Illinois soldiers at Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, and elsewhere. These are of notable variety in design. For example, the Illinois State Monument at Vicksburg, Mississippi is a grand looking temple based on the Pantheon in Rome. One could plausibly argue it appears more impressive than the subdued structure at Cheatham Hill.
But in a 1941 article considering these various Illinois memorials, former Chicago newspaperman and co-founder of the Civil War Roundtable, the late Donald Russell, noted an important distinction. At the other battlefields the monument for Illinois is one among several, as similar works dedicated to soldiers of other states stand nearby. At Cheatham Hill, however, a lovely monument to soldiers from the Land of Lincoln stands by itself, having no competition and therefore commanding full attention. This is what makes the viewing experience powerful and moving: the sight of the Illinois Monument rising alone, proudly but respectfully prominent in a landscape that is wonderfully peaceful today but was the scene of deadly combat in late June of 1864.
Interested in learning more?
Anonymous. 1914. Illinois Tribute to Dead in South. The Chicago Daily Tribune, Jun 21, p. F 19.
Bunting, Frank C. 1922. Memorial to Illinois Civil War Soldiers, Erected by Western State, Stands Near Marietta. The Atlanta Constitution, June 11, p. 7.
Harper’s Ferry Interpretive Design Center and the National Park Service. 2010. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park Long-Range Interpretive Plan.
Russell, Don. 1941. Illinois monuments on Civil War battlefields. Papers in Illinois History and Transactions for the Year 1941, pp. 1-37.
About the Author
Brett Bannor is a freelance writer. Bannor was born and raised in Chicago, but as an adult lives in Georgia. His grandmother was born and raised in Georgia but as an adult lived in Chicago. Given this coming full circle in two generations, Bannor naturally had an interest in the connections between the Prairie State and the Peachtree State.
Brett Bannor, Atlanta, Georgia