February 24, 1864 – Skirmishing intensified in northern Georgia, as Major General John M. Palmer sought to unite his Federals at Rocky Face Ridge and drive the Confederates out of Dalton.
Four Federal divisions from Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland moved out on the 22nd toward General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton. The operation consisted of Palmer’s XIV Corps moving southeast from Chattanooga, and Brigadier General Charles Cruft’s division of IV Corps moving southwest from Cleveland.
Palmer’s mission was to determine Johnston’s strength and prevent him from reinforcing the Confederate forces in either Alabama or eastern Tennessee. The Federal high command hoped that Palmer could push the Confederates away from their formidable positions at both Dalton and Rocky Face Ridge (a steep eminence west of Dalton). This would enable the Federals to “get possession of the place and hold it as a step toward a spring campaign.”
Palmer’s Federals marched through Ringgold Gap and approached the plains near Dalton, Rocky Face Ridge, and Tunnel Hill (a northwestern spur of Rocky Face). Skirmishing occurred with Confederate cavalry, who reported to Johnston that a general enemy advance was underway. False rumors soon spread among the Confederates that Thomas’s entire 60,000-man army was approaching, while Johnston had just 20,000 troops to stop them.
The next day, Johnston directed Major General Thomas C. Hindman to lead two divisions in forming defenses at Dalton, Tunnel Hill, and the gap in Rocky Face Ridge. As Palmer’s Federals advanced, they clashed with Hindman’s men at Catoosa Station and Tunnel Hill. The fighting soon intensified, and Palmer brought up reinforcements that threatened Hindman’s flanks. The Confederates fell back to higher, stronger positions on Tunnel Hill.
Johnston notified President Jefferson Davis of the action, and Davis allowed Johnston to recall Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps, which had been sent to reinforce Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s army in Alabama. Polk no longer needed Hardee’s men now that Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee was returning to Vicksburg after decimating Meridian. Davis warned Johnston that “the demonstration in your front is probably a mask.”
Meanwhile, Cruft’s Federals continued pushing south along the railroad until Confederates defending the east side of Rocky Face Ridge stopped them about three miles east of Dalton. Johnston had rushed two divisions there to prevent Cruft from coming up behind the Confederates facing Palmer to the west.
Colonel William Grose, commanding Cruft’s lead brigade, reported, “I don’t believe there is much force of the enemy in our front, but too much for our small force. I am of the impression that double our force could have gained the railroad and held it. The enemy used no artillery. We fired five rounds.” Grose opted to wait until the rest of Cruft’s division came up to join him the next day.
To the west, two of Palmer’s divisions under Brigadier Generals Richard W. Johnson and Jefferson C. Davis advanced on Tunnel Hill, which was defended by Major General Alexander P. Stewart’s Confederate division. Johnson’s Federals provided artillery cover while Davis’s men scaled the hill’s northern slope and drove the Confederate outposts from the summit. Davis reported:
“The enemy’s skirmishers yielded with little resistance. From these hills the enemy’s position was easily reconnoitered, and from the fire of his artillery the position of two strongly posted field batteries was plainly discovered.”
The Confederates withdrew southeast to a defile in Rocky Face Ridge called Buzzard Roost Gap, where they joined the main Confederate defense line. The Federals stopped for the night, but Palmer planned to advance in full force next morning. According to Davis, “It was thought this movement would turn the enemy’s position at Buzzard Roost and enable our forces (Palmer’s and Cruft’s) to unite south of Rocky Face Ridge.” From there, Palmer hoped to drive Johnston’s army out of Dalton and secure the railroad from there to Chattanooga.
Palmer directed Cruft to “push the column toward Dalton and attack any force that might be met.” The next day, Cruft, facing two divisions to his one, opted to wait for reinforcements. The Confederates sent their skirmishers forward, hoping to seize the initiative. Palmer came up with Brigadier General Absalom Baird’s division on Cruft’s right. The Federals finally advanced to attack the north side of Rocky Face Ridge around 11:30 a.m. According to Cruft:
“The lines were pressed steadily on for somewhat over a mile. At this point the enemy occupied a steep wooded ridge in our front in considerable force. It was successfully carried by the Second and Third Brigades without breaking step, the enemy falling back to a ridge beyond. Upon obtaining the crest of the first ridge and commencing the descent the brigade of direction was halted about 1 p.m. by command of Major-General Palmer and the line adjusted thereto.”
Palmer directed an attack by his right, which was easily repulsed. Both sides spent the rest of the day trading artillery fire. On the west side of the ridge, Davis heard firing around 3 p.m. and sought to relieve pressure on Cruft by attacking the Confederates holding Buzzard Roost Gap. Davis reported that his skirmishers were “warmly engaged, the enemy resisting their strong points with great vigor.”
As Davis’s Federals approached the Confederate rifle pits, they were met by fire in their front and artillery fire on their flanks. Davis was forced to order a withdrawal. On the other side of the ridge, Palmer ordered Cruft and Baird to fall back to north of Tunnel Hill.
By the 27th, Thomas, who had been too ill to personally command this expedition, arrived on the scene and directed the Federals to fall back to Chattanooga. The Federals suffered 345 casualties in this operation (43 killed, 267 wounded, and 35 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 140. The Federals learned that Johnston’s defenses were too strong to confront head-on, especially at Rocky Face Ridge.
This Federal demonstration on Dalton did not serve its original purpose of keeping Johnston from sending reinforcements to Polk, as Sherman’s campaign was already over. It merely compelled Johnston to recall Hardee’s corps and prepare for the overall Federal offensive sure to come in spring.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 376-79; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 935; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 401-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 468; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 765