May 3, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman assembled three Federal armies to confront General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee in northern Georgia.
Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, awaited the unification of his three major armies:
- Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee moved east from Alabama; the force totaled 24,465 troops.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland assembled at Ringgold, Georgia, on the Western & Atlantic Railroad; the force totaled 60,733 troops.
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio moved southwest from Knoxville along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad; the force totaled 13,559 troops.
When combined, these armies would comprise Sherman’s left (McPherson), center (Thomas), and right (Schofield). The force would total over 98,000 men with 250 heavy guns. It would be supplied by the single railroad line running from Louisville to Nashville, and then on to Chattanooga and points south. Sherman’s mission was to destroy Johnston’s army, currently stationed at Dalton, and then capture the vital industrial city of Atlanta.
Johnston’s Army of Tennessee consisted of just 40,000 infantrymen in two corps (seven divisions) under Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and John Bell Hood. Major General Joseph Wheeler led 8,500 cavalrymen, but only about a quarter of them were equipped for combat. Johnston also had 114 guns. Because many Confederates were ill-equipped, ill-fed, and ill-clothed, Johnston could not confront Sherman in open battle and therefore hoped to hold the Federals off long enough for the northern public to grow tired of the stalemate and demand an end to the war.
Johnston informed his superiors at Richmond, “Our scouts report re-enforcements to the enemy continually arrive, and preparations to advance, including repair of railroad from Cleveland to Red Clay.” He then directed Wheeler “to try to ascertain the truth of the reported activity and movements of trains from Chattanooga to Ringgold.”
The mountainous terrain of northern Georgia heavily favored defenders over attackers. Sherman’s Federals would have to traverse three major ridges to get to Johnston at Dalton. However, Sherman could bypass the ridges on either side and swing around to Johnston’s rear. As such, Johnston considered abandoning Dalton, but the Confederate high command warned him against demoralizing the army any further after its defeat at Chattanooga last November.
Richmond officials devoted most of their attention to the Federal Army of the Potomac’s impending advance in northern Virginia. Because the Federals had never launched two massive offensives simultaneously before, officials did not expect Sherman to move too aggressively until the Virginia operations were decided. Therefore, they placed less emphasis on Johnston.
Meanwhile, Sherman developed his strategy:
- Thomas would move south from Ringgold and threaten Dalton from the west
- Schofield would move from Red Clay and threaten Dalton from the north
- McPherson would move south on Thomas’s right to cut Johnston’s supply lines between Resaca and Atlanta
Sherman reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall commander headquartered in Virginia, that the Federals would start moving by the 5th. Then, “Next move will be battle.”
Schofield’s Army of the Ohio–consisting of just XXIII Corps and a cavalry division–arrived at Cleveland, Georgia, on the 3rd. These Federals were now just 30 miles from either Chattanooga or Dalton. Schofield’s men marched southward along the railroad to Red Clay, which would place them on Johnston’s right (east) flank. Skirmishing occurred around Red Clay.
Meanwhile, McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee moved to Lee & Gordon’s Mill on Johnston’s left (west). According to Sherman, McPherson would be “my whiplash” skirting around the Confederate flank to Resaca. Skirmishing occurred near Chickamauga Creek, site of last September’s major battle. Johnston informed Richmond that Sherman was massing his troops for a major offensive.
Sherman finalized his preparations on the 5th and moved down from Chattanooga to ride with Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland in the Federal center. Confederate scouts reported that the Federals had reached Ringgold, about 15 miles north of Dalton. Skirmishing broke out at Varnell’s Station.
Johnston called on Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg to reinforce him with Confederates from Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana: “I urge you to send (Polk’s troops) at once to Rome, and put them at my disposal till the enemy can be met.” Polk was ordered to bring his Army of the Southwest and “any other available force at your command” to augment Johnston’s force. Polk led 10,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry east from Mississippi, leaving Major General Stephen D. Lee in command of what was left of that department.
North of Dalton, the Confederates awaited the Federal approach from atop Rocky Face Ridge, a formidable eminence 500 feet high. Although outnumbered, Johnston held excellent defensive positions and expected to stop Sherman here. This would soon develop into the most important campaign ever undertaken in the Western Theater.
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