May 14, 1864 – The armies of Major General William T. Sherman and General Joseph E. Johnston clashed in northern Georgia, as Sherman still looked to slide around the Confederate flank.
By this time, Johnston’s Army of Tennessee had fallen back southward along the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Dalton to Resaca. Johnston positioned his troops on a four-mile defensive line that curved from east to southeast:
- The right (east) flank consisted of Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s corps.
- The center, to Hood’s left, consisted of Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps.
- The left flank curving southeast consisted of Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps. Polk’s left was anchored on the Oostanaula River, where the Confederates controlled a railroad crossing and a pontoon bridge.
Sherman’s three Federal armies probed the Confederate line on the 13th to assess its strength. Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, suggested that Sherman send Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee across the Oostanaula to flank Johnston’s forces.
Sherman liked the idea, but the forces he sent to cross the river on the 14th had to wait for the arrival of a pontoon bridge. During that time, McPherson’s Federals pushed Polk’s Confederates off the high ground west of Resaca to secure not only the crossing site but the railroad bridge.
Sherman next attacked the Confederate right-center with two divisions from Thomas’s army and two from Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio. The Federals were stopped by heavy artillery fire and pinned in a ravine near Camp Creek. Brigadier General Henry M. Judah, commanding one of Schofield’s divisions, failed to adequately reconnoiter the ground beforehand or deploy artillery. Judah had been disciplined for poor conduct and drunkenness in the past, and Schofield finally removed him for “incompetency displayed in handling his division.”
Major General Jacob D. Cox then led one of Schofield’s divisions in an attack farther toward the Confederate right. Cox later wrote:
“Each brigade was in two lines, and the artillery was left on the hither side of the valley to cover the movement and reply to the enemy’s cannonade. The skirmish line had been advanced to the edge of the woods on the far side, and kept the lead until we approached the Confederate trenches. We passed over two or three ridges and ravines, driving back the skirmishers of the enemy, and charged the line of earthworks on the crest of a higher ridge. Our men dropped fast as we went forward, but the line was carried and the Confederates broke from the next ridge in rear, some 200 yards away.”
But with the Federals to their right pinned at Camp Creek, Cox’s men faced “a galling artillery fire, as the ridge on which we were had its shoulder bare when it came out into the valley, whose curve gave the enemy an enfilading fire upon us.” Hood’s Confederates launched a vicious counterattack along the Dalton-Resaca road. However, Thomas’s IV Corps under Major General Oliver O. Howard came up as night fell and stopped the Confederate advance.
Johnston ordered Hood to resume his assault and turn the Federal left at dawn. However, he received erroneous information that McPherson had crossed the Oostanaula near Calhoun and would soon turn the Confederate left. Johnston therefore canceled Hood’s attack and ordered his men to build a pontoon bridge upstream from Resaca. Sherman failed to recognize the importance of McPherson securing the high ground west of Resaca and did not follow up this advantage.
On the morning of the 15th, Federals on the left, reinforced by Major General Joseph Hooker’s XX Corps of Thomas’s army, advanced and clashed with Hood’s forces on the Confederate right. A ferocious battle ensued over four of Hood’s 12-pound Napoleon guns, which the Federals ultimately captured.
By this time, McPherson’s Federals were crossing the Oostanaula and turning east to threaten the railroad supply line below Johnston’s army. That night, Johnston’s Confederates crossed the Oostanaula and burned the railroad and pontoon bridges behind them. The army was across the river by dawn.
The fighting at Resaca produced 3,500 Federal casualties to the Confederates’ 2,600. Tactically, this was a Confederate victory, but Johnston’s withdrawal made this a strategic victory for Sherman. This continued the pattern of the Confederates holding firm against direct assaults but falling back when the Federals threatened their flank.
Sherman’s forces marched in heavy rain on muddy roads to Calhoun, six miles down the railroad from Resaca, where Sherman guessed that Johnston would oppose him. But before Sherman could concentrate his army, Johnston’s rear guard withdrew in the night toward Adairsville, 10 miles further down the railroad.
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