May 17, 1864 – General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee established positions around Adairsville after retreating southward from Resaca.
Following the engagement at Resaca, Johnston had fallen back south of the Oostanaula River in hopes of establishing a new defensive line at Calhoun. There was no good ground to defend, so Johnston continued withdrawing. When Johnston’s engineers informed him that they found suitable ground north of Adairsville, he ordered his army to concentrate there.
Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies followed the Confederates on three parallel roads. A portion of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps clashed with elements of Lieutenant General William Hardee’s Confederate corps about two miles north of Adairsville, but both sides pulled back before provoking a general engagement.
During this time, Johnston arrived at the proposed defense line and was disappointed to find that the ground was not as defensible as he had been led to believe. The hills on either flank were too far apart to use for artillery batteries. Johnston would have to stretch his line dangerously thin to link one hill to the other. Before he dealt another blow to army morale by ordering another withdrawal, he held a council of war with his three corps commanders that night.
Johnston noted that two roads ran south from Adairsville, and Sherman would most likely use both roads on his march. He therefore devised a plan in which Hardee’s corps would take the southern road to Kingston while Johnston led the corps of Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and John Bell Hood down the southeastern road to Cassville. Johnston guessed that Sherman would send a larger part of his force to Kingston, and while Hardee diverted him there, the remaining Confederates would attack the Federal left as it moved toward Cassville.
By the morning of the 18th, Johnston had abandoned Adairsville as planned. Just as he expected, Sherman sent most of his troops–Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee and most of Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland–toward Kingston, while Major General John Schofield’s smaller Army of the Ohio and one of Thomas’s corps headed for Cassville. Federal cavalry and Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis’s detached division moved southwest, where they destroyed the important manufacturing center of Rome.
Hardee’s corps reached Kingston and began moving east on the night of the 18th to join the other two Confederate corps at Cassville. As Johnston waited in ambush with Polk and Hood, he received messages from President Jefferson Davis expressing dissatisfaction with the withdrawals so far. Johnston’s retreat alarmed Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown enough to order the state militia to mobilize for defense.
The next morning, Hardee’s Confederates arrived to make up Johnston’s left flank, guarding the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Polk’s corps held the center at Cassville, and Hood’s corps made up the right. Johnston directed Hood to line his men at a right angle to Polk, east of the Adairsville-Cassville road. Hardee and Polk would attack the Federals in front while Hood advanced from the east to hit the Federal left flank. Johnston issued a proclamation to the troops to boost morale:
“You have displayed the highest qualities of the soldier–firmness in combat, patience under toil. By your courage and skill you have repulsed every assault of the enemy… You will now turn and march to meet his advancing columns. Fully confiding in the conduct of the officers, the courage of the soldiers, I lead you to battle… Cheered by the success of our brothers in Virginia and beyond the Mississippi, our efforts will equal theirs. Strengthened by His support, these efforts will be crowned with the like glories.”
The proclamation served its purpose. No longer would the army fall back from the enemy. Now it would finally turn and fight. A soldier in the 1st Tennessee recalled, “The soldiers were jubilant. We were going to whip and rout the Yankees.”
The bulk of Sherman’s armies arrived at Kingston that morning, found the place empty, and then shifted east to advance on Cassville. However, the Federals took different roads than Johnston expected, and as Hood shifted his men, they came across a Federal brigade that would have been on Hood’s flank and rear had he gotten into his assigned position.
After a brief skirmish, Hood fell back and reported to Johnston what happened. Ironically, the corps commander who had urged Johnston to fight the most had withdrawn from a fight. Johnston responded by directing his army to fall back onto a wooded ridge southeast of Cassville. Calling this position “the best that I saw occupied during the war,” Johnson hoped to lure Sherman into attacking on the 20th. However, the Federals came up and enfiladed the line with artillery, opening a brief cannonade just before nightfall.
Johnston met with his corps commanders, where Polk contended that if the Federals renewed their enfilade fire, an attack would break his line within an hour. Hood agreed and declared that the army should either fall back or go on the offensive. Johnston seriously considered attacking because he did not want to retreat again, especially after issuing his proclamation earlier that day.
But in the end, Johnston decided it would be most prudent to withdraw, and he issued orders for the army to fall back another 10 miles, across the Etowah River. Johnston’s chief of staff blamed Hood for the retreat and wrote, “I could not restrain my tears when I found we could not strike.”
The Confederates muffled the axles and wheels of their wagons as they began retreating at 2 a.m. on the 20th. They moved through Cartersville and crossed the Etowah the next morning. The troops entered defensive works that had been previously built by slaves.
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