May 21, 1864 – General Joseph E. Johnston strengthened his Confederate positions near Allatoona but was still unaware of Major General William T. Sherman’s intentions.
In the two weeks since Sherman’s three Federal armies began advancing into northern Georgia, they pushed Johnston’s Army of Tennessee back halfway to Atlanta, and each side sustained about 5,000 casualties. Johnston’s method of moving behind defenses and then retreating when the Federals outflanked him became a routine that caused dismay and concern at Richmond. And after his last retreat from Cassville, Johnston no longer had the full confidence of his army.
The Confederates fell back to Cartersville on the Etowah River, where they gathered behind pre-built defenses. As Sherman’s Federals began moving out of Cassville to find out where Johnston went, the Confederates withdrew across the Etowah, destroying the 620-foot railroad bridge after crossing. They continued south until they reached Allatoona Pass, where the railroad crossed the Allatoona Mountains.
Johnston directed his men to build strong fortifications in the mountain gap along the railroad. He established a new supply base at Marietta, about halfway between the Etowah and Chattahoochee rivers, just past Kennesaw Mountain. Beyond that was Atlanta.
Sherman advanced on Cartersville, where he hoped to catch Johnston and give battle before the Confederates could cross the Etowah. But by the time the Federals arrived, the Confederates were already gone. Sherman halted as Federal workers repaired the railroad from Resaca to Kingston, allowing him “to replenish and fit up” his men. Other workers started building a new bridge over the Etowah, which they completed in just six days.
The Confederates remained in their defenses the next day, with Johnston reporting to President Jefferson Davis, “In the last six days the enemy has pressed us back to this point, 32 miles… (but) I have earnestly sought an opportunity to strike.” However, every time Sherman extended his right, Johnston had to withdraw, and “by fortifying the moment he halted,” Sherman “made an assault upon his superior forces too hazardous.”
For the second time, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown issued orders for the state militia to mobilize for defense. At Washington, President Abraham Lincoln requested that the governors of western states send 100-day soldiers to “sustain Gen. Sherman’s lengthening lines…”
As the Federals resupplied, Sherman learned that Johnston had entrenched his army at Allatoona Pass. Having surveyed that area 20 years ago, Sherman knew that a frontal assault would surely fail. He therefore decided to swing his armies around Johnston’s left and descend on Dallas, a wooded hamlet about 15 miles southwest of Allatoona (i.e., beyond Johnston’s flank). This was risky because it involved detaching the armies from the railroad supply line. Sherman issued orders for the men to carry 20 days’ rations for the move.
At Dallas, the Federals would threaten both Marietta and the Confederate left flank. This would force Johnston to either fall back once more or give battle on ground of Sherman’s choosing. The Federals could then return east and reconnect with the railroad. Sherman reported that his men were crossing the Etowah, “the Rubicon of Georgia… We are now all in motion like a vast hive of bees, and expect to swarm along the Chattahoochee in five days.”
Sherman rode with Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, which comprised the Federal center. Sherman later wrote, “We crossed the Etowah by several bridges and fords, and took as many roads as possible, keeping up communication by cross-roads, or by courier through the woods.”
Not long after the Federals began moving, Confederate scouts observed them moving west of Johnston’s army and identified the roads they were using. They relayed this information to Johnston, who dispatched two corps under Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and William Hardee to block the Federals at Dallas. The Confederates had a longer march, but their force was smaller and they carried less gear. Johnston’s other corps under Lieutenant General John Bell Hood remained at Allatoona until Johnston could confirm that Sherman was indeed targeting Dallas.
Moving toward Dallas brought Johnston dangerously close to Atlanta, but he had the advantage of shortening his supply lines, while Sherman’s were lengthening. Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry attacked Federal wagon trains in Sherman’s rear at Burnt Hickory.
Sherman discounted reports that the Confederates were on their way to Dallas; he believed that Johnston would stay near the railroad and instead fall back to Marietta, 20 miles east. But the Confederates under Polk and Hardee were within four miles east of Dallas by the night of the 24th, and a confrontation loomed for the next day.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14-15, 50; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20799; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7208-18, 7227-37, 7247-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 505-08; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 305; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 746-47