May 7, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s three Federal armies began its part of the grand offensive by moving to draw the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Joseph E. Johnston out into the open where it could be destroyed.
Sherman gathered his forces in northern Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, where he finalized his plans:
- Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio would advance on the Confederate positions outside Dalton from Red Clay to the north.
- Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland would demonstrate against Rocky Face Ridge, northwest of Dalton, and seize Tunnel Hill on the ridge’s northwestern spur (seven miles southeast of Ringgold).
- Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee would slide southward, beyond the Confederates’ left flank, and move through Snake Creek Gap.
McPherson’s was the key movement because it would put the Federals 14 miles in the Confederate rear. From there, they could cut Johnston’s supply lines and possibly trap the entire Army of Tennessee. The Federal armies had a combined total of about 98,000 officers and men.
Johnston had just about 60,000 troops, but they were battle tested veterans who held extremely strong positions on Rocky Face Ridge outside Dalton. The Confederates had spent the past several months strengthening these defenses, making them almost invulnerable to frontal assault.
The Confederate artillery and Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry were positioned at Tunnel Hill, and the infantry held a line behind Wheeler that was hinged on Buzzard’s Roost Gap, a defile in Rocky Face Ridge. Thomas opened the campaign when his vanguard hit Tunnel Hill. The defenses proved so strong that Thomas had to commit his entire XIV Corps under Major General John M. Palmer.
As the fighting occurred at Tunnel Hill, Johnston received word that a Federal column was moving around his left, south of Buzzard’s Roost Gap. Johnston issued orders to a Confederate brigade just arriving at Resaca from Mobile to stay there and guard against a possible flanking movement. Meanwhile, Johnston shifted his forces to better defend the gaps in Rocky Face Ridge.
Palmer’s XIV Corps made no progress at Tunnel Hill until it was reinforced by Major General Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps coming up on Palmer’s left. This compelled the Confederates to abandon Tunnel Hill; they withdrew so fast that they had no time to destroy it. The Confederates fell back to Buzzard’s Roost Gap, where they took up positions behind previously built earthworks. As the Federals pursued, they were reinforced by Major General Joseph Hooker’s XX Corps.
To the west, McPherson continued his southward slide. Johnston guessed that he might target Rome or Resaca. He was unaware that McPherson planned to move all the way down to the unguarded Snake Creek Gap, well beyond his left flank.
On the 8th, Brigadier General John Newton’s division of IV Corps probed Confederate defenses along the northern stretch of Rocky Face Ridge. Meanwhile, troops from Thomas’s IV, XIV, and XX corps advanced against Johnston’s left and seized the mouth of Buzzard’s Roost Gap.
Near day’s end, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division of XX Corps shifted below Buzzard’s and attacked the Confederates at Dug Gap. The defenders repelled three attempts to scale the rocky walls, inflicting about 350 casualties. Farther southwest, McPherson’s Federals arrived within striking distance of Snake Creek Gap that night.
The next day, Federals from IV, XIV, and XX corps renewed their assaults on Buzzard’s Roost Gap and points farther south. They made no progress despite sustaining heavy casualties; Johnston acknowledged that their losses were “proportionate to their courage.”
Meanwhile, Wheeler’s cavalry clashed with a Federal cavalry brigade from Schofield’s army east of Rocky Face Ridge. Fighting began near Varnell’s Station, on the railroad to Dalton, and ended at Poplar Place, where Wheeler made a stand. The Confederates inflicted about 150 casualties in driving the Federals off.
During this time, McPherson’s Federals continued advancing along Taylor Ridge, moving through Ship’s Gap and the town of Villanow before approaching Snake Creek Gap, a three-mile-wide pass through the Horn Mountains. This led to Resaca, a strategic town in Johnston’s rear.
Johnston had inexplicably left both the gap and the path to Resaca unguarded. However, about 4,000 Confederates defended Resaca itself. These were timely reinforcements from Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate army in Mississippi. They were supposed to stop briefly at Resaca before reinforcing Johnston at Dalton, but instead they stayed at Resaca to face McPherson’s threat.
Major General Grenville M. Dodge’s XVI Corps led McPherson’s army through the gap. As Dodge’s Federals advanced, a Confederate mounted brigade formed a line of battle and began firing into them. Dodge responded by deploying Brigadier General John Corse’s division. Corse reported:
“In this formation, the enemy’s cavalry was received, checked, and repulsed, as it dashed forward, driving the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry before it, and almost at the same moment the 66th Illinois Volunteers, without knapsacks, rushed forward as skirmishers, driving the enemy like sheep before them, in the direction of Resaca.”
McPherson directed Dodge to continue forward until he reached the Rome-Resaca crossroads, about a mile west of Resaca, and then wait for reinforcements. Dodge exceeded orders by moving past the crossroads and seizing Bald Hill, about three-quarters of a mile west of Resaca. McPherson rode up and inspected Dodge’s positions before ordering him to send scouts north to find a way to seize the railroad.
McPherson reported that his men were within striking distance of Resaca without any substantial opposition. When Sherman read the message, he smacked the table and hollered, “I’ve got Joe Johnston dead!” He later wrote:
“I got a short note from McPherson… and we all felt jubilant. I renewed orders to Thomas and Schofield to be ready for the instant pursuit of what I expected to be a broken and disordered army, forced to retreat by roads to the east of Resaca, which were known to be very rough and impracticable.”
However, Federal scouts found the railroad blocked by Confederate cavalry. Dodge held Bald Hill with a division and deployed another to the left, which advanced toward Resaca from the northwest. Dodge reported, “The enemy, observing the movement, opened a heavy fire from his batteries upon the column, and also, together with rapid musketry, upon the left of the Second Division, doing, however, but little execution.”
Although Dodge held his ground, McPherson was told that Confederate resistance was mounting both to Dodge’s left and right. As the Confederates took positions on the high ground just outside Resaca, McPherson ordered Dodge to abandon Bald Hill and fall back to Snake Creek Gap. McPherson did not know that he outnumbered this small enemy force by nearly six-to-one.
As Dodge complied, McPherson informed Sherman that the Federals could not seize the railroad, nor could they hold Bald Hill in the face of the growing Confederate presence in the area. McPherson also expressed concern that Johnston’s main force could fall back from Dalton and land on his left, and Dodge’s men were running out of provisions. Sherman responded:
“You now have your 23,000 men, and General Hooker is in close support, so that you can hold all of Jos. Johnston’s army in check should he abandon Dalton. He cannot afford to abandon Dalton, for he had fixed it up on purpose to receive us, and he observes that we are close at hand, waiting for him to quit. He cannot afford a detachment strong enough to fight you, as his army will not admit of it. Strengthen your position; fight anything that comes; and threaten the safety of the railroad all the time.”
Sherman considered McPherson his protégé (and potential successor), but he was clearly disappointed that McPherson did not use his 23,000 men to knock the 4,000 Confederates out of Resaca before Johnston disengaged from Thomas and Schofield and slid south to reinforce that vital town. Sherman later wrote, “Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life, but at the critical moment McPherson seems to have been a little timid.”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 11, 32-38; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 402-03; 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 6799-819, 6828-48, 6857-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 431-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 495-97; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 700-01; 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. 744