Tag Archives: Leonidas Polk

Georgia: Johnston Compacts His Line

June 14, 1864 – Federal forces killed a prominent Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston contracted his Confederate line, and Major General William T. Sherman tried moving southeast around Johnston’s left.

By this time, Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had formed a line facing north, with the left on Lost Mountain, the center bisecting the Western & Atlantic Railroad (in front of Kennesaw Mountain), and the right at Brush Mountain, north of Marietta. Sherman was trying to find a way for his Federals to move around these formidable defenses, and a portion of Major General George H. Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland was working its way around Pine Mountain.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Johnston and two of his corps commanders, Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Leonidas Polk, personally scaled the crest of Pine Mountain to see the three Federal armies on the plain 300 feet below. Johnston informed Hardee that his troops were overextended and must withdraw to meet the Federal threat coming around the mountain.

The commanders stood atop an artillery redoubt to get a better view. Aides warned them that the enemy Parrott rifles a half-mile way had been routinely hitting the area with fire. According to Sherman:

“When abreast of Pine Mountain, I noticed a rebel battery on its crest, with a continuous line of fresh rifle-trench about half-way down the hill. Our skirmishers were at the time engaged in the woods about the base of this hill between the lines, and I estimated the distance to the battery on the crest at about eight hundred yards. Near it, in plain view, stood a group of the enemy, evidently observing us with glasses.”

Sherman told gunners at a nearby Federal battery, “How saucy they are! Make ‘em take cover.”

Confederate General Leonidas Polk | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

A solid shot exploded near the Confederate commanders, prompting them to move for cover. Polk, bringing up the rear, was instantly killed when a second shot tore through his body. Both Johnston and Hardee mourned the loss of their friend; Hardee told Johnston, “General, this has been a dear visit. We have lost a brave man, whose death leaves a vacancy not easily filled.”

Polk was not considered a great general, but he was one of the most beloved among the officers and men as the “fighting Bishop.” That night, Johnston announced Polk’s death to the troops:

“In this distinguished leader, we have lost the most courteous of gentlemen, the most gallant of soldiers. The Christian patriot soldier has neither lived nor died in vain. His example is before you; his mantle rests with you.”

That afternoon, Federal signalmen intercepted a Confederate wigwag message: “Send an ambulance for General Polk’s body.” They forwarded this news to Sherman. The next day, Thomas’s Federals continued moving around Pine Mountain, toward Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman reported to Washington, “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday, and have made good progress today.”

The Confederates responded by pulling back their left to stronger defenses along Mud Creek. Frustrated, Sherman wrote Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I am now inclined to feign on both flanks and assault the center. It may cost us dear, but in results would surpass any attempt to pass around.” After a few more days of skirmishing and repositioning, Johnston had formed a new semicircular defensive line:

  • Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s corps held the right, north of Marietta along the Western & Atlantic Railroad
  • Polk’s corps, now commanded by Major General William W. Loring, held the center, which ran southwest through Kennesaw Mountain
  • Hardee’s corps held the left, which curved southeast and ended south of Marietta

This five-mile line was Johnston’s strongest since the campaign began in May. Sherman continued to try flanking maneuvers, sending Federals around Hardee’s left to try reaching the railroad south of Marietta. Johnston responded by shifting Hood’s corps from the right to Hardee’s left and filling his right with Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. Wheeler’s Confederates harassed Sherman’s left flank, manned by Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee.

By the 21st, Hood held the area around Kolb’s Farm, southwest of Marietta. Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, supported by Major General Joseph Hooker, began probing the Confederate lines there, which would trigger a fight the next day.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-63; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 590; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20808-17; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 425-29; 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 7449-88, 8213-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 455-59; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 23-24, 155-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 521-25

Georgia: Sherman Sidesteps Johnston Again

June 1, 1864 – Federal cavalry seized Allatoona Pass in Major General William T. Sherman’s effort to move northeast around General Joseph E. Johnston’s right flank.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Near May’s end, Sherman had led his three Federal armies away from the Western & Atlantic Railroad to try moving around the left (southern) flank of Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. But after inconclusive fighting at New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill, and Dallas, Sherman opted to swing back to the northeast and reconnect with the railroad, which transported supplies from Chattanooga.

Federal cavalry under Major General George Stoneman seized Allatoona Pass on the railroad as the Armies of the Ohio and the Cumberland shifted northeast. Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee finally disengaged from the Confederates in front of Dallas and began following the other two armies.

Johnston recognized the movement and reported, “Today the enemy is moving his forces from his right to his left. We are making a corresponding movement to our right.” Johnston was confident that he could win a war of attrition if he just continued inflicting casualties and pulling the Federals away from their supply base at Chattanooga.

It rained the next two days, during which the Confederates tried stopping the Army of the Ohio’s eastern shift. The Confederates attacked from behind rocks and forests, prompting Sherman to worry that he was being drawn into “a big Indian war.” The Federals used large amounts of ammunition while inflicting few casualties, but they finally pushed through and reached the railroad. The other two armies soon followed.

Advance Federal units reached Acworth, a railroad town south of Allatoona Pass, on the 3rd. Sherman told Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, “Joe Johnston is shrewd enough to see that we have begun such a movement, and will prepare the way.”

That night, Johnston issued orders for his army to fall back from its New Hope Church-Dallas line to previously prepared entrenchments that bisected the railroad about eight miles below Acworth. Facing north, Johnston’s men held a line that connected several mountains:

  • Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps held the left (west) on Lost Mountain and at Gilgal Church.
  • Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps held the center from Pine Mountain to the railroad.
  • Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s corps held the right (east) across the railroad, along the base of Brush Mountain.

Behind the Confederate center was Kennesaw Mountain, through which the railroad ran. Past Kennesaw was Marietta, and then Atlanta. Sherman reported, “Kennesaw is the key to the whole country.” He arranged his three armies on a line to match Johnston’s, with Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio on the right (west), Thomas in the center, and McPherson on the left (east).

The Federals began shifting around Raccoon Creek, with McPherson along the railroad at Big Shanty, about halfway between Allatoona and Marietta. Skirmishing broke out around Pine Mountain as the Federals probed the Confederate defenses.

By the 8th, all of Sherman’s Federals had reached Acworth and were assembling to confront Johnston’s army in full force. Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr.’s Federal corps finally arrived as reinforcement, but Sherman was forced to detach more troops to go back and deal with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry wreaking havoc on the Federal supply line. This caused delays in Sherman’s preparations against Johnston.

On the Confederate side, it was hoped that troops from General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department could be rushed east to reinforce Johnston, but this was becoming increasingly unlikely. President Jefferson Davis wrote on the 9th:

“I do not think General Smith could re-enforce General Johnston in time for the battle which must be fought for Georgia. Unless General Johnston strikes before the enemy have brought up all the re-enforcements reported to be moving, his chances will be greatly diminished for the success which seemed attainable before he retreated, and still seems to be practicable.”

The Federals continued probing forward the next few days as railroad crews opened the rail line to Big Shanty. This ensured that Sherman’s 100,000 men, most of whom had been well rested over the past week, would also be well supplied. However, there were still many obstacles to overcome, as Sherman later wrote, “The rains continued to pour, and made our developments slow and dilatory, for there were no roads, and these had to be improvised by each division for its own supply-train from the depot in Big Shanty to the camps.”

Sherman reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the night of the 13th:

“We have had hard and cold rains for about 10 days. A gleam of sunshine this evening give hope of a change. The roads are insufficient here, and the fields and new ground are simply impassable to wheels. As soon as possible I will study Johnston’s position on the Kennesaw and Lost Mountains, and adopt some plan to dislodge him or draw him out of his position.”

But Sherman added, “We cannot risk the heavy loss of an assault at this distance from our base.”

Meanwhile, Johnston met with his corps commanders to discuss how they could shorten their lines because the Confederates were spread too thin. As they talked, two of Thomas’s corps moved around the base of Pine Mountain, where the Confederates were most vulnerable. Hardee, concerned that this could isolate one of his divisions on the mountain, asked Johnston to reconnoiter the movements with him. That fateful reconnaissance would take place on the 14th.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 59-61; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20808; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-24; 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 7390-410, 8213-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447, 450, 452; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-15, 517-18

The Battle of New Hope Church

May 25, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals and General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates clashed northeast of Dallas, Georgia, as Sherman tried maneuvering around Johnston’s flank.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

By the morning of the 25th, two corps of Johnston’s Army of Tennessee–Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s and Lieutenant General William Hardee’s–held a line centered on New Hope Church, located at a crossroads about four miles northeast of Dallas. Polk’s troops were on the road leading east to Marietta, and Hardee’s men lined up at Polk’s left. Johnston’s third corps under Lieutenant General John Bell Hood came up on Polk’s right.

Sherman, commanding the three Federal armies marching toward Dallas, expected Johnston to fall back to Marietta, on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. He did not expect Johnston to block him at New Hope Church. Sherman was told that Confederates were east of Dallas, but he thought they were just part of a small force there to stall his advance.

The Federals approached Dallas from the north after marching through dense forest for two days. Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division of XX Corps led the advance, five miles ahead of the rest of the armies. Geary’s men began exchanging fire with Hood’s troops around 10 a.m., and Geary soon learned that the entire Confederate army was in the area. He informed his corps commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, who hurried his other two divisions under Major Generals Alpheus Williams and Daniel Butterfield in Geary’s support.

Battlefield around New Hope Church | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Geary established defenses while awaiting reinforcements. Hood would not attack because he believed the rest of Sherman’s force would be arriving soon. The two sides faced each other until late afternoon, when Sherman finally directed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland over Hooker, “Let Williams go in anywhere as soon as he gets up. I don’t see what they are waiting for in front now. There haven’t been 20 rebels there today.”

Hooker arranged his three divisions in line of battle and sent them forward after 4 p.m. The Federals advanced through heavy brush, which the Confederates behind their fortifications used to their advantage as they fired into the attackers. Visibility through the woods around New Hope Church was so poor and fighting was so intense that Federals called the area the “Hell Hole.”

Hooker’s men began running out of ammunition, and a heavy thunderstorm began around 7 p.m. that rendered much of the gunpowder useless. Hooker ordered a withdrawal around sundown, having sustained 1,665 casualties. Hood lost about half that total, with Major General Alexander P. Stewart’s division having done most of the fighting.

As the rest of the Federals came up during the night, Sherman still did not believe that Johnston’s whole army was at New Hope Church. He admonished Hooker for waiting so long to attack, believing that Geary alone could have broken through the Confederate line that morning. But Hood had been there all day, and considering he had repulsed Hooker’s entire corps, he might have destroyed Geary’s lone division.

Sherman wrote Major General James B. McPherson, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, “I don’t believe there is anything more than Hood’s corps (at New Hope), but still Johnston may have his whole army, and we should act on that hypothesis.” The Federals therefore came up and formed a line parallel to Johnston’s and began building defenses of their own. This campaign, which had been dominated thus far by maneuvering, would now focus more upon fortifications.

As dawn rose on the 26th, the Federals and Confederates were entrenched on a muddy six-mile front. Sherman ordered a series of probes to gauge Johnston’s strength:

  • McPherson’s army cautiously moved east from Dallas toward New Hope Church.
  • Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio scouted Hardee’s defenses on the Confederate left
  • Thomas’s army opposed Hood on the right (northeast).

After sporadic skirmishing all along the line, Sherman decided to try turning the Confederate right.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16, 50-53; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 413-14; 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 7274-7284, 7293-322; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 444-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 508-09; 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. 747

Georgia: Confederates Hold Allatoona

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.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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.

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References

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

Georgia: From Adairsville to the Etowah

May 17, 1864 – General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee established positions around Adairsville after retreating southward from Resaca.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 48, 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 20791-99; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 409-11; 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 7061-71, 7080-100, 7126-46, 7168-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 503-05; 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

The Battle of Resaca

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.”

Battle of Resaca | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 12, 40-45, 48; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525, 624; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20772-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 407-09; 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 6973-93, 7061-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 438-40; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 501-02; 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

Georgia: The Armies Gather at Resaca

May 13, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman shifted his Federals southeast to try moving around General Joseph E. Johnston’s flank, but Johnston shifted to block them.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Sherman had assigned Major General James B. McPherson to lead his Army of the Tennessee around the Confederate left and capture Resaca. However, McPherson had failed to use his 23,000 troops to knock the 4,000 Confederates out of town before they were reinforced. This meant that Johnston’s communication and supply lines (and perhaps most importantly, his line of retreat) remained intact.

Although frustrated, Sherman acknowledged that McPherson had used sound judgment. He wrote McPherson, “I regret beyond measure that you did not break the railroad, however little, but I suppose it was impossible. Should he attack you, fight him to the last and I will get to you.” Sherman later told him, “Well, Mac, you missed the opportunity of your life.”

Sherman opted to go with the plan originally conceived by Major General George H. Thomas, commander of the Federal Army of the Cumberland, which entailed a much larger Federal movement around Johnston’s left flank. Sherman informed his superiors at Washington that he intended to move “between Johnston and Resaca, when we will have to fight it out.”

The Federals spent the 10th probing the Confederate defenses at Rocky Face Ridge, Buzzard’s Roost Gap, and points farther south. Unable to dislodge Johnston from such strong positions, Sherman hoped to send his entire force around the Confederate left, through Snake Creek Gap, and attack Resaca with overwhelming force. This would isolate Johnston north of the Oostanaula River.

Meanwhile, Johnston dispatched three divisions from Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s corps to hold Resaca. They reported that McPherson had fallen back, leaving Johnston confused as to Sherman’s real intent. Johnston therefore opted to defend Dalton, Resaca, and all points in between. The Confederates had the advantage of holding the interior line, which ran 18 miles from Dalton to Resaca via the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

That night, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate Army of Mississippi began arriving in bulk and taking up positions at Resaca. Polk himself arrived to take command in the area the next day. Polk’s army thereafter became known as “Polk’s Corps” of Johnston’s Army of Tennessee.

Sherman issued marching orders on the 11th. McPherson would stay put while the armies of Thomas and Major General John Schofield would swing southeast along Taylor Ridge to join McPherson’s army at Snake Creek Gap. A small Federal force would remain at Rocky Face Ridge as a diversion, consisting of IV Corps and two mounted divisions. Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding IV Corps, was “terrified” by the idea of facing the Confederates at Rocky Face alone. However, Johnston remained purely on the defensive and did not threaten his small force.

The Federal advance was extremely slow because the troops, guns, and wagons all used just one road. This gave Johnston’s scouts time to confirm that the main Federal movement was taking place to the west, around the Confederate left. The next day, Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry scouts reported that just a skeleton force remained at Rocky Face Ridge, thus proving that Sherman’s intent was to slide around the left.

Johnston ordered Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps and the rest of Hood’s corps to fall back and join Polk at Resaca. The Confederates began evacuating Dalton on the night of the 12th. Meanwhile, Sherman’s Federals still had not fully arrived at Snake Creek Gap due to the delays that came with marching along a single road.

On the morning of the 13th, the withdrawing Confederates began arriving at Resaca, a town within a peninsula formed by the Oostanaula and Conasauga rivers. The Federals began probing through Snake Creek Gap but were stopped by Polk’s Confederates. This gave the rest of Johnston’s men time to take positions on the high ground west of town.

Johnston hoped to stay on the defensive and stretch the Federal supply lines to the point where Sherman would have to either engage in an open fight or fall back for sustenance. Sherman hoped to cut Johnston off from the Oostanaula, but by the time he was ready to advance in force, the Confederate wagon train was already crossing that river.

The Federals finally began advancing through Snake Creek Gap in force. McPherson’s army was on the right (south), with its right flank anchored on the Oostanaula, and Thomas’s army was on the left. Schofield’s army was held in reserve, east of the gap. The opposing line consisted of Polk on the left (south), Hardee in the center, and Hood on the right.

Sherman did not expect Johnston to put up a fight; he believed that Johnston just wanted to stall until his wagons got over the river. He therefore directed McPherson and Thomas to demonstrate in the Confederate front while Schofield’s Federals built bridges over the Oostanaula and crossed over to cut off the Confederate line of retreat. The action would begin the next morning.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39-41; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 624; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20772; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 404-06; 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 6944-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 435, 437-38; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 498-501; 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; Rutherford, Phillip R., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707

Georgia: Sherman Begins Moving

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.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

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.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

Maj Gen J.B. McPherson | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

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References

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

The Georgia Campaign: Final Preparations

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.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 171-72; Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 82-84; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20745-54, 20772; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399; 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 6789-99, 6838-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 23-24; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492; 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; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707

The Fall of Meridian

February 14, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee completed its destructive march through central Mississippi by arriving at the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in the state.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

As the Federals resumed their eastward march on the 14th, Sherman issued orders to his commanders on what their men should do once they reached Meridian:

“The destruction of the railroads intersecting at Meridian is of great importance, and should be done most effectually. Every tie and rail of iron for many miles in each direction should be absolutely destroyed or injured, and every bridge and culvert completely destroyed… The troops should be impressed with the importance of this work, and also that time is material, and therefore it should be begun at once and prosecuted with all the energy possible. The destruction of the buildings must be deferred until the last moment, when a special detail will be made for that purpose.”

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi, had ordered his troops to abandon Meridian, but before they left, they dumped felled trees on the roads to slow the Federal advance. They also destroyed the bridges over Tallahatta Creek and the Oktibbeha River. Federal engineers and laborers rebuilt the bridge over the Tallahatta that morning. Then, as Sherman reported:

“At the Tallahatta, 20 miles from Meridian, we found the road obstructed with fallen timber, and satisfied the enemy was trying to save time to cover the removal of railroad property from Meridian, I dropped our trains with good escorts and pushed on over all obstructions straight for the Oktibbeha, where we found the bridge burning.”

Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal cavalry led the advance across the Oktibbeha, where they pushed the small Confederate rear guard through Meridian. A Federal infantry division led by Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith came up, with Winslow and Smith arguing over whether the cavalry or the infantry should be the first to enter the town. Winslow won, telling Smith, “I believe this cavalry would charge the Gates of Hell if I tell them,” and leading his troopers into Meridian. Smith’s infantry followed, as a soldier named John Ritland recalled:

“Again we marched on with the firm resolution in our hearts to do or die; and again we were halted, this time to receive orders not to fire a shot, meanwhile, continuing our interminable marching, as if there was no end. Almost unaware we found ourselves marching through a deserted town with here and there some negroes reported, but not a sign of the enemy. Upon asking where they might be, the negroes reported, ‘They’re all gone. They began going yesterday. Some went last night, and the rest this morning.’ They had divided and their destinations were Mobile and Richmond. We occupied the city without a shot.”

Sherman entered the town that night. The next morning, he issued a proclamation to his troops, congratulating them for–

“… their most successful accomplishment of one of the great problems of the war. Meridian, the great railway center of the Southwest, is now in our possession, and by industry and hard work can be rendered useless to the enemy and deprive him of the chief source of supply to his armies. Secrecy in plan and rapidity of execution accomplish the best results in war, and the general commanding assures all, by following their leaders fearlessly and with confidence, they will in time reap the reward so dear to us all–a peace that will never again be disturbed in our country by a discontented minority.”

The Confederates fell back to the east side of the Tombigbee River. Polk’s ultimate destination was Demopolis, Alabama, while he moved about $12 million worth of supplies to Selma and Mobile. His cavalry, led by Major General Stephen D. Lee, did its best to harass Sherman’s Federals but could do little in the face of such overwhelming numbers.

The next day, the Federals began destroying the town in earnest, wrecking railroad tracks, locomotives, factories, sawmills, machine shops, public buildings, and private homes, while the Confederates were powerless to save the civilians from such devastation. Sherman reported on the 20th: “For five days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction… Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exists.”

In the 11-day, 140-mile campaign from Vicksburg to Meridian, the Federals obliterated 115 miles of railroad track, 61 bridges, and 20 locomotives in pursuit of Sherman’s goal to ensure that the Mississippi railroads could not function for the rest of the war.

Sherman informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that his troops had taken “some 500 prisoners, a good many refugee families, and about 10 miles of negroes,” while inflicting so much damage that it was “simply impossible for the enemy to risk anything but light cavalry this side of Pearl River…” He also wrote:

“My movement to Meridian stampeded all Alabama. Polk retreated across Tombigbee and left me to smash things at pleasure, and I think it is well done… We broke absolutely and effectually a full hundred miles of railroad… and made a swath of desolation 50 miles broad across the State of Mississippi which the present generation will not forget.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 925-26, 934; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488