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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta

   

FROM THE OOSTANAULA TO THE ETOWAH

Johnston's retreat took him to Calhoun, then on the following day (May 17) to Adairsville. At both places he planned to make a stand but on arriving at them found the terrain unfavorable. Then, as he examined his map, the idea for a brilliant stratagem came to him. This was to have Hardee's Corps and most of the cavalry continue due south by a road paralleling the Western & Atlantic to Kingston and for Hood's and Polk's Corps to march by a road leading southeast to Cassville. This might prompt the pursuing Sherman, calculated Johnston, to divide his army also, sending part of it toward Kingston and the rest toward Cassville. By doing so Sherman would expose himself to a devastating counterblow, for on reaching Kingston Hardee would turn east and join Hood and Polk at Cassville, where their combined forces would attack and smash that part of the Union army heading for that town. At dawn on May 18 Hardee and Wheeler set out for Kingston while Hood and Polk marched toward Cassville.

Sherman reacted precisely as Johnston anticipated. Most of his army—the IV Corps, the XIV Corps (less a division which had gone to occupy Rome), and the Army of the Tennessee—followed Hardee, and the remainder, Hooker's and Schofield's corps, took the road to Cassville. Moreover, Sherman believed that Johnston's whole army was retreating to Kingston and therefore directed Hooker and Schofield to proceed to that town on reaching Cassville. Not even reports, conveyed to him by Hooker on the evening of May 18, that Confederate pickets had been encountered north of Cassville and that Rebel prisoners spoke of giving battle in that area, caused Sherman to modify his orders for all of the army to concentrate at Kingston. As he saw it, the "broad, well-marked trail" left by Johnston's troops on the road to Kingston made it likely that any Confederates around Cassville were merely a detachment guarding a wagon train. In that case, then Stoneman's and Brigadier General Edward McCook's cavalry divisions, which had been sent yesterday to cut the railroad south of Cassville, would take care of them.

GENERAL LEONIDAS POLK (USAMHI)

A VIEW OF KINGSTON, GEORGIA, IN 1865. (USAMHI)

Yet when Hardee, Polk, and Hood urged advancing once to strike the Federal column approaching Cassville, Johnston refused to do so.

By the evening of May 18 Johnston's army, except for a small delaying force left at Kingston, was deployed in line of battle about one mile northwest of Cassville. Altogether it now numbered between 70,000 and 75,000 men thanks to the arrival of the rest of Polk's infantry, all of "Red" Jackson's cavalry, and other reinforcements. Yet when Hardee, Polk, and Hood urged advancing at once to strike the Federal column approaching Cassville, Johnston refused to do so; neither would he issue orders for tomorrow. Not until the morning of May 19 did he agree to a plan, presented by Hood, whereby Hood's Corps would form along a country road east of the Adairsville-Cassville road and attack the oncoming Federals in the flank while Polk assailed their front and Hardee covered Cassville on the west. Around 10:30 A.M, Hood began marching his corps up the country road. As he did so, a staff officer told him that there was a "dark line" off to the east. Hood looked and saw "a body of the enemy," apparently cavalry, approaching his rear along the road from Canton. At once he halted his march and sent a courier to notify Johnston of what was happening. "It can't be!" exclaimed Johnston on hearing the news, but after examining his map he muttered, "If that is so, General Hood will have to fall back at once." Soon afterward Johnston ordered his army to retire to a ridge about one-half mile southeast of Cassville.

The Union cavalry that appeared so unexpectedly in Hood's rear consisted of McCook's division followed by Stoneman's. They were attempting to carry out Sherman's order to raid the Western & Atlantic Railroad south of Cassville and did not anticipate finding a large Confederate force in the vicinity. Indeed, neither then nor later did they realize that they had prevented a potentially devastating attack on Hooker's corps by Hood and Polk, thereby performing the greatest service rendered by Sherman's cavalry during the whole Atlanta campaign!

ALLATOONA AS SEEN FROM THE BANKS OF THE ETOWAH. (LC)

On reaching the ridge southeast of Cassville, Hood's Corps took position on the right and Polk's on the left, while Hardee's formed to the south of it, guarding the road to Cass Station. During the afternoon the IV Corps, marching from Kingston, where Sherman finally had discovered that he had been following a false trail, deployed along a parallel ridge where it soon was joined on the left by the XX Corps and Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox's division of the XXIII Corps and on the right by two divisions of the XIV Corps. Neither Johnston nor Sherman proposed to attack, the former because he hoped the Federals would assault him, the latter because he assumed that most of the Confederate army already was south of the Etowah River and that the force facing him at Cassville was only a rear guard that would retreat as soon as it was dark.

Again Sherman assumed wrongly. Not only did he have Johnston's entire army before him, but Johnston had no intention of retreating. He considered his new position superb—"the best that I ever saw occupied during the war," he later would assert—and he rejected a warning from his chief of artillery, Brigadier General Francis Shoup, that part of the ridge was vulnerable to enemy cannon fire. Besides, that morning he had issued a proclamation telling his soldiers that their retreating had ended and that they now would give battle to the invaders. Not to make good on these words was an embarrassment he wished to avoid.


In Richmond, Jefferson Davis began to grow uneasy. So did many other Southerners, particularly those in Georgia, and above all those in Atlanta. When and where would Johnston stand and fight Sherman? Would he stand and fight him at all?

Late in the afternoon the Federal batteries opened up and soon demonstrated that Shoup's warning was justified as they ravaged Polk's and Hood's troops with cross and enfilade fire until nightfall ended the bombardment. Alarmed, Polk and Hood requested Johnston to meet them at Polk's headquarters. When Johnston arrived, Polk told him that his corps would be unable to hold its position more than an hour when the Yankee cannonade resumed in the morning and Hood stated that he would have to abandon his line in two hours. For a while Johnston tried to persuade the two generals that they exaggerated the danger, but when Hood insisted that the only alternative to a retreat was an attack, he ordered the former. Starting at midnight the Confederates pulled out of their works and headed for the Etowah. On the afternoon of May 20 they crossed that river, then burned the railroad and wagon road bridges spanning it. Sherman, still thinking that the enemy had only a rear guard at Cassville, did not pursue.

So ended the second week and the second phase of the campaign. Manifestly its course favored Sherman. At the moderate cost of probably no more than 5,000 casualties he had forced Johnston to retreat one-half of the hundred miles from Dalton to Atlanta. In Richmond, Jefferson Davis began to grow uneasy. So did many other Southerners, particularly those in Georgia, and above all those in Atlanta. When and where would Johnston stand and fight Sherman? Would he stand and fight him at all?

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