- Sherman Burns Confederate Hopes
In April 1864, Confederate General Joseph Johnston met with President Jefferson Davis's personal envoy, Brigadier General William Pendleton. The meeting at Johnston's headquarters in north Georgia lasted most of the day, with a discussion all too familiar to participants. President Davis wanted Johnston to attack Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's forces then controlling Tennessee, but Johnston was resisting unless he could get more troops.
Johnston turned for support to his cavalry commander, Major General Joseph Wheeler, who, at only five feet, five inches tall, nonetheless spoke with the authority of a hardened veteran who had proved his courage time and again. Although he had missed the Confederate Army's celebrated Virginia campaigns, Wheeler had distinguished himself in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia, earning a reputation for astuteness and for gathering reliable intelligence about Union forces.
Wheeler, at Johnston's request, recited a thorough account of all units available to Sherman in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, with detailed estimates of the fighting capabilities and strengths of each one. Sherman was assembling an awesome force, he concluded. The Union general would have more than 100,000 soldiers, not counting an additional 15,000 African-American troops.
Wheeler's estimates, forwarded to Richmond, Virginia, were dismissed as inflated by President Davis and his top military advisor, General Braxton Bragg. Sherman could count on only 60,000 soldiers at most, in their view. Attack, they insisted. But Johnston, trusting Wheeler's count instead, delayed and consequently likely saved his army from certain disaster because Wheeler's numbers were uncannily accurate. Johnston, with an army of fewer than 50,000 soldiers, proved to be up against a Union force of more than 100,000.
While Johnston's army was eventually reinforced to total more than 60,000, Sherman outclassed him in almost every facet of military might - infantry, artillery, wagons, support personnel, and supply. Cavalry was the only category where Confederates fared better than the Union, which no one knew better than Sherman. Confederate cavalry consisted of "young bloods of the South," wrote Sherman, and the troopers were "splendid riders, first-rate shots, and utterly reckless."
Union cavalry, even at this late date in the war, lacked the Confederates' cockiness, and Sherman had little confidence in the horsemen and was inexperienced and uncomfortable directing them. His great skill was commanding infantry.
The Union cavalry was divided into four divisions, all with separate commanders who reported directly to Sherman, while the Confederates consolidated most of their horsemen under Wheeler, a proven cavalry leader. Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, 28 years old, was one of the four Union cavalry commanders, and although controversial, was probably the best Sherman had.
Wheeler, 27, was born in Augusta, Georgia, and nicknamed "Little Joe" and "War Child" by his troops because of his short stature, a trait shared with Kilpatrick. Graduating from the United States Military Academy in 1859, he joined the U.S. Army, then resigned after the shelling of Fort Sumter to support the Confederacy. He began in artillery, then switched to commanding Alabama infantry, participating with distinction at the Battle of Shiloh in west Tennessee. Soon, he transferred to the cavalry, and by July 1862 Bragg appointed him commander of cavalry for the Army of the Mississippi, which in November became the Army of Tennessee.
Wheeler fast became known for fearlessness, earning another name, "Fighting Joe." He oversaw the destruction of an important Union wagon train in Tennessee and was with Bragg's troops when they fought alongside Lieutenant General James Longstreet's forces at Chickamauga, Georgia, where the Confederates overpowered Union soldiers. After the battle, Wheeler rampaged behind Union lines, inflicting much damage until he overextended his command and lost effectiveness.
Cool in the face of danger, Wheeler preferred to be in the thick of action, inspiring loyalty and confidence in his troops, but often placing his life in jeopardy. He was wounded three times in the war, with 16 horses killed beneath him and 36 staff officers shot down around him. Wheeler's one apparent weakness was overestimating what he could accomplish and exaggerating what he achieved.
Still, he proved invaluable in the fight against Sherman. In late April 1864, Wheeler's cavalry drove back advanced Union forces in north Georgia in a preliminary skirmish foreshadowing that the Confederates would not easily submit. Wheeler's cavalry fought Union troops in flare-ups for almost a week before the Union and Confederate infantries engaged.
As Sherman ordered his massive force forward, he commanded that soldiers should leave unnecessary baggage, supplies, and equipment, including some 300 cannons. They jettisoned anything that would slow their advance or hinder maneuverability, but even so, the Federals still had 254 artillery pieces compared to the Confederates' 144. The Union troops also held on to their fiddles, with nearly every company claiming at least one. Just before the first major clash, dances spontaneously occurred through the ranks.
By May 6, much of Sherman's infantry had pushed into north Georgia. That night, a Union soldier from Indiana cut up candles from his pack, lit the separate pieces, and placed them inside and around his tent. Other soldiers quickly imitated him, lighting their own candles. Soon, someone climbed a tree and used wax to stick burning candles to the limbs, and before long, others copied him as well, until thousands of tiny flames flickered in the trees, creating a spectacular display as if the stars had dropped from the sky to roost just above the soldiers.
The next day brought the first major Union advance. Sherman's forces rumbled into place near Confederate headquarters at the small northwest Georgia town of Dalton. Expecting them for a long time, Confederate soldiers, under Johnston's orders, had spent months preparing nearly impregnable defenses, including creating a deep pond by damming Mill Creek. Johnston hoped, but didn't really expect, that Sherman would foolishly waste his troops with assaults on these fortifications. More likely, Johnston expected the Union general to attempt a wide sweep around the Confederates.
Sherman ordered almost three fourths of his army to push cautiously against the Confederate positions near Dalton, then fulfilled Johnston's expectations, sending the rest of his army around them. What Johnston did not anticipate was the Union route. Unexpectedly, Sherman directed troops toward an unguarded mountain pass, Snake Creek Gap, to gain access to Resaca behind Confederate lines.
Before Confederates realized what was happening, Union Major General James Birdseye McPherson led his Army of Tennessee through the four-mile long pass between steep mountains. The force stopped near the small community of Resaca, some 10 miles to the rear of Confederates in Dalton. McPherson was now within striking distance of the railroad line that passed through Resaca and supplied the Confederate Army. The Confederates were almost trapped. All McPherson had to do was overpower a small garrison and destroy a railroad bridge, then the Confederates would be forced to escape or be caught without resupply in a certain Union siege. If they fled, Sherman intended to catch them in motion and destroy them. There seemed to be no way out of the dilemma for the Confederates. Hearing that McPherson was in Resaca, Sherman exclaimed, "I've got Joe Johnston dead!"
Victory within his grasp on May 9, McPherson hesitated. He couldn't tell how many Confederates hid in earthworks protecting the railroad, and he had another concern. Some recently captured Confederate prisoners claimed that Wheeler's cavalry was close by, ready to advance through Snake Creek Gap and pounce on the Federals. With few Union cavalrymen to scout for reliable information, McPherson panicked. He ordered a hasty retreat, sending a message to Sherman claiming, inaccurately, that the Confederate position was too strong to overpower. Union soldiers, only yards away from the vital railroad, couldn't comprehend why they were withdrawing and grumbled as they pulled back.
Sherman, no doubt disappointed, immediately formulated an alternative strategy. He began moving most of his forces to join McPherson, leaving enough soldiers in place perhaps to bluff the Confederates into thinking that the Union Army was still seriously challenging their defenses at Rocky Face, shielding Dalton. If everything went as Sherman hoped, the huge Federal force would soon be between the Confederates and Atlanta, the vital transportation and industrial center 90 miles to the south.
Then Sherman underestimated Johnston. He assumed the Confederates wouldn't quickly abandon their Dalton fortifications, but Johnston considered doing just that as he gathered cavalry reports. Wheeler's horsemen first detected the movement of Federal troops near the unguarded Snake Creek Gap, then confirmed that much of Sherman's army was withdrawing from the Dalton area. In response, on the night of May 12, Johnston ordered the infantry to abandon the bulwarks where they had spent the past six months and march south. Wheeler's cavalry remained, preparing to delay oncoming Union troops sure to pursue the Confederate infantry.
Moving through the night, many Confederate soldiers arrived by early morning in Resaca, a small village of some dozen wooden buildings and the train depot. By now, Sherman knew the Confederates were retreating, but was unaware that many were already in Resaca. He still thought he could get most of the army to the town before the Confederates.
By midmorning on May 13, Sherman still thought his plan to take Resaca was working, but as Kilpatrick led the first Union troops toward the town, gunfire erupted from a nest of Confederate soldiers hidden in a thicket. Kilpatrick responded with a cavalry charge. Union horses galloped toward the brush, riders shooting, but the Confederates' return gunfire was intense and the hidden soldiers were hard to see. The Union troops yanked back on their reins and turned away. Kilpatrick immediately ordered another charge, this time by dismounted cavalry, and led these soldiers himself. While the men walked warily forward, Kilpatrick rode just ahead, shouting encouragement and waving his saber. He was an irresistible target. A Confederate soldier rose from the bushes some 10 feet away and fired, shooting Kilpatrick in the thigh. The bullet barely missed bone, sparing Kilpatrick from amputation, but still forcing him out of the battle.
Union troops, perhaps inspired by Kilpatrick's valor, pushed the Confederates back and broke out of the woods, firing at the Confederates who retreated to a cluster of hills. On their next charge, the Union troops took the hills, but their triumph was short lived. Below them, across a valley, lay the town of Resaca where a Confederate supply train chugged along the tracks, smoke billowing from the engine. All around, in every direction, the ground bristled with Confederate defenses. Soldiers clad in gray seemed to be everywhere. The Union troops realized they were too late. Much of the Confederate infantry was already in place.
The rest of the Confederates were rushing to join them, pursued by Union forces who were repeatedly delayed by Wheeler's cavalry, who dismounted at intervals to erect hasty roadblocks. The cavalrymen cut trees and dragged them across the road, along with anything else to strengthen the barricades, then, when Union troops approached, shielded themselves behind the barriers and blasted away with their guns. When the pressure from the Federals became too great, the Confederates would ride back about a quarter mile to another roadblock already being built by their comrades. Soon, shooting would begin again. Wheeler and his men stalled the Union forces this way for hours until, by afternoon, the entire Confederate Army was snug behind Resaca defenses. Sherman had lost this leg of the deadly race.
For the next two months, Johnston and Sherman repeated similar strategies, each occasionally surprising the other, neither making many serious missteps. Johnston continued finding ideal spots for defenses, then held on until the last possible moment against the oncoming Union Army. This was military chess, and Johnston was as skilled at withdrawal as any general in either army. The smart officers knew there was no one more dangerous than Johnston in retreat, who waited like a viper, poised to attack when his foe made a mistake.
Born in Virginia, Johnston was in the same 1829 United States Military Academy class with General Robert E. Lee. He made his reputation during fights with the Seminole Indians and in the Mexican-American War and quickly rose in rank. Appointed quartermaster general on the eve of the Civil War, he resigned to join the Confederacy. Early in the conflict, he commanded Confederate forces in Virginia where he was severely wounded and replaced by his former classmate Lee.
Johnston's Achilles heel was a stormy relationship with President Davis. The two had the first of many arguments early in the war and rarely saw eye-to-eye. Their mutual distrust ill served both men and their cause. In the campaign against Sherman, several Confederate officers, perhaps emboldened by Johnston's well-known troubles with the Confederate president, groused about Johnston's strategies. At least two, including Wheeler, fed disparaging information to President Davis through his military advisor, Bragg. Wheeler sent a complaining letter to Bragg, stating that he had urged Johnston to order a large cavalry raid on Union supplies and that Johnston balked. The damaging letter came just when the Confederate president was considering removing Johnston from command.