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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta



A direct attack on Johnston at Dalton would require the Federals to penetrate Rocky Face Ridge, a chain of steep hills west of Dalton, by way of Buzzard Roost Gap. Not only was this a naturally strong position, but the Confederates had turned it, as Thomas put it, into a "slaughter pen" by means of fortifications, massed artillery, and damming a creek so as to create in front of it an artificial lake that could be crossed only by way of a railroad trestle. Therefore, Sherman early on decided not to try to break through this "terrible door of death." Instead he would force Johnston to abandon Dalton by outflanking him.

Thanks to Rocky Face Ridge, an almost continuous line of steep, rugged hills, Johnston's Confederate army enjoyed at Dalton a naturally strong defensive position which it had rendered virtually impregnable to frontal assault by fortifications and other obstacles at Buzzard Roost Gap, the main passageway through the ridge. Realizing this, Sherman feinted against Dalton with Thomas's Army of the Cumberland and Schofield's Army of the Ohio while sending McPherson's Army of the Tennessee swinging south via Snake Creek Gap to cut the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Johnston's supply line, at Resaca. This flanking move surprised Johnston and compelled him to evacuate Dalton, but owing to inadequate strength and his own lack of aggressiveness McPherson failed to cut the railroad and prevent Johnston from retreating unmolested to Resaca.

His initial plan for doing so called for McPherson's Army of the Tennessee to make a deep southward thrust to Rome, Georgia, thereby cutting Johnston's direct rail link to Alabama and threatening the Western & Atlantic Railroad, his supply line to Atlanta. The plan, however, was based on the assumption that before the campaign began, four, or at least two, additional divisions belonging to the Army of the Tennessee would reinforce McPherson. By May it was apparent that none of these divisions would arrive in time and that McPherson would continue to have just 23,000 troops, a force Sherman deemed too small to undertake safely so long a march so far from the rest of the Union army. Hence he needed a new plan and needed it quickly, for Grant had ordered the offensive in Georgia to begin at the same time as his in Virginia—May 5.

Such a plan was available. It came from Thomas. Back in February his cavalry had discovered an undefended mountain pass called Snake Creek Gap that led straight to Resaca, a railroad station on the north bank of the Oostanaula River eighteen miles south of Dalton. Why not, Thomas proposed to Sherman, send his Army of the Cumberland through Snake Creek Gap to Resaca where it would block both Johnston's line of supply and line of retreat?



Sherman adopted Thomas's plan—but with two major modifications. First, McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, not the Army of the Cumberland, would execute the Snake Creek Gap maneuver. Second, instead of seizing and holding Resaca, McPherson was to break the railroad there, then fall back to Snake Creek Gap, where he would wait to pounce on Johnston's army as it retreated to Resaca as a consequence of having its supply line severed. Assailed on the flank by McPherson and from the rear by the pursuing Thomas and Schofield, the Confederates either would be destroyed or else forced to flee into the barren wilderness of northeast Georgia. Sherman believed that in this way he could achieve with less force and risk the same outcome Thomas's plan envisioned. It also would enable McPherson and the Army of the Tennessee to garner most of the glory of carrying out the move that produced the defeat of the Confederates in Georgia.

Johnston realized that the Federal offensive was about to start. Although he hoped that Sherman would oblige him with a frontal assault on Rocky Face Ridge, he expected him to do exactly what Sherman originally had intended to do—pretend to move against Dalton while sending a strong force to strike at Rome. Accordingly, on May 4 Johnston telegraphed Davis and Polk requesting that the latter send a division and a brigade from his Army of Mississippi to defend Rome. Davis promptly authorized Polk to go at once with a division and "any other available troops" to that town. Interpreting this statement literally, Polk headed for Georgia with practically all of his infantry—two divisions—and Major General William H. "Red" Jackson's cavalry division. Davis, on learning of what Polk had done, was dismayed—he wanted to retain all of Polk's cavalry in Alabama-Mississippi so that it could raid Sherman's supply line—but decided to let Polk's move stand in the belief that Johnston now would have ample strength to repel Sherman and then at long last launch an offensive into Tennessee.


Starting on May 5, Thomas and Schofield advanced from the northwest and north toward Dalton while McPherson moved down from Chattanooga by way of Lee and Gordon's Mill, Ship Gap, and Villanow toward Snake Creek Gap. On May 8, having been notified that McPherson was a day's march from his objective, Sherman ordered Thomas to engage the Confederates on Rocky Face and Schofield to feint an attempt to bypass it on the east. This they did, with some of Thomas's troops seizing the northern end of the ridge and others almost breaking through a weakly held pass called Dug Gap. Meanwhile, McPherson reached, then passed through, Snake Creek Gap. He met no opposition whatsoever and not so much as a single Confederate vedette patrolled the pass.

So oblivious was Johnston to the threat posed by Snake Creek Gap that on May 7 he had responded to a report that "McPherson's Corps" was moving southward from Lee and Gordon's Mill on the road to Lafayette by ordering Brigadier General George Cantey, commanding the garrison at Resaca, to come to Dalton. Fortunately, upon further consideration, he had canceled that order, but not until shortly after dark on May 8, when a telegram arrived from Cantey stating that "Cavalry scouts report Yankees in vicinity of Villanow today" did he become concerned about a possible enemy foray against Resaca via Snake Creek Gap. Even then, however, he thought that any attack on Resaca most likely would take the form of a cavalry raid and that Rome remained the true danger point. Therefore, he merely sent a Kentucky mounted brigade to reinforce Cantey, confident that it would give him sufficient strength to hold Resaca.


At mid-morning on May 9 McPherson set out from the southern end of Snake Creek Gap for Resaca, seven miles to the east. Although he had been instructed by Sherman to make a "bold and rapid movement," his march was cautious and slow, the consequence of "considerable resistance" from the Kentucky cavalry, dense undergrowth, and above all a growing fear on his part that a strong Confederate force might descend from the north and cut him off from the gap. Thus it was mid-afternoon before his advance reached and seized a hill overlooking Resaca.



Only about 4,000 Confederates, including the Kentuckians, defended the village and the railroad bridge over the nearby Oostanaula River, the destruction of which would cut Johnston's supply line. McPherson, in contrast, had at least 15,000 troops available for an attack, not counting a division he had detached to guard his rear. Nevertheless, he merely skirmished with the Confederates until evening, then withdrew to Snake Creek Gap. Subsequently he explained that Resaca appeared to be held by a "considerable force" which was "pretty well fortified" and that Dodge's XVI Corps was "all out of provisions." But his real reasons for not even attempting to take Resaca or at the very least tearing up some of the railroad track north of the place was that he believed he lacked sufficient strength to do these things and at the same time fend off an enemy thrust against his flank and rear from the direction of Dalton.

While understandable, McPherson's fear was unfounded. Not until the night of May 9 did Johnston learn, via cavalry reports, that "Logan and Dodge under McPherson are on an expedition to Resaca," whereupon he ordered two and a half divisions under Hood to Resaca. Thus McPherson had ample time and security in which to execute Sherman's instructions to break the railroad and then withdraw to Snake Creek Gap.

Having received a 2 P.M. message from McPherson that he was "within two miles of Resaca" Sherman lay down to sleep at midnight on May 9 confident that "I've got Joe Johnston dead!" Then, on the morning of May 10, another dispatch arrived from McPherson in which he reported the failure to cut the railroad and the withdrawal to Snake Creek Gap. Disappointed and baffled—how could McPherson not have damaged the railroad at least a "little"?—Sherman decided to go ahead with a change in plan that Thomas and he had discussed yesterday, namely to march the entire army through Snake Creek Gap to Resaca in the hope of "interposing" it between Johnston and the Oostanaula.

On May 11 and 12 Hooker's XX Corps, followed by Palmer's XIV and Schofield's XXIII Corps, joined McPherson's forces at the mouth of Snake Creek Gap, leaving behind Howard's IV Corps to hold Johnston in check at Dalton. Johnston, however, quickly detected what Sherman was doing and so on the night of May 12 retreated to Resaca. There, the following day, he deployed his army, which had been augmented by Major General William W. Loring's Division of what now in effect was Polk's Corps, along a line of hills to the west and north of Resaca, with its left anchored on the Oostanaula and its right flank covered by Wheeler's cavalry. (Official Confederate practice was to identify units above the level of regiment by the name of their commanders whereas in the Union army all units had a numerical designation. This is why in the text corps is capitalized when referring to Polk's Corps and to the IV Corps, but not capitalized when a Union corps is described as being, for example, Howard's corps. The same holds true for references to divisions and brigades.) As he did so, Sherman advanced from Snake Creek Gap and took up a line roughly paralleling Johnston's. Meanwhile, the IV Corps occupied Dalton, then followed in the wake of the retreating Confederates and by evening was in supporting distance of the rest of the Union army.

Assuming that Johnston was merely conducting a delaying action at Resaca to cover further retreat, Sherman ignored a proposal by Thomas to feint an attack against the Confederates there while sending a strong force across the Oostanaula to outflank them. Instead he launched an assault against the center of Johnston's line designed to pin down his army while Union cavalry cut the railroad south of Resaca. Johnston easily repulsed the assault, then had Stevenson's and Stewart's divisions of Hood's Corps strike the exposed Union left flank. Initially this thrust went well, but after being checked by Federal artillery it was driven back by a counterattack delivered by Williams's division of Hooker's XX Corps. Meanwhile, on the Union right, a portion of Logan's XV Corps stormed a hill overlooking Resaca and the bridges over the Oostanaula, then repelled Confederate efforts to retake it.

During the Vicksburg campaign Sherman had become personally acquainted with Johnston's prudent tactics. Perhaps for this reason he assumed that Johnston would not attempt a serious stand at Resaca, with a river at his back, and instead merely would conduct a delaying action designed to cover a resumption of his retreat. Accordingly, on May 14 he ordered portions of the XX, XIV, and XXIII Corps to press the Confederate center in the belief that it would give way easily.

He could not have been more mistaken. Not only did the Confederates stop the Federal assaults cold, but Johnston launched a counterattack by the divisions of Major Generals Carter L. Stevenson and Alexander P. Stewart, both of Hood's Corps, with the object of turning the Union left, which was held by the IV Corps, and cutting Sherman off from Snake Creek Gap (what McPherson had feared would happen to him on May 9). Stevenson's Division overlapped, then struck the flank of Major General David S. Stanley's division of the IV Corps, driving it back in disarray. For a while only Captain Peter Simonson's six-gun battery, firing canister, kept the Rebels at bay. Then Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams's division of the XX Corps, having been summoned from reserve in the center, came onto the field and with deadly volleys drove back Stevenson's troops, thereby causing Stewart's to retreat also. Meanwhile, on the Union right, two brigades of the XV Corps stormed a hill overlooking Resaca and the railroad bridge, then beat off attempts to retake it in fierce fighting that continued until after dark.



Sherman now no longer believed that Johnston intended to retreat. Even so, his objective remained the same: push the Confederates to the bank of the Oostanaula, where he hoped to crush them as they tried to escape across that river. To that end, on the morning of May 15 the entire XX Corps shifted to the left of the IV Corps with orders to strike straight down the Dalton-Resaca wagon road, Then, early in the afternoon, two of its divisions, Major General Daniel Butterfield's and Brigadier General John Geary's, attacked the Confederate line at a point where it curved off to the northeast. Despite a determined effort, they failed to reach, much less breach, the enemy defenses, which were manned by Major General Thomas C. Hindman's Division of Hood's Corps. They did, however, overrun a four-gun battery emplaced in front of the hill held by Hindman's troops—a success that Colonel Benjamin Harrison of the 70th Indiana claimed for his regiment and which would help him, twenty-four years later, to become president of the United States.

Encouraged by the repulse of the Union assault, Johnston decided to try again what he attempted yesterday—turn Sherman's left and get into his rear. On his orders, transmitted through Hood, Stewart's Division swung around to the northwest before hitting what was thought to be a still vulnerable Federal flank. But as it did so, Johnston received word that the "Federal right" was crossing the Oostanaula several miles southwest of Resaca. At once Johnston directed Hood to call back Stewart. It was too late. Before Hood's message could reach him, Stewart attacked. Worse, he ran smack into Williams's XX Corps division, the one that blasted Stevenson's Division the day before. It now did the same to Stewart's troops, who lost heavily and gained nothing.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Hoping to drive Johnston's army back against the Oostanaula, Sherman ordered Howard's IV Corps and Hooker's XX Corps to attack the Confederate right wing from the north. The assault failed. After repulsing the Federals, Johnston directed Hood to have Stewart's Division make another attempt to turn Sherman's left. He learned that a strong enemy force had crossed the Oostanaula at Lay's Ferry. He sent a message calling off Stewart's attack, but before it could reach him Stewart advanced and suffered a bloody repulse from Williams's division of the XX Corps. During the night Johnston retreated across the Oostanaula undetected by the Federals.

The Federal force reported to Johnston as having crossed the Oostanaula was Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny's division of the XVI Corps. Sweeny's assignment from Sherman was to put down pontoon bridges at Lay's Ferry with a view to facilitating the pursuit of Johnston when he retreated from Resaca. In making it Sherman ignored a suggestion from Thomas on May 13 merely to feint an attack at Resaca while sending McPherson's army, bolstered by Hooker's XX Corps, across the Oostanaula to the hills west of Calhoun, a move that not only would have compelled Johnston to evacuate Resaca to preserve his supply line but also enabled McPherson to strike the Confederates with overwhelming force as they retreated southward.

Nonetheless, the Union bridgehead at Lay's Ferry rendered Resaca untenable and Johnston realized it. That night his troops stealthily withdrew from their fortifications and crossed the Oostanaula by means of a pontoon bridge and the railroad and wagon road bridges. Not until the Confederate rear guard set fire to the latter two structures shortly before dawn did the Federals discover that Johnston's army had escaped to fight another day.

Then and afterward Sherman blamed the failure to bag Johnston at Resaca on McPherson: he was "overcautious" on May 9. No doubt that is true. Yet Sherman himself must bear a major share of the responsibility. Had he adopted Thomas's plan in its original form, or else supplemented the understrength Army of the Tennessee with a corps from the Army of the Cumberland, he could have put a force through Snake Creek Gap capable of blocking Johnston's retreat and compelling him to fight a battle that almost surely would have led to the destruction of his army. Likewise, by not acting on Thomas's proposal to send McPherson and Hooker across the Oostanaula to the hills around Calhoun, Sherman threw away another opportunity to knock the Confederate army in Georgia out of the war, an achievement that would have freed his own army to join Grant in Virginia and crush Lee by sheer weight of numbers.


Johnston would forever claim that he was not caught off guard by Sherman's Snake Creek Gap maneuver and thus never was in danger of being trapped and smashed north of the Oostanaula, The historical facts demonstrate otherwise. Only McPherson's loss of nerve and Sherman's mistakes saved Johnston from total and humiliating defeat at the very outset of the campaign for Atlanta.


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