"It is of the utmost importance that the enemy should be held in full belief that an advance into the heart of the South is intended until the fate of General Sherman is fully known. The difficulties of supplies can be overcome by keeping your trains running between Chattanooga and your position. Take the depot trains at Chattanooga, yours, and General Howard's wagons. These can be replaced temporarily by returning. Veterans are returning daily. This will enable you to draw re-enforcements constantly to your front. Can you not also take a division from Howard's corps? General Schofield is instructed to send General Granger to you the moment it is safe to be without him."
Thomas conducted some reconnaissance and sent Grant the results.
Johnston hadn't sent any troops anywhere and wasn't about to. On this
occasion Thomas first suggested the possibility of outflanking the
Dalton fortifications by sending troops through Snake Creek Gap. Grant
calmed down, at least publically, and called off the frontal attack
while rejecting the flanking manoeuver. In private he slandered the
"lethargic" Virginian and wished he had Sherman there to promptly obey
his orders, no matter how chimerical.
1) "The Atlanta campaign began early in May and would have ended in a week if Sherman had listened to Thomas"(Thomas Buell, The Warrior Generals, pg. 361). On 7 May 64 Sherman kicked off his spring offensive against Johnston at Rocky Face Ridge (within sight of today's battle park Tunnel Hill Georgia). Long before this, Thomas' scouts had reported that the low pass Snake Creek Gap about 15 miles to the southwest of Dalton was not or only lightly defended. Thomas proposed that he go through this pass with his entire army of 60,000 men and put them behind Johnston astride the railroad at Resaca and attack Johnston from behind. Instead, Sherman (perhaps following orders from Grant) watered the plan down, called it his own for a while, and sent McPherson with 25,000 men, more than enough to do the job if McPherson hadn't gotten cold feet. After breezing through the gap McPherson encountered minor entrenchments at Resaca manned by 4000 Confederates, whereupon he withdrew back to Snake Creek Gap and called for reinforcements. Meanwhile Sherman ordered a fruitless and fairly costly frontal demonstration at Rocky Face Ridge. Later he sent most of his forces through Snake Creek Gap anyway, but Johnston had prudently retired to Resaca, out of the bag. McPherson's instructions had been explicit enough, but afterward Sherman made them even more explicit in his search for a scapegoat. Is it possible that Thomas's original plan, if successful, would have reflected too well on Thomas to suit Grant's taste? Sherman didn't report his casualties.
2) On 13 May 64 Sherman "felt" Johnston at Resaca who had been reinforced by Polk, bringing his strength up to about 60,000. Sherman still had twice the manpower, without counting the enormous support services at his disposal. The next day there was a general engagement (with Hooker fighting well), but the Confederates held, except on their right flank, where Sherman did not exploit his advantage and thus wasted yet another opportunity to decisively defeat Johnston. On the 15th Sherman began a large scale flanking movement toward the railroad, and Johnston withdrew to Cassville and intrenched. Estimated casualties: 5,547 total (US 2,747; CS 2,800)
3) In a series of partial engagements at New Hope
Church on 25-26 May, Pickett' Mill on 27 May, and Dallas on 28
May Sherman attempted a flanking movement to the southwest in order to
avoid the last of the mountains between him and Atlanta and reach the
railroad at Marietta. On the 26th Sherman mistakenly surmised that
Johnston had a token force on his right and ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph
Hooker’s corps to attack there at a point which was later called
"Hell's Hole." Hooker's troops were severely mauled, and later Sherman
blamed Hooker for not attacking soon enough. Johnston retired to
positions on and in front of Kennesaw Mountain. Estimated casualties:
US 1,600; CS unknown.
4) Battle in the mud at Kolb's farm 22 June 1864. A lot of rain.
to his usual stuff, trusted his gut and not someone else's
reconnaissance, and attacked Hooker behind fortifications. Hooker had
easy time of it. Union casualties 300 - 500, Confederate casualties
The battle of Kennesaw Mountain
5) Once upon a time on 27 June 1864, after weeks of rain and relative inactivity, a battle in Sherman's style was fought at Kennesaw Mountain. Actually it was fought mainly at on the lowlands south of the mountain. Sherman, morose and insecure, ordered a frontal attack against sophisticated breastworks and intrenchments. In a military career of nothing but low points, this was the lowest.
Wilbur Thomas (no relation) writes on pg. 476 of his Thomas
biography that Thomas, upon receving Sherman's order, said to Whipple,
his chief of staff, "This is too bad." Thus began the only battle of
this sort the Army of the Cumberland ever fought.
|Click to enlarge. McPherson
starting at around 8:30 AM at Pigeon Hill (#2). The heaviest fighting
took place under Thomas at Cheatham Hill (#3). Schofield east of Kolb's
Farm (#4) did almost nothing. Well, he did carry out a
tentative scouting operation around Hood's left flank.(yellow dots
added to a map from the USMA collection) on the right.
Maj. Gen. J. M. SCHOFIELD,
Major-General SCHOFIELD: What have you from Olley's Creek? Answer. [emphasis added]
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General
General SCHOFIELD: I don't care about Colonel Reilly succeeding; let him throw up a hasty parapet for his guns and fire away and make all dispositions as though he intended to force a passage. Same with General Cox up where he is. It should be done to-day to induce the enemy to strengthen that flank to-night.
W. T. SHERMAN
on the same day this admonition:
Sherman needn't have worried.
Schofield was careful. Sherman then followed up with this
Good bridge [italics added] should be made to-night across Olley's Creek where the brigade is across, and operations resumed there in the morning early.
W. T. SHERMAN
Why a good bridge? For
to cross over later? It
wasn't just Col. Reilly
pushing along Sandtown Road to the south, as this dispatch from
Schofield to Cox shows:
"General Cox has just reported in person. He has advanced to the crest of the main ridge, a mile or so beyond Olley's Creek, and within a mile of the main road running to the mill on Nickajack Creek. The ridge is extremely rough and densely wooded. There is no hope of moving a force along it so as to reach the flank of the enemy's main line to-day. To go by the road would throw Cox three or four miles from Hascall's right, much too far for a single division. The enemy's works can be distinctly seen, running up the slope of the ridge at least a mile beyond Hascall's right. I cannot hope to reach the enemy's flank without separating my division much farther than I deem at all prudent."
"Thomas and McPherson have failed in their attack and have suffered heavy losses. Our little success on the right is all that has been gained anywhere. This may be very important to us as the first step toward the next important movement." [italics added]
He neglects to mention that his "little success" was achieved
against a thinly spread cavalry screen which had, to be sure, better
horses than the Union cavarly had.
The final dispatch of Schofield to Sherman on the 27th shows how
far the micromanaged flanking movement got (see map above):
On the Union left wing McPherson carried out some feints toward the northern end of the mountain, which resulted in 210 casualties (ar75_631), and an attack at Pigeon Hill (# 2 on the map above left) which made little progress and was not pressed, judging from the fact that it cost him only 317 casualties out of about 5500 men engaged (see Gen. Morgan Smith's report, ar74_179). Thomas made the main effort at two points in the center with about 8000 men. The result was a failure with 1580 casualties (see Thomas' report, ar72_151). Normally you can divide the casualty figure by 3 to arrive at the approximate number of soldiers killed. The Confederate line there was heavily fortified and manned by 2 divisions under Cheatham and Cleburne, Johnston's two best generals. Not satisfied with Thomas' effort, Sherman ordered Thomas to attack again late in the afternoon, and Thomas responded as follows:
"The Army of the Cumberland has already made two desperate,
bloody and unsuccessful assaults on this mountain. If a third is
ordered, it will, in my opinion, result in demoralizing this army and
will, if made, be against my best judgment, and most earnest protest."
( Piatt, Life of Thomas, p. 545)
The third assault was not made. Sherman's first report to
Halleck was sent the evening after the battle:
"Pursuant to my orders of the 24th, a diversion was made on each flank of the enemy, especially on the Sandtown road, and at 8 a.m. General McPherson attacked at the southwest end of Kenesaw, and General Thomas at a point about a mile farther south. At the same, time the skirmishers and artillery along the whole line kept up a sharp fire. Neither attack succeeded, though both columns reached the enemy's works, which are very strong. General McPherson reports his loss about 500, and General Thomas about 2,000; the loss particularly heavy in general and field officers. General Harker is reported mortally wounded, also Col. Dan. McCook, commanding a brigade; Colonel Rice, Fifty-seventh Ohio, very seriously. Colonel Barnhill, Fortieth Illinois, and Captain Augustin, Fifty-fifth Illinois, are killed. The facility with which defensive works of timber and earth are constructed gives the party on the defensive great advantage [italics added]. I cannot well turn the position of the enemy without abandoning my railroad, and we are already so far from our supplies that it is as much as the road can do to feed and supply the army. There are no supplies of any kind here. I can press Johnston and keep him from re-enforcing Lee, but to assault him in position will cost us more lives than we can spare. McPherson took today 100 prisoners, and Thomas about as many, but I do not suppose we inflicted heavy loss on the enemy, as he kept close behind his parapets." [italicsadded]
One could conclude from this dispatch, that Sherman, after 2 and
a half years of war, was just learning how effective fortifications can
be. Better late than never, as they say. However, on 9 July 64 Sherman
resorted again to blaming others in order to explain away the failure:
"The assault I made was no mistake; I had to do it. The enemy and our own army and officers had settled down into the conviction that the assault of lines formed no part of my game, and the moment the enemy was found behind anything like a parapet, why everybody would deploy, throw up counter-works and take it easy, leaving it to the 'old man' to turn the position. Had the assault been made with one-fourth more vigor [italics added] , mathematically, I would have put the head of George Thomas' whole army right through Johnston's deployed lines on the best ground for go-ahead, while my entire forces were well in hand on roads converging to my then object, Marietta. Had Harker and McCook not been struck down so early the assault would have succeeded, and then the battle would have all been in our favor on account of our superiority of numbers, position, and initiative."
Or this from his report (ar72_69):
"Failure as it was, and for which I assume the entire
responsibility, I yet claim it produced good fruits, as it demonstrated
to General Johnston that I would assault, and that boldly."
In other words, Sherman ordered a play up the middle in order to
show Johnston that Sherman didn't make only end runs, and if the
attempt was a bloody failure, it was Thomas' fault for not having
assaulted "with one-fourth more vigor." So what if more than 600 Union
soldiers died that day for no military purpose? No other passage taken
from Sherman's writings displays his moral corruption better than this
one, unless it's the following passage about Kennesaw from his Memoirs:
"An army to be efficient must not settle down
single mode of offence, but must be prepared to execute any plan which
promises success. I wanted, therefore, for the moral effect [italics
mine], to make a successful assault against the enemy behind his
breastworks, and resolved to attempt it at that point where success
would give the largest fruits of victory."
Then there is this cynical attempt by Sherman to appear to
Thomas for the horror which he, Sherman, had ordered:
"Is there any news on your flank? How long will it take you to load up and be ready to move for ten days, independent of the railroad?"
Sherman had thus, on the day of the battle or the very next day
at the latest, arrived at
the solution which had apparently eluded him for weeks, namely bring
McPherson down from the Union left flank and send him south and
east past Schofield and around Johnston's left flank. Did he
have a sudden inspiration, or had he decided upon this before
the battle? The facts that on the 21st he ordered Schofield to start
down Sandtown Rd, and then to put a division
across Olley's Creek two days before the battle (3
days if we count his Special Field Orders, no. 28 of 24 June 63
<ar75_588>), then micromanaged the
crossing (26 dispatches between them on 3 days!), and wrote the
above dispatch to McPherson, indicate that he
already had his flanking maneuver in mind well before the battle was
While the lives of Thomas' men
were being squandered at the Dead Angle, Sherman was sitting at the
telegraph, making sure that Schofield hadn't overextended himself or
actually provoked a serious reaction by Johnston.
On 1 July, McPherson began leaving his positions on the north end
of the Union line and moved south with the intention to go around
Schofield and then Johnston's
left flank. This got Johnston's attention! Schofield, a known quantity
among the Confederates, was no threat, but McPherson was another
matter. That very evening, after the first
hint of this movment,
withdrawal from Marietta to positions at Smyrna, and then at the
10 miles away, the last natural barrier protecting Atlanta.
That McPherson's movment did not go beyond a hint is shown in the
report of Howard (then in McPherson's command) of the Atlanta Campaign.
I can't cite McPherson because he died and wrote no report. The reports
of the other generals in McPherson's command
(Logan, Davis, Osterhaus. and Morgan Smith ) are very sketchy and don't
deal with this flanking movement. So, I make do with Howard:
June 1, the movement of the army [of the Tennessee] to the left commenced, General McPherson and General Davis having withdrawn from the extreme right position.
On the 2d the movement was continued; the Twentieth and Twenty-third Corps and part of the Fourteenth [under Thomas] passed beyond our extreme left.
June 3 and 4, nothing of consequence [italics added], excepting that I thinned and extended my lines so as to cover the ground occupied by the Twenty-third Corps, and afterward by Davis' division, of the Fourteenth Corps, relieving those troops in order to prolong our lines to the left. The result of these movements was to cause the enemy to abandon his lines on the night of June 4.
June 5, the command rested.
On 3 July the Federals marched unopposed past Kennesaw Mountain
Marietta. The following map of the disposition of Union and Confederate
after the battle shows how far McPherson's feint at a flanking maneuvre
got before Johnston took off. If you are familiar with the battle
you notice that, on this map, McPherson's position doesn't cover
Johnston's right flank. On June 30th it did. That 1/2 inch was all it
took to make Johnston see the light.
Click to enlarge
Detail based on Sherman's map of 1 Sept. 1864 prepared by
Adolph Lindenkohl (Office of Coast Survey maps CWPL16 and CWATL)
Since every frontal attack which Sherman had ordered during the Civil War had failed, why did he attempt it again here? McKinney writes in Education in Violence on page 338: "It is possible that Sherman's jealousy of Grant drove him to the assault." Two years before his death, Gen. Logan told Gen. Boynton a story under the condition that it be kept secret until he died. He and McPherson had tried to talk Sherman out of the attack, but Sherman was obsessed with all the coverage Grant's army was getting in the newspapers while his army was stalled before Atlanta. Sherman felt that "it was necessary to show the country that his troops could fight as well as Grant's" (Piatt and Boynton, pg. 548). Sherman may well have had and expressed such feelings, as he was ambivalent towards everyone, but this does not exclude the possibility that Sherman attacked with Grant's approval. The question arises: How might Grant have given Sherman advice without leaving record of it in the official communications? We get a hint from Schofield's memoirs Forty-Six Years in the Army which came out in 1894 while he was Commander in Chief of the Army. On page 223 he writes that, during the Vicksburg campaign, he received in his headquarters in St. Louis a dispatch from Grant, but Schofield's telegrapher couldn't decipher it. The commander of the Army of the Frontier and former physics instructor then rolled up his sleeves:
"My staff officer at once informed me that it was in some key different from that we had in use. So, I took the thing in hand myself...Commencing about 3 P.M., I reached the desired result at three in the morning."
So, Grant had his own code, and perhaps in the person of
Schofield his messenger to Sherman. How many other such dispatches from
Grant to Schofield were sent in the following years? When was Halleck's
hand hovering over Schofield's head replaced by Grant's? How is the
rise within a few months of an obscure administrator avoiding battle in
Missouri to army command under Sherman to be explained? See my article Schofield vs. Stanley for the answer to this
question. Later during
the battle of Nashville, Schofield would
endeavor to make himself very useful to Grant, and again after the war
during the dispute between Johnson and Stanton (whom Schofield would
replace as Secretary of War).
Sherman's battle demonstrated yet again the
futility of frontal attacks against prepared positions, let alone those
against "breastworks twelve feet thick and strongly abatised" (Thomas
to Sherman, ar75_612), without prior destruction of at least one
of the flanks. It also demonstrated who was not
the boss in that army. Yes, I am suggesting that one of Sherman's
motives may have been to put Thomas in his place. Consider the
following passage from Sherman's letter of 18 June 1864 to "Dear
"My chief source of trouble is with the Army of the Cumberland, which is dreadfully slow. A fresh furrow in a plowed field will stop the whole column, and all begin to intrench. I have again and again tried to impress on Thomas that we must assail and not defend; we are the offensive, and yet it seems the whole Army of the Cumberland is so habituated to be on the defensive that, from its commander down to the lowest private, I cannot get it out of their heads. I came out without tents and ordered all to do likewise, yet Thomas has a headquarters camp on the style of Halleck at Corinth; every aide and orderly with a wall-tent, and a baggage train big enough for a division. He promised to send it all back, but the truth is everybody there is allowed to do as he pleases, and they still think and act as though the railroad and all its facilities were theirs. This slowness has cost me the loss of two splendid opportunities which never recur in war."
If you are inclined to discount such intemperate language as
being the expression of momentary ill humor by man under the pressure
of campaigning, then consider the festering resentment demonstrated in
the following quote. In November 1863, Sherman encountered
Rosecrans in Cincinatti and, according to Rosecrans, said to him:
"I think Grant had no hand in it [Rosecrans' replacement], for on the arrival of my corps I said to him, 'Why in the devil did you have Rosecrans relieved and Thomas placed in command of the Army of the Cumberland? Rosecrans is a better soldier than Thomas could ever be.'" (Lamers, pg. 406; Rosecrans Papers, Doc. B)
If you think that Sherman was just attempting to ingratiate
himself with Rosecrans, then consider this passage from a letter which
Sherman wrote half a year later, on 27 April 1864, to former
U.S. Senator Thomas Ewing - his childhood guardian and
father-in-law and an early backer of Lincoln:
According to this letter, Sherman would have gotten rid of Thomas
if he had he the power he attributed to Napoleone to "make & unmake
on the spot." If Sherman could be honest to anyone, it was to Ewing, so
we can accept this passage as being an exposition of his deepest
feelings toward Thomas. How it must have rankled Sherman that
the honors reserved for him at Chattanooga had been carried off by
Thomas, and with a (prepared) frontal charge no less. Worse still,
Thomas kept on offering him sound advice when he wanted only
subservience. Not even his bogus Thanks of Congress, awarded to him on
19 Feb. 1864 could erase the knowledge that he had made a fool of
It was bogus, if only because he had to lobby for it. In a letter
of 11 Feb. 1864 to his brother the senator asking him
to get Congress to pass his Thanks resolution (The White Tecumseh, Hirshson, pg.
178) he made, among others, this
slanderously worded assertion about a man who was continuously at or
close to the
front in every other battle he fought:
"The truth is General Thomas a
particular friend of mine did not go outside the entrenchments of
Chattanooga at the time of Battle or after [Thomas was riding herd on Grant on Orchard
I was with my men all the time [not
very far forward]. And I repeat one Division of my troops
did Hookers best fighting...." [scroll
down to the bottom of this page to read the entire quote.]
With friends like Sherman who needs enemies. Note that this
letter is not in Brooks
Simpson's 900 page compilation of Sherman's Civil War correspondence,
nor in the 1894 collection of Rachel Sherman Thorndike (Sherman's
daughter). I guess it's
too ugly for keepers of the faith. It is in the Sherman Family Papers
at Notre Dame.
If either theory about Sherman's motivation for ordering the
attack - i.e. out of jealousy of Grant and/or resentment of Thomas - is
correct, then Sherman did not value the lives of the soldiers very
highly, and we have plenty of evidence for that already from other
battles which Sherman fought. To those who object that I am too hard on
Sherman, I reply that, in the light of the evidence presented here, "it
is hard to overstate the case against him" (Robert Meiser). The general
now, or any time who does not consider the lives of the least of his
soldiers as being as precious as his own is a criminal. He is also
short-sighted, because that is the only path to true military
greatness, the path which Thomas took.
In other battle summaries I have tried to build a case for Thomas' uncommon professionalism and military talent. This battle illustrates another essential element of Thomas' character, namely his ability to subordinate his feelings to the goal of winning the war as quickly as possible. He knew that Sherman could not take Atlanta without him, and he also knew that Sherman, in his sickness, would get rid of him if sufficiently provoked. So Thomas obeyed the order, albeit with only 2 divisions. His suffering as he watched his men die in front of impregnable fortifications, probably suspecting why he had been sent on this mission impossible, must have been beyond measure. For this reason, our debt to him is also beyond measure.
For a more comprehensive presentation of the Grant Gang's anti-Thomas sentiments, see Don Plezia's article "Grant and Sherman Smear Thomas."
5½) On 4-9 July 64 Sherman outflanked Johnston's position behind the Chattahoochie River and Johnston withdrew into Atlanta.
And so the siege of Atlanta began.<>Battle reports:
Schofield submitted no report on
Or if he did, the report is no longer in the ORs. How was this
possible? This skeptic smells a cover up.
Other articles on this battle:
1. Resaca by Don Plezia
2. Thomas Van Horne on the Dalton to Atlanta campaign
3. Excerpt from Opposing Sherman's Advance
to Atlanta by Joseph E. Johnston, General, CS.
letter to his brother the senator, Sherman lied, called the movements
of the Army of the Cumberland "slow & dilatory," added a slur
against the character of Thomas insinuating that he hid from danger
during the battle of Chattanooga, and wallowed in self-pity. The letter
is quoted from "The White Tecumseh" by Stanley Hirshson,
1997, pg. 178. The source for the text is given in the footnote
T. Sherman Family Papers, William Sherman to John Sherman, Vicksburg
(Miss.), February 1, 1864, University of Notre Dame Archives, reel 7,
The lack of recognition irked Sherman, too. He noticed, he informed John [his brother, the senator],