Chronology AotC
Battles & Reports
Resaca by Don Plezia Copyright @ Sept. 2000

Summary: On May 7th, 1864 Sherman started his campaign to "break up Joe Johnston's Army" as ordered by Grant. He could have won the war in the West On May 9th, 1864! However,  he refused to acknowledge Thomas’s strategic and tactical superiority. Thomas had fought in the area for three years.  He knew it like the back of his hand and had in fact drawn maps of the area. Secondarily (maybe primarily), Sherman was not going to let Thomas overshadow again as he had done at Chattanooga.  So instead, Sherman’s ego or perhaps his unsettled mind allowed the conflict to proceed, until Thomas finally Thomas ended it at Nashville, December 18th, 1864.  During the entire “Atlanta Campaign” Sherman was content to chase Johnston down the tracks. Thomas never quit trying to destroy the Army of Tennessee.

DALTON, May 9, 1864--9.45 a.m.

Major-General WHEELER:

General Johnston wishes you to send a body of cavalry toward Resaca to observe any movement that may be made by the enemy from that direction toward Dalton. Let them observe all gaps through which an enemy may pass across Rocky Face south of Dug Gap.


Brigadier-General and Chief of Staff.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF TENNESSEE,Dalton, May 9, 1864--4 p.m.

Major-General WHEELER,
Dalton and Cleveland Road:

GENERAL: Grigsby's brigade is in the trenches at Resaca.

General Johnston wants some cavalry in observation between this place and Resaca for fear of a surprise by an advance here. I do not think Resaca in any danger; we have 4,000 men there. Let me congratulate you on your splendid success till the general can speak his thanks. Let Colonel Allen call at headquarters as he passes.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Chief of Staff.

DALTON, May 11, 1864--7.30 a.m.

General WHEELER,  Cleveland and Dalton Road:
 Did the system of scouts established by you just before the advance of the enemy include the valley between Taylor's Ridge and Rocky Face? Is it still in operation? It is very important now that the force and movements of the enemy between those two ridges from Ringgold to the Snake Creek Gap should be accurately known, and, as cavalry cannot be kept in observation in that valley now, General Johnston wishes you to try by sending scouts in from your position to ascertain. Grigsby and Allen will receive orders to attempt the same from the south. A corps supposed to be held in the mouth of Snake Creek Gap threatening Resaca.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

 W. W. Mackall,
Chief of Staff.

RESACA, May 12, 1864.
May 12--2.30 p.m.

General MACKALL:

GENERAL: The following dispatch just received:

GENERAL: Private Walker and another of Seventh Texas Regiment, just returned from scout, report that the enemy were fortifying at Villanow last night. They are massing very heavily in Snake Creek Gap. A great deal of artillery passed down in the gap by a road through the woods. They moved in two columns. This he saw yesterday. Their talk is that they are going to Resaca, Calhoun, and Atlanta. This morning their infantry was in line, and they could hear the artillery bugles sounding.


 On the 9th 0f May, Joe Johnston discovers there is Federal activity on his left.  He orders Mackall to get some cavalry there to watch for any activity.  Mackall states (May 11th) that there is a Federal Corps in the mouth of the Gap right now!

That Corps is McPhersons and has been there for three days.

Planning the Atlanta Campaign

On February 3, 1863, Sherman is sent on the Meridian raid (an operation he seems adept at).  Thomas is ordered to make a diversionary move against Johnston at Dalton to prevent him sending any troops against Sherman while en route.  A Naval force accompanied by Infantry will threaten the railroad center at Grenada on the Yazoo, while Farragut menaces Mobile.  William “Sooy” Smith will lead 7,000 mounted Infantry to Meridian to assist Sherman.  Sherman’s plans are bungled by the timidity of Smith and while Meridian is laid waste nothing permanent is achieved.

In February, after the battles at Chattanooga, Thomas was pressed by Grant to march on Joe Johnston's Army at Dalton as a diversion for Sherman's Meridian raid.  Thomas, with his trains and wagons still in poor shape after the battles at Chickamauga ( September 19th, 20th, 1863) and Chattanooga (November 23rd, 24th, 25th, 1863) pressed on.  He validated a rumor that Grant heard regarding a Confederate brigade moving south.  However, Johnston was too firmly entrenched and too powerful and Thomas could not sustain his Army in the field with his transportation and animals in such poor condition.  So, despite Grant's expressed wishes and hectoring telegrams he returned to Chattanooga.  This action likely augmented Grant's dislike of Thomas.  Grant had no use for subordinates who did not obey his orders explicitly, or at least pretend to.  Buell points out in his “Warrior Generals” that Thomas’ periodic demurs implied errors in Grant’s strategic and tactical thinking and likely contributed to the rift.Grant was not totally pleased with the Cumberlanders’ charge up the Missionary Ridge, possibly feeling Thomas planned the action to the embarrassment of Sherman, whose tactical blunders at Tunnel Hill contributed nothing to Bragg’s defeat.
 Albert Castel writes “. . . . While (A. J.) Smith's men stagger back into Memphis, Thomas' troops head back toward Chattanooga (at Grant's insistence and despite being in ill health, Thomas took personal charge of the operation).  For the past three days (February 24-26) they have been skirmishing with the Confederates along Rocky Face Ridge, an almost solid range of steep, craggy hills to the north, west and south of Dalton.  In the process they have discovered two things.  One of them is that the ridge, in particular Buzzard Roost Gap, through which the railroad runs, is virtually impregnable to an attack from the north: the 10th Michigan, which was due to go on veteran furlough in a few days, lost sixty men in a matter of minutes while "feeling" the Rebel defenses.  The other is that, potentially at least, Johnston is vulnerable to a flanking move.  On the afternoon of February 25, Colonel Thomas J. Harrison's 39th Indiana Mounted Infantry, having been ordered by Palmer to explore the western approaches to Rocky Face, entered Dug Gap, a man-made pass five miles south of Buzzard's Roost Gap, drove away the infantry company stationed there, and then repulsed an attack by a small Confederate cavalry regiment.  Nothing except insufficient strength prevented it from pushing onto the railroad south of Dalton, cutting Johnston off from Atlanta.  Moreover, not until the following morning was it compelled to retreat when assailed by Granbury's Brigade of Cleburne's Division, just arrived back from Alabama in response to frantic dispatches by Johnston to Richmond declaring, in effect, that Grant's entire army had beset him.

Thomas is most impressed on learning of what Harrison's Hoosier troopers have done and might have done.  To be sure, one could not expect Johnston to be caught off guard again at Dug Gap.  But are there not other passes through the southward extension of Rocky Face which can be penetrated with more than a mere mounted regiment?  Thomas begins to study his maps and scouting reports.  Soon he pays special attention to a pass about twelve miles south of Dalton.  It leads to a village called Resaca on the north bank of the Oostanaula River and, much more important, to the Western and Atlantic Railroad.  Its name, a sinister sounding one, is Snake Creek Gap.”

Resaca and the railroad, Joe Johnston's lifeline, were undefended and unguarded.  Thus in February, Thomas recommended to Grant, that he send The Army of the Cumberland (with the return of Granger’s Corps, still in Knoxville, his cavalry from East Tennessee and improved transportation) through the gap, place it astride the railroad north of Resaca, and cut Johnston's line of retreat to Atlanta.   Johnston would have to attack the 'Rock of Chickamauga', in defense, with an army larger than his; or retreat eastward through the mountainous and over-foraged, devastated areas of East Tennessee to get to Lee and the ANV.  Either way, the Confederacy could lose its only viable military force in the west.

Grant, apparently absorbed with his own plans for the area, or waiting for an opportunity to make Sherman a General, rejects the plan.

From his Memoirs Grant writes: “Nothing occurred at Nashville worthy of mention during the winter (then he lays out Sherman’s future Atlanta campaign and ‘March to the Sea’),”

 “ . . . . I expected to retain the command I then had, and prepared myself for the campaign against Atlanta. I also had great hopes of having a campaign made against Mobile from the Gulf. I expected after Atlanta fell to occupy that place permanently, and to cut off Lee's army from the West by way of the road running through Augusta to Atlanta and thence south-west. I was preparing to hold Atlanta with a small garrison, and it was my expectation to push through to Mobile if that city was in our possession: if not, to Savannah; and in this manner to get possession of the only east and west railroad that would then be left to the enemy. But the spring campaign against Mobile was not made.”

Thomas ascertains there are no Confederate troops moving to Polk at Meridian against Sherman, then sends the following message to Grant providing an outline of the proposed Atlanta Campaign that was apparently adopted by Grant and given to Sherman to execute.:-

“CHATTANOOGA, February 28, 1864.

Major-General GRANT,
Nashville :

General Butterfield, by my direction, has recently examined the line between here and Nashville, and reports that he thinks 6,000 men will be sufficient to guard that line, two regiments of which force should be cavalry. From what I know of the road between Nashville and Decatur, 2,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry will be sufficient to protect that line. One thousand infantry will be sufficient to protect the line from Athens to Stevenson. Probably both lines of communication can be guarded by 6,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, a great portion of which should be made up from the local militia of Tennessee, or troops organized especially for the preservation of order in the State.

I believe, if I can commence the campaign with the Fourteenth and Fourth Corps in front, with Howard's corps in reserve, that I can move along the line of the railroad and overcome all opposition as far, at least, as Atlanta. I should want a strong division of cavalry in advance. As soon as Captain Merrill returns from his reconnaissance along the railroad lines, I can give you a definite estimate of the number of troops required to guard the bridges along the road.


Major-General, U. S. Volunteers”

A month later, on April 4th, 1864, Grant sends a letter to Sherman detailing his operation in the grand plan.


Maj. Gen. W. T. SHERMAN, Commanding Military Division of the Mississippi:

GENERAL: It is my design, if the enemy keep quiet and allow me to take the initiative in the spring campaign, to work all parts of the army together and somewhat toward a common center. For your information I now write you my programme as at present determined upon. . . . .

You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.

I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave you free to execute in' your own way. Submit to me, however, as early as you can, your plan of operations. . . . .”

As the Atlanta campaign began, Thomas proposed to Sherman, a plan, similar to one he  earlier sent to Grant.  He would send McPhersons Army of Tennessee, to demonstrate from the west against Johnston's army at Dalton by the direct roads to Buzzard's Roost Gap in Georgia and Schofield with his Army of the Ohio from the north from Cleveland, Tennessee.  According to Schofield,. . . . the position. . . . “in front of the Rocky-face Ridge was virtually as unassailable as that of Johnston behind it.”   That is, Johnston could as easily defend against any assaults from the West as those made from the East.

 During the diversion, Thomas would push his Army of the Cumberland through the unguarded Snake Creek Gap and attack Johnston's communications from south of Dalton, or north of Resaca.  Johnston would be compelled either to retreat eastward through mountainous, poorly supplied and overly foraged country with strong Union sentiments, or to stand his ground at Dalton and suffer almost certain defeat.  Sherman rejected the plan as proposed.  “Thomas. . . . put on his hat and returned to his quarters, ‘for I saw the game was up’ .   It was clear that if Johnston was to be caught, Sherman wanted McPherson to do it despite the common sense of Thomas’s plan.  Expertly trained and by far the most powerful of the three armies, the force under Thomas  numbered 60,000 men and 130 guns–two thirds of the entire invading force–at the start of the campaign.  Why not attack with the strongest force where the enemy was unguarded and unfortified and deliver the final blow?

The proposed movement against Johnston, “ . . . . would force him ‘either to retreat to the east, through a difficult country, poorly supplied. . . .or attack me, . . . . (Thomas adequately demonstrated his defensive capabilities at Chickamauga) . . .  in which I felt confident that my army was sufficiently strong to beat him,’ as Thomas later explained in his official report.”

Sherman modified Thomas's suggestion and sent McPherson’s smaller force (Sherman’s Memoirs:  Army of the Tennessee, Major-General McPherson commanding:  Infantry, 22,437; artillery, 1,404; cavalry, 624; total, 24,465. Guns, 96.)  through Snake Creek Gap, with the hope of achieving decisive results.  Thomas and Schofield (with almost 75% of Sherman’s Army) were to supply the diversion.  Hooker was to attack thru “Dug Gap and push forward sufficiently to protect the flank of McPherson .”

McPherson moved undetected through the Gap on May 8th.  He reached Resaca on the 9th, advanced within a 200 yards of the railroad,  looked around, was unnerved by two Rebel Brigades (Colonel Warren Grigsby’s Kentucky Cavalry Brigade, about a 1,000 men and Canty’s Brigade who reported about 2500 troopers total,  totaling at most about 3,500 men) , returned to the mouth of the Gap, entrenched and notified Sherman at 2:00PM   and awaited further orders.  Sherman’s original orders were not worded as decisively as they might have been.    Sherman had sent the wrong man and the wrong Army.

 On the evening of the 9th, Johnston sent Hood to Resaca to see if there was any truth to the rumors of Federal activity.  Hood left Dalton, looked around Resaca the next morning, notified Johnston that there were Federal troops in the Snake Creek Gap and asked for orders.   Then, he reports “the Federals have left, and he is returning to Dalton.”   Hardee verifies Hood’s reports.    Johnston orders Polk (at the head of his column in Rome, Georgia ) heading north with reinforcements from Mississippi, to move quickly to Resaca and take command.

Of course, the plan failed.  McPherson was too ‘timid’ (Sherman’s words), and the force sent, was inadequate to accomplish the mission.    McPherson apparently unnerved because he did not have enough cavalry to screen his left flank as he crossed the plain toward Resaca, nor the manpower to do it with infantry.  He returns and entrenches in the mouth of the gap and asks for further orders.

Sherman while sending about 25% of his available force, in a maneuver that could possibly end the war in the west while neglecting to send any cavalry to scout for McPherson’s AOT.  When McPherson, on May 9th, 1864, turned back without any meaningful engagement with the 3,500 troops sent by Johnston to guard the pass at Resaca, Thomas immediately proposed Sherman send Hooker with the 20th Corps, now at Trickum, within easy supporting distance of McPherson, thru the pass to help McPherson.  Finally, on the 10th of May, 1864 Hooker was ordered to send a division along with Kirkpatrick’s cavalry to aid McPherson.  Later, another division of Hooker’s was sent to the gap to clear the roads to Resaca.  Too late, on the 13th  Johnston forces with Polk’s Army of the Mississippi, were behind fortifications north and west of Resaca.

This was Sherman’s first blunder!

 Thomas, witnessing McPherson’s timidity and still seeking to trap and destroy Johnston’s Army and knowing that Johnston was still entrenched at Dalton, on the 9th, prods Sherman to send the 17,000 men of ‘Fighting’ Joe Hookers XXth Corps plus two other divisions to support McPherson, take Resaca, cut the railroad and thereby cut off Johnston’s line of retreat to his supply base in Atlanta.  Sherman, not knowing the status of the forces at Resaca until about 10AM the morning of the 10th, telegraphs Halleck “ . . . . yesterday I pressed hard . . .  but today I will be more easy, . . . . ”    That evening he telegraphs Halleck “ . . . . I intend to place myself between Johnston and Resaca, when he will have to fight it out,” and adds, “I will be in no hurry,”  “On the 10th. . . . Sherman finally. . . . orders General Thomas to send one division of General Hooker's corps to Snake Creek Gap to support McPherson and later sends another.  On May 12th, he follows with General Palmer's XIV Corps, leaving General Howard with IV Corps to continue to threaten Dalton in front, while the rest of the army moved rapidly through Snake Creek Gap.”   On the 11th  Johnston finally realizing the danger, starts pouring troops from Dalton into Resaca, with orders to help Polk defend the town with the troops arriving from Mississippi.

Johnston immediately confirms Thomas is no longer in his front, withdraws the AOT to Resaca and entrenches.  The Union ‘Signal Station of Observation’ reports on the 12th, “Road leading from Dalton full of wagons moving south; the rear of train not yet left town.”   On the 13th, Johnston and the Confederate AOT and Polk’s Army of Mississippi are entrenched in Resaca.

The plan should have worked.  Johnston was distracted, feeling that Sherman would move toward Rome and Crow Valley, he carefully watched Thomas’s diversion at Rocky Face and Dug Gap.  He was almost completely deceived.  Some aggressiveness on McPherson’s part would have done it!  His total loss:  six killed, thirty wounded and sixteen captured!  This tap with a fly swatter was exactly the opposite of Thomas’ plans.   Thomas wanted to confront Johnston with an overwhelming force and fight a battle he felt sure he would win; if not, at least cut off Johnston from Atlanta and force him into a poor position or retreat.  Here Thomas was applying the maxim made famous by N. B. Forrest, “get there fustest with the mostest!”  But Sherman, whose poor performance at Chattanooga, compared to   Thomas’s accomplishment, was not about to let Thomas upstage him up again.  And because of this petty jealousy, Sherman bears the responsibility for all the deaths and wounded in his subsequent campaigns, caused by his failure.

B. H. Liddell Hart  Alfred Burne  argue that sending Thomas to Snake Creek instead of McPherson would have created complications by having Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland cross over McPherson’s Army of Tennessee’s route. However, they apparently did not know or ignored the fact that Thomas already was in his ordered position at Ringold, Tennessee and was prepared to move on the 2nd of May, 1864, while McPherson was still struggling to get to Lee and Gordon’s Mill on Thomas’s right.   Grant ordered Sherman to begin the campaign on the 5th of May.  Thomas, was in position on the 5th, the campaign was started on the 7th, when Thomas’s XIVth Corps moved on Tunnel Hill.   Hooker, XX Corps commander under Thomas, was at Trickum Post Office less than 15 miles from the Gap, at 4:00PM on the 7th .  McPherson started two days later.  Thomas could easily have moved out for the Snake Creek Gap while McPherson was still three days behind him.  There would have been no tangling of lines or crossed communications.

Thus Sherman blows his first chance to cut off the Army of Tennessee from it’s base and for all practical purposes, to end the war in the west.

Thomas, still planning to cutoff  Johnston and his forces from their Atlanta base and knowing that Howard with the IV Corps entered Dalton at 9:10AM putting him on Johnston’s rear; on the 13th, proposes to Sherman that “ . . . . Should the enemy be driven down the railroad, Generals Palmer and Schofield will be directly in his rear, with General Hooker to support them, if necessary. In this situation of affairs the enemy must be completely cut off, or compelled to retreat by the various fords southeast of Dalton, across the Connesauga, in which latter event, if General McPherson will merely threaten Resaca with the head of his column, and force a passage across the Oostenaula at Lay's Ferry (just south of Resaca and the Oostanaula), and take up a strong position on the hills bordering the railroad southeast of Lay's Ferry which would prevent Johnston from using the railroad, Johnston will be compelled to retreat through the mountains to Allatoona, which will be exceedingly difficult, if he succeeds in accomplishing it at all. Should you think well of this plan, I can throw Hooker's corps across Lay's Ferry to the support of General McPherson, and General Palmer's corps also, unless the enemy evacuate Resaca. If Resaca be evacuated the main body of the (Union) army could be crossed at Resaca and Lay's Ferry and pursue rapidly along the railroad and vicinity.”

Sherman immediately rebuffs him and loses his second chance to trap Johnston.

Instead Sherman reports to Halleck on the 14th that “. . . .  and General Garrard's division of cavalry is sent around by the right to cross the Oostanaula, above Rome, if possible, and break the railroad north of Kingston.”   Of course Garrard, with 3,000 horse and no Infantry duplicates McPherson’s failure and fails to break the railroad!   Two Federal brigades (part of Sweeny’s force) do cross the Oostanaula south of Resaca and occupy the area around Lays Ferry.  When discovered, their presence is enough to raise the fear in Johnston of being cut off and he retreats.   Not learning from his earlier mistake, rather than sending a large force to accomplish the job, Sherman ordered Garrard’s Cavalry Division across the Oostanaula to do the job that McPherson did not.

On the 14th Sherman reports incorrectly to Halleck that “. . . . General Sweeny's division, Sixteenth Corps, with a pontoon train, tried to cross the Oostenaula at Lay's Ferry, below Calhoun, but was stoutly opposed by a heavy force in the dense timber on the opposite bank.”

Sweeny had actually crossed the Oostenaula at Lay’s Ferry on the 14th, losing three pontoniers and capturing 60 Rebels in the crossing.  But, upon receiving a false report from Coarse (now in charge of the Cavalry after Kirkpatrick’s wounding), that the Rebels were building a bridge at the Calhoun Ferry, three miles upstream he stops.  If true, this might result in Sweeny’s command being cutoff from the rest of Sherman’s Army.  So, Sweeny recrosses the Oostanaula and waits for information about the supposed Rebel bridge (s).  When it is received on the 15th, Sweeny crosses the river again and Dodge reports to Sherman that he advanced “two miles out from the river.”

At 5:00PM, Coarse reports to Sherman, Sweeny’s successful defense of his position on the south side of the river.  Sweeny the same day, reports in a circular the enemy troops are heard moving south.

Sherman’s third fumble.

Sherman was given a second and then third opportunity to end the war despite his reproof to McPherson that “such opportunities were never given twice in the same lifetime.”

Bypassing Thomas for the western command might have been appropriate if Sherman possessed a combat record to endorse it.  Initially, Sherman's hysterics in Kentucky, calling for 300,000 troops, led to charges of insanity.  Sherman, was surprised at Shiloh, a surprise that was due to Grants and Sherman’s incorrect assumptions about Confederate intentions, his absence from the front and Sherman's neglect in posting minimum security and failing to react to the warnings of the skirmishers who were on guard.  Sherman failed at Chickasaw Bayou, before Vicksburg, and failed in his assaults, ordered by Grant at Vicksburg.  At Chattanooga, his tardiness in getting from Memphis caused the battle to be postponed thrice and his Army of Tennessee was the only one of the three armies engaged that failed in its assignment.  It was the diversions and charge up Missionary Ridge by Thomas's Cumberlanders that won the battle and saved Sherman and Grant from embarrassment and gave Grant his final promotion.

Thus, Sherman missed three opportunities (of several) and failed to end the war in the west or at least eliminate the largest, most dangerous western Confederate army.  Sherman is content to chase Johnston, rather than destroy him, as Grant has ordered..

 Grant and Sherman were both given the opportunity to end the war early in1864. Had they accepted the planning and experience of the man most knowledgeable of the area, General George H. Thomas.  Thomas had fought all over the area more than once and was very familiar with it.  All the ten's of thousands of casualties inflicted by Lee on the forces led by Grant may have been unnecessary.

Chronology AotC
Battles & Reports