The Road to Resaca
A battle on the Blue and Gray Trail
Resaca May 13-15, 1864 Estimated casualties: 5,547 (2,747 Union, 2,800 Confederate)
All of William Tecumseh Sherman's troops were gathered on the morning of May 6, 1864 to begin the march to Atlanta. The Union Army of the Cumberland, under the command of George Thomas was in the area of Ringgold; the Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson at Gordon's Mills, on the Chickamauga; and the Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield near Red Clay, on the Georgia border north of Dalton. Facing Sherman were three corps of Confederate troops under the command of William J. Hardee, John Bell Hood, and Leonidas Polk, under command of Joseph E. "Joe" Johnston, one of the South's best generals. Johnston's 45,000 to 50,000 troops and artillery stood in opposition to Sherman's combined total of 98,787 men. Based close to Dalton, the Rebels had a tactical advantage and had a superior cavalry of about 10,000 men under General Joseph Wheeler.
As a Lieutenant, William Tecumseh Sherman worked with a surveying party in the state. He had an uncanny ability to remember the terrain, its advantages and its obstacles. The Union commander was familiar with creeks, ridges, and passes that lay before him. He felt it impracticable to attack the city of Dalton directly. He would have to scale Rocky Face Ridge, or go through the pass between Tunnel Hill and Dalton known as Buzzard Roost. In either case, strong Confederate positions commanded the terrain and the pass, making these routes extremely deadly to Union troops if he were to move in these directions. As a result, Sherman decided to bypass Dalton with a major assault.
He ordered McPherson's Army of the Tennessee's 15th Corps to move from Gordon's Mills, via Ship's Gap, Villanow, and Snake Creek Gap directly on Resaca, eighteen miles below Dalton, or the railroad at any point below Dalton and make a major attack. After breaking the railroad, McPherson was ordered to fall back to a strong defensive position and be ready to flank the enemy upon their retreat. Thomas, with the Army of the Cumberland, was to make a feint attack on the front of Dalton whereas Schofield and the Army of the Ohio would move down from the north. The "Rock of Chickamauga" occupied Tunnel Hill on May 7th, meeting little opposition and forcing the enemy cavalry to retreat through the gap. Then Thomas pushed on with his assault against Buzzard Roost and Rocky Face Ridge to a point to where the feint almost became a major battle. Newton's Division of Howard's 4th Corps carried the ridge but found the terrain too difficult to push on south to the gorge or pass. Geary's Division of Hooker's 20th Corps also made an attack on the ridge, but the Confederate positions were too strong for him to be successful.
Sherman's ruse worked. On the 8th of May, McPherson reached Snake Creek Gap, completely surprising a brigade of Wheeler's cavalry that had been sent to watch and hold that position. On the 9th of May, McPherson's 15th Corps was within a mile of Resaca.
Being a strong railroad and communications center, Johnston had heavily fortified his position in Resaca. McPherson observed the fortifications and felt it was too strong to be carried by an assault. The roads coming in from Dalton to the north would expose his flank, and there was no decent road where his troops could speedily cross the railroad. Rather than risking his men on an assault that would lead to heavy casualties, McPherson moved back and took a strong position at the east end of Snake Creek, and notified Sherman of the situation. On the 10th of May, Sherman had Pap Thomas send Hooker's corps to reinforce McPherson to be followed by Palmer's 14th Corps. Howard's 4th Corps was to keep on threatening the front of Dalton. Later on, Sherman ordered Schofield's Army of the Ohio to follow the same path through Snake Creek Gap.
In Dalton, Joe Johnston was suspicious about the light assaults upon his positions. He ordered Wheeler to scout the situation on the west face of Rocky Face. Wheeler confirmed that the major force of Union troops had indeed flanked Johnston's position at Dalton. Johnston was furious that he let his old friend Sherman out-maneuver him. To remain in Dalton would be futile and his troops further south could not prevail against Sherman's strength. Being out-numbered, outgunned, and most importantly, out supplied, Johnston realized that he could not stop the Union forces, but with strategy, he could reduce their movement south with minimal loss of troops. Johnston had the foresight to construct a good road to Resaca prior to fortifying Dalton. He ordered the evacuation of Dalton to reinforce his troops to the south. With the Confederates moving to a strong position at Camp Creek, Resaca, and some hills north of the town, on May 14 Hooker's troops moved into Dalton and began to follow Johnston.
Sherman had a pontoon bridge built across the Oostenaula at Lay's Ferry and had a division of the 16th Corps cross to threaten Calhoun. He also ordered Garrard's cavalry division to move from Villanow to Rome, to cross the Oostenaula and break up the railroad between Calhoun and Kingston to destroy Johnston's supply line. On May 15th McPherson's army crossed Camp Creek and moved to the base of a line of hills. On these hills, Confederate artillery commanded a field of fire that included the Western and Atlantic Railroad and a trestle bridge. Thomas moved along Camp Creek Valley with Hooker's Corps covering the road between Dalton and Resaca. Schofield moved to Thomas' left. A heavy battle ensued against the city's Confederate defenders. All afternoon and evening with Confederate artillery wrecked havoc with Union troops, giving them a heavier casualty count than the Confederates.
Johnston knew that he could not hold on to Resaca, but he could make the Union forces pay dearly, and not only with personnel. He destroyed communication and railroad facilities, and burned the railroad bridge, interrupting Sherman's future supply line. After winning the battle on the 14th and 15th of May, Johnston retreated south across Oostenaula in the middle of the night, saving his men for future delaying actions and serious harassment to Sherman. On the morning of the 16th of May, Union troops entered Resaca. The first battle for this town was over.
Interested in more information? Check our Battle of Resaca links
How to get there:
Interstate 75, 30 miles south of Chattanooga runs through a portion of the battlefield, but most of the land on which the battle occured is in private hands. A commemrative marker, placed near the cemetery at Resaca is the only recognition of the battle by the state.
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