‘A Good Deal More Shooting than Hitting’ – Sherman Running Out of Ideas

May 29, 1864 (Sunday)

Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee had entrenched themselves well near Dallas, Georgia. William Tecumseh Sherman, overall commander of the Federal forces opposing it had spent two days thus far search for a way to outflank it. The Rebels, complained Sherman, can “make temporary breastworks as fast as we travel.”

Fighting on the 28th.
Fighting on the 28th.

The land surrounding the two armies was uneven and heavily forested. It was due to this that neither commander had a perfect idea of where his enemy was arrayed. The day previous, Sherman wished to better concentrate his three armies so that he might move closer to a railroad depot. In such a rugged country, Sherman quickly discovered that living off the land was impossible, and that a speedy line of supply was essential.

Sherman had his mind set upon the town of Acworth, several miles to the east. If he could re-establish his command upon the railroad, he could maintain his army of 80,000. And so fearing that Johnston’s Rebels would outflank him on the left, and thus cut him off from Acworth, Sherman decided to shift James McPherson’s Army of Tennessee from the right flank to left. A large gap had never been plugged between McPherson’s troops and those of George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, holding the center. This shift would also eliminate that gap.

Sherman’s fear turned out to be justified. A Confederate Corps under John Bell Hood had been dispatched by Johnston to flank Sherman’s left. Though it had been Hood’s idea, the five mile march to the Union left was grueling, eating up time and men. Thought he night of the 27th and early morning of the 28th, Hood’s men hacked and plowed their way though this tangled wilderness. So long did they tarry that Johnston called off the attack.

Johnston then decided to try the Union right flank, held by McPherson, ordering a division under William Bates to probe forward. After first meeting with smashing success, the attached cavalry overrunning a battery, it was soon discovered that the Federals were too well embattled to assault. Bates issued orders calling off the attack, but they reached only one brigade of three. The two wayward units stepped off separately and far apart, and flung themselves sporadically at the Federal lines.

Same map as the 25th - the armies still held roughly these same positions.
Same map as the 25th – the armies still held roughly these same positions.

The losses were as staggering as the attack, which was held by the receiving Federals to be that of an entire corps – not merely two brigades. This attack caused Sherman to cancel McPherson’s withdrawal, which he wished to begin on the night of the 28th. He feared that the enemy was too close for it to be pulled off with success. In places the entrenchments were less than 100 yards from the enemy.

And so on the morning of this date, Sherman decided to wait it out. Moving during the day was impossible – he might as well have simply called Johnston to his headquarters and given him a map. Maneuver at night was, of course, incredibly dangerous, but at least it was dark. Sherman still worried that Johnston would exploit the gap between McPherson and Thomas, and had only the slightest idea that Johnston’s Confederate lines nearly mirrored his own, their gap falling along the same place in the line.

Except where the lines are closest, skirmishers and pickets were deployed by both Northern and Southern forces, and each battle away at the other. For days this has continued, except when a full scale assault was in progress. Each of the main lines were entrenched, and even the skirmishers took to the idea, building for themselves rifle pits. The air was always thick with lead.

In preparation for the shift, hoped to be attempted after dark, General McPherson began to send his wagons to the rear, passing them through the town of Dallas. This accomplished, he ordered his infantry to follow. But at 10pm, the cries of “they’re coming!” echo along his lines. The skirmishers and pickets fell back and the chaos began anew.

Captain Charles Wills
Captain Charles Wills

According to the Federals called back to the entrenchments, the attacks came in quick succession. As soon as one fell back in retreat, there was another, just as fierce, screaming toward them. This crazed and bitter fighting was said to last through the night, as wave upon wave of Rebels assaulted their lines. But at dawn, no enemy was before them, living or dead.

The battle had been all a panic. The Union skirmishers fell back, perhaps afraid of being left behind, and the infantry began to fire. The Rebels, believing themselves under attack, returned the fire. There was much noise, but little charging.

“These night fights are very grand,” wrote Captain Charles Wills, commanding the Federal skirmish line, who had claimed there to be eight Rebel assault that night. “Attacks were made by each side, repulses easy. I guess from what little I hear there was a good deal more shooting than hitting on both sides. I think it was the intention for us to move to the left last night, but so much fighting prevented it. I don’t know when I have been so used up as this morning, and the whole command is not far from the same condition.”

Sherman’s army is close to falling apart. The men were sleepless for at least three days, and the horses, without sustenance for five, began dropping over from starvation. But on the 30th, they would rest, and would try it again the following day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 4, p339; Army Life of an Illinois Soldier by Charles Wright Wills; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. []
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