May 31, 1864 (Tuesday)
Though there had been skirmishing and even heavier battle over the past several days, William Tecumseh Sherman’s men had spent most of their time digging deeper into the rich Georgia soil. The general, himself, however, was looking for a way out. His three armies had wished to hold closer to the railroad running south to Atlanta, as it also ran north to his supply depot. During a march, however, Joe Johnston’s Confederates barred his way and had given him no chance to circumvent them.
First, however, he needed to see to an exceedingly large gap between George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, holding the center, and James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, holding the left. To the latter, Sherman ordered once more to withdraw from the trenches in the face of the Rebels, fall back and make the link. McPherson had tried before, but had been snagged each time. Disengaging was no simple task.
Since arriving near Dallas, Sherman had tried to slip east toward Allatoona Pass and the railroad. But this could not be accomplished in one swoop. Rather, it would take days. Still, it had to begin.
Originally and ideally, Sherman was hoping for the more timely arrival of the Seventeenth Corps under Francis Blair, Jr. from Vicksburg. They were, however, lagging behind. “As Blair cannot be expected as soon as I contemplated,” confessed Sherman, “I must use the cavalry to secure Allatoona Pass.”
This task would fall upon George Stoneman and Kenner Garrard, whom he called upon to each make for the destination with all speed. “If you find the road occupied,” wrote Sherman to Garrard, “attack the cavalry with cavalry and the infantry with dismounted men, and force your way into and through the pass along the railroad till you secure some commanding position…. Do not be deterred by appearances, but act boldly and promptly; the success of our movement depends on our having Allatoona Pass.”
But it was on this night that McPherson’s infantry would step off, shifting east. “If the enemy follows he will do so cautiously,” Sherman reassured McPherson, “and I feel no doubt will be easily repulsed.” As a diversion, Sherman ordered General John Schofield, holding the Union left, to attack. Sending the cavalry away from the flanks made this all the more difficult, but it also put a spring in his step, forcing him to complete the move as quickly as possible.”
Sherman left the details up to McPherson, who devised a complicated and specific set of instructions. For this to work, the skirmish line before the Union works had to be thick. Only then could brigades be swapped and his two corps be able to fall back to new breastworks, already prepared. By divisions they would move, and in time, they would link up with the Army of the Cumberland, holding the center.
This piecemeal withdrawal would likely prevent the Confederates from recognizing the shift before it was too late. And if they did recognize it, there would just as likely remain enough troops to hold off any attack.
McPherson’s move – to fall back and close the gap between his own army and Thomas’ – started at 10pm. By the dawn, it was complete, and though it was spotted by Confederate scouts, no attack was launched. It was said that even the Rebel skirmishers were unaware of the shift.
“If the enemy follows he will do so cautiously,” Sherman reassured McPherson, “and I feel no doubt will be easily repulsed.” As a diversion, Sherman ordered General John Schofield, holding the Union left, to attack. Sending the cavalry away from the flanks made this all the more difficult, but it also put a spring in his step, forcing him to complete the move as quickly as possible.” Over the next several days, Sherman would inch his embattlements east.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 4, p366-367; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; 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. [↩]