May 9, 1864 (Monday)
“…and the enemy seemed quiescent, acting purely on the defensive.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
Sherman’s bold stroke had begun, as he sent three armies in three columns against Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia. Johnston had arrayed his forced atop Rocky Face Mountain west and northwest of the city. Two days previous, the Union Army of the Cumberland had taken the first of a series of ridges leading to the Rebel defenses. But now, before the Rebel host, their roll was diversionary.
As one column seemed to threaten an attack, another, mostly unseen by Johnston, marched south, skirting Rocky Face Ridge, to Snake Creek Gap. This pass was fifteen miles below Dalton and led to Resaca. If the latter town was held, Johnston’s lines of retreat would be cut and, perhaps after a siege, his army would be captured or destroyed.
Leading this spirited column was James McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee. On the 8th they arrived at Snake Creek Gap, a three mile long pass, and encamped. That night, General McPherson gave to one of his two corps commaners, Grenville Dodge, instructions for the following morning.
At 6am on the morning of this date, General Dodge advanced, believing his roll to be one of distraction, so that the rest of the Army of the Tennessee played hell upon the railroad north of the town, eight miles distant.
While the gap itself was found to be mostly unguarded by Johnston’s men, Resaca was held by about 4,000 Rebels, including a strong skirmish line discovered by Dodge’s own shortly after dawn. The most advanced Rebel elements were driven back until the Federals stumbled upon the main line, which was drawn up for battle.
The Rebels opened, raining a hail of bullets upon the Illinois troops, who faltered and began to retreat. Shortly, they were joined by another Illinois Regiment and their mettle was bolstered. Dodge then deployed his most forward division.
“In this formation,” wrote General John Corse, commanding the division, “the enemy’s cavalry was received, checked, and repulsed, as it dashed forward, driving the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry before it, and almost at the same moment the Sixty-sixth Illinois Volunteers, without knapsacks, rushed forward as skirmishers, driving the enemy like sheep before them, in the direction of Resaca.”
Seventy-six Rebels were captured in the advance, which led the Federal column seven miles to a crossroads west of Resaca. General McPherson then ordered Dodge to continue forward toward the town until he reached a Confederate line. If he reached Rome Cross-Roads, a mile west of town, he was to hold and wait for a division from the Fifteenth Corps, which would then relieve him.
“I advanced steadily,” Dodge recalled, “meeting with considerable resistance and skirmishing heavily the entire distance to the last-named cross-roads, when the enemy was discovered in line of battle on the Bald Hill, about three-quarters of a mile west of Resaca, and in his works at Resaca.”
More or less without orders, General Dodge threw forward two brigades and drove the Rebels from Bald Hill, holding it instead of the crossroads. All of this was by noon. And shortly after, McPherson came to Dodge’s side, telling him to send a few scouts to the north so that they might find a way to the railroad. He was also to hold Bald Hill until the Fifteenth Corps could arrive.
With news of the advance, McPherson wrote to Sherman, whose hopes were then raised. “I got a short note from McPherson that day (written at 2p.m., when he was within a mile and a half of the railroad, above and near Resaca), and we all felt jubilant,” penned Sherman after the war. “I renewed orders to Thomas [commanding the Army of the Cumberland] and Schofield [commanding the Army of the Ohio] to be ready for the instant pursuit of what I expected to be a broken and disordered army, forced to retreat by roads to the east of Resaca, which were known to be very rough and impracticable.”
Following McPherson’s orders, Dodge dispatched eighteen men, who found a way to get at the railroad near Tilton, but there also found Confederate cavalry. Even without reinforcements, they cut telegraph lines and burned a building or two. They would later return with the news that the way was blocked.
Meanwhile, Dodge held Bald Hill with one division, while sending another to his left. They advanced across the open ground to the northwest of Resaca. “The enemy,” wrote Dodge, “observing the movement, opened a heavy fire from his batteries upon the column, and also, together with rapid musketry, upon the left of the Second Division [still on Bald Hill], doing, however, but little execution.”
As all this was happening, Dodge received word from McPherson to look to his right, that the enemy there was gathering. Dodge looked, but could see nothing. McPherson had also taken the liberty to move a couple of Dodge’s brigades on the left. And it was from the left that Dodge received word from his most advance brigade that the Confederates held the railroad north of Resaca, but with only a single regiment and a battery. Dodge immediately ordered the brigade to charge, drive off the foe and capture the guns.
But before they could charge, McPherson rescinded the order, instead deploying the brigade closer to Bald Hill. It would be a safer position in the end, but a defensive one that required the men to backtrack over open ground in the face of a well armed enemy.
“By the time the withdrawal was accomplished,” Dodge continued, “it was sunset, and I received orders to withdraw the command and return to Snake Creek Gap.” It wasn’t until midnight that Dodge’s entire strength was with McPherson. He had lost twenty-nine killed, wounded and missing.
That night, as Dodge was returning, General McPherson wrote to Sherman explaining that he could not take the railroad and had returned to the Gap. McPherson was concerned that the roads leading from Johnston’s army in Dalton to Resaca would give the Confederates every opportunity to fall upon his left. Additionally, Dodge was nearly out of provisions. He informed Sherman that his men would have to rest the following day, but the next would need an additional division to make the attack.
This news Sherman received with disdain. The following morning, Sherman made his reply. “You now have your twenty-three thousand men, and General Hooker is in close support, so that you can hold all of Jos. Johnston’s army in check should he abandon Dalton. He cannot afford to abandon Dalton, for he had fixed it up on purpose to receive us, and he observes that we are close at hand, waiting for him to quit. He cannot afford a detachment strong enough to fight you, as his army will not admit of it. Strengthen your position; fight anything that comes; and threaten the safety of the railroad all the time.”
Sherman soon sent reinforcements and began to notice signs that Johnston was about to abandon Dalton. It was too early. Sherman had expected the Rebels not to flee so quickly.
“McPherson,” Sherman later concluded, “had started Johnston in his fancied security, but had not done the full measure of his work. He had in hand twenty-three thousand of the best men of the army, and could have walked into Resaca (then held only by a small brigade), or he could have placed his whole force astride the railroad above Resaca, and there have easily withstood the attack of all of Johnston’s army, with the knowledge that Thomas and Schofield were on his heels. Had he done so, I am certain that Johnston would not have ventured to attack him in position, but would have retreated eastward by Spring Place, and we should have captured half his army and all his artillery and wagons at the very beginning of the campaign.
“Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life, but at the critical moment McPherson seems to have been a little timid.”1
Hitting an Elephant at this Distance – the Death of John Sedgwick
Shortly after daylight he [General John Sedgwick] moved out upon his line of battle. We had no tents or breakfast during that night or morning. The general made some necessary changes in the line and gave a few unimportant orders, and sat down with me upon a hard-tack box, with his back resting against a tree. The men, one hundred feet in front, were just finishing a line of rifle-pits, which ran to the right of a section of artillery that occupied an angle in our line. The 1st New Jersey brigade was in advance of this line.
About an hour before, I had remarked to the general, pointing to the two pieces in a half-jesting manner, which he well understood, “General, do you see that section of artillery? Well, you are not to go near it today.” He answered good-naturedly, “McMahon, I would like to know who commands this corps, you or I?” I said, playfully, “Well, General, sometimes I am in doubt myself”; but added, “Seriously, General, I beg of you not to go to that angle; every officer who has shown himself there has been hit, both yesterday and to-day.” He answered quietly, “Well, I don’t know that there is any reason for my going there.”
I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters. As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, “What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground. The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” and repeated the remark, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The man rose and saluted, and said good-naturedly, “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” The general laughed and replied, “All right, my man; go to your place.”
For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk, when, as I was about to resume, the general’s face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.
Colonel Charles H. Tompkins, chief of the artillery, standing a few feet away, heard my exclamation as the general fell, and, turning, shouted to his brigade-surgeon, Dr. Ohlenschlager. Major Charles A. Whittier, Major T. W. Hyde, and Lieutenant Colonel Kent, who had been grouped near by, surrounded the general as he lay. A smile remained upon his lips but he did not speak. The doctor poured water from a canteen over the general’s face. The blood still poured upward in a little fountain. The men in the long line of rifle-pits, retaining their places from force of discipline, were all kneeling with heads raised and faces turned toward the scene; for the news had already passed along the line.
I was recalled to a sense of duty by General Kicketts, next in command, who had arrived on the spot, and informed me, as chief-of-staff, that he declined to assume command of the corps, inasmuch as he knew that it was General Sedgwick’s desire, if anything should happen to him, that General Horatio G. Wright, of the Third Division, should succeed him. General Ricketts, therefore, suggested that I communicate at once with General Meade, in order that the necessary order should be issued. When I found General Meade he had already heard the sad intelligence, and had issued the order placing General Wright in command. Returning I met the ambulance bringing the dead general’s body, followed by his sorrowing staff. The body was taken back to General Meade’s headquarters, and not into any house. A bower was built for it of evergreens, where, upon a rustic bier, it lay until nightfall, mourned over by officers and soldiers. The interment was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.
–Extracted from a letter written by General M.T. McMahon to General James W. Latta, President of the Sedgwick Memorial Association, June 29, 1887.
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 2, p16-17, 375-376, 397; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Nothing But Victory by Steven Woodworth; Decision in the West by Albert Castel. [↩]