May 14, 1864 (Saturday)
Taking care that their approach was well known by the enemy, elements of General Sherman’s armies assailed the Rebels all along their front just west of Resaca. But it was a deception. These were attacks, but they were not the attack. Sherman was not looking for a pitched battle, but rather a way to maneuver Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi into a retreat.
The southern, left flank of the Confederate line was anchored to the Oostanaula River. The Rebels held the railroad crossing as well as a pontoon bridge spanning the water. West of their crossing, Sherman had established his own at Lay’s Ferry. There he rushed a pontoon bridge, cavalry and a division from the Army of the Tennessee under Thomas Sweeney.
George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, now holding the Federal middle, had the day previous suggested that James McPherson’s entire Army of the Tennessee be sent across. With that force, even augmented by some of his own, Thomas thought that they could hit Johnston’s Confederates in the flank, forcing them out of their well fortified position.
Sherman instead sent a division. And as his main line threw enough bodies against the Confederate defenses to keep Johnston in place, General Sweeney’s men marched toward Lay’s Ferry. Sherman led first with his center, loosening two divisions from the Army of the Cumberland, and two from John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio at the Rebel lines. But the strength of the Confederate position, and the disorganization of the Union attack turned them back, and they kept up a sporadic skirmish for much of the day, trapped as they were in the small ravine of Camp Creek – the stream trickling between the two armies.
The firing soon slackened as another division, this one under Jacob Cox, appeared on the left of the failed assault. “Each brigade was in two lines,” wrote General Cox in the years following the war, “and the artillery was left on the hither side of the valley to cover the movement and reply to the enemy’s cannonade. The skirmish line had been advanced to the edge of the woods on the far side, and kept the lead until we approached the Confederate trenches. We passed over two or three ridges and ravines, driving back the skirmishers of the enemy, and charged the line of earthworks on the crest of a higher ridge. Our men dropped fast as we went forward, but the line was carried and the Confederates broke from the next ridge in rear, some two hundred yards away.”
But the success of Cox’s line was not enjoyed by the division on his right, which was now pinned near Camp Creek and unable to cross. This left Cox’s men on their own, with both flanks exposed to “a galling artillery fire, as the ridge on which we were had its shoulder bare when it came out into the valley, whose curve gave the enemy an enfilading fire upon us.”
Having captured a line of Confederate trenches, Cox ordered his men to convert them quickly into their own. But it was of little use. The Rebels were gathering for a counterattack and his men were nearly out of ammunition. But before he had to retire, the Fourth Corps, helmed by Oliver Otis Howard, bolstered his left and the entrenchments could be kept.
With only some lodgment gained, it was clear to Sherman that it was now the artillery’s turn, though typically those rolls are reversed in the scheduling of battles. They exploded a hail of iron, well placed above and into the enemy lines. Their aim was true and the Rebel casualties mounted. But Sherman decided not to press the advantage – he did not want to drive Johnston’s Confederates from their embattlements.
Instead, he slackened, hoping to give General Sweeney’s division the time it needed to cross at Lay’s Ferry and establish a bridgehead. They arrived around noon, finding the southern bank held strong by the Confederates. Rather than try to fight their way across, Sweeney, with one brigade, distracted them by skirmish fire, as the rest of his command marched with the pontoon boats a half mile upstream to the mouth of Snake Creek. There, he now wanted to establish the bridgehead. But the pontoons had not yet arrived.
While waiting, the Federals placed a battery close to the water’s edge, with the 66th Indiana pulled close as protection. Seeing this, the Rebels more or less did the same. As one of their regiments planted their colors close to their own shore’s edge, Private Asahel Pyburn espied the flag and conceived of a daring capture. He quickly removed his clothes, dove into the river and safely swam the 100 yard span without notice. Before the enemy could react to his presence, he leapt from the still water, snatched hold of the staff and pulled it under. Now the focus of much of the Rebel regiment, Private Pyburn swam for his life, as the enemy fired time and again upon his obscured and submerged form. When their bullets met the water, however, their killing strength and true trajectory was greatly diminished, and Pyburn was met on his home shore with cheers and a storm of covering fire.
But now the pontoons had arrived, and Sweeney detailed a few regiments to escort them upriver to the Snake Creek crossing. While some simply accompanied the party, others were not just escorts, but carried the crafts, sixteen men to a boat, and unable to return fire. Seeing them clearly, the Rebel sharpshooters and artillery followed them best they could.
At 5pm, they attempted their crossing. Some, defenseless, rowed, while armed others tried to keep the Rebels occupied. The bullets did not discriminate, and many oarsmen were struck down. But they arrived on the far bank, holding it and even attacking, capturing and killing a number of Rebels. The bridgehead was now established. General Sherman could send however many troops he wished across the span to fall upon Johnston’s flank.
Johnston, the following day, would not be able to stop Sherman’s movement upon his flank, and would be forced to retreat. Through the night of the 15th into the 16th, Johnston would send his army south, following bad and confusing roads toward Adairsville. Sherman would soon follow.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 3, p421; Military reminiscences, Vol. 2 by Jacob Cox; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]