May 19, 1864 (Thursday)
It all seemed to be going as planned. Confederate General Joe Johnston had devised a plan that would take advantage of the separate marching columns of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Federal forces, allowing two of his corps to hold them in place, while a third, under John Bell Hood fell upon the Union flank.
Riding to the front with Hood, as well as Leonidas Polk and William Hardee – the commanders of his two other corps, Johnston explained to all where Hood should place his lines. He then followed suit with Polk and Hardee before returning to his headquarters, awaiting the sounds of battle.
Hardee’s Corps held the Confederate left, astride the railroad Johnston was attempting to hold. The center was Polk’s, while Hood’s corps constituted the right, positioned at an oblique angle and poised to attack Sherman’s left flank. This positioning covered the two roads leading to Cassville, and would make it incredibly difficult for Sherman, who was using parallel roads to approach Johnston, to concentrate his army.
Most of Sherman’s three armies had entered the town of Kingston near dawn. Finding it empty, he deduced correctly that Johnston had fallen back to Cassville. Now dispersing his forces along different routes, he marched for the attack, never suspecting that Hood’s entire corps was waiting in ambuscade.
But neither was Johnston counting on the routes Sherman’s troops would travel. He had, as his position tells, guessed the roads from both Kingston and Adairsville to the north, but seemed heedless, setting no guard upon the other roads.
General Hood, receiving the word that the Federals were throwing back the Confederate cavalry on the road from Adairsville, requests permission to take his corps north along a small wagon road paralleling the main road to launch the attack. Johnston agrees, placing both Polk and Hardee at the ready. Once in position, he waits looking west and expecting at any moment to see the enemy column descending the road from Adairsville.
A glance to the north, taken by one of his staff, saw the unveiling of a “dark line” coming closer and behind Hood’s own. Hood sees for himself that it is Union cavalry protecting Sherman’s left flank – which was supposed to be unprotected. After detaching skirmishers to slow the column, Hood calls off his attack and sends word to Johnston. In reply, Hood and the entire army is ordered to fall back to a secondary line southeast of Cassville.
This they do, but the maneuver, as well as the echo from Sherman’s command, takes much of the afternoon. Sherman actually believed Johnston to already be in retreat and that the force left behind at Cassville was but a rear guard. After 5pm, he orders his artillery to bombard the new Rebel lines until his infantry could find their footing to attack. Before him, he believed, was only Hardee’s corps, the rest of Johnston’s force supposedly fleeing south.
With darkness, the guns fell silent and the Confederate generals gathered to discuss their options. General Polk very candidly asserts that his line will fail within an hour of the Federal attack, sure to come the following morning. Hood agrees, saying much the same. But Johnston hesitates, not wishing to retreat yet again.
Hood, also not desirous of a retreat declares that if the army had to stay at Cassville, it should go on the offensive, attempting again to hit the Federal flank. This is appealing, of course. Johnston had on this very morning issued a grand order to his army that he would personally lead them into battle. Retreating now might devastate the surprisingly high, but fragile morale of the
men. But after more thought, he simply couldn’t bring himself to risk it. There would be no flank attack, just as they could be no defense. There would, yet again, be only retreat.
The army would move at once south of the Etowah River, ten miles south. Using axmen to muffle the sounds of caissons and wagons, at 2am, the Rebel armies begin anew their retreat. By the dawn, they would be at the waters of the Etowah. And with the dawn, Sherman discovers they had entirely fled. Sending John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio forward, by dusk they reached the river, finding it safely crossed by the Rebels. It would take several more days for Sherman to even deduce Johnston’s location.1
- Sources: 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. [↩]