Johnston Retreats; Sherman Overestimates the Flight

May 13, 1864 (Friday)

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As the Rebels in the Army of Tennessee fought off attack after attack from Sherman’s Yankees upon Rocky Face Mountain, west of Dalton, Joe Johnston, their commander, worried still about Resaca to the south. On the 9th, the Federal Army of the Tennessee had marched through Snake Creek Gap, west of the town. They were poised to take it, as it was held only by cavalry, but hesitated and withdrew. Had James McPherson, commanding the Union flank attack, succeeded, Johnston’s line of retreat toward Atlanta would be severed, and his army would have been forced to flee to the east and almost certain disaster.

But they had slide back against Snake Creek Gap, and remained for days. In the meanwhile, Johnston dispatched John Bell Hood with three divisions to hold Resaca. The day following, Hood reported to Johnston the good tidings that McPherson’s army had fallen back. But what might it mean? Was it a faint to draw his attention and troops away from Sherman’s other forces – the Armies of the Ohio and the Cumberland? He had already fed a host of his men to Reseca when he recalled them, ordering them instead to plant themselves at Tilton, between the two points.

Though he held interior lines and could move troops at ease from Dalton to Resaca via an efficient railway, he did not know Sherman’s mind, and did not know which point was the true threat. Fortunately for Johnston, reinforcements were coming from Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi. The first elements, under William Wing Loring, found their way to Reseca on the night of the 10th. Polk himself arrived on the afternoon of the 11th, just as the Federals were stirring once more at Snake Creek Gap.

Today's obnoxiously approximate map.
Today’s obnoxiously approximate map.

On the 12th, Johnston was of the mind that it was Resaca and not Dalton that was Sherman’s intended target. More scouts reported a Federal build up west of Resaca, and since the Yankee reinforcements had to be coming from somewhere, he deduced that they were coming from his front along Rocky Face Mountain and Dalton.

This was confirmed by Joseph Wheeler, whose cavalry ran into their Federal counterparts, commanded by George Stoneman. They pushed back the Union cavaliers to reveal that Sherman had but two divisions left along the Dalton front. In light of this, it was time for Johnston to remove his entire force to Resaca.

It may have been time, but Johnston again hesitated, not moving a single regiment until the morning of this date. Come the dawn, William Hardee’s Corps, as well the the rest of Hood’s, was ordered to the side of General Polk. When the two corps arrived, not much before noon, Sherman’s attack had already begun. But it was, for this day, a mere probe.

Confederate works at Resaca.
Confederate works at Resaca.

Sherman could see Johnston’s supply trains being filed across the Oostanaula River, south of Resaca, and assumed it meant that Johnston intended not to fight anything more than a rear guard action in his present position. He had wished to place the mass of his army between Johnston’s own and Resaca, but even through his hesitation, Johnston was able to spoil the plan before Sherman could set it into motion.

Instead, the evening found the five armies arrayed for battle. The Federal Army of the Tennessee held the right, with its own flank tight upon the river, while George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland made up the left. John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio was held in reserve, just east of Snake Creek Gap. Opposing his own, Joe Johnston’s left was helmed by Polk’s Army of Mississippi, which was hardly greater than a corps. Upon his center and right, which was the bulk of the line, were Hardee’s Corps and Hood’s Corps, respectively. He fielded nearly 60,000 men, against Sherman’s 100,000. The small waters of Camp Creek flowed between the two forces.

To Sherman, Johnston’s defense was a ruse. The Rebels were merely buying time for their supplies to cross the Oostanaula. Sherman planned to make an attack the following morning, but didn’t expect Johnston to give any resistance, and focused more upon the pursuit.

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To that end, Sherman ordered bridges to be built west of the Resaca crossing so that his cavalry could cut off the Confederate line of retreat. A single division from McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was held in waiting to join them. Sherman’s attack, then, was not to be a full on assault, but enough of an advance to hold Johnston’s army in place until Schofield and the cavalry could get into position. This would take, perhaps, a day. By the morning, the skirmishing would begin.1



  1. Sources: 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. []
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Johnston Retreats; Sherman Overestimates the Flight by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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