May 17, 1864 (Tuesday)
So great were General Sherman’s numbers that they gave him leave to hold Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in place while still having more than enough troops to outflank it. Such was the case at Resaca, Georgia. Even though most of Sherman’s front assaults failed, Johnston was maneuvered out of position as Federal troops crossed the Oostanaula River, threatening the Confederate line of retreat.
On the night of the 15th, Johnston disengaged and pulled south, crossing the river south toward Calhoun. There, he hoped to find good defensive ground where he could establish his lines to defend the Oostanaula, and force Sherman to attack him. But no such ground existed, and the next day, his men had to fall even farther back, as Sherman’s own now poured across.
In two columns, the Confederates marched. Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi took the road leading southwest to Rome, while John Bell Hood’s Corps from the Army of Tennessee moved south toward Adairsville. William Hardee’s Corps, also from the Army of Tennessee, made up the rear guard for both columns. He could not protect both, and though Rome held ironworks, the railroad was more important. That night, the Rebels abandoned Rome.
From what his engineers told him, the ground just north of Adairsville was perfect for the defense. He could establish one continuous line, and his flanks would be buttressed by hills upon which he could place artillery. If a stand had to be main, there was where he wished to make it.
But when he personally arrived on the morning of this date, what he saw was far from ideal. The hills meant to flank the army were too far apart. His men would have to stretch their lines, thinning them and inviting breakthroughs. Here, he had no desire for battle.
But a battle might follow soon, as Sherman’s vanguard was assailing the cavalry, pushing them back towards his still-moving columns. They were coming quick and would more than likely converge against him the following day.
And so on the night of this date, Johnston held a council of war, calling Generals Polk, Hood, Hardee and others to his headquarters. Johnston had devised a plan. Sherman was moving south using parallel roads. There was no reason to think he would do differently on his approach to Adairsville. This was useful for speed, but it left his army divided and one column or the other vulnerable to attack without the other being immediately able to assist it.
By all appearances, two of Sherman’s corps were moving on the road that would take them through Adairsville and straight on to Cassville, ten miles south. The rest of Sherman’s army was moving along the road coming east from Kingston. If Johnston placed Polk’s army on the road from Adairsville, and Hardee’s corps on the road from Kingston, when the Federals attacked, Johnston held that their left flank would be left exposed. This is where Hood’s corps came in. They were to be lying in wait and hidden to pounce when Sherman’s troops arrived. In this way, Johnston believed he could destroy a large chunk of the enemy’s forces without having to do much more than defend a fairly good position.
All through the following day, Johnston’s cavalry and scouts watched the Federals. Morale actually seemed to be getting higher. His army seemed poised to deliver a crushing victory. And by the morning of the 19th, all seemed to be transpiring as Johnston foresaw. But it was not so.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 3, p982; “Opposing Sherman’s Advance Toward Atlanta” by Joseph Johnston, as appearing in Battles & Leaders, Vol. 3; 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. [↩]