Sherman Would Rather Be ‘Smashing Things to the Sea’

October 11, 1864 (Tuesday)

William Tecumseh Sherman had completely lost track of General Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. And mostly, he didn’t care. If he knew where Hood’s army was located and their intended destination, he would have to go on the defensive, and being bogged down north of Atlanta trying to defend lines of supply was the last thing he wanted.

Sherman Sherman
Sherman Sherman

“I would infinitely prefer to make a wreck of the road and of the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta, including the latter city,” he wrote to Grant on this date, “send back all my wounded and worthless, and, with my effective army, move through Georgia, smashing things to the sea. […] Instead of being on the defensive, I would be on the offensive; instead of guess at what he means to do, he would have to guess at my plans.”

Sherman wanted to start immediately, and he bade Grant to “answer quick, as I know we will not have the telegraph long.” And until he heard back from Grant, he would continue searching for Hood. He had dispersed his cavalry and their scouts far and wide, but as of yet there were but rumors.

The Federal outposts stretched wide, from Kingston to Rome to small detachments at Resaca and Dalton. Before the sun rose to noon, nobody even seemed to know if it was Hood’s entire force or just his cavalry crossing the Coosa River west of Rome.

And as the day wore on, scouts reported that was on the Armuchee River, having bypassed Rome, but even that was hardly helpful. Directing his cavalry divisions, General William Elliott was unsure “whether he [Hood] means Resaca and Dalton or Bridgeport.” He had two divisions, commanded by Kenner Garrard and Judson Kilpatrick. The former was searching north of Hood’s army, while the latter was trying to nip at his tail. Neither were having very much luck.

If Hood was indeed headed for Bridgeport, twenty miles west of Chattanooga, there was little Sherman could do but leave him in the hands of George Thomas, who would hopefully best the Rebels before they could take the city. But if the Confederates were making for Resaca, Sherman had to act quickly.

“In case you are threaned,” he wrote to Resaca’s commanding officer on the morning of this date, “you should concentrate your force at the forts at the bridge. Have abatis made at once on the land side. Keep a strong cavalry picket at Snake Creek Gap.”

Resaca’s commanding officer was Col. Clark Wever, and while throwing out a strong cavalry picket sounded like a fine idea he could “mount but thirty-five men, too small a force to put at the gap.”

Though Wever commanded a brigade, it was spread out. “Shall I order the trops from block-house near Kingston to this point?” he asked General Green Raum, division commander. He had only been head of the brigade for a week and a half, having been promoted form the 17th Iowa.

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

At Resaca, where he made his headquarters, he had hardly more than a regiment. The 18th Ohio was joined by two companies of the 10th Missouri and 6th Kentucky Cavalry. His old regiment was six miles away at Tilton, and two companies in between. He had wondered if he might call upon Col. J.P. Hall at Calhoun and Adairsville, fifteen miles to the south. With a little effort and a day’s notice, he might be able to assemble most of his brigade.

Since taking command on October 1st, he had heard daily rumors of Hood’s army streaming north to attack him. And though they were but rumors, “every available means was made use of to strengthen our position so as to make the most obstinate resistance possible with the force at hand. At Resaca new rifle pits were made, the old ones deepened and repaired, and rude palisades set around the works until we considered them quite formidable.”

He called upon Tilton to do the same and to be ready to abandon the town if they were needed at Resaca. He had kept a vigilant eye, but thus far had seen only small bands of Rebel cavalry here and there.

But on the evening of this date, he “received information through citizens that [Joseph] Wheeler’s cavalry and a heavy force of infantry were camped on John’s Creek,” a couple of ridges to the west. With this information, he called to Resaca the troops from Calhoun and Adairsville. By midnight, he had about three regiments worth of men.

Then there was the town of Dalton, situated no more than twenty miles north of Resaca. This post was commanded by Col. Lewis Johnson, and held by the 44th United States Colored Troops.

Sherman had, for the longest time, refused to allow black soldiers in his army. Abraham Lincoln, understanding the politcial ramifications of forcing a victorious general to do anything, allowed Sherman to have his way for the fighting troops, but by this point in the war, Sherman had assented to black troops garrisoning unimportant places like Dalton.

On October 3rd, Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry had summoned Johnson and his garrison to surrender, but the Rebel begged off before a fight could be had. And while Resaca was threatened, Dalton seemed more or less off the radar.

But Dalton, along with Resaca, were precisely where Hood was aimed, though not even Sherman really understood this. By nightfall, Sherman had moved his headquarters to Rome and pushed some cavalry, along with the Twenty-third Corps, across the Oostenaula. Meanwhile, the rest of the army held back south of Kingston.

But Dalton, along with Resaca, was precisely where Hood was aimed, though not even Sherman really understood this. By nightfall, Sherman had moved his headquarters to Rome and pushed some cavalry, along with the Twenty-third Corps, across the Oostenaula, but even though they were close behind Hood, they could not find him.

All this, however, might have soon been rendered moot. That night, General Grant in Virginia had replied to Sherman’s plea to allow him to more or less abandon Hood and wage hell across Georgia. Grant’s reply was short, but decisive:

“If you are satisfied the trip to the sea-coast can be made, holding the line of the Tennessee firmly, you may make it, destroying all the railroad south of Dalton or Chattanooga, as you think best.”

Now, if only he could find Hood to tell him the good news.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p717-718, 752-753; Part 3, p53, 201-202, 205, 207-208; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. []
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Sherman Would Rather Be ‘Smashing Things to the Sea’ by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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