‘The Sound Died Away’ – Sherman Takes Tunnel Hill

May 7, 1864 (Saturday)

“Neither life nor virtue is sacred from these northern barbarians; the old and infirm perish by their bloody hands, while lovely women – our wives and daughters – are reserved for a fate even worse than death. Strike, men of the south and exterminate such polluted wretches, such living demons!” – from a Southern newspaper, warning of Sherman’s march toward Atlanta.

Railroad depot at Tunnel Hill, Georgia, circa 1900
Railroad depot at Tunnel Hill, Georgia, circa 1900

General William Tecumseh Sherman had arrived in Chattanooga over a week past, wishing to direct in person the confluence of three armies against Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia. Over the week, George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was readied at Ringgold, northwest of the Rebels, while John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio took position to the north at Red Clay. Lastly, James McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was long in coming, but by May 5th, it was filing through the streets of Chattanooga.

For them, Sherman had a less-suspected plan, though actually, in its conception, it was Thomas’. Dalton, Georgia was ringed to the west and north by a series of sharp ridges. Each army was poised to exploit a pass, but McPherson’s was to be far to the south, at Snake Creek Gap. This slide would deliver his army fourteen miles behind Confederate lines. And with three days cooked rations, McPherson’s men of the Army of the Tennessee unburdened themselves of their knapsacks and marched south from Chattanooga. They were to launch their surprise on the 9th.

The day following (the 6th) was spent marching and finalizing plans. Sherman ordered Thomas’ army to march south along the rail line upon which they were situated and take Tunnel Hill, the first of three ridges before Dalton. And at dawn of this date, they began.

Today's approximate map is incredibly so.
Today’s approximate map is incredibly so.

Thomas’ column was fronted by Jefferson C. Davis’ Division, of which the 52nd Ohio was in the lead. With three companies of skirmishers to the front, they advanced, and Major James Holmes described their morning:

“A mile through the fields, pine thickets and woods and we found pine bushes chopped across the road, here and there, to prevent our cavalry from charging on their videttes. The skirmishers passed and I, with my bugler and orderly, rode around the obstruction leaving the column to remove their own obstructions. At two miles out, while my line was mostly in thick bushes, bang whiz-z-z a solitary shot. I listened, “pit it ta pat, pit ta pat” faster and faster went the rebel horseman until the sound died away in the distance towards Tunnel Hill.”

Joe Johnston was not caught off guard. He had suspected Sherman might attack through the gap at Tunnel Hill, and had there placed three small brigades of cavalry under Joseph Wheeler. To their rear, upon Rocky Face Mountain, he arrayed the bulk of his army, centering on Buzzard’s Roost Gap, along the road leading from Tunnel Hill. In the meantime, he called upon General Leonidas Polk in Mississippi for reinforcements, but Polk had been dragging his feet, and Richmond was furious that Polk was even considering it. Reinforcements were coming, despite Richmond’s ire, but Johnston was worried they might not arrive soon enough. Wheeler’s men, he hoped, would hold.

Tunnel Hill
Tunnel Hill

And Major Holmes continues:
“Two miles farther on a few rebels let fly as we came in sight of an old house, but it was only fun for the boys, fifty of them probably, to send a very scary volley among them and as the bugle sounded ‘Forward’ to laugh as the Johnnies hurried to the rear. All went quietly then until just as we were coming in sight of Tunnel Hill, about a mile off. I saw their cavalry, one hundred or one hundred and fifty in number, maneuvering for a position to give us a fight. Finally, they opened at the distance of three hundred yards. Without the signal, down went every man on the skirmish line flat to the ground and commenced a spirited return of the fire.”

Just to the south of Buzzards Roost Gap, lay two smaller gaps, Mill and Dug. General Johnston, around midday, received a message from John Bell Hood, now commanding a corps in the Army of Tennessee. Hood had espied a column forging its way along the western horizon beyond Rocky Face Mountain. Additional word came in from Wheeler’s scouts telling him that an entire corps was slipping south unopposed. Johnston hesitated. The threat was at Tunnel Hill.

Buzzard's Gap, 1864
Buzzard’s Gap, 1864

Major Holmes:

“General Davis himself a short distance back had just told me to be careful as there might be a line of battle in the wood in front of me. They hit my horse’s right ear and cut through a lock of my hair behind the right ear; in short, they made it quite warm all around. In about a minute, satisfied that I could hoist them without much loss, I ordered the bugler, who staid by my side, to sound the ‘Forward.’ Just as our boys were rising up, a Johnny shouted, ‘Why don’t you send on your
cavalry?’ You see they don’t like to fight infantry. It is too close work for a cavalryman. Another, as loud as he could shout, said, ‘Send on your God damned nigger wool.’ They thought we would send negro soldiers against them. They didn’t wait; the skirmish line went for them on the double quick and away off, as he spurred his horse beyond bullet range, I heard ‘Bring on your God damned nigger wool.'”

As the afternoon dragged on and Thomas’ Army closed in on Tunnel Hill, Johnston continued to nearly ignore the threats coming from the gaps south of Buzzard’s Roost. Additional word brought news that McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was on a probable route to Snake Creek Gap, yet farther south.

Reinforcements from Mobile had arrived in the afternoon at Resaca, fifteen miles south of Dalton. It was only a brigade, but Johnston ordered it to Dalton, for a time neglecting the idea that he could keep them there to guard his line of retreat from McPherson’s troops. Coming to his senses, and hopefully not too late, Johnston rescinded his orders and placed the brigade in charge of Resaca.

Major Holmes concluded his telling, as the Federals seized Tunnel Hill:
“The cavalry that had been fighting us was routed and the town [of Tunnel Hill] came in full view. I halted the line and the enemy opened on us with artillery from the edge of the place. Under the personal direction of General Davis I moved my line by the right flank and swept through the place making the rebel battery get up and dust to avoid capture. We pushed up the hill beyond the town and by order of General Palmer, commanding 14th Corps, I recalled my line of skirmishers.”

It was plain to Johnston. The Army of the Cumberland would next assail his lines along Rocky Face Mountain. To the south, he figured that McPherson’s Union Army of the Tennessee was headed either to Rome as a completely separate column or was bound for his at Resaca. He never considered Snake Creek Gap, and sent no inquiries about it, nor Ship Gap, on the same road to the west.

Had he done so, or had reports reached him in time, Johnston would have learned that elements of Wheeler’s cavalry had skirmished briefly with McPherson’s troops at Ships Gap, and that Snake Creek Gap was their next obvious target.

The day following, Johnston would continue under this shroud, as the Federals, seen and unseen, gathered before him.1

  1. Sources: Then and Now, 52nd O.V.I. by James T. Holmes; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Decision in the West by Albert Castel; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Conelly. []
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‘The Sound Died Away’ – Sherman Takes Tunnel Hill by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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