May 25, 1864 (Wednesday)
When last we left the Western armies, Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee was in retreat from Cassville. They first made their defenses at Allatoona Pass. Prior to the war, William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding the Federal forces, had spent time in this area, riding the same roads he now traversed his army. And so he knew well the strength of Johnston’s defenses and cared little for such a frontal assault.
Rather than assail it, he conceived now to bypass it. From Cassville and Kingston – the location of Sherman’s forces – the railroad which he had been following ran southeast from Kingston, crossed the Etowah River, climbed through Allatoona Pass, before winding around Kenesaw Mountain into Marrietta, and finally Atlanta, now fifty miles distant. Rather than follow the railroad, he would direct his troops to march from Kingston to Dallas, fifteen miles west of Johnston’s left, and from there to Marietta.
His overall strategy was to drive Johnston’s army behind the Chattahoochee River [on the map, it’s the large, unmarked river between Marietta and Atlanta], and then move into Atlanta. His eyes were upon central Georgia. But for the time, his immediate stop is at Dallas, fourteen miles south of the Etowah crossings.
General Sherman’s command consisted of three armies, and each received their orders to march on the 23rd. As they were leaving behind the railroad, so too were they leaving behind their supply line. With them would roll wagons enough to carry twenty days of rations.
“We crossed the Etowah by several bridges and fords,” wrote Sherman after the war, “and took as many roads as possible, keeping up communication by cross-roads, or by courier through the woods.” General George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland held the center, and it was with Thomas that Sherman rode.
But Sherman’s movements were not unknown to Johnston, though this was more by fortune than generalship. Johnston, of course, knew that Sherman was stabbing toward Atlanta, and also knew that he would probably not attack him at Allatoona Pass. Sherman had, thus far in the campaign, traveled using parallel roads, and Johnston hoped to take advantage of this as elements of the Federal host crossed the Etowah.
Johnston was uncertain which of several crossings Sherman might use. He was nearly sure that the Federals would try to flank him to the west, and sent cavalry to scour the roads in that direction. On the 23rd, not long after Sherman stepped off, the Rebel cavaliers ran into Sherman’s troops crossing near Stilesboro. In fact, before long, they knew all of the crossings, and thus all of the roads Sherman’s men were utilizing.
From their defenses at Allatoona, Johnston sends two corps – William Hardee’s as well as Leonidas Polk’s so-named Army of Mississippi – toward Dallas, sixteen miles away. It was true that the Federals were closer, but Johnston’s men had no river to cross and were unburdened of excess supplies. His remaining corps, under John Bell Hood, remains at Allatoona until all were certain that the Federals were indeed moving on Dallas. Once sure, Hood follows.
For Sherman’s and Johnston’s troops alike, the ground is rough, with knobs and even mountains appearing almost randomly, all sense of ranges lost. The roads, accordingly, twist around and through the scattered mounds.
As Sherman’s maneuvers were known by Johnston, so too were Johnston’s known by Sherman. On the 24th, a Confederate messenger was captured as he carried a note detailing that the entire Rebel army was moving on Dallas. Sherman, however, remained unconvinced, believing Johnston would fall back to Marietta along the railroad. But by that evening, Johnston and his entire army are encamped four miles east of Dallas.
On the morning of this date, Polk established his line on the road to Marietta, and Hardee held his left. General Hood’s corps marched northeast to New Hope Church, a few miles northeast of the town. It was Hood’s men who captured a Federal scout who admitted or even boasted that Joseph Hooker’s Twentieth Corps of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was moving swift for their position.
This was true, though only a division under John Geary was in the lead. As Geary drew nearer to the crossroads held by Hood, his vanguard hit a wall of skirmishers so thick, they believed them to be a brigade. The Federal column stalled, but not before capturing enough prisoners to learn that Hood’s corps was near before them, and that Hardee’s and Polk’s wasn’t too distant.
Neither Hooker nor Thomas understood this, but it troubled them greatly. There was, they believed, no chance of Confederate botheration under well south of Dallas. Yet here was the entirety of the enemy to their front with only Geary’s division within striking distance, and themselves ahead of the rest of the army by five miles. As Hooker hurried along the rest of his corps, Geary deployed to receive the enemy, certain to attack such a fetching target. But Hood was not about to attack, believing the bulk of the Federal troops nearby.
Through the broiling afternoon, the Federals gather, though slowly. Like Sherman, the whole officer corps seems to believe the news little more than panicked imaginings. During this slugging concentration, Sherman scrawls a note to George Thomas: “Let [Alphius] Williams go in anywhere as soon as he gets up. I don’t see what they are waiting for in front now. There haven’t been twenty rebels there today.”
By 5pm, Williams, in command of a division, joined Geary, along with Dan Butterfield’s division, at last bringing together the entire Twentieth Corps. Hooker then ordered his corps forward. Crossing brambles and thick woods, the skies grow thick with Rebel bullets and cannister from behind thrown-down logs and newly-dug trenches.
The fire was tremendous, and within a half an hour, the front Union lines are out of ammunition. Most are firing blindly as the gray clouds flash lightening and rain begins to fall. Harder still, until the deluge became too much for the powder. This, with the westering sun, sinking low behind higher hillocks, brings a stuttering end to the tempest. Hooker’s Federals fade back into the woods.
Later that night, Sherman chastised Hooker for not attacking with Geary’s division alone, before the Rebels could concentrate. But this was a mistake. Never was there a time, even in the predawn, that Hood’s men were not waiting.
Even with today’s battle, Sherman found it hard to believe that Johnston’s entire force was in Dallas. “I don’t believe there is anything more than Hood’s corps,” wrote Sherman to Army of the Tennessee commander James McPherson that night, “but still Johnston may have his whole army, and we should act on that hypothesis.”
Through the night and all the next day, Sherman would concentrate his army, who would construct defenses near New Hope Church. Johnston’s men would continue to wait.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 4, p312; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; 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. [↩]