February 24, 1864 (Wednesday)
General George Thomas was finally ready to make some sort of move against Joe Johnston’s Confederates. Though he was too ill to take the field himself, he dispatched three divisions under the command of John Palmer to move south from Chattanooga to make a demonstration against the Rebels in and around Dalton, Georgia.
General Johnston had been wary of a Federal advance for weeks now. President Davis had tried to convince him to send reinforcements to Mississippi in an effort to help Leonidas Polk drive back General Sherman’s advance into the heart of that state. Wisely, he declined, stating that if he did, Thomas would certainly take advantage and descend upon him. Wishing to have no part of Johnston’s tomfoolery, Davis made it an order, forcing Johnston to send William Hardee’s Corps to turn back Sherman.
They stepped off as Sherman’s columns were still streaming toward Meridian, arriving at Montgomery, Alabama on the 19th, still 150 miles short of Polk. By that time, Sherman’s wave had crested and he was on his way back to Vicksburg. The only thing that the Confederates knew for sure, however, was that he left Meridian. A division of Hardee’s Corps arrived at Demopolis, Alabama, where Polk’s army had fled, on the 21st, but Polk still wished to retain him in case the Federals moved south to Mobile, Alabama.
The following day, Johnston received word from his cavalry that the Federal army at Chattanooga was finally making their move upon them. With this news, Johnston began to worry. The loss of Hardee’s Corps had sapped his strength by 17,000, leaving him with merely 20,000 men. Thomas, on the other hand, had 60,000, and as the rumors went, they were all making the trip. This was, of course, not true at all, though Johnston, at this point, could not have known.
On the 23rd (yesterday), Johnston wrote Davis with the news, also informing him that Polk, with two of Hardee’s brigades, have moved west in an attempt to follow Sherman. Johnston asked Davis if he could bring back as many of Hardee’s troops as possible, and the President surprisingly agreed. All brigades that had not yet reached Montgomery were turned back. By this time, Polk had sussed out that Sherman was headed back to Vicksburg. With this bit of insight, he discovered that he had no need for any of Hardee’s men, and began to send them back.
With the troops on hand, Johnston had to make do. He ordered General Thomas Hindman to send two divisions forward from Dalton to Tunnel Hill, not ten miles north. They moved at once, and occupied the only gap in Rocky Face Ridge. Through the gap traveled the railroad as well as a wagon road. With a division on either side, the cavalry was sent forward to feel out the Federal movements. On the night of the 23rd, the troops slept in their defenses, waiting and watching.
The Union forces, led by General Palmer were accompanied by a column under Charles Cruft. Using parallel roads, Palmer held the left, as Cruft made up the right, each sending out scouts and cavalry to deduce the enemy’s position. Palmer’s troops were first to reach Tunnel Hill, and were engaged, though lightly. The Rebels in their front were well entrenched with at least three batteries of artillery. He had sent no artillery forward with his lead brigade, and the Confederate guns rang uncontested. But the Federals maneuvered on the Rebel flanks, forcing them out of their forward positions, until they retreated back to their main lines on Tunnel Hill.
Palmer’s advance brigade – less than 1,000 men – pursued, but upon seeing the Rebel fortifications, they were convinced that a large number of the enemy must be tucked in behind.
Throughout the 24th (this date), both halves moved south, each skirmishing with the Rebel cavalry, and seeing no infantry whatsoever. While Palmer’s course would take him down the road to Buzzard Roost Gap, where two divisions of Confederates awaited him, Cruft’s route would bring him along the eastern side of Rocky Face Ridge, essentially behind said Confederate defenses.
Cruft sent a brigade of infantry south, following the railroad until it met the road coming east from the gap. There, they met their own cavalry, still skirmishing with the Rebels. Together they advanced, but again saw only cavalry until about three miles from Dalton, when they finally stumbled upon additional Confederate infantry that Johnston had thrown north to cover the eastern side of Rocky Face Ridge.
The Rebels were about three miles north of Dalton, and seemed determined to hold it. To the west, Cruft’s men could hear the opening shots from Palmer’s divisions as they met the Rebels holding Buzzard Roost Gap. Through the day, there was mostly positioning, repositioning and skirmishing.
“I don’t believe there is much force of the enemy in our front,” reported Col. William Grose, commanding the brigade Cruft had sent forward, “but too much for our small force. I am of the impression that double our force could have gained the railroad and held it. The enemy used no artillery. We fired 5 rounds.”
Grose had learned from prisoners that an entire Rebel division was in his front, with another close by, and so he withdrew a mile or so and encamped. Cruft would arrive at the front the next morning.
On the other side of the ridge, General Palmer’s advance brigade had rested while two divisions probed forward toward Buzzard Roost Gap. They had to reclaim much of the ground contested the previous day, but did so with little loss. “The enemy’s skirmishers yielded with little resistance,” reported General Jefferson C. Davis, leading one of the Federal divisions. “From these hills they enemy’s position was easily reconnoitered, and from the fire of his artillery the position of two strongly posted field batteries was plainly discovered.”
But the sun was now setting and there was little that could be done without bringing on a general engagement – something that nobody wanted at this point. This was only a probe, a diversion. And so the two divisions threw out a strong skirmish line, took shelter from the Rebel artillery, and bivouacked for the night.
Davis reported to Palmer, and was ordered to hold his position, while Cruft’s divisions plied their trade, as previously discussed. “It was thought this movement would turn the enemy’s position at Buzzard Roost and enable our forces to unite south of Rocky Face Ridge,” concluded Davis, who readied his men for the next morning’s engagement.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p424-425, 432-433, 450, 452, 456, 478-479; Part 2, p709, 769, 776, 786, 798, 799, 800; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig Symonds; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel. [↩]