Battle of Resaca: Botched Union Attack
By Michael J. Klinger
The front desk clerk at the Burnet House in Cincinnati, Ohio, must have done a double take when he looked up to see the two most famous generals in the Union Army standing before him one day in March 1864. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, newly installed as commander of all Northern forces in the field, and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, his most trusted subordinate, needed a room for the night-forthwith, they got one.
With sentries installed at the door to prevent unwanted intrusions, the two old friends, Midwesterners both, spread their battle maps across the room and sketched out the plan that would, within a year, bring the Confederate Army to the brink of doom. Twenty-five years later, Sherman revisited the Burnet House with a friend and pointed out the room he and Grant had shared. 'Yonder began the campaign' he said. 'He was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston. That was his plan….It was the beginning of the end.'
Grant's plan, like most of his wartime formulations, had the surprisingly uncommon virtue of simplicity. While he directed the Army of the Potomac in Virginia, Sherman was to advance on the Confederate General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee, which was wintering at Dalton, Ga., 30 miles south of Chattanooga. The Rebel army's defeat at Chattanooga the previous November had won Grant his third general's star and given him the power to direct the Northern war effort as he saw fit.
Grant's final written instructions to Sherman were flatteringly vague; he left the details to his friend's discretion. Sherman was 'to move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and go into the interior of the enemy's country as far as he could, inflicting all the damage he could upon their war resources.' Sherman, typically, was more direct: 'I am to know Jos. Johnston, and to do as much damage to the resources of the enemy as possible.'
In early May, Sherman began his assault on Johnston's army and his ultimate objective, Atlanta, Ga. The Union drive would be made by three separate armies. In the center, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and his solid Army of the Cumberland stood 60,000 strong. Sherman's favorite soldier, his young friend Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, with his Army of the Tennessee, was moving out of northern Alabama with 24,000 men on the Federal right. The 14,000-man Army of the Ohio, under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, came swinging down from the east Tennessee mountains.
At Dalton, Johnston faced Sherman's weathered and battle scarred veterans with 45,000 of his own. Johnston's position was anchored by Rocky Face Ridge, which crested 800 feet above the valley floor. Behind it, the ridgeline coursed for 20 miles through boulder-strewn, heavily wooded countryside. Schooled well in the digging of entrenchments, the Southerners could throw up adequate breastworks in an hour. Given the weeks they had at their disposal before Sherman's advance, Johnston's Rebels worked martial wonders with their spades.
While Johnston was entrenching, Sherman was calculating his needs for the coming campaign. An erratic strategist, Sherman was nevertheless a master of military detail. The necessity of maintaining his army by rail dictated the tactics of the coming campaign. The rickety north Georgia rail system would not only become the Union army's lifeline, but also the target of all its moves.
On May 7, Thomas attacked Rebel cavalry pickets at Tunnel Hill, two miles northwest of Rocky Face Ridge. After resisting stoutly for a time, the pickets fell back to their main line on Rocky Face. Schofield moved up and extended the pressure through Crow Valley until the entire Federal left was involved. Union Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley, whose men had spearheaded the assault at Tunnel Hill, stood atop a rock and shouted out, 'The ball is open!' It would be a ball danced to the rattle of muskets and the slam of artillery.
Protected by the rugged terrain to the west, McPherson's army moved toward Ship's Gap with orders to proceed the next day through Snake Creek Gap, an undefended opening in the ridge 15 miles south of Dalton and directly across from the railroad crossing at Resaca. McPherson's orders were to secure Snake Creek Gap 'and from it make a bold attack on the enemy's flank or his railroad …. Do not fail … to make the most of the opportunity by the most vigorous attack possible.'
Thomas had devised the plan to attack through Snake Creek Gap nearly four months earlier. He wanted to send his own Army of the Cumberland striking through the gap at the Confederate rear. Thomas' reputation for slowness, however, convinced Sherman to send McPherson—his 'whiplash'—instead. Thomas, with his equally well-earned reputation for defensive fighting, was to hold the Union center and prevent Johnston from punching through Sherman's own weakened lines to the railroad.
In retrospect, the Federal lines across the valley from Rocky Face Ridge were nearly as impregnable as Rocky Face itself, and probably could have been held by a much smaller force. True, the strike for the Confederate rear required speed and initiative—it also required (at least in the mind of its commander) more men than Sherman sent. Schofield later wrote, 'Thomas' position in front of Rocky Face Ridge was virtually as unassailable as that of Johnston's behind it!' He felt that half of Sherman's infantry would have been ample for the 'demonstration' in front of Dalton. The other half could have been sent through Snake Creek Gap to strike the enemy rear. Of the 100,000 troops he commanded, Sherman sent 24,000.
McPherson moved through Snake Creek Gap and approached Resaca from the west. He brushed aside Confederate cavalry in the area and moved into the more-open country near the Oostanaula River and the roads into Resaca, which lay on the north bank of the Oostanaula at its junction with the Connasauga River. Johnston's vital rail link at Resaca supplied his army at Dalton and Rocky Face. When he got word on the night of May 9 that McPherson had cleared the gap and was moving on Resaca, Sherman slammed his fist on a table at his headquarters and exclaimed, 'I've got Joe Johnston dead!' He was premature by nearly a year.
Johnston now had some 4,000 men at Resaca, including portions of Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk's 15,000-man corps, which was on its way to reinforce Johnston from the west. McPherson climbed atop a tree stump beside the Resaca road and viewed the Rebel defenses. Despite specific orders from Sherman and the urging of some of his own junior officers, McPherson decided against attacking the town. He was worried that Johnston would fall back so quickly from Rocky Face Ridge that he, McPherson, would be cut off from the rest of the Union army 'as you cut off the end of a piece of tape with a pair of shears.' Instead, he pulled his troops back to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap and dug in.
Sherman, who personally liked McPherson (as did Grant), later commented, 'At the critical moment McPherson seems to have been a little cautious.' That criticism could perhaps be directed against Sherman, as well, for sending too few men to do the job. Sherman conceded that McPherson had acted, technically, within his discretion as an Army commander. Still, when he saw his young subordinate, Sherman could not resist the pointed barb, 'Well, Mac, you have missed the opportunity of your life.'
Johnston, at Dalton, apparently believed there were too few Yankees in the gap to threaten Resaca. He held on at Rocky Face for three more days, still expecting the main thrust to come from Thomas' and Schofield's Federals to the north. The men of these armies had been ordered to keep the Rebels' attention riveted to their front—they did so gallantly and with great effect. One division from the Army of the Cumberland scrambled up the less precipitous northern end of the ridge and fought its way along the lower crest for nearly a mile. (The crest was so narrow that only four men abreast could pass along it.)
After struggling along the broken ground of the ridge, the Federals ran up against the main Confederate works and could go no farther. The Rebel defenses ran along a line that followed a natural palisade of rocks that was 20 feet high in places and nearly straight up. Not only were the defenders able to punish their blue-clad attackers with musketry, the steepness of the ridge allowed them to roll boulders down on the Federal ranks, as well.
The Union 'demonstration' against the northern end of the ridge went perfectly. Sherman then began shifting Thomas' and Schofield's troops to the right, south behind the ridgeline. When Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry finally penetrated the heavy skirmish lines used to screen this move, they found most of Sherman's infantry gone—hurrying on their way to Snake Creek Gap.
Johnston, who had been ill-served by Wheeler's undisciplined cavalry, finally saw through Sherman's ruse and began a masterful withdrawal to Resaca. Taking advantage of his interior lines, Johnston easily won the race to the crossroads town. By the morning of May 13, he was in position to receive the Union attack.
In their new position, the Rebels defended a four-mile front that protected Resaca from the west. Their left was anchored on the Oostanaula River, their right on the Connasauga. The Confederate line ran north along the high ground behind Camp Creek for two and a half miles, then followed the ridge away from Camp Creek and coursed east. Though the rivers securely anchored the Rebel flanks, they also forced Johnston to fight with a river to his rear, complicating any retreat.
Sherman determined to press Johnston head-on, while also trying to effect a crossing of the Oostanaula and get across the enemy's line of retreat. That night, the Federal troops slept in their positions. On Schofield's front, artillerymen, exhausted from dragging their guns across country, slept by their guns. Infantrymen rolled into their blankets. Pre-battle tensions brought troubled dreams to the sleepers. One man near the 19th Ohio Battery cried out in his sleep and fired his rifle. Men all along the line reached for their weapons and fumbled with their equipment. Nervously, they waited for dawn.
With the sunrise, the musket fire of the opposing skirmishers increased and the wounded began stumbling back from the front. Units moved forward and deployed for the attack. Sherman had decided to hit Johnston at a bend in the Confederate works. Here, Camp Creek forked and coursed northwest from the Rebel trenches. The valley floor was nearly flat and several hundred yards wide. The creek bed was deep in spring runoff and in many places unfordable. The muddy banks were tangled with brush; jagged limestone rocks made the footing treacherous.
To make matters worse, the Southern defenders had an unhindered field of fire. Thomas' XIV Corps and two divisions of the Army of the Ohio would hit the angle on the Confederate right. Major General Oliver Howard's IV Corps would go in on the left after trailing the rest of the army from Dalton Schofield's left division, under Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, had slightly easier ground to cover than the right, but the prospect of charging across the valley, through the creek and up the ridge into the Rebel trenches, was a fearsome undertaking. Lieutenant John A. Joyce of the 24th Kentucky (Union) Regiment, wrote, 'We charged across an open field interspersed with dead trees that flung out their ghostly arms to welcome us to the shadows of death.'
Brigadier General Henry P. Judah's division formed Schofield's right. He had not performed well recently, and Schofield had considered removing him from command. His performance during this attack would result in his forced resignation—unfortunately for his division, it came a couple of days too late. Judah's men charged down the western slope of the valley into the boggy ground around the creek. Their front had not been properly reconnoitered and the swampy ground proved nearly impassable for infantry.
Taking heavy fire from their front, as well as enfilading fire from their right, Judah's men struggled through the mud. Their right had become disorganized early in the assault, and Judah had refused to delay his attack long enough to allow units from Maj. Gen. John Palmer's XIV Corps to complete their deployment. As a consequence, Brig. Gen. Milo S. Hascall's brigade of Judah's division charged across the left of the XIV Corps, destroying both units' formations and carrying many of Palmer's men forward with them.
With all hope of a cohesive attack shattered, Judah still refused to halt and re-form. He drove his division on into that deadly valley. They, made it to the creek bed, but could go no farther. Those who reached the creek tried to hold out as best they could. In waist-deep water and mud, they kept up what fire they could manage, but the mud and water rapidly disabled many of their rifles. Not only were they being slaughtered in appalling numbers, they were even losing the ability to fight back.
Compounding the division's problems, Judah had failed to bring his artillery into action. Division gunners on the high ground in the rear stood frustrated beside their guns, looking to their officers for word to fire. They had to stand idle and watch as the regiments in the valley below were crisply decimated by sharpshooting Rebels.
For many of the men in Judah's ill-fated division, the headlong charge at Resaca would be etched forever in their memories. Resaca would always be 'their battle!' Forty-seven years later, Ebenezer Davis of the 118th Ohio Volunteers, when asked about the most important event in his service, would respond, 'The terrible charge at Resaca, insane, useless charge, ordered by an intoxicated officer.'
Palmer's corps attacking to Judah's right also suffered from his incompetence. A high percentage of Palmer's casualties were in the brigades carried forward into battle by Judah's disorganized men. On the left, with competent leadership, Cox's division fared better, managing to take the first line of Confederate works. Theodore Tracie of the 19th Ohio Artillery watched this attack develop. He later wrote: 'There was something horrible in being compelled to look upon this thrilling scene without being able to participate in it….We saw our gallant fellows charge the enemy rifle pits only to fall back under a withering fire, marking their pathway with dead and dying.'
Cox took the first Rebel entrenchments, but once there he was not certain he could hold them. Attempting to force the second line, he was bloodily repulsed. Cox's men sheltered on the reverse of the captured Rebel trench, grimly holding on to what they had paid for so dearly. Five hundred and sixty-two men of their division lay dead or wounded around them while, on their right, Judah's division had lost 600 men. (In a mere 10 minutes, the 118th Ohio lost 116 of 300 attackers in its number.)
The Confederates continued to pour a heavy fire into Cox's defenses. The fighting had pulled the Union left toward the center and rendered that flank unprotected. Thomas recognized the danger and pulled Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's corps out of the center and sent it hastening to support Howard on the Union left. Meanwhile, Johnston, a master counterpuncher, had also seen the flaw in the Federal lines. He sent Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood marching with two full divisions and four additional brigades to the vulnerable spot. Hood's men struck Stanley's division a crushing blow on the Union flank.
Stanley's men, stunned by the unexpected, savage assault, threw down their weapons and fled from the scene. Stanley later reported that his men 'did the best they could….they got out of the way with such order as troops can hurrying through a thick brush.' The infantry's precipitous retreat left the 5th Indiana Battery alone to try and stem the Confederate attack. The Hoosier gunners stood their ground, double-shotting canister at a killing range of 50 yards. Rebel momentum stalled.
The stand of the battery was still in jeopardy. Rebel soldiers began lapping around them on both flanks. Though in danger of being surrounded, the Indianans managed to gouge huge holes in the Rebel lines. Meanwhile, Hooker's veterans, spurred by the sound of battle, came pounding to the battery's aid, their massed musketry helping to stop the Confederate onslaught. Under the concentrated Federal fire, the Southern troops began to recoil. Their officers scrambled to re-form them for a second attack, but darkness stopped their hopes.
The heavy fighting of the day had slowed now to desultory picket fire. Still, Johnston thought he controlled the field, and determined to send Hood against the Federal left the next morning.
Though most of the Federal casualties had fallen on the Union left, most of the Yankees' success had come on their right. Heavy skirmishing by infantry and dueling by the artillery had continued all along the line. Rebel skirmishers who covered the Resaca road where it bridged Camp Creek showed a momentary weakness, and the Union 12th Missouri and other XV Corps units forced their way across the bridge and dug in on a hill overlooking the railroad, within the reach of Union guns. Their position now threatened Polk's advance corps on the Confederate left.
McPherson, recognizing the Union gains, hurried several more brigades of Maj. Gen. John Logan's XV Corps across the creek to establish a bridgehead against Polk. General Cox later observed, 'The Confederates under Polk, in their advanced position on our extreme right, were a good deal weakened in morale by the knowledge that the national troops had thus made a good foothold in their flank.' The combination of shaken morale and determined Union attacks drove Polk back and, though he was able to re-establish his line, McPherson still held the high ground. When Union artillery arrived, it would be in position to shell Johnston's pontoon bridges in his rear.
Recognizing the danger, Polk sent his men forward to try to regain the lost ground. He succeeded in adding to the casualty lists, nothing more. That night, Johnston had a new military road cut through and moved his bridges out of the range of the Yankee guns. At the same time, Sherman had sent Brig. Gen. Thomas Sweeny's division on a march to force a crossing of the Oostanaula River south of Resaca and cut off the Rebel line of retreat.
At Lay's Ferry, Sweeny managed to drive off the Confederate cavalry and push across the river in pontoon boats. But shortly after getting into position, Sweeny abruptly ordered his men to fall back across the river—reports had reached him that a large Confederate force had crossed the river between him and Sherman's main force. Fearing entrapment—one of his men called their new position 'an invitation to Andersonville'—he pulled back and informed Sherman of the move. The report turned out to be false, but Sweeny's incursion had alarmed Johnston enough for him to send a full division to block any further Federal moves. Johnston also cancelled his proposed attack on the Federal left and turned his attention to the threat at Lay's Ferry.
On the morning of May 15, the blue-clad infantry on the Union left rolled forward in another of the wasteful charges that typified the fighting at Resaca. A four-gun Georgia battery was positioned on a spur of land about 80 yards in front of the main Confederate works. As the Union infantry advanced, they could see Southern soldiers busily throwing up earthworks around the battery. The battery was in position to enfilade the attacking line; Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield's division of Hooker's corps was ordered to take it. Under heavy firing from the battery and the main Rebel line, Butterfield's men impetuously rushed forward and took shelter on the reverse side of the fort's earthen parapet.
Future President Benjamin Harrison, then a colonel in the 70th Indiana, noticed the battery's infantry support breaking. With a wild yell, he led an attack over the walls into the battery. In the hand-to-hand brawl that followed, all but five of the battery's gunners were killed, wounded or captured. It was the only success of the attack. Fire from the main Rebel line soon forced the Yankees out of the fort, leaving the guns under fire in no man's land. That night, under cover of total darkness, the Hoosiers tore down the fort's walls and dragged the guns back into their own lines with ropes.
While the heavy fighting on the Union left was getting under way, Sherman sent the skittish Sweeny back across the Oostanaula. This time, he stayed put. Sherman reinforced him with a division of cavalry, and together the Union force was able to drive off counterattacking Rebels under Maj. Gen. W.H.T. Walker, who had arrived too late to prevent the Yankees from consolidating their beachhead.
Realizing that the Federal position on his left flank again threatened the railroad, Johnston that night began retreating from Resaca. Covering the three pontoon bridges in his rear with cornstalks to muffle the sound of his artillery wheels, he pulled his army out of line and began retreating southward toward Atlanta. Rebel pickets kept up a distracting fire to cover the retreat. Dawn of May 16 found the Federals facing abandoned works.
Casualty figures for Resaca are hard to estimate because Sherman had begun turning in monthly figures instead of daily ones, but it is probable that the Federals lost at least 3,500 men (some figures range as high as 6,800). Confederate losses were at 2,600, and possibly as high as 5,200.
Much has been written about Sherman's later frontal attack on Kennesaw Mountain outside Atlanta, with various historians commenting that Sherman was finally convinced at Kennesaw that frontal attacks could not carry well-entrenched, well-manned positions. Had Sherman walked over the battlefield at Resaca and viewed the crumpled blue forms that lay in dark contrast to the bright green grass of spring, he might not have had to learn that costly lesson twice.
Learn More: The Atlanta Campaign