On May 5, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston ordered Brig. Gen. James Cantey’s infantry brigade to Resaca, a hamlet along the Western & Atlantic Railroad on the north bank of the Oostanaula River, five and a half miles east of Snake Creek Gap. Canty fortified the railroad and wagon bridges, and placed the 37th Mississippi atop a treeless ridge known as the "Bald Hill." Johnston bolstered this force on May 8, with Col. J. Warren Grigsby’s brigade of cavalry. That day, Sherman had attacked Johnston on Rocky Face Ridge 17 miles to the north, and Johnston needed the Resaca bridges to supply his army, or to provide a safe route of retreat toward Atlanta.
Major General James B. McPherson had his troops marching on May 9 with orders to strike the railroad at Resaca and to cut off Johnston. When Grigsby’s troopers approached, the Federals drove them back to the ridgeline where the 37th Mississippi waited. A division of Federal infantry under Brig. Gen. Thomas Sweeny drove the Confederates across Camp Creek and back to Cantey’s mainline. Sweeny’s troops occupied Bald Hill and from there could see Resaca and the railroad bridge over the Oostanaula.
McPherson arrived and instructed Sweeny to hold Bald Hill while he sent men to the north looking for an approach to the railroad. But McPherson fretted that Johnston would send troops to drive him back, and he ordered Sweeny back to Snake Creek Gap. The Union infantry withdrew, abandoning Bald Hill. When Sherman learned this, he was disappointed and ordered McPherson to halt and dig in while he brought the rest of the army through Snake Creek Gap.
By May 14, Johnston’s Confederate army was positioned north and west of Resaca, stretching four miles, with its left on the Oostanaula and the right extending to the Conasauga River. Sherman’s forces marching from Snake Creek Gap paralleled the Rebel lines. As they did, Sherman ordered attacks to keep the Rebels occupied while Sweeny’s division crossed the Oostanaula four miles downstream from Resaca at Lay’s Ferry, beyond the Confederate left, to threaten the railroad.
Late on the morning of May 14, Federals of Maj. Gens. John Schofield's XXIII Corps and Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps attacked across Camp Creek but failed to dislodge their opponents. Stiff resistance by Major Generals Patrick Cleburne’s and Thomas Hindman’s divisions helped repel the attacks, with Maj. Gen. William Bate’s division bearing the brunt of the fighting. The Federal assault on the Confederate center-right petered out around 3 p.m.
The next morning, Lt. Gen. John B. Hood instructed his division commander Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson to position a battery and counter the Federal artillery. Stevenson ordered the “Cherokee Battery” of four Napoleons to be placed 20 yards in front of his entrenched infantry. Soldiers constructed an earthen lunette for the guns, but before they could connect it to their mainline with rifle pits, Federals attacked the Confederate position, and two Federal regiments of Brig. Gen. John Ward’s brigade stormed up to the Rebel earthworks. By then infantry supports of the battery had fled. The Federals received heavy fire and withdrew, leaving the battery unmanned. Neither side could move forward to claim the cannons. After dark, Brig. Gen. John Geary ordered troops to sneak forward, quietly dig through the earthwork, and with ropes drag the four guns back into Union lines.
While all this was taking place on Johnston’s right, Sweeny’s division crossed the Oostanaula on pontoon bridges below the Confederate left. Realizing he had been flanked, Johnston ordered his troops to withdraw on the night of May 15-16. After crossing to the south bank of the Oostanaula, Johnston’s men attempted to burn the bridges, but they were quickly repaired by Sherman’s men, and the Federals were one step closer to Atlanta.