The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: Another Nomination – Part 1

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Part 1 of a 4-part article


William T. Sherman

One of the much debated topics about the Civil War is which battle was the decisive battle. Much effort and time have been expended in support of one or another Civil War battle for this distinction. A great deal of energy and thought have also been devoted to the point of view that no Civil War battle merits this title. Herein is offered another nomination for this designation as well as the case for this contention. Note that the choice of the word “contention” is intentional, because the battle which is proposed as the most decisive is not one which is likely to be selected and which is instead likely to provoke disagreement. Rather than championing this battle as the most decisive, the intent is to provide a different and hopefully thought-provoking point of view about a little-known Civil War battle, the ramifications of which are greater than the apparent insignificance of the battle. The battle in question is Rocky Face Ridge, the opening battle of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. This battle is nominated as the decisive battle of the war because it set the pattern for the entire Atlanta campaign, and the Atlanta campaign, as argued below, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory.

The Atlanta Campaign: The Curtain Rises

Rocky Face Ridge is in northwest Georgia, 30 miles southeast of Chattanooga, and is one of the folds of land which, like Missionary Ridge to its west, jut upward like sharp pleats in the terrain. In fact, Rocky Face Ridge is the easternmost of this series of elevations and, as such, stands as the last topographical barrier to the flatter terrain to its southeast, in which the city of Atlanta is situated 100 miles away. Interspersed within these hundred miles are three major rivers which an invading army would have to cross on its way to Atlanta: the Oostanaula, the Etowah, and the Chattahoochee. Rocky Face Ridge is pierced by three main gaps, which are named, north to south, Mill Creek Gap (known to the locals as the Buzzard Roost), Dug Gap, and Snake Creek Gap.

From Chattanooga to Atlanta and through Mill Creek Gap ran the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the line on which the Great Locomotive Chase took place in 1862 and to which were connected other railroads that ran all the way to Union supply depots in Nashville. Four miles east of Rocky Face Ridge was the town of Dalton, through which the Western & Atlantic ran and into which also ran the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad from the north, the latter railroad lying east of Rocky Face Ridge. Approximately ten miles south of Dalton along the Western & Atlantic was the town of Resaca, which was situated on the Oostanaula River and almost directly east of Snake Creek Gap. Rocky Face Ridge and the towns east of it comprised the area from which Sherman’s drive to Atlanta would begin, and it took no great military insight for Sherman to envision the Western & Atlantic as a supply line which would be available to him all the way to his objective.

Joseph E. Johnston

At the same time, Sherman’s adversary, Joseph E. Johnston, was using that same railroad to supply the army which he commanded, the Army of Tennessee. Johnston had been named to command of this army after its disastrous performance at Chattanooga. The battle of Chattanooga was the culmination of lengthy and widespread disenchantment among both officers and enlisted men toward the Army of Tennessee’s previous commander, Braxton Bragg. Johnston restored the morale and confidence of this army and now had it deployed in a formidable position on Rocky Face Ridge, which Johnston correctly recognized as an advantageous location to block the advance of Union forces into Georgia toward the enticing objective of Atlanta.

Johnston had at his immediate disposal the two corps of William Hardee and John Bell Hood, each approximately 20,000 men, deployed to the left and right (south and north), respectively, of the Buzzard Roost and, hence, of the railroad which Johnston anticipated Sherman wanted to cling to during an advance on Atlanta. Johnston’s 5,000 cavalry under Joseph Wheeler were positioned east of Rocky Face Ridge and north of Hood’s corps to guard against an advance along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad around the northern end of Rocky Face Ridge. The southern end (left) of Hardee’s corps extended to Dug Gap, which allowed this passage to be stoutly defended, but Snake Creek Gap, five miles further south, was not defended. In addition to the approximately 45,000 troops in the Army of Tennessee, Johnston also had available to him the 19,000 men under the command of Leonidas Polk, who were currently in Alabama, but who were available to join Johnston in the event that he needed them. Their availability was due to the fact that Nathaniel Banks no longer demanded attention from any Confederate forces east of the Mississippi River, although Johnston still had to convince the authorities in Richmond that Polk’s force was needed in Georgia. Polk was in Alabama because, almost three months after his suspension by Johnston’s predecessor, Bragg, Polk had been sent west and eventually replaced the man who was brought east to succeed Bragg and who was now requesting that Polk, along with the 19,000 troops under his command, be sent east to Georgia.

This was the situation and the force which were Sherman’s immediate concern as he contemplated his thrust at Atlanta. When Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general in chief of all Union armies and attached himself to the Army of the Potomac to direct its thus far fruitless attempts at eliminating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman was placed in charge of the western theater, for which the focus by this time in the Civil War had become the southeast. Sherman’s force was composed of three armies: the Army of the Cumberland, 70,000 strong under George H. Thomas; the Army of the Tennessee, 25,000 strong under James B. McPherson; and the Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield, which at 19,000 troops was in reality a corps. Sherman had these forces deployed with Schofield on the left (north), Thomas in the center, and McPherson (whose army Sherman called “my whiplash”) on the right (south). This arrangement of the three armies was to be used for most of the drive to Atlanta.

Sherman’s plan to dispossess Johnston of his formidable position took into account its stoutness. In a foreboding phrase in a letter home, Sherman gave his assessment of the Confederate defenses and the likely outcome of a direct assault by his men against “the terrible door of death prepared for them in the Buzzard Roost.” Accordingly, Sherman intended Schofield to feint from the north along the East Tennessee & Georgia and Thomas to assault frontally, but only as a means of holding Johnston in place, while the main thrust would be delivered by the whiplash McPherson. McPherson was to move from Chattanooga under cover of Taylor’s Ridge, which lies between Missionary Ridge to the west and Rocky Face Ridge to the east. Then McPherson was to move eastward through Taylor’s Ridge at Ship’s Gap, which lies south of the Dug Gap end of Johnston’s line, then through the town of Villanow, and finally through the undefended Snake Creek Gap to emerge in rear of the Army of Tennessee for a strike at Resaca to cut Johnston’s supply line.

On May 4, 1864, the three Union armies commenced their coordinated movements against the Army of Tennessee. While Schofield’s force was stalled by Wheeler’s cavalry, and Thomas’ men met expectedly stiff resistance, McPherson’s intricate movement came off precisely as planned, and on May 9 the Union Army of the Tennessee found itself east of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and a mere five miles from Resaca. McPherson reported this in a dispatch to Sherman, who was with Thomas’ army. McPherson also reported in the dispatch that the only enemy forces so far encountered were some rebel cavalry. Sherman was at dinner when this news reached him, and he pounded the table in triumphant jubilation and shouted, “I’ve got Joe Johnston dead!”

McPherson’s Missed Opportunity

Leonidas Polk

As it happened, Joe Johnston still had a good deal of life left, both literally and figuratively, and the latter was due as much to serendipity as skill. On the same day that Sherman set his plan and his forces in motion, Johnston convinced Richmond to send Polk’s 19,000 troops to join the Army of Tennessee as a third corps, and its immediate assignment was to reinforce Resaca once it moved there. The first contingent of these troops, a brigade of 2,000, arrived in Rome on May 5 and then at Resaca two days later, where these men took position along with the small equally sized garrison in entrenchments which Johnston had had constructed there. As McPherson’s force closed in on Resaca, these rebel troops took them under fire, which stopped McPherson in his tracks to assess an enemy infantry force which he had not expected to encounter. After considering his situation, unsupported and out in the open in rear of the enemy and confronting a force of unknown size, McPherson decided that the most prudent course of action was to return to the safety of Snake Creek Gap, and by the end of the day on which he had emerged from the gap, he was back in it in a much more defensible position than the exposed one near Resaca.

When Johnston was informed of the appearance of a large Union force near Resaca, he ordered the movement of Hood with three divisions to reinforce the 4,000 troops who had disquieted McPherson into withdrawing. On the following day, Confederate reconnaissance indicated that Sherman’s whiplash had relinquished its threatening position near Resaca and cloistered itself in Snake Creek Gap. This led Johnston to believe that McPherson’s movement had been a feint, and this supposition caused Johnston to order Hood to leave one division at Resaca and move the other two to Tilton, which is between Rocky Face Ridge and Resaca and from which these divisions could be sent to meet a threat at either place.

In the meantime, Polk and his 19,000 men were arriving, which gave Johnston both comfort and more troops to reinforce Resaca. Because the attacks against Rocky Face Ridge had all but ceased, Hardee and eventually Johnston began to suspect that Sherman was planning to reinforce McPherson for a stronger attack from that direction. In an attempt to determine his adversary’s intentions, Johnston sent Wheeler’s cavalry around the north end of Rocky Face Ridge for reconnaissance. Wheeler reported that Sherman’s entire force appeared to be moving southward, perhaps through Snake Creek Gap for a junction with McPherson. Johnston decided that his stout position on Rocky Face Ridge was no longer tenable, and on May 12 the Army of Tennessee withdrew from the ridge and evacuated Dalton.

Thus it was that Sherman used maneuver more than assault to accomplish his immediate goal of dislodging Johnston’s force from its formidable position on Rocky Face Ridge. However, a few days earlier when Sherman pounded his fist on the table, he envisioned much more. The disappointment over this stung Sherman, in part because it had come after such a height of expectant jubilation and in part because it was due to a failure by his protégé, McPherson, who had been appointed Sherman’s replacement in command of the Army of the Tennessee when Sherman assumed command of the entire conglomeration of Union armies after Grant moved east. Sherman had such high regard for McPherson that he once remarked about him, “If he lives, he’ll outdistance Grant and myself.” Stung by the disappointment over McPherson’s failure, Sherman stung back. When Sherman met with McPherson in Snake Creek Gap during the concentration of the Union forces there, Sherman told his protégé, “Well, Mac, you missed the opportunity of your life,” although Sherman might have been more impressed with the prescience of his comment had he known how little life McPherson had left. In his memoir, Sherman could accurately state, with the assuredness of hindsight, that for McPherson and his opportunity at Resaca, “Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life.”

What Might Have Been

Had McPherson not succumbed to trepidation and missed the opportunity of his life, it is certainly possible that the Union fruits of the battle of Rocky Face Ridge would have led history to categorize it as a truly decisive battle. Even though Polk’s force was close to joining Johnston’s army, the juncture might have been prevented if the Army of Tennessee had been caught between the two Union forces. While this would have left Polk’s force looming in the area around Sherman’s armies, it is not inconceivable, in light of the relative strengths and of Johnston’s cautious nature, that Polk and his men would have simply hovered uselessly near Sherman’s horde, uncertain of what to do, in the same way that Johnston had done outside Vicksburg as John C. Pemberton’s Army of Mississippi was inexorably ground into submission.

Nevertheless, even without the elimination of the Army of Tennessee, the battle of Rocky Face Ridge can rightly be considered much more important than its obscurity and apparent insignificance suggest. This is the battle which set the tactical pattern for most of the battles of the Atlanta campaign, in terms of both the deployment and the use of each of the three armies under Sherman’s command and also with regard to Sherman’s use of maneuver more so than assault to drive Johnston’s forces backward toward the Union objective. Because the Atlanta campaign and the eventual Union capture of Atlanta led to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War could continue until the North emerged victorious and the Union was restored. In spite of the lost opportunity at Rocky Face Ridge and Sherman’s resulting disappointment, one important objective had been attained: the dislodging of the Army of Tennessee from its stout position. Although there had been some serious fighting, primarily by Thomas’ men in their holding action, the overall Union losses were small (estimated at fewer than 900), and it was maneuver rather than assault which had accomplished the expulsion of the Confederate army.

In addition to driving the Army of Tennessee out of its formidable position on the ridge, the maneuver by Sherman placed Johnston’s army in relatively open and less defensible terrain, where Sherman’s superior numbers could be used to greater advantage. Johnston realized this, and his plan (which in reality was more a yearning) was to catch Sherman in motion when the Union commander had made an error and exposed his forces, or part of them, to attack. The odds of this were not good, but Johnston felt that, in light of the two to one numerical superiority of Sherman’s forces, the odds were not good from the Confederate perspective in any situation. Johnston correctly reasoned that the best chance for driving Sherman’s large force away lay in cutting the railroad supply line. To this end, Johnston urged the Confederate government to move Nathan Bedford Forrest from northern Mississippi to middle Tennessee where the Wizard of the Saddle could work his destructive sorcery on Sherman’s railroad lifeline.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

For various reasons, Forrest was never given that task during the Atlanta campaign, which left Johnston to deal with Sherman’s horde without the benefit of the best weapon to strike the best blow to stop or at least slow the Union advance on Atlanta. As a result, Johnston was left with only his yearning for an opportune error by his adversary. While the Confederate commander waited for this and, in his mind, took action to increase the chances of it, his tactics during the Atlanta campaign consisted of a gradual slow withdrawal toward Atlanta with recurrent occupations of strong defensive positions in the hope of enticing Sherman into a ruinous assault. Save for once during the campaign, Sherman refused to be coaxed into it and instead used maneuver rather than attack to move closer to his objective of Atlanta.

Thus it was that the lesson which Sherman learned at Rocky Face Ridge was applied throughout the Atlanta campaign. Certainly this strategy was made effective by the necessity of Johnston to defend Atlanta. Nevertheless, Sherman was astute enough to realize that, as at Rocky Face Ridge, maneuver was not only the safer and less costly option, but also the more effective course to reaching his objective. The capture of that objective, Atlanta, is what led to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and the continued prosecution of the war to restore the Union. Hence, it can be said that the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, because it was the place where Sherman developed the tactics which would be used to bring about the capture of Atlanta and the re-election of Lincoln, was the decisive battle of the Civil War.

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