The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: Another Nomination – Part 2

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

Part 2 of a 4-part article


One very effective way to instigate a lively discussion among a group of Civil War enthusiasts is to propose a specific battle as the decisive battle of the Civil War. It is likely that the people in the group will follow up by making their own proposals for the decisive battle, which will probably result in a number of different battles being suggested for this distinction, among them Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville (because of the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson), if not others. This four-part article proposes a different (and obscure) battle as the decisive battle of the Civil War: the battle of Rocky Face Ridge, which was the opening battle of William T. 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 in this four-part article, was the most significant military action in ensuring the completion of the Union victory. Part 1 of this article focuses on the beginning of the Atlanta campaign at Rocky Face Ridge and how one of Sherman’s subordinates missed an opportunity to possibly eliminate Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and thereby remove the only significant military force between Sherman and Atlanta. Part 2 continues the story of how the battle of Rocky Face Ridge set the military pattern that Sherman used throughout his Atlanta campaign.

Johnston Gives Ground

After withdrawing from Rocky Face Ridge and Dalton, Johnston concentrated at Resaca, another stop on the Western & Atlantic Railroad. In the meantime, Sherman moved all but a holding force to unite with McPherson for an attack on Resaca. The Union forces were in position on May 13 in the same arrangement as at Rocky Face Ridge: McPherson on the right, Thomas in the center, and Schofield on the left. This force faced another strong Confederate position, which was entrenched in a curved line west and north of Resaca with its left flank anchored on the Oostanaula River and its right flank anchored on the Conasauga River, a tributary of the Oostanaula.

On the following day, Sherman launched an attack focused mainly on the Confederate left. Johnston, reasoning that Sherman had weakened his left for the assault from his right, ordered Hood to attack the Union left. Hood’s attack was quite successful, and only darkness limited the gains. Johnston instructed Hood to renew the attack as early as possible the next morning. However, a report came in during the night that a sizable Union force had crossed the Oostanaula several miles south of Resaca. Johnston canceled Hood’s morning attack and sent a division south to confront the Union force which had crossed the river. Soon thereafter, Johnston ordered a withdrawal of the whole Army of Tennessee across the Oostanaula once intelligence confirmed that there were Union troops across the river. Johnston correctly surmised that the entire Union force might cross the river and thereby make his Resaca position untenable. Sherman had again maneuvered Johnston out of a strong defensive position and had also crossed the first of the three rivers between his forces and Atlanta.

Sherman pursued quickly in what had become the customary right-center-left McPherson-Thomas-Schofield deployment begun at Rocky Face Ridge. Sherman’s immediate goal was to overtake Johnston before his adversary could develop another stout position. Prior to the movement south of Resaca, the Union troops were redistributed to bring the three components of Sherman’s force into better balance. As a result, Thomas’ army now numbered about 40,000, Schofield’s about 30,000, and McPherson’s maintained its strength close to 25,000. In addition to the main force, which advanced along the Western & Atlantic, Sherman detached a small force to move south on the opposite bank of the Oostanaula (i.e., west of the main force), so that this detachment could take Rome in order to destroy the factories there. The detachment consisted of two divisions, one of cavalry under the command of Kenner Garrard, who had served prior to the Civil War as an adjutant to Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, and one of infantry commanded by the antithetically named Jefferson Davis, a Union general who had shot and killed a superior, William Nelson, during an argument in 1862, but who was exonerated due primarily to the Union’s excruciating need for experienced field commanders at that time.

Ultimately, the three components of Sherman’s triplet army and the detached force would concentrate at Kingston on the north bank of the Etowah, the second of the three major rivers between Rocky Face Ridge and Atlanta. Sherman rode with Thomas in the center along the Western & Atlantic and anticipated that Johnson would dig in at Calhoun, a town on the railroad. When Sherman found only a rear guard at Calhoun, he expected Johnston to entrench at Adairsville, further south along the railroad. There was some skirmishing at both places, but no intense fighting. As it was, Johnston relinquished about 25% of the distance to Atlanta without making a stand. After the war, Johnston wrote that he had “hoped to find a favorable position near Calhoun, but there was none.” Eventually Johnston decided to dig in at Cassville, about five miles east of Kingston, the place where Sherman intended to concentrate his forces and where he felt he could bring Johnston to battle with the Etowah in rear of the Army of Tennessee.

Johnston Plans to Pounce

This situation presented Johnston the opportunity he had been awaiting. When Schofield’s force turned west to converge with Thomas and McPherson, it would pass just north of Cassville, where Johnston’s army could pounce on it in an attack which Johnston had hoped for to destroy Sherman’s numerically superior force in piecemeal fashion. While Hardee’s corps had been withdrawing southward along the Western & Atlantic, skirmishing along the way to carry on the ruse that this corps was guarding the rear of Johnston’s army, Polk’s and Hood’s corps had taken position in Cassville for the ambush of Schofield’s army. Johnston further planned to consolidate his three corps to strike in succession at Thomas and then McPherson when each of them responded to the anticipated call for assistance from Schofield after his army was struck by the surprise attack from Cassville.

Daniel Butterfield

However, before the trap could be sprung on Schofield, a report arrived that Federal troops were sighted in Hood’s rear. As it happened, a portion of the division of Daniel Butterfield (who, with assistance from Oliver Norton, is credited with composing “Taps”) became separated and wandered several miles away from the rest of the division to end up in Hood’s rear. When the report reached Johnston, he refused to believe it. Even years later, Johnston claimed, in his typical post-war fashion of absolving himself of culpability and affixing it to someone else, “The report upon which General Hood acted was manifestly untrue.”

But even though Johnston put no credence in the report, he endeavored to act on it by canceling the attack against Schofield and then putting his army on the defensive to await developments. All three Confederate corps were consolidated on a ridge southeast of Cassville, while Schofield (now aware of the ambush which had been prepared for his army), Thomas, and McPherson had concentrated against them. While Johnston called his army’s position on the ridge “the best I saw occupied during the war,” both Polk and Hood expressed to their commander their opinion that the position could not be held. Although Hardee agreed with Johnston, Johnston decided to withdraw, not because, as he later said, he was incorrect about the strength of the position, but because the lack of confidence of the two corps commanders would be conveyed to their troops and result in failure to repulse any attacks by the enemy.

Accordingly, Johnston made the decision to withdraw across the Etowah, the second of the two major rivers between Rocky Face Ridge and Atlanta. In a message to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston left no doubt that in his mind the commander of the Army of Tennessee was blameless in the cancellation of the attack, “While the officer charged with the lead was advancing he was deceived by a false report that a heavy column of the enemy had turned our right and was close upon him, and took a defensive position. When the mistake was discovered it was too late to resume the movement.”

The double disappointment of the cancellation of the attack against Schofield followed by the withdrawal across the Etowah had a demoralizing effect on the Army of Tennessee. One soldier wrote in his diary that this turn of events “impaired confidence” and caused the troops to “think no stand to be made north of Chattahoochee.” Johnston withdrew to Allatoona, another town along the Western & Atlantic four miles south of the Etowah. This latest southward movement placed the Army of Tennessee 60 miles south of its initial position on Rocky Face Ridge.

Arriving at Allatoona on May 20, Johnston put up another strong position over the gorge through which the railroad passed with each flank of the army protected by a creek. The imposing strength of the position was its primary weakness, because, as at Rocky Face Ridge, Sherman was more likely to bypass Johnston’s army than attack it. This is what Johnston expected, and this is what Sherman did, this time separating from the railroad for a wide sweep to the right around the left of Johnston’s strong position.

Braxton Bragg

While awaiting Sherman’s movement around his left, Johnston sent another message to Davis to follow up his previous message faulting Hood for the cancellation of the Cassville attack. Johnston’s second message was intended to assuage the criticism which Johnston knew was being directed at him for his failure to take any aggressive action against Sherman. In this message, Johnston assured Davis, “I have earnestly sought an opportunity to strike,” but, Johnston explained, he was thwarted by Sherman repeatedly extending his right, which necessitated Johnston’s retrograde movements in response. Johnston ended by stating his agreement with Davis for a need for a rapid change to the offensive and by assuring Davis that the Army of Tennessee was in fine shape for just that. Johnston received a response not from Davis, but, ironically, from Braxton Bragg, the person who had left the Army of Tennessee in no shape for military operations of any kind and now a military advisor to the Confederate president (a position held early in the war by Robert E. Lee). In his message to Johnston, Bragg stated, “We confidently rely on a brilliant success.”

Sherman Sweeps West and South

After giving his troops three days to rest, which also allowed some repairs to be made to the Western & Atlantic and 20 days rations to be accumulated for the next movement, Sherman sent his force on a wide sweep to the right in the three columns as before, McPherson-Thomas-Schofield from right to left. From his pre-war military experience in Georgia, Sherman was familiar with the terrain which Johnston had chosen for his latest stout position. Sherman claimed, “I knew more of Georgia than the rebels did,” and he had no intention of assaulting Johnston’s position. Instead, Sherman had his troops cross the Etowah (what Sherman called “the Rubicon of Georgia”) several miles west of the Western & Atlantic with the goal of making a wide sweep west of the railroad, which at this location ran southeast.

The major target in Sherman’s path was Marietta, 15 miles south along the Western & Atlantic and Johnston’s new supply base. Johnston moved his army to meet this threat, and the lead troops in Thomas’ column were the first to encounter the enemy. These troops met stiff resistance from men in Hood’s corps. After two hours of fighting, a thunderstorm erupted and drenched the combatants during their third hour of fighting. Finally both the storm and the day came to an end, the latter bringing the fighting to a close. Between the storm and the combat, the Federals who fought here referred to the place not by its actual buoyant name, New Hope Church, but as the Hell Hole. For the next two days, the armies faced each other with Sherman probing for a weakness in Johnston’s lines. Unsuccessful in this, Sherman again decided to move around Johnston, this time in the opposite direction than his previous movements, that is, around the right of the Army of Tennessee.

However, this leftward movement of one corps did not bring this corps around Johnston’s army, but directly into one of Hardee’s divisions, the division commanded by Patrick Cleburne. This led to a bloody afternoon firefight and a bloody repulse of the Federal troops at a place called Pickett’s Mill. The men who suffered most at the hands of Cleburne were those in the division of Thomas Wood, who at Chickamauga had committed the grievous error of obeying the order of William Rosecrans to shift his division to the left to plug a nonexistent gap and thereby created the gap through which Confederate troops poured.

Johnston reasoned that if Sherman was extending his left, perhaps he was weakening his right. Accordingly, Johnston ordered an attack of a division from his left, an attack which was as thoroughly repulsed as the Union attack had been. While the fighting during both of these assaults was intense, it was also highly focused and did not progress to the level of a major battle, certainly not the decisive battle which Davis and the authorities at Richmond were craving as a means to put an end to Sherman’s drive on Atlanta. That night, Johnston held a council of war at which Hood proposed an attack for the next day by his corps, which would be shifted to the right of Cleburne’s division for an assault on the Union left. Subsequently, the corps of Polk and Hardee would join the attack after they heard Hood’s artillery.

After dawn on the day for Hood’s attack, the men of Polk’s and Hardee’s corps listened for the artillery barrage of Hood’s corps. But rather than a signal for attack, Hood sent a message that an additional Federal division had been placed perpendicular to the planned path for Hood’s advance, which made such an advance imprudent. Johnston’s response was to cancel the attack and to instruct his army to fortify its position. Since Sherman’s men now did the same, neither commander was hopeful of success in assailing the other’s formidable defenses. As May gave way to June, both armies faced each other with no imminent prospect of dislodging the other. Rather than ordering another costly attack on Johnston’s entrenchments, Sherman continued to extend his left toward the Western & Atlantic, which forced Johnston to conform by extending his right.

On the first of June, Johnston was reinforced by an unexpected ally: rain. For 17 straight days, a soaking rain fell. Separated from the Western & Atlantic, Sherman’s men experienced the first pangs of want of supplies. The rain-drenched roads made acquisition of rations and ammunition an onerous task. As a result, Sherman’s men had to subsist on hardtack and bacon, which led to scurvy. Weeks earlier in a letter to Grant, Sherman had written his optimistic prediction about living off the land during the advance on Atlanta, “Georgia has millions of inhabitants. If they can live, we should not starve.” But foraging in the barren region brought in so little that Sherman’s earlier assertion now seemed like an empty boast. Three days after June opened with unceasing rain, Johnston slipped away again, this time to an even stronger position astride the railroad. Johnston’s three corps each occupied a piece of high ground east and west of the railroad, Hardee’s men on Lost Mountain, Polk’s on Pine Mountain and eastward to the railroad, and Hood’s from the railroad to Brush Mountain.

By June 6, Sherman’s forces once more had closed up with the Army of Tennessee, which brought the rain-soaked Federals back to their Western & Atlantic lifeline. A frustrated Sherman recognized that the Confederate position was too strong to assail without substantial losses. But the prospect of another sidle around Johnston did not appeal to Sherman, especially on muddy roads. This marked the Union nadir of the Atlanta campaign. Deprived, due to the rain, of his most powerful weapon, maneuver, Sherman now considered doing that which he had wisely avoided up to now and what he told a superior, Henry Halleck, he would not do: send his men on an assault against a formidable enemy position. The Union commander was about to deviate from the successful Rocky Face Ridge tactics which had brought him deep into Georgia.

Go back to Part 1 >>
Continue with Part 3 >>