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American Civil War: Battle of Resaca

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American Civil War: Battle of Resaca

Major General William T. Sherman, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Resaca - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Resaca was fought May 13-15, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Battle of Resaca - Background:

In the spring of 1864, Union forces under Major General William T. Sherman concentrated at Chattanooga, TN in preparation for a campaign against General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee and Atlanta. Instructed by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Johnston's force, Sherman had under his command Major General George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland, Major General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, and Major General John Schofield's small Army of the Ohio. All told, his combined force numbered around 110,000 men.

Opposing Sherman, Johnston was able to muster around 55,000 men at Dalton, GA which were divided into two corps led by Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and John B. Hood. Included in this force was 8,500 cavalry led by Major General Joseph Wheeler. Johnston had been assigned to lead the army after its defeat at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863. Though he was a seasoned soldier, President Jefferson Davis had been reluctant to appoint him as he had shown a proclivity to defend and retreat in the past rather than take a more aggressive approach.

Battle of Resaca - Sherman Moves:

While at Dalton, Johnston's army was protected by a string of hills to the west known as Rocky Face Ridge. During the previous months, his men had spent time strongly fortifying the ridge against attack. Unwilling to assault this position, Sherman initially sought to send McPherson on a deep thrust south to Rome, GA to threaten Johnston's supply lines. When reinforcements for the Army of the Tennessee failed to materialize, Sherman turned to a plan devised by Thomas. Having scouted south, Thomas' men had located an undefended mountain pass at Snake Creek Gap which would allow direct access to Resaca in the enemy's rear.

Moving out at the beginning of May to coincide with the beginning of Grant's Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee, Sherman ordered McPherson to take his command south through the gap to Resaca. Once there they were to break the railroad to Atlanta, severing Johnston's lines of communications, before withdrawing back to the gap. This would force Johnston out of Dalton and into the open where McPherson could strike his flank while Thomas and Schofield pursued from the north. As McPherson moved out, Thomas engaged Confederate forces around Rocky Face Ridge (Map).

Emerging from Snake Creek Gap on May 9, McPherson pushed slowly towards Resaca. Delayed by a Kentucky cavalry brigade, he was concerned that a Confederate force would descend from the north and cut him off from the gap. As a result, he failed to attack Resaca, though it was only defended by 4,000 men, and did little damage to the railway before withdrawing. Annoyed, Sherman decided the next day to shift all of his forces south through the gap to Resaca with the hope of placing his army between Johnston and the Oostanaula River. While the IV Corps held Johnston in check, the Union troops shifted south.

Battle of Resaca - The Armies Meet:

Johnston quickly learned of the Union movement and on the night of May 12 withdrew his army to Resaca. Reinforced by troops under Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, he deployed his forces along a line of hills north and west of the town with their left anchored on the Oostanaula. Advancing from the gap, Sherman occupied a line opposite Johnston. Having encountered Johnston during the Vicksburg Campaign, Sherman did not believe that the Confederate commander intended to make a stand with the river at his back. As a result, on May 14 he ordered parts of the XX, XIV, and XXIII Corps to attack the enemy center.

These assaults were easily repulsed and Johnston moved to counterattack. Ordering the divisions of Major General Carter Stevenson and Alexander Stewart, both of Hood's Corps, forward, he hoped to turn Sherman's left flank and cut him off from the gap. Attacking, these divisions succeeded in driving back elements of the Union IV Corps but were halted when Major General Alpheus Williams' division of XX Corps arrived on the scene. At the other end of the line, two brigades from XV Corps succeeded in storming a hill overlooking Resaca.

Understanding that Johnston did not intend to retreat, Sherman shifted all of Major General Joseph Hooker's XX Corps to the Union left early on May 15 with the intent of launching major attack down the Dalton-Resaca wagon road. As these troops were in motion, other Union forces from Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny's division were working southwest of Resaca to build a pontoon bridge across the river at Lay's Ferry. Early that afternoon, Hooker's men began their attack. Despite determined efforts, they failed to break through the Confederate lines.

Pleased with the result, Johnston revived the previous day's plan and ordered Stewart's Division to attack the Union left. As this assault moved forward, he learned that Union troops were crossing at Lay's Ferry. With his rear in jeopardy, he attempted to recall Stewart but to no avail. Encountering Williams' division, Stewart's men were repulsed with heavy losses. As the fighting tapered off, Johnston realized that his position at Resaca was untenable and his army withdrew across the Oostanaula that night.

Aftermath of the Battle of Resaca

In the fighting at Resaca, Sherman's forces suffered around 2,747 casualties while Johnston incurred around 2,800. In the wake of the fighting, Sherman blamed McPherson's overcautious actions on May 9 for the Union failure to destroy Johnston's army. Conversely, Sherman was guilty of ignoring a suggestion by Thomas on May 13 to merely feint an attack at the Confederate position at Resaca while pushing McPherson's command over Lay's Ferry. Such a move would have forced Johnston to abandon the town, while creating an opportunity to strike at the Confederates with overwhelming force. Retreating south, Johnston attempted a stand at Adairsville before falling back further to a strong position at Allatoona Pass.

Selected Sources

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