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Chapter 8:

It is ungenerous in General Sherman to cast imputations upon General McPherson, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, since this General and his army, often at sore cost, saved Sherman from himself, and won laurels for him to wear.

It is well known among many who participated in it, that the prominent officers of the three armies which began the Atlanta campaign, considered its opening moves at Dalton and Resaca as grave and needless failures. The feeling was that Sherman, with his one hundred thousand men, should have brought Johnston's forty-five thousand to decisive battle in front of Resaca.

General Sherman, in his book, labors to show first, that at the outset he fully intended to do this; and second, that the failure of his plan resulted from McPherson's timidity at a moment when this officer had an opportunity to insure brilliant success—such as does not occur twice in a single life.

As will be remembered, the enemy held a strongly fortified position in front of Dalton. The road from Chattanooga passed from the west through a deep gorge called Buzzard's Roost, in the mountain range which separated the two armies. Its sides were precipitous, finally taking the form of palisades. The range was Rocky Face. The gorge was partly commanded from the Union side by Tunnel Hill. About fifteen miles south, Snake Creek Gap, which had been almost entirely neglected by the enemy, opened through the ridge midway upon the roads leading from Dalton to Resaca. [97]

Of the position, General Sherman writes as follows:

The position was very strong, and I know that such a general as was my antagonist (Joseph Johnston), who had been there six months, had fortified it to the maximum.

Therefore, I had no intention to attack the position seriously in front, but depended on McPherson to capture and hold the railroad to its rear, which would force Johnston to detach largely against him, or rather, as I expected, to evacuate his position at Dalton altogether.

‘My orders to Generals Thomas and Schofield were merely to press strongly at all points in front, ready to rush in on the first appearance of “let go,” and, if possible, to catch our enemy in the confusion of retreat.’

And yet against this front, which he ‘had no intention of attacking seriously,’ he moved Thomas with over sixty thousand, and Schofield with over thirteen thousand, while McPherson with twenty-four thousand was sent to Johnston's rear through Snake Creek Gap, not with orders to remain on his line of communications, but to break his railroad and then retire to Snake Creek Gap, or return to the main army as he should deem best.

Which was the diversion? Were Thomas and Schofield making it in Buzzard Roost and upon impregnable Rocky Face, with over seventy-four thousand men, while McPherson was marching to the predetermined battle-field, in the rear of Dalton, with twenty-four thousand?

The attack began on the 7th of May. On that day Thomas carried Tunnel Hill. Of all the operations on the front during the 8th and 9th, when Thomas and Schofield were assaulting precipices, the Memoirs have nothing except the single sentence: ‘All the movements of the 7th and 8th were made exactly as ordered.’

The history then proceeds:

I had constant communication with all parts of the army, and on the 9th, McPherson's head of column entered and passed through Snake Creek perfectly undefended, and accomplished a complete surprise to the enemy. At its further debouche he met a cavalry brigade, easily driven, which retreated hastily north toward Dalton, and doubtless carried to Johnston the first serious intimation that a heavy force of infantry and artillery was to his [98] rear, and within a few miles of his railroad. I got a short note from McPherson that day (written at 2 P. M., when he was within a mile and a halt of the railroad above and near Resaca), and we all felt jubilant. I renewed orders to Thomas and Schofield to be ready for the instant pursuit of what I expected to be a broken and disordered army, forced to retreat by roads to the east of Resaca, which were known to be very rough and impracticable.

‘That night I received further notice from McPherson that he had found Resaca too strong for a surprise; that in consequence he had fallen back three miles to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap, and was there fortified. I wrote him next day the following letters, copies of which are in my letter-book; but his to me were mere notes in pencil, not retained.’

The letters referred to are both dated May 11th. The material points affecting the question under discussion, are as follows:

General: I received by courier (in the night) yours of 5 and 6:30 P. M. of yesterday. You now have your twenty-three thousand men, and General Hooker is in close support, so that you can hold all of Jos. Johnston's army in check should he abandon Dalton. He can not afford to abandon Dalton, for he has fixed it up on purpose to receive us, and he observes that we are close at hand waiting for him to quit. He can not afford a detachment strong enough to fight you, as his army will not admit of it.

Strengthen your position; fight anything that comes; and threaten the safety of the railroad all the time. But, to tell the truth I would rather the enemy would stay in Dalton two more days, when he may find in his rear a larger party than he expects in an open field. At all events we can then choose our own ground, and he will be forced to move out of his works. I do not intend to put a column into Buzzard Roost Gap at present.

McPherson had startled Johnston in his fancied security, but had not done the full measure of his work. He had in hand twenty-three thousand of the best men of the army, and could have walked into Resaca (then held only by a small brigade), or he could have placed his whole force astride the railroad above Resaca, and there have easily withstood the attack of all of Johnston's army, with the knowledge that Thomas and Schofield were on his heels. Had he done so, I am certain that Johnston would not have ventured to attack him in position, but would have retreated eastward by Spring Place, and we should have captured half his army and all his artillery and wagons at the very beginning of the campaign.

‘Such an opportunity does not occur twice in a single life, but at the critical moment McPherson seems to have been a little timid. Still, he was perfectly justified by his orders, and fell back and assumed an unassailable defensive position in Sugar Valley, on the Resaca side of Snake Creek Gap. As soon as informed of this, I determined to pass the whole army through Snake Creek Gap, and to move on Resaca with the main army.’


That McPherson moved promptly through Snake Creek Gap when ordered, is shown by the fact that he did not even wait for food for men or horses, as will appear from the following extract from the report of General G. M. Dodge, of the Sixteenth Army Corps, who had the advance in the movement on Resaca:

‘During the entire day the command acted under the personal direction of Major-General McPherson, and promptly obeyed and executed all hisorders. My transportation had not yet reached me. I had with the entire corps, since leaving Chattanooga, only seventeen wagons, and I had marched out in the morning without rations, most of the command having been without food since the day before at noon; thus a march of sixteen miles was made by the command, the men and animals whereof had had nothing to eat for a day and a half.’

A report of General Dodge also shows that a detachment of his troops passed through the Gap, moved out to the railroad the night of the 8th, and found it clear of the enemy; that the next day his entire corps carried a hill close to Resaca, moved in force to the railroad, and from this point was withdrawn to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap. This was in accordance with the positive order of General Sherman to General McPherson.

After the slur upon McPherson's courage, the book relates that on the 11th, there being signs of the enemy evacuating Dalton, orders were given for the movement of all the army through Snake Gap, except the Fourth Corps and Stoneman's cavalry, which were left in front of Buzzard's Roost. During the 12th and 13th, the greater part of Thomas' and Schofield's army passed through the gap and were deployed against Resaca, where, now writes General Sherman, the enemy, ‘as I anticipated, had abandoned all his well-prepared defenses at Dalton and was found inside of Resaca with the bulk of his army, holding his divisions well in hand, acting purely on the defensive, and fighting well at all points of conflict. * * * * On the 14th we closed in.’ [100]

He thus closes the account of these opening operations of the Atlanta campaign:

‘On the night of May 15th Johnston got his army across the bridges, set them on fire, and we entered Resaca at daylight. Our loss up to that time was about six hundred dead and thirty-three hundred and seventy-five wounded—mostly light wounds that did not necessitate sending the men to the rear for treatment. That Johnston had deliberately designed in advance to give up such a strong position as Dalton and Resaca, for the purpose of drawing us further south, is simply absurd. Had he remained in Dalton another hour it would have been his total defeat, and he only evacuated Resaca because his safety demanded it. The movement by us through Snake Creek Gap was a total surprise to him. My army about doubled his in size, but he had all the advantages of natural positions of artificial forts and roads, and of concentrated action. We were compelled to grope our way through forests, across mountains, with a large army, necessarily more or less dispersed. Of course I was disappointed not to have crippled his army more at that particular stage of the game; but, as it resulted, these rapid successes gave us the initiative, and the usual impulse of a conquering army. Johnston having retreated in the night of May 15th, immediate pursuit was begun.’

Thus, seven days after the movement began, General Sherman had finally accomplished what General Thomas, who, assisted by General Schofield, had thoroughly reconnoitered the position in February, had urged should be done at the first, as will now appear from the record history of Buzzard Roost and Resaca.

On the 28th of February, 1864, before General Sherman had succeeded General Grant in the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, General Thomas, who was in command of the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, telegraphed General Grant at Nashville, proposing the following plan for a Spring campaign:

‘I believe if I can commence the campaign with the Fourteenth and Fourth Corps in front, with Howard's corps in reserve, that I can move along the line of the railroad and overcome all opposition as far, at least, as Atlanta.’

In a subsequent report upon the campaign, dated March 10, 1864, General Thomas thus speaks of this proposition:

‘The above proposition was submitted to General Grant for his approval, [101] and if obtained, it was my intention (having acquired by the reconnoissance of February 23d, 24th, and 25th, a thorough knowledge of the approaches direct upon Dalton, from Ringgold and Cleveland), to have made a strong demonstration against Buzzard Roost, attracting Johnston's whole attention to that point, and to have thrown the main body of my infantry and cavalry through Snake Creek Gap upon his communications, which I had ascertained from scouts he had, up to that time, neglected to observe or guard. With this view I had previously asked for the return to me of Granger's corps and my cavalry from East Tennessee, and had already initiated preparations for the execution of the above movement as soon as the Spring opened sufficiently to admit of it.’

On the 17th of March General Grant was made Lieutenant-General, and was succeeded in command at Nashville by General Sherman. In the same report General Thomas continues:

Shortly after his assignment to the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, General Sherman came to see me at Chattanooga, to consult as to the position of affairs, and adopt a plan for a Spring campaign. At that interview I proposed to General Sherman that if he would use McPherson and Schofield's armies to demonstrate on the enemy's position at Dalton, by the direct roads through Buzzard Roost Gap, and from the direction of Cleveland, I would throw my whole force through Snake Creek Gap, which I knew to be unguarded, fall upon the enemy's communications between Dalton and Resaca, thereby turning his position completely, and force him either to retreat toward the east, through a difficult country, poorly supplied with provisions and forage, with a strong probability of total disorganization of his force, or attack me; in which latter event I felt confident that my army was sufficiently strong to beat him, especially as I hoped to gain a position on his communications before he could be made aware of my movement. General Sherman objected to this plan for the reason that he desired my army to form the reserve of the united armies, and to serve as a rallying point for the two wings, the Army of the Ohio and that of the Tennessee, to operate from.

‘(Later, when the campaign in Georgia was commenced, the Army of the Tennessee was sent through Snake Creek Gap to accomplish what I had proposed doing with my army, but not reaching Snake Creek Gap before the enemy had informed himself of the movement, McPherson was unable to get upon his communications before Johnston had withdrawn part of his forces from Dalton, and had made dispositions to defend Resaca.’)

Such is General Thomas' brief account of this movement. [102] Below will be found its history as presented in General Sherman's own dispatches, to which scarcely any allusion is made in his book.

On the 24th of April General Sherman wrote as follows to General Grant, informing him of the intention to attack Johnston in position at Dalton:

‘At Lafayette all our armies will be together, and if Johnston stands at Dalton we must attack him in position.’

headquarters Military division of the Mississippi, in the field, Chattanooga, May 1, 1864.
General Grant, Culpepper, Va.
* * * * The first move will be Thomas, Tunnel Hill; Schofield, Catoosa Springs; and McPherson, Villanow. Next move will be battle. * * * *

W. T. Sherman, Major-General.

headquarters Military division of the Mississippi, in the field, Chattanooga, May 4, 1864.
General Grant, Culpepper, Va.
Thomas' center is at Ringgold, left at Catoosa, right at Leets' tan-yard. Dodge is here, Fifteenth corps at Whiteside, Schofield closing up on Thomas. All move to-morrow, but I hardly expect serious battle till the 7th. Every thing very quiet with the enemy. Johnston evidently awaits my initiative. I will first secure Tunnel Hill, then throw McPherson rapidly on his communications, attacking at the same time in front, cautiously, and in force.

W. T. Sherman, Major-General commanding.

May 5th, he notified General McPherson of the move which Thomas and Schofield were directed to make against Rocky Face, and directed him to march to Snake Creek Gap, secure it, attack the enemy boldly from it, attempt to so break the railroad that it would require some days to repair it, and then ‘withdraw to Snake Creek Gap and come to us, or wait the developments according to your judgment and the information you may receive.’ In the same order General Sherman expresses the hope that ‘the enemy will fight at Dalton.’

In the forenoon of May 7th, he directed General Schofield to ‘see if Rocky Face Ridge can be reached from your position,’ and at two o'clock, ‘reconnoiter the ridge to-night [103] and make a lodgment to-morrow morning, but don't be drawn into battle.’

On the 8th, General Thomas was ordered ‘to get, if possible, a small force on Rocky Face Ridge,’ and General Schofield ‘to follow from Lee's along down Rocky Face to the enemy's signal station, if possible.’

On the same day, the 8th, he telegraphed from Tunnel Hill, in front of Buzzard Roost, to General Halleck, at Washington:

‘I have been all day reconnoitering the mountain range through whose gap the railroad and common road pass. By to-night McPherson will be in Snake Creek Gap threatening Resaca, and to-morrow all will move to the attack. Army in good spirits and condition. I hope Johnston will fight here instead of drawing me far down into Georgia.’

On the 9th he telegraphed General J. D. Webster, at Nashville:

‘Have been fighting all day against rocks and defiles. General McPherson was at 2 P. M. within two miles of Resaca, and will there break the road, and leave Johnston out of rations. To-morrow will tell the story.’

And on the 9th, at 8 P. M., from Tunnel Hill, to General Halleck as follows:

We have been fighting all day against precipices and mountain gaps to keep Johnston's army busy, while McPherson could march to Resaca to destroy the railroad behind him. I heard from McPherson up to 2 P. M., when he was within a mile and a half of the railroad.

‘After breaking the road good, his orders are to retire to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap and be ready to work on Johnston's flank in case he retreats south. I will pitch in again early in the morning.’

Which shows conclusively that Sherman ordered McPherson back to Snake Gap, and that the charge of timidity is gratuitous. It also shows that on the night of the 9th, Sherman was still expecting to attack by Rocky Face and Buzzard Roost.

On the 9th, General Thomas, from his headquarters at Tunnel Hill, sent to General Sherman the following statement [104] of Captain Merril, Chief Engineer of the Department of the Cumberland, who had just returned from Geary's camp:

‘He says that Geary attempted to carry Mill Gap by assault, but was repulsed with a loss probably of two hundred to three hundred killed and wounded; that the enemy were still in force (only infantry), but strongly posted; that it is impossible to obtain possession of the gap by direct assault, or only at the expense of fearful loss; that Geary's last orders were to withdraw into the valley, and encamp beyond artillery range. Geary was not making an attempt to turn the position. The only way to do so is to get a force upon the mountain ‘somewhere’ where the enemy can not defend it so strongly.’

On the 10th he wrote from Tunnel Hill to General Thomas: ‘I think you are satisfied that your troops can not take Rocky Face Ridge, and also the attempt to put our columns into the jaws of Buzzard Roost would be fatal to us.’

And later in the same day:

‘I propose to leave hereabouts one of your corps, say Howard's, the cavalry of Colonel McCook, and the cavalry of General Stoneman, to keep up the feint of a direct attack on Dalton, through Buzzard Roost, as long as possible; and with all the remainder of the three armies to march to, and through, Snake Creek Gap, and to attack the enemy in force from that quarter. * * * * we will calculate all to go to Snake Creek and close up on General McPherson during the day after to-morrow.’

At 7 A. M. of the 10th this telegram was sent to Halleck:

I am starting for the extreme front in Buzzard Roost Gap, and make this dispatch that you may understand Johnston acts purely on the defensive. I am attacking him on his strongest fronts, viz.: west and north, till McPherson breaks his line at Resaca, when I will swing round through Snake Creek Gap and interpose between him and Georgia. I am not driving things too fast, because I want two columns of cavalry that are rapidly coming up to me from the rear—Stoneman on my left and Garrard on my right, both due to-day.

‘Yesterday I pressed hard to prevent Johnston detaching against McPherson, but to-day I will be more easy, as I believe McPherson has destroyed Resaca, when he is ordered to fall back to the mouth of Snake Creek Gap, and act against Johnston's flank when he does start. All are in good condition.’

On the 10th of May, for the first time, he notified General [105] McPherson of his intention to attack in force, through Snake Creek Gap, as follows: ‘The Buzzard Roost Gap is so well defended, and naturally is so strong, that I will undertake to attack Johnston through Snake Creek Gap. * * * * we may not be able to put our project in operation by the day after to-morrow, but we will all get ready. * * * * Do you think Johnston has yet discovered the nature of your forces?’

On the 10th he also telegraphed General Halleck as follows:

General McPherson reached Resaca, but found the place strongly fortified and guarded, and did not break the road. According to his instructions, he drew back to the debouche of the gorge, where he has a strong defensive position, and guards the only pass into the valley of the Oostanaula available to us. Buzzard Roost Gap, through which the railroad passes, is naturally and artificially too strong to be attempted. I must feign on Buzzard Roost, but pass through the Snake Creek Gap and place myself between Johnston and Resaca, where we will have to fight it out. I am making the preliminary move. Certain that Johnston can make no detachments, I will be in no hurry.’

So it was not until some days after the attack began that he came to the conclusion, as he tells Halleck, that he ‘must feign on Buzzard Roost,’ but attack through Snake Creek Gap, which statement—as well as several dispatches already Quoted—conflicts pointedly with the assertion that, from the first he ‘had no intention to attack the position seriously in front.’

General Sherman having refrained from hurrying, and Johnston having virtually escaped him, he telegraphed to General Halleck on the 14th: ‘By the flank movement on Resaca we have forced Johnston to evacuate Dalton, and are on his flank and rear; but the parallelism of the valleys and mountains does not give us all the advantages of an open country; but I will press him all that is possible.’ And on the 15th: ‘We intend to fight Joe Johnston until he is satisfied, and I hope he will not attempt to escape; if he does, my [106] bridges are down, and we will be after him.’ And on the 16th: ‘We are in possession of Resaca. * * * * Generals Stoneman's and Garrard's cavalry are trying to get into the rear of the enemy, and I hope will succeed. Our difficulties will increase beyond the Etowah, but if Johnston will not fight us behind such works as we find here, I will fight him on any open ground he may stand at.’

It is easy to see what good ground there was for the opinion which prevailed in the Army of the Cumberland, that the failure of these first movements of the Atlanta campaign resulted from General Sherman's refusal to accept the advice of General Thomas, and persisting, instead, in pushing two armies for three days against ‘precipices,’ only to be obliged, when it was too late, to try the plan of Thomas, and failing solely because of delay.

The injustice of the attempt to lay the responsibility of the failure upon General McPherson can also be clearly seen in the light of these records.

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