Sherman Advances To Atlanta
Beginning in early May of 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and his army group began their advance to the key city of Atlanta. A vital transportation and supply link, Atlanta was defended by General Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee.
Despite being outnumbered by almost 2-to-1, Johnston was an excellent defensive commander and he planned to use the hilly terrain to slow the Union advance. His objective was to bleed the Union armies at an unacceptable rate. The Union army was to turn in to one of constant maneuvering with successive flanking of the Confederates by Sherman’s forces.
Sherman had three armies in his army group: the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Cumberland. He began the campaign with about 98,500 men, a number that increased to about 112,000 as reinforcements and new recruits arrived. The Confederate Army of Tennessee had four corps and numbered in the area of 50,000 men.
The first engagement on the advance to Atlanta was the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge in Whitfield County, Georgia. It has also been called Combats at Buzzard Roost, Mill Creek and Dug Gap. The combat took place from May 7 to May 13, 1864.
Johnston had entrenched his forces on the long, steep Rocky Face Ridge and eastward across Crow Valley. Sherman demonstrated against the Confederate positions with two of his columns, under Maj. Gens. George H. Thomas and John Schofield, while he sent Maj. Gen. James McPherson and the Army of the Tennessee west through Snake Creek Gap. McPherson’s was ordered to cut the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Resaca.
While the two columns fruitlessly assaulted the Confederate entrenchments, McPherson sent his force through the gap on May 9th where he encountered additional Confederate entrenchments. Fearing that his army might be defeated, McPherson ordered a withdrawal to his starting point.
James Birdseye McPherson was a 35-year old whose meteoric rise to high command had been aided by his relationship with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. He began the war as a captain but being a professional soldier, he rose rapidly to lieutenant colonel and the Chief Engineer in Grant’s army during the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson.
Following Shiloh, he was promoted again to brigadier general and in October 1862 to major general. Shortly afterward, he was given the command of the XVII Corps in Army of the Tennessee. On March 12, 1864, he was given command of the Army of the Tennessee, after its former commander, William T. Sherman, was promoted to command of all armies in the West.
McPherson had an overriding sense of caution due to the great deal of responsibility that had been placed on his youthful shoulders. In less than three years he had risen from captain to major general and army commander. He did not want to fail, especially under the command of one of his mentors, Sherman.
Sherman was somewhat disappointed in McPherson’s withdrawal but realized that he had sufficient cause to do so. He was especially unhappy that McPherson had done no damage to the rail line.
After several more days of futile attacks against Rocky Face Ridge, Sherman ordered most of his troops to withdraw and join McPherson in an attack on Resaca. As soon as Johnston realized that Sherman was heading to Snake Creek Gap, he ordered his army to retire and defend Resaca.
The engagement at Rocky Face Ridge has serious documentation issues. There is no record of the casualties that were suffered by either side, although it has been noted that the Union casualties were high. Rocky Face Ridge is considered a Union victory since the Confederates were forced to retreat.
Johnston once again used the terrain to his advantage by entrenching his troops in the hills around Resaca. Facing him was the numerically super Union army group with the McPherson on the right, Thomas in the center and Schofield on the left. McPherson’s force was designated as the primary attacking force while the other two were to feint attacks in order to pin the Confederates in place. At least that was Sherman’s plan, according to his memoirs.
The Union forces spent May 13th testing the Confederate positions to determine their strength. On the following day, full scale attacks by the Union armies took place all along the lines. The Union attacks were generally repulsed, except on the Confederate right flank. However, the successes in this area of the battlefield were not exploited sufficiently by Sherman.
On May 15th, the battle continued with neither side gaining a clear advantage. Then Sherman sent a force across the Oostanaula River, at Lay’s Ferry, using newly delivered Cumberland pontoon bridges and advanced towards Johnston’s railroad supply line. This movement forced Johnston to order a withdrawal south toward Adairsville, where the two armies met on May 17th.
The fighting around Resaca was costly for both sides with the Union armies sustaining 2,747 total casualties and the Confederates suffering 2,800 total casualties, according to the National Park Service.