The Confederates Retreat
From May 17th until June 22nd, General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of Tennessee fought a series of engagements with Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman‘s army group as both forces moved south to Atlanta. Sherman continued to press the numerically-inferior Confederates by movements to either flank of the Confederate army. This forced Johnston to continually withdraw closer to the Union army’s objective, Atlanta.
On May 17th, the two sides met briefly at Adairsville, just northeast of Rome, Georgia. The Confederate forces had moved south and crossed the Oostanaula River after the Battle of Resaca. Johnston considered the Calhoun area a good location to draw the advancing Union forces into a costly assault. After some scouting, he realized that there was better terrain further south near Adairsville.
The Union army group was divided into three columns and advanced on a broad front. Arriving at Adairsville, Johnston realized that the terrain was unsuitable for the defense that he had in mind. Johnston changed his strategy when he realized that Sherman’s force was divided. The strategy centered on the idea that he could attack one of the Union columns and cause it considerable damage.
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During the night of May 17–18, Johnston sent William J. Hardee‘s Corps to Kingston, while he fell back toward Cassville with the rest of his army. His hope was that Sherman would believe that most of the Confederate army was at Kingston, giving Hardee the opportunity to hold off the Union forces at Kingston while the greater part of the Confederate army destroyed the Union column at Cassville.
As in most military plans, Johnston’s did not survive contact with the enemy. Sherman reacted as Johnston had hoped but Union units were not in the location that the Confederates expected but on their flank. Realizing that he could not maneuver with them there, Maj. Gen. John B. Hood fell back to rejoin Leonidas Polk‘s force.
The two Confederate corps fell back to a line to a new line east and south of Cassville, where they were joined by Hardee who had been pushed out of Kingston. Johnston positioned his forces on a ridge, hoping that Sherman would assault his defensive line, confident that he could repulse the oncoming Union army.
On the night of May 20th, the Confederates held a council of war. Johnston recalled that Polk and Hood expressed a view that they could not hold their positions in the face of a determined Union assault. Johnston yielded to these demands, even though he thought the position to be defensible. Hood had a different recollection at odds with Johnston’s, that the line could not be held against an attack but that it was a good position from which to move against the enemy.
Rather than force his corps commanders into a battle that they thought was unwinnable, Johnston ordered a withdrawal across the Etowah River. The continual withdrawals were wearing on the Confederates who were anxious to stand and fight.
At New Hope Church, the greater part of the Confederate army met and defeated Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker‘s XX Corps on May 25-26, 1864. Sherman, rather than meeting Johnston at Allatoona Pass, decided to move to his left flank. Johnston countered this maneuver by moving his command to the area around New Hope Church.
Not realizing that Johnston’s entire force was there, Sherman sent Hooker’s Corps to the attack. Hooker divided his unit into three columns, one for each of his divisions. They were able to push the Confederate advance elements back about three miles, until they reached Johnston’s main line.
Due to the difficult terrain, Hooker was unable to coordinate his attacks and his men suffered terribly, particularly from shrapnel and canister fire from the Confederate artillery. In total the Union force suffered a total of 1,665 casualties against 350 Confederate casualties.
The advancing Union forces suffered another bloody nose at Pickett’s Mill on May 27th. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard and his IV Corps was ordered to attack Johnston’s seemingly exposed right flank. The smaller Confederate force of two brigades was ready for the attack and Howard’s force was repulsed with 1,600 total casualties to 500 for the Confederates.
The Union Army of the Tennessee had set up a defensive line in and around Dallas, Georgia, held by the XV Corpsunder Maj. General John A. Logan. From May 26th until June 4th, Hardee’s Corps attempted to breach this defensive line. At two different points along the line, significant fighting erupted. The Confederates were repulsed in all of their attempts suffering at least 3,000 total casualties while their Union counterparts reported 2,400 casualties.
Meanwhile, Sherman continued to look for a way around the Confederate lines. On June 1st, his cavalry occupied Allatoona Pass, securing railroad supply for the Union army. Sherman ordered a movement east to the railroad and Johnston was forced to follow him.
As the two armies maneuvered for terrain advantage, there was a break in the fighting until June 22nd when they met at Kolb’s Farm at the southern end of the Confederate Kennesaw Mountain defensive line.
Looking for a weak spot in the line, Sherman maneuvered his forces to fix Johnston in place. He ordered Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to send Hooker to the southern end of the line. He was to be supported by the single corps of the Army of the Ohio.
The Union attack was anticipated by Johnston and he ordered Hood’s Corps to counter it. Hood was an overly aggressive commander and believing that he only faced a small enemy force, ordered his full corps of 11,000 to advance.
Hooker was ready for the Confederate attack. His troops had prepared a strong defensive line of infantry and artillery. The Confederate attack began at about 3:30 PM and was led by Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson‘s Division. They were able to push the Union skirmishers back to their main line but in the process suffered considerable casualties.
Once they emerged from the woods into the open ground, Union artillery caused even more casualties. Falling back, they took cover in a ravine but were subjected to enfilade fire from Union artillery. Stevenson’s Division held on until nightfall, then withdrew east.
Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman‘s Division had been ordered to attack north of the Dallas Road. He fared even worse with his troops forced to march across a patch of marshy ground. Once Union artillery found the range, Hindman ordered the withdrawal of his division. It was said that the artillery alone repulsed the Confederates.
The Battle of Kolb’s Farm was a Union victory with the Confederates suffering between 1,300 to 1,500 total casualties while the Union forces sustained 300 to 500 casualties. Like many of the battles and engagements during the Atlanta Campaign, casualty reports are sometimes incomplete and vary by the source. The Union army now found itself facing the formidable natural defenses of Kennesaw Mountain.