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Gen. Sherman’s Atlanta conquest took a little longer than he hoped. Five grueling months, to be exact.

Joe Johnston insisted after the war that he had not been surprised by Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at the outset of the Atlanta Campaign. And yet some decisions the veteran Confederate commander made as he prepared for Sherman’s opening salvo in what became a blood-soaked, five-month invasion of the Georgia heartland suggest otherwise.

Sherman’s goals as he set out from Chattanooga, Tenn., in early May 1864 were no mystery: capture Atlanta and destroy the Army of Tennessee in the process. Johnston, though, miscalculated how he thought Sherman would go about doing that. As a result, the Atlanta Campaign nearly ended as soon as it began—at the Battle of Resaca, Ga., on May 14-15. If not for determined fighting by Johnston’s undermanned army, a little bit of luck and a few glaring mistakes of their own by some Union generals, the battle would have ended in a Rebel rout.

With more than 5,500 casualties, Resaca established a dire tone for the campaign to come. By the time Sherman finally took Atlanta on September 2, Johnston had been replaced by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee and the casualty count for both sides had surpassed 68,000 men.

Johnston’s decision to leave Snake Creek Gap undefended was a costly mistake. His army held an impregnable position on Rocky Face Ridge, a 20-mile-long, boulder- and tree-strewn stretch of land in northwest Georgia, rising 800 feet above the surrounding valley at one point. The Rebel line was anchored at Dalton, a railroad hub 30 miles from the Tennessee border. Snake Creek Gap straddled the base of the ridge on Johnston’s left. Johnston and Sherman were familiar foes from the fighting at Vicksburg in 1863. He should have suspected that Sherman, anxious to avoid a bloodbath, would not attempt a suicidal assault on Dalton but would try to exploit the Rebel flanks instead. Johnston was slow to make needed adjustments.

Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi, with three armies and more than 100,000 men, was twice the size of Johnston’s army. Leaders in Richmond had prudently begun sending Johnston reinforcements from Alabama, to bring his total to about 70,000. The timely arrival of those reinforcements at Resaca would prove critical.

 Sherman moved out of Chattanooga on May 5, knowing he needed to keep Johnston distracted as the Army of the Tennessee, under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, advanced toward Snake Creek Gap. After securing the gap, McPherson was to move east to the railroad hamlet of Resaca to cut the Rebel supply line there and threaten Johnston’s rear. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was to engage Johnston’s main line at Dalton, while Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio made a feint on the Rebel right. If all went as planned, the Confederates would be forced to fall back from Dalton and run directly into McPherson’s army.

McPherson reached Snake Creek Gap on May 8 and advanced to Resaca the next day, surprised to find it occupied by a sizable force. He attacked but was driven back. Then, fearing Johnston was diverting troops his way and that he would be cut off from the rest of Sherman’s army, McPherson pulled back to the gap. Johnston indeed had sent Hood’s three divisions to Resaca on May 9 but had recalled them when he learned of McPherson’s withdrawal. On May 10, reinforcements in Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s Corps reached Resaca, with another brigade arriving the following day.

Displeased that McPherson had not at least tried to destroy the railroad at Resaca before pulling back, Sherman chided his subordinate before drawing up a new plan. Now, he would send the bulk of his army through Snake Creek Gap to capture Resaca, leaving only one corps and some cavalry against Johnston at Dalton.

An uneasy Johnston finally realized Sherman’s intentions on May 12 and rushed his full force to Resaca, establishing a strong defensive line, anchored on the left at the Oostanaula River and on the right at the Connasauga. The Federals spent May 13 probing the Rebel lines, then launched a series of attacks at 6 a.m. May 14. Sherman also applied pressure on Johnston by sending Brig. Gen. Thomas Sweeny’s division across the Oostanaula to block the Rebels’ line of retreat.

Johnston stayed active, looking for a weak spot in the Union lines. An attack by Hood at 4 p.m. had early promise but was foiled by the big guns of the 5th Indiana Artillery, which kept the Rebels at bay long enough for Maj. Gen. Alpheus Williams’ division to arrive on the field. As darkness fell, both sides occupied essentially the same positions they had held that morning.

Johnston ordered another attack by Hood early the next day but changed his mind upon learning Sweeny was at Lay’s Ferry. After an unsuccessful strike by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s XX Corps at 11:30 a.m., Johnston ordered Hood to make another attack, only to reverse himself again. Hood was too late to stop an assault by Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Division on Williams, which resulted in heavy casualties.

The Union bridgehead at Lay’s Ferry ultimately determined Johnston’s actions when the fighting ended for the day. The Rebels pulled out of their fortifications overnight and crossed the Oostanaula on a pontoon bridge, retreating in order first to Calhoun and then to Adairsville. Sherman did not capture Atlanta until September 2, and long regretted he had been unable to crush Johnston’s army at Resaca.


Chris Howland is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.