The position Old Joe held when the campaign opened on May 4, 1864, was not one to be yielded without compelling cause. Just west of Dalton and conveniently covering both the town and the railroad in the Confederate rear ran the long, steep spine of Rocky Face Ridge. It ran twenty miles north and south pierced in two places by Mill Creek Gap on the rail line to Dalton and beyond and by Dug Gap farther south. On the northern stretch of Rocky Face, Johnston’s men were firmly entrenched, Hardee on the Rebel left and Hood on the right; covering Hood’s right was Joe Wheeler’s cavalry, square across the rail line that led due north to Red Clay just below the Tennessee border. As Grant was fording the Rapidan headed for his showdown with Lee in the Wilderness, Sherman was moving in three columns toward Dalton and Rocky Face Ridge. Sherman took one look at the position, especially the forbidding slopes of Buzzard Roost above Mill Creek Gap, and pronounced it “the terrible door of death.” Although he had justly earned a reputation as an implacable fighter, he was not about to try to bully Old Joe off his mountain. With Schofield on the left marching south down one railroad from Red Clay and Thomas in the center marching southeast down the other from Ringgold, Sherman would send his right wing, McPherson, on a wide swinging march around Johnston’s left, slip through Rocky Face at Snake Creek Gap well south of Dug Gap, and strike directly for Resaca and Johnston’s iron lifeline to Dalton. If he could get a firm grip on Resaca before Johnston could respond, the campaign might be very brief and very glorious. In this, McPherson would do the marching and Thomas and Schofield, charged with holding the Confederates in place, would do the fighting.
Thomas did his part reliably, driving through Tunnel Hill in stiff fighting on May 7. (In their hasty retreat Rebels neglected to destroy the tunnel, keeping Sherman’s line to Chattanooga open.) Over the next two days, Thomas ordered a series of determined assaults against Rocky Face, making brief lodgments on the crest itself. Schofield on the left had only got as far as Varnell Station, not quite halfway to Dalton, but the fighting there in conjunction with Thomas’ assaults on the ridge succeeded in holding in place both the Confederate right and center. As for McPherson on the Federal right, the prospects were promising in the extreme, for Johnston had neglected to block Snake Creek Gap, and by May 9, the head of McPherson’s column was already through it and just five miles from Resaca, the railroad, and the bridges over the Oostanaula River. Johnston was in a world of trouble and didn’t know it. Sherman did, though. When word came from McPherson that he was through the gap with only a sketchy band of grey horsemen in his way, Sherman crowed, “I’ve got Joe Johnston dead!” Just then, however, opportunity departed as fast as it had come. A brigade from Mobile had been called up to join Polk’s corps and had fallen in with a second already entrenched at Dalton and covering the crucial Oostanaula River crossing. The force was only 4,000 strong, but when McPherson tapped at their lines, they put up stiff resistance. Isolated and far in the enemy’s rear and not at all certain what he faced, McPherson thought better of his advance and withdrew to Snake Creek Gap and dug in himself. Up on Rocky Face Johnston was now aware of the fire in his rear, and on the night of May 12-13 got the rest of his army down off the ridge in the dark and on the road to Resaca. The next morning Resaca, which might have been overwhelmed on the 9th, was defended by the stout lines of the whole of the Army of Tennessee. “Well, Mac,” Sherman remarked to McPherson, “you missed the opportunity of your life.” Perhaps God was on the Confederate side just then. Two nights before, Bishop Polk had baptized that fierce Kentuckian, John Hood, into the faithful fold of the Episcopal Church. A little later the good bishop would welcome Joe Johnston likewise into his flock.
Although Johnston’s position before Resaca was not “the terrible door of death” of Rocky Face Ridge, neither was it likely to be rolled over by brute force. The Confederate left rested on the Oostanaula, the center squarely fronted the railroad approach, and the right was anchored on the Conasauga, a tributary that flowed into the Oostanaula east of the town. For three days Uncle Billy struck probing blows all along the four-mile arc with little to show for them except casualties and some high ground on McPherson’s front on the Rebel left. While Grant was pitching headlong into Lee at Spotsylvania, Sherman sought once more to turn Joe Johnston out of a strong position by swinging McPherson around the Rebel left. When cavalry brought Johnston reports that elements of McPherson’s army had crossed the Oostanaula downstream and were nearly in position to strike his Western and Atlantic lifeline, Old Joe had seen enough and made up his mind to withdraw once more. While a division from Hardee was sent to the left to check McPherson’s advance, the rest of the army headed south, tearing up track and burning the Oostanaula bridge as they went.
As Johnston fell back, looking for the new line to bar the way to Atlanta, Sherman was determined either to bring him to bay or keep him running. On his far right he sent Kenner Garrard’s cavalry division with Jefferson C. Davis’ infantry division in its wake on a raid toward Rome. On the right the rest of McPherson’s army crossed the river downstream and went driving south toward the Etowah River; Thomas in the center crossed on the turnpike bridge (left unburned in the haste of the Confederate retreat) and drove south down the railroad with his road gangs repairing track in his rear; on the left Schofield crossed upstream and headed south toward the Cassville-Kingston area. Uncle Billy planned to reunite his hard-marching columns at Kingston, just above the Etowah River, where he expected Johnston would make a stand. Sherman was not breaking up Johnston’s army as per instructions, it was true, but he was certainly covering ground to Atlanta in a hurry, and at a cost thus far of just 4,000 casualties, not significantly more than those of the well-entrenched defenders. On the blue coats strode, brimming with their commander’s restless energy. On May 18 came news that would help sustain them in their swinging route step. That morning Garrard and Davis had walked into undefended Rome and taken the town, its iron works, and its useful east-west rail line.
Meanwhile, Joe Johnston was backing down toward the Etowah, fighting what Federal general O. O. Howard called a “running skirmish” on Thomas’ front. On the march, however, came the news that Old Joe had been waiting for. Joe Wheeler’s horsemen reported that Sherman’s columns were tramping three widely separated roads with the likely intention of concentrating on Kingston where the east-west line from Rome crossed the north-south line from Resaca. It had been Johnston’s intention from the outset to seek an opportunity to strike some isolated part of Sherman’s legions with overwhelming force, and it seemed to Old Joe that the opportunity was now at hand. If Sherman wanted to go to Kingston, so be it. Hardee could hold Thomas’ front there. In the meantime, McPherson on the Federal right with the longest haul to Kingston would be temporarily forgotten. Polk and Hood might then concentrate on Cassville, just five miles east of Kingston. When Schofield passed there on the way to Kingston, two grey corps would fall with a shock on his unguarded flank. If they drove hard enough, they might break him up and drive the pieces back on Thomas in the center and, with Hardee’s help, rout the Cumberland men, too. If all went well, Sherman would come up in time to do no more than witness a disaster and perhaps take a licking in turn. There was one more promising element: “that devil Forrest,” as Sherman called him, was very shortly on his way to middle Tennessee with 3,500 troopers and horse artillery to threaten the Yankee line of supply. On the map, it looked like all Joe Johnston might have desired.
Certainly, it was the desired end of the men in the ranks. They had not lost confidence in Old Joe but were both weary of retreat (having surrendered more than forty miles of Georgia thus far) and eager to strike the Yankees a crippling blow. On the morning of May 19, Johnston had read out in every regiment a rather effusive order. It read in part: “You will now turn and march to meet [the enemy’s] advancing columns. Fully confident in the conduct of the officers, the courage of the soldiers, I lead you to battle.” It was just what Old Joe’s wiry fighting men wanted to hear. “A sort of grand halo illuminated every soldier’s face,” one remembered. “We were going to whip and rout the Yankees.” Only the decisive battle never came to pass, and, ironically, the failure to strike fell on the Army of Tennessee’s most combative field commander, newly baptized John Bell Hood. Neither baptism nor a mangled left arm nor an amputated right leg had tempered Hood’s fighting spirit, but reliable word had come to him that blue troopers were where they had no business being. They were on his right flank in unknown strength just as he was poised to strike at Schofield’s left.
As so often in war, events turn on accidents–a lost battle order, a gap in the line that’s not really there. Now a detachment from Hooker’s corps had taken a wrong turn and were frankly lost east of Cassville and hence east of Hood. If they were the lead elements of a whole corps, Hood might be struck in flank just as he struck Schofield in flank. As it happened, they were not; they were just lost troopers a long way from home. But in the end Hood thought better of his attack and pulled back, forcing Johnston to call the whole movement off and pull back likewise to a defensive line southeast of Cassville. The decisive battle Johnston had hoped for, much to his dismay, became a fluid skirmish and artillery duel that terrified the good people of Cassville without accomplishing much of tactical significance. With Sherman’s army now concentrated on his front, Johnston, somewhat against his better judgment, withdrew his army in the night to the southeast, forming up again behind the Etowah River and fronting Allatoona Pass on the Western and Atlantic railroad. Having swung from an intended attack to a withdrawal between dawn and dark, Johnston’s men, dismayed not less than their commander, made an uncharacteristically confused retreat, but Sherman, satisfied to have narrowly avoided a nasty trap, let them go in peace.
The Confederate position at Allatoona Pass was another door of death for the Federals. Indeed, Sherman rather understated the case when he said it “would be hard to force.” It was, however, a good place for the hard-marching Westerners to rest and refit since Johnston, having failed to spring his trap at Cassville, seemed resolved to go back on the defensive and await attack. It was an attack, however, that Sherman had no intention of making. Instead, he took three days to repair the railroad behind him and bring up twenty days’ rations in preparation for his next move. In the months ahead Sherman’s armies would work prodigies of destruction, but it was in large part miracles of reconstruction in his rear that kept them in motion toward Atlanta. Hardly were the ashes of the Resaca railroad bridge cool, when Federal trains were hauling cartridges and coffee over a new one and down to Kingston. In a sense, the whistle of Yankee army trains was like the Rebel yell, the demoralizing auditory signature of the enemy’s irresistible force. When Bedford Forrest destroyed a tunnel in Sherman’s rear, one dispirited Rebel supposed it wouldn’t do much to stop the invaders. Sherman no doubt carried a spare tunnel, too.
Sherman carried in his head something at least as valuable as a tunnel: an intimate knowledge of the topography of north Georgia. Posted in Marietta twenty years earlier, youthful Lieutenant Sherman had hiked and sketched the very countryside he and Joe Johnston now contested. “I knew more of Georgia than the rebels did,” Sherman later observed. With twenty days’ rations in his wagons he now proposed to leave the railroad for the time being and swing to his right once more, on a wide arc that would take him around the gorge at Allatoona, through the wooded hills, and down to Dallas. From Dallas he could advance on Marietta twenty miles to the east. In five days, Sherman expected, his men would “swarm along the Chattahoochee,” the last major river on the way to Atlanta itself. On May 23 Sherman’s legions in their customary places–McPherson on the right, Thomas in the center, Schofield on the left–crossed the Etowah, or, as Sherman put it, “the Rubicon of Georgia.” But if the campaign in north Georgia had been a deadly dance thus far, Old Joe knew the steps as well as Uncle Billy. As soon as Joe Wheeler’s horsemen alerted him of the Federal movement, his army was likewise in motion, marching hard on the chord of Sherman’s arc. By the time Thomas’ lead corps–it was Joe Hooker’s–got over Pumpkin Vine Creek near New Hope Church four miles northeast of Dallas, one of Hood’s grey divisions was already there and altogether determined to bar the way. On the morning of May 25, the dance in north Georgia was about to get deadlier.
Hooker’s lead division was commanded by Pennsylvania-born John W. Geary. At six feet, six inches, he was two inches taller than his lanky commander-in-chief. A veteran of Mexico, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga, Geary knew something about bitter struggles, and the fight that blew up in front of that Methodist meeting house was as fierce as any he’d had a hand in. His men called the Rebel position simply Hell Hole. For three hours Hooker’s whole corps sustained its assault on a single division commanded by Alexander P. Stewart, the last hour in thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. But the Rebel storm of musketry and shell-fire was even greater. Hooker broke off the fighting at dusk with nothing gained. He reported his losses as 1,665, but this may be an early example of a commander manipulating a body count. Stewart’s losses were roughly half that number, and the Confederates fighting behind breastworks were sure they had given a good deal better than they got. The next morning blue and grey confronted each other again along the five-mile arc of Rebel works. For most of May 26, Sherman tapped at the lines in a futile search for a vulnerable sector. Frustrated in front, that night he resolved to turn Johnston’s right with a blow struck by Howard’s XX Corps at Pickett’s Mill, a couple of miles northeast of Hell Hole and presumably well beyond Hood’s right.
But, as in a dance, it was turn and counter-turn. Sensing Federal movement toward his right, Johnston shifted one of Hardee’s divisions from his far left to his far right, precisely, as it happened, to Pickett’s Mill where Howard struck late in the day on the 27th. Howard had had more than his measure of bad luck in this conflict, in the Valley, at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Now it was his continuing misfortune to run into the toughest division in Johnston’s army, Pat Cleburne’s. Howard’s troops went forward manfully enough, but they ran into the rattling fire of 5,000 muskets handled expertly by Rebels literally entrenched to the eyes. With log-and-earth works in front and a head log over them, the riflemen poured out withering fire from the slit between and simply tore Howard’s tightly packed ranks to pieces. The first blue division to go forward was Thomas Wood’s. Like Howard, Wood was another hard-luck child. It was his outfit that had been ordered out of line at Chickamauga just as Longstreet was coming up to roar through it. He fared no better this day. In fighting that went on well into the night, he counted 1,500 killed, wounded and captured in his division against less than 500 in Cleburne’s command. As long as Cleburne’s men had cartridges, the road to Atlanta clearly did not run through Pickett’s Mill.
As May drew on to the first part of June, Johnston and Sherman sparred around New Hope Church, each jabbing at the other’s flanks and seeking an opening that was not there. One reason it was not there was the skill of the commanders; a second was the skill of the men themselves. Now in their fourth battle summer, the men were acutely calculating engineers who could throw up formidable works in an hour’s time, often with no more than bayonets and canteen halves. In a day or two with spades and axes, they could make them nearly impenetrable. Offensive-minded Sherman in fact complained that a “fresh furrow in a plowed field” will stop a whole column and set them to entrenching. But the men had learned to put the highest value on fighting defensively behind strong works. Indeed, while Johnston and Sherman sparred around New Hope Church, Grant’s men were getting another bloody lesson in that school at Cold Harbor. So swiftly did Rebels throw up works, the bluecoats thought they “must carry their breastworks with them.” Sherman’s men were no slower. “Sherman’s men march,” Rebels said, “with a rifle in one hand and a spade in the other.” Thus, Sherman’s “big Indian war” came to a soggy halt for the time being in an uncommonly wet June. What turned out to be seventeen straight days of rain encouraged no living creatures but the mosquitoes and chiggers.
This is not to say that either side was idle. Besides improving their works, both jockeyed for position. For his part, Sherman continued to reach around to his left, eager to make his way back to the Western and Atlantic now that George Stoneman’s troopers had seized Allatoona Pass and road gangs were laying track once more. For his part, Joe Johnston shifted right as steadily and swiftly as Sherman sidled left. Far in Sherman’s rear, though, “that devil Forrest” was loose again. On April 12, the third anniversary of Sumter, he had seized the garrison at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi, in the process brutally murdering some black soldiers who had surrendered. A force of 8,000 sent down from Memphis to bring him to bay was abjectly broken and routed at Brice’s Crossroads on June 10. Determined to end for once and all Forrest’s threat to his rail line, Sherman sent yet another force from Memphis, this time 14,000 strong, with orders to “follow Forrest to the death, if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury. There never will be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead.” The Yankees didn’t manage to kill him, but they did wound him and give his badly outnumbered troopers a bloody repulse at Tupelo, Mississippi, in the middle of July. By then Sherman could breathe a little easier about the security of his railroad. He would need it because Joe Johnston was already on the move again. In the sodden darkness of June 4, he slipped his lines and fell back rather less than halfway to Marietta. His new line ran roughly southwest to northeast, from Lost Mountain on his left to Pine Mountain in the center, across the railroad to Brush Mountain. If anything, it was a stronger line than Old Joe had left, and Sherman was still a long way from his stated goal of swarming along the Chattahoochee River.
On June 5 Sherman’s pickets were rather pleased to discover, as one put it, “the nocturnal disappearance of the rebellious gentlemen,” but they knew Uncle Billy well enough to be sure that this day’s peace was no more than the calm before the storm. The next day found them squarely fronted on Johnston’s army again, Thomas in the center as always, but Schofield now on the right and McPherson on the left. Despite the strength of the mountainous Confederate position, there was much in this situation to encourage Sherman. In just a month his army had marched and fought its way a good eighty miles from Chattanooga to Big Shanty, now just twenty-odd miles northwest of Atlanta as the crow flies. In less than a week his road gangs would have the line to Big Shanty repaired and his men back on full rations again. His total casualty list was under 10,000 (hardly more than Johnston’s own and not much more than Grant had lost on the first day of the Wilderness alone). These losses would be more than made up when Frank Blair came in with his 10,000 furloughed veterans on June 9. Yet none of this satisfied Sherman’s mercurial spirit. He had come to Georgia to “knock Jos. Johnston” and still the canny Virginian’s army was intact and athwart his path. Worse yet for Sherman, Old Joe would not stay put long enough to strike him a crippling blow. Then, too, a month of maneuvering had, to Sherman’s mind, blunted his army’s offensive spirit. This he blamed chiefly on George Thomas, immovable on defense but altogether too slow on offense for Sherman’s tastes. (He was sometimes called “Old Slow Trot” both for his horsemanship and his deliberate generalship. What Longstreet was to Lee, Thomas was to Sherman.) “I have again and again tried to impress on Thomas,” Sherman complained, “that we must assail and not defend; we are on the offensive.” Even his admired protege, McPherson, didn’t have enough assailant in him to suit Uncle Billy, as his hesitation at Resaca had revealed.
On the morning of June 14, Sherman was at the front studying Johnston’s lines for a likely place to strike. From Sherman’s point of view, there was little to like. Johnston had withdrawn even farther, coming down off Lost and Brush Mountain to contract and strengthen his line. The Rebels still maintained an observation post on Pine Mountain, a hill really, in the center of the Rebel line. On it were a handful of Confederates in the open studying his lines, whose presence was simply an additional nettlesome annoyance to Sherman. “How saucy they are,” he said to Oliver Howard, and ordered one of his batteries to “make ’em take cover.” Sherman could not know it at the time, but on Pine Mountain was one of the war’s choicest targets of opportunity: an army commander conferring with two corps commanders, Johnston, Hardee, and Polk. As it also happened, the artilleryman closest to hand was one Captain Hubert Dilger, a gunner on leave from the Prussian army and one of the best in this or any army. Dilger’s first shell from his rifled Parrott was a near miss, more than close enough to make Johnston order his colleagues to take cover behind the crest, and the second was closer yet. Johnston and Hardee and their staffers went readily enough, but Bishop Polk went his slow and solitary way with his hands clasped behind his back. Dilger’s third round struck him squarely on the left arm, ran through him side to side and out his right arm, exploding against a tree beyond. Johnston and Hardee wept as did many throughout the Confederacy when news of the holy warrior’s death reached them. Jefferson Davis thought his passing was “an irrepairable loss,” less perhaps for his skill as a soldier than his moral value. For his part, Sherman was grimly satisfied. Uncle Billy despised rebellion, journalists, politicians, and clergymen in roughly that order. “We killed Bishop Polk yesterday,” he wired Secretary Stanton, “and made good progress today.”
In truth, Sherman’s progress was more in his own mind than on the field. Although he continued to press Johnston’s front, Old Joe remained as willing as ever to yield ground only to dig in once more on an even stouter line. He abandoned the Pine Mountain outpost where Polk had died in an instant and pulled all three corps back to the commanding heights of Kennesaw Mountain two miles in his rear. With W. W. Loring in the center (in Polk’s place for the time being), Hardee on the left, and Hood on the right, Johnston was probably in his strongest position since he had been flanked out of his line on Rocky Face Ridge. It was a position that presented Sherman with few options. Another wide flanking march by the right would take the Federals a long way from their railhead. That June’s relentless rain had turned Georgia’s red clay into particularly glutinous mud. Supplying an army on the march with all that it required to survive, let alone fight, would be a tough proposition under these conditions. Sherman had cut himself loose from the rails back at Allatoona Pass, and before the line was open again to Big Shanty his men were already presenting with the black mouths and loose teeth of incipient scurvy. As for the needful materiel of war, Thomas’ men had expended 200,000 rounds a day on the relatively static front at New Hope Church. It looked unlikely that Sherman could bring up enough hard bread and bullets to make a flanking movement possible. However miserable Old Joe’s sodden soldiers were, rain was now their ally. If Sherman was going to do anything purposeful to reach the Chattahoochee, it appeared he would have to do it at Kennesaw Mountain.