The Fight For Resaca May13-15, 1864-Reenactment May 20-22, 2016
Resaca, a small mountain village along the Western and Atlantic Railroad where it crosses the Oostanaula River, was originally known as Dublin, until it was discovered another Georgia town held that moniker. In the late 1840s it was renamed in honor of the major Mexican- American War victory at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, and this time the name stuck. By the spring of 1864, the first large –scale battle of the Atlanta Campaign would unfold in the tiny hamlet along the all-important supply line, the W & A Railroad.On May 9, 1864, two days after the opening salvos of the Atlanta Campaign were unleashed in Dalton; General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee attempted a stealth flanking maneuver south from Dalton through Ship’s Gap, Villanow and Snake Creek Gap in an attempt to get behind General Joseph Johnston’s army, holed up in Dalton. McPherson’s intention was to get below and behind the Confederate army and block their escape route, cutting the railroad supply line, thus opening a clear, unimpeded path to Atlanta. General William T. Sherman, who ordered the movement, stressed its importance to McPherson, “Strike hard as it may save us what we have the most reason to apprehend, and a slow pursuit in which he gains strength as we lose it.” It would have been a brilliant movement, had it been carried out as ordered.
Near the present intersection of I-75 and Lafayette Road/state Highway 136, a force of approximately 4,000 Confederates ( a from two combined brigades) along with a handful of Georgia Military Cadets, were stationed at Fort Wayne and the surrounding hills to guard the railroad and Johnston’s rear. This force was all that stood between the Federal army and Confederate defeat. McPherson could have easily taken their position and gained the advantageous plateau of Fort Wayne, a hilltop earthwork controlling the W & A railroad. Furthermore, the Snake Creek Gap should never have been left undefended, an oversight that could have cost the Confederates the campaign. McPherson, plagued by indecision and a lack of reconnaissance, chose to do nothing when with aggressive leadership he could have exploited a great advantage. By the time Johnston’s army withdrew from Dalton to march the short distance to Resaca and meet the threat, McPherson’s opportunity was lost.
On May 12, General Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi arrived in north Georgia with a force that included the troops sent west by Johnston in February, which added a considerable strength to the Army of Tennessee for the coming campaign. Johnston designated Polk’s army as his Third Corps. The combination of forces now under Johnston’s command totaled approximately 66,000 men. The Confederate lines around Resaca could easily accommodatethat number in the hilly country surrounding the village. The left end of their line was anchored on the Oostanaula River near the present day intersection of I-75 and Highway 136. The right end, consisting of Hood’s corps, was anchored on the northeast by the Conasauga River.Skirmishing began on May 13, two miles to the west of Resaca. A cavalry fight between General Wheeler and Federal Hugh Judson Kilpatrick resulted in the Confederates giving ground and Kilpatrick receiving a serious thigh wound. The Federal Army of the Tennessee passed the now –stationary cavalry and occupied a small range of hills ( visible today looking west from the I-75 off ramp at Hwy 136) that gave them an advantageous view of the Confederate positions. The Army of the Cumberland was stationed on McPherson’s left, thus holding the center, while the Army of the Ohio held the far left and partially encircling the village of Resaca. Johnston, realizing the precariousness of his position, moved the rest of his army from Dalton to Resaca on the wagon road he had improved during the preceding weeks for just such a maneuver. With the arrival of the entire Confederate army, the two forces occupied opposing lines on generally high ground facing each other across the Camp Creek Valley and the Conasauga River Valley.
The Battle of Resaca began in earnest on May 14, 1864, with fighting breaking out over much of the line. The heaviest combat took place between McPherson and Polk and on the southern end of the field and between Schofield and Hardee farther to the north, with hard combat at a salient held by the renowned Kentucky Orphan Brigade. Constant Federal assaults eventually forced the Confederates out of the hilltop redoubt giving the Federal artillery a position within range that could threaten Fort Wayne and the W & A bridge over the Oostanaula River. Artillery fire forced the Confederates to erect a temporary bridge about a mile up river out of gun range. While this was occurring, Hoods Corps on the right was ordered to attack a gap between Federal generals Stanley and Wood’s divisions. The movement got underway too late and was not well coordinated. Part of the line made contact with elements of General Stanley’s troops but was unable to break through and the assault ground to a halt as darkness intervened.On May 15, 1864, the second day of fighting, Federal General Sweeney’s division crossed the Oostanaula River on a pontoon bridge near Lay’s Ferry. Sweeney was attempting a movement around the Confederate army’s left flank since Johnston’s line could not be broken by direct frontal assault. While Sweeney was crossing the river to the southwest, bitter fighting was taking place to the north where the Federal brigades of Ireland and Ward were assaulting the Confederate four-gun battery of Captain Van den Corput’s Cherokee artillery. The attackers, led by Colonel Benjamin Harrison, who replaced Ward as commander after the latter was wounded during the attack, managed to overrun the battery and ceased its destructive fire. That evening the federals , in a brazen effort, dug through the battery’s earthen wall and, using rope lassos, captured one of all of Van den Corput’s guns. Harrison would later gain fame as the twenty-third president of the United States.General Sweeney had gained a strong bridgehead on the south bank of the Oostanaula at Lay’s Ferry below Johnston’s army, putting the Confederates in a perilous position with the river at their backs. Because Sweeney could easily cut the railroad bridge near Calhoun and since McPherson was threatening the railroad bridge at Resaca, Johnston was forced to withdraw his army and move south. The Confederates retreated from Resaca to Cassville, a distance of thirty miles, and took up strong positions north of the Etowah River. Sherman’s army followed in close pursuit.Resaca was unusual for the Atlanta Campaign because the entire force of both armies was present during the fighting in and around the vicinity of the town, entrenched in parallel fishhook shaped lines. The casualities were essentially equal with the Federal army suffering 2,747 while the Confederates reported 2,800. Though the Confederates were not defeated in Combat, technically the battle was a Federal victory because the army was left in control of the field due to their flanking movement, forcing a Confederate retreat. The ferociousness of the fighting was an indication of the combat that was to come during the Atlanta Campaign, which would later be dubbed “ the hundred days battle.”
One of the largest reenactments in Georgia, the reenactment is held on the Chitwood Farm portion of the actual Resaca battlefield. There will be school group tours on Friday, memorial service at the Confederate Cemetery on Saturday and battles both Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Other activities include a ladies tea with a guest speaker, a cavalry competition and Saturday night period dance. Open to school groups on Friday and the general public on Saturday 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. and Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. www.georgiadivision.org 800-887-3811. For more information on Resaca and other Civil War sites in Georgia see Gacivilwar.org and Exploregeorgia.org.
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