Nestled behind the Rocky Face and Dug Gap mountain ranges, Dalton was home to the Confederate Army of Tennessee for six months following the Confederate defeats at Missionary Ridge and Chattanooga in November 1863.
Here, some 40,000 to 50,000 Southern soldiers camped all around Dalton much in the way that her neighborhoods encircle the city today. Led by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Rebel army prepared for the defense of Georgia and the invasion by Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces that were preparing for their offensive in Chattanooga.
When he arrived in Dalton just after Christmas 1863, newly appointed Confederate commander Johnston took over a demoralized army of half-starved, poorly-shod veterans. Johnston quickly set about improving the condition of his men. Soon, trains laden with food, clothing, shoes, supplies, guns and all the things needed for an army began arriving from Atlanta. The morale of the men dramatically improved.
The first test of Dalton’s defenses came earlier than expected. While Sherman was still in Mississippi with one of the Federal armies, Gen. George Thomas marched from Chattanooga with a “reconnaissance in force” of about 25,000 soldiers during the last week of February 1864, probing for any weaknesses in the Confederate defenses. Johnston utilized the heights and created a ring of trenches, gun emplacements and fortifications in a “fish-hook” shape around Dalton.
First Battle of Dalton
Feb. 24-26, 1864
On Feb. 24 and 25, Thomas’ Federals attacked along various points in Crow Valley and Mill Creek Gap. At the same time, the 38th Indiana Mounted Infantry from Col. Benjamin Scribner’s brigade found that Dug Gap had been left unguarded by the Confederates, and on the evening of Feb. 25, the Yankees seized it. The next morning, the alarmed Rebels mounted a counterattack as Gen. Hiram B. Granbury’s Texas Brigade drove off the Indianans and Dug Gap was reclaimed.
Having determined the nature of Johnston’s defensive positions, Thomas’ forces withdrew and returned to Chattanooga with the following critical information: First, a direct assault on Dalton was impractical as the mountains and narrow passes made Dalton a veritable fortress. Second, there was a passage way around Dalton via the little village of Villanow and Snake Creek Gap which led to Resaca, 13 miles south of Dalton and on the vital Western & Atlantic Railroad. The rail line provided the life-blood of food and materials necessary to keep Johnston’s army supplied. Should Resaca be taken, Johnston would be cut off from his supply line to Atlanta and from his communications with the rest of the South, and Johnston would have to come out of his defenses and attack against a larger Federal force or risk headlong retreat.
Johnson learned a couple of things, too, from the February action. First, his forces had failed to take advantage of the best heights in Crow Valley. Consequently, his men erected additional earthworks further north on Rocky Face Ridge to the west and up Hamilton Mountain to the east to incorporate Potato Hill, which was also called Picket Top by the men. This provided for an interlocking field of fire across Crow Valley from both heights and secured for the Southerners the best and highest ground.
Second, Johnston’s engineers under Gen. A.P. Stewart’s Division found that the railroad running through Mill Creek Gap, which was built up on higher ground to keep the rail line on a more level grade, made a perfect dam. All the engineers had to do was to block the culverts or bridges over the branches of Mill Creek which passed under the railroad in two or three places, and the entire gap would be flooded. This would prevent the larger Federal Army from simply assaulting through the gap (at today’s Rocky Face exit off I-75, exit 336) and allow Johnston to use fewer men to defend it.
Sherman then came to Chattanooga to take over the Federal armies which included his Army of the Tennessee (25,000 men), which followed him from Mississippi; Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland (60,000); and a third, smaller force, called the Army of the Ohio (13,000), under Gen. John M. Schofield. Sherman also had more than 5,000 cavalry on hand.
Soon, Sherman had amassed a force of some 108,000 infantry, cavalry and artillery to launch his campaign into Georgia. His objective was simple: go after Johnston and destroy his army while removing the Confederacy’s will to fight as his force drove deeper into Georgia. Both Sherman and Grant were to launch attacks at the same time to prevent the South from reinforcing one army or the other, beginning by the first week of May 1864.
Thomas explained the situation at Dalton, informing Sherman about Snake Creek Gap, and Thomas offered to take his army through it to Resaca, while Sherman used the remainder of his force to occupy Johnston’s attention at Crow Valley, Rocky Face Ridge and Mill Creek Gap. Sherman agreed with Thomas, but he elected to send the Army of the Tennessee, now led by Gen. James B. McPherson, through Snake Creek Gap while he used Thomas to “demonstrate” or probe the Confederate defenses at Mill Creek Gap, Rocky Face Ridge to the north and Dug Gap to the south. Sherman also used Schofield’s Army of the Ohio to probe Crow Valley.