The early months of 1864 were a busy time for the Union high command. Painfully aware that his military forces needed to achieve a decisive victory for him to have a chance at re-election later that year, President Abraham Lincoln had asked Congress to reinstate the rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, last held by George Washington. It was Lincoln’s intent to promote his most successful field commander, Ulysses S. Grant, to that position and give him responsibility for all Federal units across the land.
On Feb. 29, this promotion was confirmed.
In the meantime, while still in Chattanooga, Grant had decided to order a “reconnaissance in force” of the Dalton area where Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was resting and refitting in winter quarters behind the protective frown of Rocky Face Ridge. Both sides knew that the coming spring campaign would prove critical to the outcome of the war, and Grant wanted to know more about the Confederate dispositions.
On Feb. 22, a force of 25,000 soldiers under Maj. Gen. George Thomas started south with orders to probe Johnston’s defenses and map the surrounding terrain. It was during this expedition that Thomas discovered the presence of Snake Creek Gap, a narrow pass that afforded an avenue for Union columns to bypass Dalton and threaten Johnston’s army from the rear at Resaca, cutting off his supply line from Atlanta.
With his new commission as commander of all Federal armies, Grant decided to establish his “headquarters in the field” with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. On March 12, Grant transferred his former command, the Military Division of the Mississippi, to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. This order gave Sherman responsibility for all Union forces west of the Appalachian Mountains with headquarters at Chattanooga.
A couple of weeks later Grant gave Sherman his marching orders: “to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” The result, which began on May 6, has come to be known as Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
Sherman was well-suited to his new assignment. This 44-year-old native Ohioan and West Point graduate had gotten off to a rough start early in the Civil War but by now had emerged as one of the rising stars among Union field commanders. Known for his aggressive style, Sherman had already taken Johnston’s measure during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863 and knew that his opponent in the upcoming struggle would assume a defensive posture. In addition, Sherman had the decided advantage in numbers, with almost 100,000 combat troops at his disposal confronting Johnston’s 44,000.
As his strategy for the spring campaign jelled over April, Sherman decided to implement a course of action first suggested by Thomas as a result of the February reconnaissance. Knowing of the Confederate dispositions along Rocky Face Ridge and the virtual impossibility of breaking them through frontal assaults, the Federal commander developed a plan to “demonstrate on the enemy’s position at Dalton,” thus holding the Confederate army in place, while swinging a column of 24,500 seasoned troops across Taylor’s Ridge, through Villanow, and into Snake Creek Gap toward the railroad at Resaca.
The main demonstrations around Dalton would be led by Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, based at Chattanooga. Support would be provided by Maj. Gen. John Schofield and his small Army of the Ohio, coming down from Knoxville for the occasion. The end-around would be accomplished by Maj. Gen. James McPherson and his Army of the Tennessee, which was on its way from Mississippi. On April 27 Sherman issued orders for the corresponding forces to move into position.
By daybreak on May 6, Thomas was at Ringgold, Schofield was at Red Clay, and McPherson was poised at Lee and Gordon’s Mill.
When the Union columns stepped off later that morning, one wonders whether Sherman suspected that he would spend the remainder of 1864 in Georgia.
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or email@example.com.