As the fighting died out around the ruins of the Octagon House on the evening of May 17, 1864, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston finally came up with a plan to deliver a blow to Sherman’s forces. Running south from Adairsville were two roads: One headed directly south over a ridge known as the Gravely Plateau to the town of Cassville while the other headed south west to the town of Kingston. Johnston’s plan called for Polk’s and Hood’s Corps to make their way directly to Cassville while Hardee maintained contact with the head of Sherman’s column and direct them to Kingston. Johnston’s move forced Sherman to split his forces and gave him the opportunity to pounce on a part of Sherman’s forces with odds on his side.
On the morning of the 18th, Sherman took the bait for Johnston’s trap, sending Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland and McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee after Hardee while directing Schofield’s Army of the Ohio and some cavalry to move toward Cassville. At Cassville, Johnston set his ambush. Polk’s troops entrenched upon a ridge facing north and the crossing of Two Run Creek, directly blocking Schofield’s advance, while Hood deployed along a ridge a short distance to the east, ready to strike Schofield’s left flank that would land a devastating blow while Sherman and the rest of the Union forces were out of supporting distance.
Johnston issued orders early on the morning of the 19th, bolding telling his men, “Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee, you have displayed the highest quality of the soldier—firmness in combat, patience under toil. By your courage and skill, you have repulsed every assault of the enemy….You now will turn and march to meet his advancing columns. Fully confiding in the conduct of your officers, the courage of the soldiers, I lead you to battle!”
Johnston then examined Hood’s and Polk’s positions and waited as word arrived from Hardee that he was feeling pressure from the rest of Sherman’s forces. By 10 am, Johnston felt that Schofield was fully in his trap and sent word for Hood to attack and “make quick work” of the Federals.
However, Johnston soon received astonishing news from Hood: “And they are on me too! The cavalry gave me no warning…. I am now falling back to form a new line farther to the rear.”
Ed McCook’s cavalry had ranged to the east of Schofield to strike at the railroad and had stumbled upon Hood’s rear, where they attacked a portion of Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson’s division. Stevenson reacted quickly and repulsed McCook, but the damage was done. Hood was unnerved and ordered his entire Corps back, ending any chance of dealing a blow to Schofield.
Johnston ordered Polk back to join Hood on a ridge about a mile away on the east side of Cassville, where he was joined a little later by Hardee.
Johnston now prepared to face Sherman’s whole force in battle again, with the terrain to his advantage—“the best I saw occupied during the war,” he later wrote. However, he soon learned at a meeting with his principle officers that the position was not a good as he supposed because it could be enfiladed by Union artillery. “I therefore yielded,” Johnston now bitterly concluded, “and the army crossed the Etowah on the 20th—a step I have regretted ever since.”
Sherman pushed on in pursuit, crossing over the Etowah River, noting, “The Etowah is the Rubicon of Georgia. We are now in motion like a vast hive of bees….” Johnston found hope again quickly, taking a strong defensive position in the Allatoona Mountains along the Western and Atlantic Railroad. However, Sherman was unwilling to confront Johnston there and instead opting for a wide flanking movement to the west toward the town of Dallas. Sherman’s men moved from the rugged terrain and downward into a region of pine trees where little air seemed to circulate—and area that would soon become known as “The Hell Hole.”