Some Thoughts on Resaca, on the Occasion of the Opening of the New Battlefield Park

Resaca Battlefield Sign
(photo courtesy of Dan Davis)

During this past weekend (May 13-15), the Resaca Battlefield Historic Site has formally opened with much pageantry—and great weather! [NOTE: See Michael K. Shaffer’s Sunday post for details.]

See my feature article on Resaca in Blue & Gray’s Summer 2015 issue if you don’t know the battlefield, but the new 500-plus acre park runs along Camp Creek valley, which lay between the Union and Confederate lines as Sherman’s and Johnston’s armies fought hard here, May 14-15, 1864.

Getting the land bought by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources was a two decades-long effort by Friends of Resaca Battlefield, led by local resident Ken Padgett. The state bought the land in 2002, and a groundbreaking took place in 2008. It’s taken this long to finally dedicate the park, which features an interpretive pavilion, markers and six miles of walking trails.

One of the markers is entitled, “Dancers in the Red Clay Minuet.”  I remember seeing this colorful phrase in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, and the late Atlanta historian William R. Scaife used it in his talks, too. I’m not sure that Joe Johnston and Cump Sherman would’ve called their tangling a “minuet,” but that’s beside the point.

In 2003 FORB, working with Gordon County authorities, also purchased a 65-acre tract overlooking the Oostanaula River. After the Andrews train-thieves tried to burn the Western & Atlantic Railroad bridge in April 1862, Gov. Joseph E. Brown sent state militiamen to guard and garrison the place. Earthworks there carry the  name of Brig. Gen. Henry C. Wayne, Georgia’s Adjutant and Inspector General, who organized the state troops early in the war.  Today’s Fort Wayne Historic Site preserves some of those works, which include two battery  positions.

Resaca Map
(photo by Dan Davis)

Resaca was Joe Johnston’s second defensive position in the Georgia Campaign (my preferred term for Sherman’s advance in spring 1864, as Grant doesn’t even mention Atlanta in his orders to Cump of April 4). Sherman had already forced Johnston to retreat from Dalton, having outflanked him by sending McPherson’s army through Snake Creek Gap, far to the Confederate left.

Here his plan was to do the same: send an infantry division—that of Brigadier Tom Sweeny*—downstream from the Rebel lines at Resaca, get across the river, and threaten Johnston’s rear and railroad. While this happened, the Federals occupied Johnston’s attention with several recons-in-force, May 14–15. They were uniformly repulsed by the entrenched Confederates.

Layout 1Johnston saw an opportunity or two to land a punch of his own on the afternoon of the 14th. A point I make in A Long and Bloody Task, my new ECWS book, is that in the first months of the campaign Johnston relied on Lt. Gen. John B. Hood for this kind of work a whole lot more than he relied on his senior corps commander, Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee.

The battle ended when Sweeny’s division secured a bridgehead on the south bank of the Oostanaula; Johnston had to retreat across the river on the night of May 15-16. Because he did so, the Federals are entitled to consider Resaca a victory. Yet tactically they were repulsed in every assault they made.

Their only real achievement was the capture of Capt. Max Van Den Corput’s “Cherokee Battery.” In a charge on the 15th, Federals had overrun the battery, which had been placed in an isolated position ahead of the Southerners’ main line. But then the Yankees had been pushed back. For the rest of the day the four Napoleons lay in no-man’s-land, with neither side daring to advance to get them. Only in the dead of night, as Johnston’s army was quietly abandoning Resaca, did men of Brig. Gen. John Geary’s division lurch forth, rope and drag them down the hill into their lines.

Today, Van Den Corput’s battery position and Confederate trenches behind them are on private property. In one of our appendices to Long and Bloody Task, I present a driving tour of north Georgia Civil War sites featured in my book. I point out that the Van Den Corput landowners don’t mind small groups parking on the main road and walking up their driveway to see the earthworks; just show a little respect.

Confederates never claimed Resaca was a Sharpsburgian tactical win, as some Southerners did for Lee’s big battle. Curiously, in his initial campaign report, Sherman twisted the event. “I gradually enveloped the enemy in Resaca,” he wrote, “and pressed him so hard that he evacuated in the night of May 15.” (Tom Sweeny would have been angry at this slight.)

Sherman made another statement which is curiouser: that after the enemy retreat, his men “found in Resaca another 4-gun battery.” I see in Confederate sources no corroboration for this claim. (Indeed, after war Johnston contended, “no material was lost by us in the campaign” save for Van Den Corput’s four field-pieces.) To Halleck Sherman wired on May 16 that at Resaca he had captured “about 1,000 prisoners and 8 guns.” Castel finds that number of captured Confederates about two times high, just as I have found Sherman’s claim of 8 guns taken. If you remember Albert’s famous essay, I guess we can call this just another instance of William T. Sherman prevaricating through Georgia.

My friend Larry Peterson of Denver (and author of Confederate Combat Commander: The Remarkable Life of Brigadier General Alfred Jefferson Vaughan Jr. [2013]) just happened to be passing though Atlanta as I wrote this piece. He had just visited Resaca and other battlefields and told me, “this is a truly pristine battlefield I never thought we could be able to save!”

But if you can’t get to Resaca anytime soon, you can at least see some good photographs taken by Dave Roth when Ken Padgett showed him around the area in the fall of 2014. A cautionary note, however, about Blue & Gray’s Resaca issue: watch out for French’s division on Dave’s maps! Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French and his division, part of Polk’s “Army of Mississippi,” did not join Johnston until May 18, days after the battle. So why do the maps show them in place along the Confederate lines of May 14-15? Dave based his maps on William R. Scaife’s cartography in his The Campaign for Atlanta (privately printed first edition,1985). In two maps Bill clearly drew French’s division as part of the Confederate line at Resaca. For his second edition (1993), however, Scaife corrected himself and quietly removed French from his maps. I should have warned Dave to use Scaife’s second edition, not the first!

Years ago, at a meeting of the Atlanta Civil War Round Table, Brother Bill once denigrated an author for “making stuff up.” I have wondered ever since how that accusatory phrase so quickly leaped from Scaife’s mouth—it’s because Bill “made stuff up,” like French’s division being at Resaca! Caveat lector!

So there’s your trip to Resaca, and a few points I wanted to make in A Long and Bloody Task. I got my title, by the way, from the diary of Sgt. James L. Cooper of the 20th Tennessee. “The approach of warm weather” in the spring of ’64, he wrote, “told us that our work for the summer would soon commence, but I do not think anyone had a thought that the task would prove so long and bloody.”


*I love Tom Sweeny. Recall Gary Ecelbarger’s story about him, how Sweeny issued orders in three languages, “English, Irish-American, and  profane.”

2 Responses to Some Thoughts on Resaca, on the Occasion of the Opening of the New Battlefield Park

  1. I managed to visit Resaca on May 13, and walked virtually the whole of the new park on Friday. One note, I thought (and have been told) that the Van Den Corpett position is actually public land, though it immediately abuts the private home you mentioned, and right now the only good way to get to the battery is via that private drive. The county is supposed to eventually create a parking area and cut a trail up to the battery from rte 41, giving better access.

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