The sixty-three-year-old Union general ascended the parapet and gazed through his field glasses at the scene of a bloody stalemate. A Confederate sharpshooter a few hundred yards to the east took careful upward aim and fired. The ball pierced the target’s right arm, glanced off the shoulder bone, and exited near the spine, knocking the general off his feet. A severed nerve in the arm meant that the old warrior would never see combat again.
Numerous contemporary primary sources describe this event, including a surgeon’s report and eyewitness accounts, but two-dimensional resources tell us little about critical details like topography, distance, and space. Historians have a duty and a responsibility to step out of the archives and onto the field to investigate the physical settings of their story, including landscape, climate, natural and built environments.
In May 2019, my draft manuscript of General August Willich’s biography was nearly complete. I had recently returned from a trip to Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands where I walked in my subject’s footsteps with German friend and colleague Felix Zimmermann, who is finishing his PhD dissertation on Willich. Felix then came to the U.S. and I returned the favor by escorting him to key locations like Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Shiloh, and Liberty Gap.
I asked several friends to refer a tour guide at the site of the Battle of Resaca and each recommended Tony Patton. One colleague called him “Mr. Resaca.” We arranged to meet Tony on a Saturday morning at the battlefield.
The fact that a large portion of land where some of the heaviest fighting took place has been preserved is a story in itself, since Interstate 75 cut a swath through western parts of the site in the early 1960s. The Friends of Resaca Battlefield, with aid from the state of Georgia, have protected more than 1200 acres of the site, including a 505-acre parcel that includes six miles of trails, interpretive signage, and a covered picnic pavilion. The state park portion opened to the public on weekends beginning in 2016.
The setting today is calm and evocative. Union and Confederate earthworks survive, faced off against each other across a serene meadow bisected by Camp Creek. No huge works of metal and stone distract visitor focus from the landscape. One need only read battle reports, histories, and plumb the depths of imagination to form a mental picture of this beautiful place converted into a raging hell, as Union assaults failed time and again to dislodge the rebels from their strong defensive positions. With nearly 160,000 soldiers engaged and more than 5500 casualties, this inconclusive tactical draw was the third most costly battle of the Atlanta Campaign.
Felix and I had hiked a dozen miles in the Black Forest, following the paths of revolutionists like Willich and Friedrich Hecker in their ill-fated rebellion, but we still had trouble keeping pace with Tony and his boundless enthusiasm. We closely inspected Confederate fortifications on the east side of the park and pondered possible positions where their sharpshooters might have been placed. It seemed such a long shot to Union breastworks atop the opposite bluff, but Tony assured us that English Whitworth rifles were quite accurate even at distances approaching 800 yards.
A steady rain began as we crossed the meadow, forded Camp Creek, and climbed to the top of a hill in the northwest corner of the park where Willich’s brigade had moved late on the afternoon of May 14, 1864. From this vantage point, Confederate defenses appeared closer to Union positions then at any other point on the field. Why would an experienced warrior like Willich take such a risk in exposing himself at the top of the breastworks in easy range of enemy snipers in the meadow? None of us had an answer to that question, only the knowledge that Willich had turned his back to enemy fire at Shiloh and again at Chickamauga before he and his men had raced pell-mell up the steep slopes of Missionary Ridge. An audacious act of bravery in the heat of battle was one thing; but complacent disregard for one’s own personal safety proved to be the general’s undoing.
By the time we completed a rude reenactment of Willich’s wounding, the skies had opened up and the rain became heavier. Undaunted and considerably better equipped for these sudden storms, Tony led us back to the shelter where we changed clothes and attempted to dry soaked file folders filled with maps and photocopies of O.R. reports. We made a donation and left Resaca with a much better understanding of the battle and our subject’s role in it, thanks to the preservation efforts of Tony and his comrades.
As the only battle of the Atlanta Campaign where William T. Sherman’s entire army met the full complement of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces, the epic yet inconclusive showdown at Resaca deserves more attention from scholars and Civil War enthusiasts. A mere 37 miles from Chickamauga, this little gem is an easy stop on the way to or from Atlanta. Nearby is an 1866 Confederate cemetery that is also well worth a visit. Next time you are planning a trip to the region, plan to stop for a few hours at the Resaca Battlefield State Historic Site. If you are lucky, you might even get to tramp with Mr. Resaca himself.
David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior (2020, Univ. of Tennessee Press).