Things I have learned on the way to Atlanta – A Blunder at Resaca.

Resaca Battlefield State Historic Site

From my forthcoming Volume One of the Atlanta Campaign, to be published by Savas Beatie.

On May 14, the Federals made repeated assaults against entrenched Confederates at Resaca. Among the troops caught up in these attacks were some old friends-regiments I have written of before, especially at Chickamauga. Here I thought I would share the experiences of the 24th Wisconsin, including Maj. Arthur MacArthur, the 15th Missouri, and the 36th Illinois, raised in that part of the state I now call home, the Fox River Valley.

This attack was a mistake, an accident of misunderstood orders that never should have happened; a blunder of terrain and battlefield confusion. Understandably, there was some anger within the brigade at the confusion.

Arthur MacArthur in the Civil War

Major Arthur MacArthur of the 24th, formerly the regimental adjutant, had heroically led his regiment up Missionary Ridge the previous November, an action for which he would subsequently be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1890. The brave young major later reported that the entire brigade advanced “about 300 yards . . .[to] an open field. Here we were exposed to a galling fire of both artillery and small arms. Receiving no orders to halt,” Lt. Col. Theodore West of the 24th quickly dismounted and began to lead the Wisconsinites across the field at “a double-quick step. . . . In crossing the field,” noted MacArthur, “the regiment became detached from the brigade.” Both the 15th Missouri and 36th Illinois followed the Badgers.[1]

Col. Joseph Conrad and his 15th Missouri were the front regiment on the brigade’s extreme right, with the Fox River Regiment—36th Illinois—behind them. Following suit, Conrad and his men crossed the same open field, “exposed to a terrible fire.” Once they reached the east fork of Camp Creek, like so many other Federals that day, the Missourians tumbled into the shelter of its banks. Here, wrote Lt. Col. Porter Ohlson of the 36th, “after a few minutes’ rest the regiment was ordered by Colonel [Silas] Miller [commanding the Illinoisans] to move upon the enemy’s second line of works, the colonel not having been informed that we were simply to relieve a force of ours [Harker’s] which held the first line.” After crossing the creek, Conrad wrote that both regiments charged directly towards “a small fort . . . in our front. Again we had to cross an open field; again we were exposed to a murderous fire of artillery and musketry.” Amazingly, at least some of these Federals reached the foot of Lewis’s line, where Conrad reported that they held on for some time until their ammunition was exhausted. They then fell back to the creek bed. As Illinois Pvt. Julius Wright of Company C in the 36th recorded, “[we] charged but were repulsed and [fell] back a short distance. Got under cover and fought till night.” The 36th’s regimental history noted that both regiments “charged up from the creek . . . against a Rebel battery behind breastworks on a hill, with a heavy infantry support. . . . [we] succeeded in reaching nearly to the very walls of the fort, when [we] were obliged to fall back, some to the middle of the field and others to the cover of the steep banks and fringe of trees lining the stream.”[2]

The next day, Corp. George A. Cooley of the 24th Wisconsin, though admitting that “our loss as a regiment has been slight,” grumbled that “we all think Col. Sherman (commanding the brigade) made us run the gauntlet unnecessarily, as after we charged across the field, he took the rest of the brigade around through the woods, but the old 24th is good for him yet and he knows it. He did not dare expose himself before his brigade at all yesterday nor today.”[3]


[1] OR 38, pt. 1, 313, 325, 328. The times given vary widely, creating considerable confusion. Luther Bradley reported that Harker’s brigade was ordered to replace Cox’s men at 5 p.m., But MacArthur reported Sherman’s brigade were ordered forward at “about 2 p.m.” Both Lt. Col. Porter Ohlson of the 36th Illinois and Joseph Conrad of the 15th Missouri gave the time as 3:00. This variance is not entirely surprising, since all the above officers wrote their reports in September, at the close of the campaign. The timeline I present here is my best estimate, based on reconciling all the movements and actions of the parties involved. Any time given in the text should be considered approximate, and subject to reasonable variability.

[2] OR 38, pt. 1, 313, 325; “Entry for May 14,” Julius Calvin Wright Diary; Bennett and Haigh, History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment, 581.

[3] “Entry for May 15,” George A. Cooley Diary, WHS. The 24th Wisconsin reported a loss of 12 killed and either 30 or 35 wounded.

9 Responses to Things I have learned on the way to Atlanta – A Blunder at Resaca.

  1. I think Dave’s writing is fantastic and am anxiously awaiting the publication of this new series. I am currently about midway in his book on the battle of Lookout Mountain. For those of you unfamiliar with Dave’s work I heartily recommend it starting with his book on Tullahoma, then continuing with the Chickamauga series, and then the Lookout Mountain/Chattanooga books. After reading these, you will be ready for the Atlanta Campaign!

  2. As I read Dave Powell’s post and learned something new in the process, I couldn’t help thinking: Because McPherson “missed the opportunity of a lifetime” and did not push through Snake Creek Gap on May 9th, the Confederates under Johnston were permitted to erect defences in vicinity of Resaca. Call it “fog of war.”
    Shortly after the “questionable advance” employed by Colonel Sherman’s Brigade at Resaca, Francis T. Sherman was removed from command… elevated to the Staff of MGen O.O. Howard. Taking command of that Brigade was BGen Nathan Kimball (a personal friend of William Tecumseh Sherman.) Early in the Atlanta Campaign, MGen William T. Sherman’s Force was “an army in training,” so mistakes and “the friction of war” were likely to occur. Consider: McPherson replaced Sherman as Commander, Army of the Tennessee only in late March 1864; Oliver O. Howard replaced Gordon Granger as Commander, IV Corps on April 10th; Joseph Hooker (after his demotion following the Battle of Chancellorsville) was given command of a new Corps (XX) with which he performed well at Chattanooga, but was now seen as a “loose cannon” angling for greater responsibility; another personality conflict existed between BGen James Veatch and BGen Alvin Hovey, but with them operating as Division commanders in different corps the opportunity for negative impact on the performance of Sherman’s force before Atlanta did not eventuate. Still, one personality conflict that continues to intrigue me is that “enjoyed” between MGen George H. Thomas and MGen John Schofield: Thomas as an administrator at West Point had Schofield dismissed from the Academy (although Schofield was subsequently reinstated.) Now, as Army Commanders “cooperating” within Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi, the interactions between Major Generals Sherman, McPherson, Thomas and Schofield would have been interesting to observe… There was much more going on “behind the scenes” than most folks realize.
    I am enjoying this series of Atlanta Campaign nuggets and look forward to reading the three-volume history.

  3. “an accident of misunderstood orders that never should have happened” The text above makes it clear that “… the colonel not having been informed that we were simply to relieve a force of ours…”
    By any chance are the unclear orders Colonel Miller received available and if so would they be included in an appendix? It is understood that there is limited space for minutia, and it’s your book not mine, just that the reader might want to put himself in Colonel Miller’s boots for a flash of a moment in time.
    Your observation about conflicting personalities is so true throughout the officer corps and all the armies. How interesting about Thomas/Schofield. That’s the sort of aside that will make your book a hit.
    Super well written and so clear, with eye witness testimony, thanks!

  4. Hello Dave Do you have a approximate date when you expect volume 1 to be published? Regards Don Hallstrom

  5. Letters and Diaries are often found in the most unlikely places… While searching for information concerning war-time Columbia Tennessee, I encountered a brief paper presented before the Ohio Commandery of the Loyal Legion at Cleveland on 9 OCT 1912 by Brevet- Major Lewis M. Hosea. The contents concerning Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign are recorded pages 3- 8 and are of interest for what they contain… and what they leave out

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