Things I have learned on the way to Atlanta — A missed opportunity?

Joseph Johnston

On the night of May 15, Joseph Johnston ordered the Army of Tennessee to abandon Resaca, retreating across the Oostanaula River to the town of Calhoun, six miles to the south. Despite having blunted every Federal attack at Resaca, the Confederates were forced to withdraw, leveraged out of position by the Union XVI Army corps crossing the Oostanaula at Lay’s Ferry, to menace Calhoun from the west.

On the 16th, Johnston continued that retreat, falling back another seven miles to Adairsville, reaching that place on the morning of Tuesday, May 17. “In leaving Resaca I hoped to find a favorable position [for a stand] near Calhoun,” Johnston later wrote, “but there was none.” In his 1874 memoir Johnston offered a fuller explanation of his thinking. “I . . . thought it our policy to stand on the defensive, to spare the blood of our soldiers by fighting under cover habitually, and to attack only when bad position or division of the enemy’s forces might give us advantages.” The terrain south of Calhoun flattened out, nor were there rivers similar to the Connasauga and the Oostanaula upon which to anchor any flanks. Further, any line the Confederates occupied would likely be bisected by Oothcaloga Creek, which ran south to north, passing Calhoun to the west before emptying into the Oostanaula between Lay’s and Calhoun Ferries. Johnston viewed this stream as “a great impediment.”[1]  

Resaca looking south towards the bridges across the Oostanaula River

In Autumn of Glory, however, historian Thomas Connelly argued that at Calhoun, Johnston missed his best chance of the entire campaign to launch a counterpunch. By midday, only a small portion of Sherman’s force was south of the Oostanaula, advancing on two fronts. McPherson was pushing southeast from Lay’s Ferry, leading with Sweeny’s division of the XVI Corps, (5,000 men) with Veatch (6,000) coming up behind. Logan’s XV Corps followed, but would not cross the river before night, and t hen only with two of his three divisions. Meanwhile, coming direct from Resaca, Howard’s IV Corps (18,000) was moving on Calhoun from the north. Palmer’s XIV Corps, behind Howard was also short a division—Jefferson C. Davis, sent towards Rome—and still had to negotiate the bottleneck at the Resaca wagon bridge, which had been saved from burning; they also would not be available until near the end of the day. On the Union right, the XX and XXIII Corps (about 35,000 combined) were struggling with congestion and crossings east of the Connasauga River, and far from the scene of action. Even better, Oothcaloga Creek divided Howard and McPherson, rendering mutual support all but impossible. Johnston argued that “Calhoun had no good positions for defense,” noted Connelly, but “actually he could have hoped for no better place.”[2]

I believe Connelly was correct. If Johnston intended to attack when the “division of the enemy’s forces might give us advantages,” here was a clear example of just the kind of advantage he was meant. Johnston’s line of communications now ran perpendicular to his front, not laterally, as at Dalton, thus precluding an easy outflanking move; he possessed the tactical advantage of interior lines, as defined by Jomini and Clauswitz; and the bulk of his opponent’s superior combat power was negated, stuck on the north bank of a significant water feature. He could use one of his corps to stymie Howard’s advance in a contest of relatively equal numbers while concentrating two thirds of his army—close to 40,000 men-against McPherson’s 11,000 leading the advance.

The terrain between Reasca, Calhlun, and Adairsville

While there is no guarantee of success in war, catching Sherman while his forces were crossing the Oostanaula could have had a real shot at inflicting considerable damage on the leading Federal forces. Johnston’s strength topped 65,000 on May 16, with more troops still coming; Sherman, after counting detachments, was probably closer to 75,000 men immediately available—and on May 16, no more than 30,000 of those were on Johnston’s side of the river. For once, it was Johnston who enjoyed—however fleetingly—the advantage of numbers.




[1] Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations, 318-319.

[2] Connelly, Autumn of Glory, 343.

11 Responses to Things I have learned on the way to Atlanta — A missed opportunity?

  1. Sherman overwhelms Johnston no matter what he does. A brilliant commander with overwhelming, battle-hardened forces who HAD to get to the sea, his win was inevitable as any campaign can get.

  2. this is for the author himself, Dave Powell—
    If you are particularly interested in Chickamauga, you might want to check out my new book “The Greatest Escape, a True Civil war Adventure”, since the main heroes of the story were captured in that battle. On my website I have a short video of my search for the capture site of the escape’s amazing leader, Colonel Rose—which I was very excited to locate in an obscure, wooded part of the battlefield. The book is based on 50 first person, eyewitness accounts of the escape.

      1. You probably already know about the events that led up to Col. Rose’s capture, but I was very excited to find specific information about Rose on the plaques at the site. His unit killed Confederate General Smith immediately before, for instance.

        There were so many captured officers in the Libby Prison Escape that it even gets a little display at the Chickamauga battlefield visitor center.

    1. I think Johnston had stopped thinking offensively by this point. As to why, not sure. But before retreating, he did not really give thought or planning to what should happen AFTER Resaca, despite the fact that it was highly likely he would have to fall back – he was reacting rather than acting.

  3. One cannot help but recall the Mary Chestnut antebellum anecdote about Johnston the fussy, impossible-to-please marksman. It seems that unless an opportunity was screaming in his ear, he didn’t recognize it as such.

    How much can we fault Johnston’s cavalry or its chief for this particular oversight? Was he aware of these dispositions/strengths? If so, when? And for how long was the window of opportunity open? (The Army of Tennessee could be a bit slow to react, even at the best of times.)

    1. Johnston’s first warning about a crossing came on the evening of the 14th, though when the Federals pulled back, he was overly inattentive. I believe this is more on him than on Wheeler or Will Martin, who commanded the division guarding the Oostanaula.

  4. Thanks for these great posts that serve as a “tease” for your upcoming books on the Atlanta Campaign. I am very much looking forward to them, having throughly enjoyed all your previous books. Any estimate as to when the 1st volume will come out?

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