Things I learned on the way to Atlanta – where did I put my keys?

War is chaos. Sometimes controlled chaos, but still chaos. And it doesn’t help when some of that chaos is self-induced.

On May 10, Leonidas Polk reached Rome, Georgia, on his way to reinforce Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Dalton. That morning, he was forced to send the following embarrassing telegram, informing the Army of Tennessee’s headquarters that “I have asked [for] orders in ciphers, but on examination I found my cipher box out of place and cannot decipher the dispatch. Shall I report to your headquarters?”

This wire was sent “in the clear,” as it were, since he had no code key available; meaning that everyone who handled that message knew that Polk had lost his cipher box. Johnston was fortunately able to send updated orders through Brig. Gen. Henry B. Davidson, the post commander at Rome, who presumably retained his cipher box. No long-term harm was done, but it must have caused Johnston extra stress at the same moment when he was desperately trying to figure out whether Sherman was threatening Rome or Resaca.

A week later, on May 17, Union cavalryman George Stoneman blundered, traveling up the Salacoa Creek (south of the Coosawatee River) headed eastward to a town called Fairmont, rather than follow Pine Log Creek southward towards Adairsville – where the Rebel Army could be found. That afternoon, having wandered miles off course, Stoneman was forced to make his own embarrassing admission to General Sherman: “I have yet been unable to find a single guide . . . and I have not seen a negro man able to travel.” Even worse, Stoneman admitted that “I lost my compass yesterday. Can your topographical officer send me by bearer of this also a map of the country south and east of Dallas?” Sherman’s frustrated response, drafted that evening and entrusted to Captain Joseph C. Audenreid, a trusted aide, was predictable. Stoneman was “too far east to do much good. . . . Instead of going up the Salequa, the Pine Log would have been better.” On the 18th, Sherman expected Stoneman “strike the enemy in flank between Cassville and Cartersville or Etowah Bridge (railroad). . . . If you need it General Schofield will give you McCook’s cavalry, but whatever is done should be done tomorrow.” Chastened, the cavalryman replied, “I shall to-morrow morning . . . move toward the point you indicate and make a junction with Schofield and find out where McCook is.”

Just two examples of sand thrown in the gears of two great armies by the most trivial of errors.

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