Dalton • Beginning the Georgia Campaign
An Excerpt from the Current Issue: Volume 32, #1
by Robert D. Jenkins, SR
When he stepped off the train at the Western & Atlantic depot at Dalton, Ga., on the evening of December 26, 1863—the same depot where telegraph operator Edward R. Henderson tapped out the dispatch that would eventually lead to the capture of the Andrews Raiders in April 1862—the newly-appointed Confederate commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, considered his new assignment. Asked to take over the helm of the South’s second largest army, restore its morale, and advance it once again into Tennessee to take the initiative in the Western Theater and recover lost territory, Johnston was doubtful. He believed his Commander in Chief was asking the impossible.
View from Rocky Face Ridge northwest of Dalton, Georgia. Shown in the middle ground is Blue Mountain (or Signal Hill), which served as Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s command post.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had a different view. He believed that the Army of Tennessee had merely suffered a setback at Chattanooga in the Battle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, and that its esprit de corps was strong. To Davis, the men who had fought and won at Chickamauga in September 1863, needed only a leader who was willing to reenergize them and point them in the direction of Middle Tennessee to take back the Volunteer State from Federal control in the manner that Gen. Braxton Bragg had done in the Perryville and Stones River campaigns of 1862.
Whether the Southern president’s view was rational or not, it did not seem to matter to Johnston. The two former West Point classmates had quarreled before. Davis was predisposed to be more aggressive. He believed that the South needed to win battles and maintain or recover lost territory in its new country in order to show strength and power to both maintain and grow its relations with European nations, and to bolster confidence and support among the citizens and soldiers of the South. Johnston, however, maintained a less imaginative view of things.
This fundamental difference of opinion as to how to fight the war was central to the friction between the two men. It was also the great dilemma for the Confederacy: What is the best strategy to employ when facing a larger, more industrialized, richer, and better equipped enemy whose strategy is to invade, suppress and capture your territory? Take to the offensive to thus prevent, frustrate and delay the enemy from developing and implementing their plans of invasion? Or, remain on the defensive and try to buy time and counter-punch with limited offensives when the opportunity presents itself?
The former, offensive strategy was termed the Lee-Jackson school, as Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood would later name it. The latter, defensive plan, was known as the Fabian Policy, named for Roman Emperor Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the dictator of the Roman Republic given the task of defeating the great Carthaginian general Hannibal in southern Italy during the Second Punic War. Johnston chose the latter. Unfortunately for him, his president preferred the former. This conflict would play out over the course of the next nine months and would culminate in the loss of Atlanta, September 1, 1864. This dilemma in Southern strategy would be the central issue throughout the course of the war and it would reach critical mass in the mountains of North Georgia in the Spring of 1864.
Johnston was about to take command of a bloodied, beaten, and tired-but-proud group, the Army of Tennessee, which had bravely fought the Yankee intruders who dared to enter into the heart of Dixie. Defending the Gulf States, or the Western Theater as it was then described, this army had met the Northerners at Shiloh, Stones River, Perryville and Tullahoma, and, most recently, Chickamauga and Chattanooga where, despite keen and bold offensives which saw initial success, the Rebels were each time forced to face a bitter result. Led for two years by the capable, but fractious General Bragg, the South’s second principal army could never seem to get it right.
While victorious on the first day at Shiloh, also at Perryville, the first day at Stones River, and at Chickamauga, the army was unable to follow up its initial success in any of its principal engagements. Thus, forcing its withdrawal at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River, this “first-day success, second-day defeat” routine reached a resounding crescendo with a demoralizing rout along Missionary Ridge, which erased all of the gain created by the costly two-day Battle of Chickamauga. There, despite a resounding Confederate victory, Bragg had failed to follow up his victory and permitted the Federals time to regroup at Chattanooga.
Expected to take the initiative and launch an offensive campaign into Middle Tennessee by the spring, the defensive-minded Johnston could only see reasons why the Southern army should act on the defensive. Led to believe that the force he was to take over only needed a new, bold leader to point it in the right direction, what he found was something just short of a demoralized mob at Dalton. What’s more, the stoic Virginian was anything but an aggressive-minded officer.
One young lady in Dalton witnessed the appearance of the army as they marched in columns of fours into town following the disaster at Chattanooga:
They were ragged, some were without hats or caps, some marched without shoes, but their heads were up and their bright bayonets shone in the evening sun. They had had no food that day, and had marched over seventeen miles of muddy roads. . . . Very few of the Confederate soldiers had overcoats and they had few tents. On bitter cold nights they came in from nearby camps and asked to sleep under houses or on the porches. Every Dalton home soon parted with every spare blanket and comfort they possessed.
Johnston reported on New Year’s Eve 1863, that he had only 36,826 “effective” infantry and artillery after sizing up things during his first week at Dalton. Additionally, he had some 5,613 “effective” cavalry including Brig. Gen. Philip D. Roddey’s brigade at Tuscumbia, Ala. Johnston telegraphed that 13,400 of his men were without shoes. Following four months of improving the clothing, shoes, and supplies of the men, and embarking on a course of aggressive recruitment and rounding up absentees as well as shooting a record number of men for desertion, Johnston would report that he had an “effective total present” at Dalton of 43,887 men on April 30, 1864, at the commencement of the campaign. Much debate has arisen over the actual number of men Johnston had available during the Georgia Campaign, including the usage of terms such as “effective total present” and those “present for duty.” Consider that on December 20, 1863, less than a week before Johnston took command, the Army of Tennessee’s “Field Return” showed just 33,297 men listed as “effective.” But compare one division’s returns, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s, which counted only 3,799 “effective” men on December 20, 1863, and only 4,167 “effectives” on April 30, 1864, whereas it would carry approximately 5,696 officers and men as its “aggregate present” or total present.
Johnston would start the campaign with only seven divisions of infantry in the two corps of Hood and Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, about 40,000 infantry and artillery. Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s three divisions under his Army of Mississippi, some 15,000 additional infantry and artillery, would not arrive in Georgia until fighting ensued at Resaca, too late to be employed in the defense of Dalton. Additionally, the Southern commander would begin with only portions of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry (Grigsby’s, Allen’s and Humes’ brigades, and Hannon’s demi-brigade of one regiment and one battalion) about 2,800 men.
With the addition of the balance of Maj. Gen. William Martin’s division, and Cols. George Dibrell’s and Thomas H. Harrison’s brigades, which were en route from East Tennessee recruiting horses, Johnston would have perhaps 4,200 more cavalry in northwestern Georgia. Dibrell and Harrison would arrive on May 9, just in time to participate in the defense of Dalton, but too late to help cover the exposed Snake Creek Gap. Brig. Gen. William Jackson’s division of cavalry from the Army of Mississippi, another 4,600 men, would begin to arrive in Georgia on May 17, after the battles at Dalton and Resaca.
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