Army of the Potomac-style fighting at Resaca

     The soldiers of the newly formed 20th Army Corps took great pride in their Army of the Potomac lineage, and at the Battle of Resaca on May 14 1864, they introduced the western Confederates to "Army of the Potomac-style" fighting. The chief "educators" in this case was Colonel James S. Robinson's Third Brigade of Alpheus Williams First Division consisting of six regiments from the old 11th Corps including Robinson's own 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

    As remembered by historian Albert Castel, Robinson formed the six regiments of his brigade into a column of regiments, one battle line behind the other. The whole mass advanced towards the Confederates and then started delivering regimental-sized volleys. The front rank regiment fired, then went to ground, followed by the second, third, and so forth. "“Shocked, staggered, and shredded, the Confederates turn and fled. Robinson’s troops followed, still blasting away with their devastating volleys until the bugles call a halt,” Castel noted.

    One of the participants of this engagement was Captain Alfred E. Lee of the 82nd Ohio who provided the following account below to the readers of the Delaware Gazette. Wounded in the hip the previous July at Gettysburg, Lee still hobbled around the field with a perceptible limp but was determined to do his duty despite the pain. He had been tapped the previous fall for staff duty at brigade headquarters by General Hector Tyndale and after Tyndale resigned his commission, Lee's old regimental commander became brigade commander and Lee stayed on as his able right hand man. 


Colonel (later Brigadier General) James Sidney Robinson of Kenton, Ohio
4th and 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cassville, Georgia

May 20, 1864

          A lull in the hitherto incessant marching and fighting of the 20th Corps enables me, my dear Gazette, to give you a summary account of the late glorious operations of the armies commanded by Major General Sherman. Screened from the broiling Georgia sun by the shade of a tent fly, your correspondent writes from a point near Cassville, Georgia. Over the ground the brave men of the First Division swept before them the Rebels of Hood’s corps only two hours since. Just beyond, the enemy made a determined stand and seemed resolved to resist our farther advance. Skirmishing continued until a late hour last night but at daybreak not a Rebel was to be seen. They have resumed their southward flight from the “Yankee vandals.” General Schofield’s corps[1] has just gone forward in pursuit, but Hooker’s ironclads are lying to for a few hours rest.

          The various divisions and brigades of the newly organized 20th Corps had not been assembled until the order came to move to the front. They were scattered from Chattanooga to Nashville, engaged in guarding railroads, posts, etc. They made their first acquaintance as members of the same organization within sight and sound of the enemy’s guns. The First Division under General Williams marched from Bridgeport on the 2nd of May. On the evening of the 3rd it reached the front of Point Lookout and encamped in Chattanooga Valley. On the 4th, the division marched on, passing through Rossville and near the battlefield of Chickamauga. On the other hand, as the column passed, could be seen the horrible evidences of intensity and violence of the storm of battle that had here arisen and spent itself. The scarred, broken, splintered trees, the debris of battle strewn about the forests and fields, the sadly frequent groups of clay mounds from which now and then a protruding bony limb pleaded with rightful eloquence for a few shovelfuls of kindred dust- all these things spoke with fearful impressiveness of the horrid work war had made among these now silent and dismal forests.

          On the 6th Williams’ division joined Butterfield’s near Taylor’s Ridge and in front of Buzzard Roost. Palmer’s 14th Corps had already taken its position on the left and made threatening demonstrations upon the enemy’s stronghold. McPherson’s command consisted of three corps was rapidly coming up from Chattanooga. The 4th and 23rd Corps were hastening down from London. Altogether an immense army was being hastily but quietly gathered in front of the Rebel army of Johnston, and the latter was being rapidly brought to the alternative of a fight or retreat.

    On the 7th the column crossed Taylor’s Ridge at Nickajack Gap and reached Trickum Post Office. McPherson was by this time pushing his command down the Snake Creek Gap thus threatening the enemy’s rear at Resaca. On the 10th the 20th Corps followed in the same direction and on the 13th arrived in position in front of the enemy’s works around Resaca. By this time the enemy had been driven from his positions at Dalton and Buzzard Roost and was being pushed down the railroad toward Resaca by the 4th and 23rd Corps. On the 14th the connection was formed by these corps and the remainder of the army which had debouched from Snake Creek Gap. Thus the enemy’s position at Resaca became completely invested by the vast army of General Sherman on at least two sides. General Logan’s corps (15th) kept his attention occupied in front while the 20th Corps was quickly shifted to his right, the weakest portion of his line. 

    In the meantime, a portion of McPherson’s commanded succeeded in crossing the Oostenaula and again threatened the enemy’s rear. Hooker, Howard, and Schofield now vigorously pressed the enemy’s right. At 5 p.m. on the 14th, Hood’s Rebel corps succeeded in forcing back Stanley’s division of the 4th Corps. General Williams’ division of the 20th had just arrived and was in the act of taking position in the woods when the Rebel columns swarmed down after Stanley’s discomfited regiments. The enemy at once made for the 5th Indiana Battery which was posted in an open field and the infantry support of which immediately gave way. On came the confident foe intoxicated by success. The battery men stood manfully by their guns and kept their deep throats gleaming with rapid and incessant volumes of flame. The enemy was permitted to approach within 100 yards of the battery when General Williams ordered the Third Brigade of his division to unmask itself from the timber and display itself in the rear of the battery and take the heights beyond. This gallant brigade, led by Colonel James S. Robinson of the 82nd Ohio, sprang forward with cheers and within the time it takes to tell it opened a tremendous fire upon the unsuspecting foe. It was a sublime movement. In a moment not only was the battery saved but Hood’s Rebels were turned back in complete rout. It was by this time quite dark and the pursuit could not be continued.[2]

Major General Alpheus S. Williams
"Old Pap"


On the 15th it was resolved that the strong points of the enemy’s line upon his right must be assaulted and if possible captured. The 20th, 23rd, and 4th corps were to act in concert in this undertaking.  At noon, Butterfield’s division moved out to the attack supported by Williams’ division, all of Hooker’s Corps. The enemy’s entrenchments were formed along the crest of a difficult ridge, the slope of which was covered by a dense forest so thick and tangled that the troops made their way through it with great difficulty. But they pushed bravely forward and soon a tremendous musketry fire opened along the entire line. The Rebels were driven from their first line and forced back to the second. This line was very strong and the enemy held it with great obstinacy. Butterfield maintained his position but could not succeed in advancing further. His losses were very severe but there was no flinching on the part of the veteran soldiers who had learned their first lessons of war in Virginia. They maintained their ground firmly in spite of a terrible storm of bullets, shells, canister, and every sort of missile the enemy could hurl at them. General Williams’ division was now ordered to move forward and take position on the left of Butterfield’s. This was done in handsome style and without serious resistance. Williams’ brigades formed their line along the crest of the ridge. Thus the last series of hills covering Resaca on our left came into possession of our troops.

          The Rebels, exasperated by our success and reduced to a desperate extremity, resolved to drive Williams from his position and turn our left flank. Stewart’s division of Hood’s Corps was formed four lines deep and led the onslaught. The Rebel troops quickly emerged from the dense woods and moved rapidly across the open field intervening between the railroad and General Williams’ line. Our troops at once poured in on them a terrific fire. But their masses were too strong to be suddenly checked. They replied vigorously to our fire and steadily advanced. Colonel Robinson’s brigade being on the extreme left of the line was now in imminent danger of being turned. The brave men of this brigade stood firmly in their places and with faces blackened with powder and streaming with sweat and blood they poured upon the Rebel lines one of the most terrific musketry fires ever heard. The enemy checked his advance, staggered, and fell back. Then ran along the Union line one of the wildest and most inspiring cheers that could be imagined. But the enemy, though whipped, was not discomfited. He rallied and again came forward to the assault. He met with the same reception as before but showed great persistency. He pushed his column until they arrived within a few yards of General Williams’ line of battle. But the fierce storm of bullets was too much for him and again our brave fellows had the satisfaction of seeing the enemy withdraw not only whipped but routed. He left his dead and wounded, one battle flag, and hundreds of small arms lying upon the field.[3] 

    It now became quite dark and the fighting along Williams’ line entirely ceased. The quiet of evening was disturbed only by the weird notes of the whippoorwill and the heart-rending cries of the Rebel wounded who were left uncared for between the hostile lines. The brave men of the Third Brigade were too humane to listen indifferently to these moanings of distress. Parties sallied out into the woods even beyond the picket lines and brought in poor helpless victims of a fiendish rebellion.

This set of colors belonging to the 38th Alabama was captured May 15, 1864 at Resaca by Captain Thomas J. Box of Co. D of the 27th Indiana. The 27th Indiana was also part of Alpheus Williams' division albeit in Thomas Ruger's brigade. Box would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing this flag which today resides in the collections of the Alabama Department of Archives & History. 


“About 5 p.m. of May 15th we were ordered to leave our works and charge the enemy’s lines. Notwithstanding the almost utter impossibility of success, apparent to everyone, the order was promptly obeyed and the 38th Alabama moved gallantly forward for about 300 yards under a very heavy fire of both musketry and artillery when it became exposed to a very heavy enfilading fire from both flanks in addition to the heavy fire from the front, when the regiment fell back to its position behind our works. During this charge the color bearer was wounded when the color corporal of Co. A took the colors. Soon he was wounded when Sgt. Sheffield of Co. B took them up and hardly done so when he, too was wounded. Our gallant and brave Colonel Augustus R. Lankford took them up and bore them forward until he was captured by the enemy, they deeming him too brave to be shot.”

~ Captain George W. Welch, Co. B, 38th Alabama Infantry

          To cover his retreat the enemy made a night assault upon Butterfield’s lines. He was gallantly repulsed and immediately began to retreat across the Oostenaula. By daybreak his columns had entirely disappeared and were in full retreat southward. The army immediately began the pursuit. Hooker’s Corps being upon the left flank, crossed the Coosawatee on the 16th. The column passed in its march over that portion of the battleground occupied by the Rebel army. The entire country in the vicinity of Resaca is densely wooded, the forests being so thick as to be almost impenetrable. Where the surface has been cultivated the timber has been cut and the trunks left standing, giving a sort of somber aspect to the scenery. The natural features of the battlefield of Resaca are therefore very inviting. Besides, there were strewn about the dense jungles the most horrid evidences of the carnage that had been made in the Rebel ranks. Mangled and blackened corpses were left lying among heaps of rubbish and debris no more cared for than if they had been the carcasses of beasts. In one desolate place where General Hindman’s division hospital had been located was found the living form of wounded man stretched upon the operating table for the amputation of a limb and abandoned by the rebel surgeons before the operation had been completed. Though still breathing his face had become black and mottled with the lines of death. Thus the rebel Confederacy cares for its soldiers.

Slouch hat belonging to a soldier in the 28th Pennsylvania with the 20th Army Corps badge attached; typically a blue star would represent the Third Division but the 28th Pennsylvania was in the Second Division during its service in the western theater. The 28th Pennsylvania had served under Hector Tyndale's command at Antietam with the 5th, 7th, and 66th Ohio regiments and continued to serve with the Buckeyes through the rest of the war. 


          But let me not dwell upon these sad and dreadful scenes. Hooker’s Corps moved rapidly in pursuit of the enemy’s right wing. The country traversed by his columns, never very fertile, presented a singularly abandoned appearance. The dwellings were mostly desolate, the doors swinging idly at the mandate of the wind. Now and then a family of women and children were found but never an able-bodied man. Inquiry developed the fact that all such were in Rebel service. The third and fourth days’ march brought us into a better country though similarly depopulated. There were very few Negroes to be seen, those who have not escaped to our lines having mostly been transported to central Georgia. The inhabitants displayed much less bitterness than might have been anticipated. They all express themselves heartily tired of the war and anxious for peace upon any terms.

          On the 19th General Hooker’s columns came up with the Rebels under Hood, Polk, and Hardee as described in the beginning of this article. Our forces now possess Kingston to which trains of cars from Chattanooga have already followed us. We are also in possession of Rome. The citizens hereabouts seems greatly chagrined at the presence of our troops, they having been assured that if they would but feed the Rebel army it would maintain its position at Dalton. They are now opening their eyes to the scandalous deceptions that have been practiced upon them by the Rebel leaders.

          Johnston’s army is now falling back to another mountain stronghold at Etowah, where it is reported that the enemy is about to make another stand. How much of this is true remains to be seen and will soon be tested. In such places as Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Buzzard Roost were not impregnable to the boys in blue; it is doubtful whether there is any other place in the Confederacy that will be. If the enemy is driven from Etowah he must inevitably fall back to Atlanta. There he will be driven to the alternative of fighting a fair pitched battle or of seeking his last ditch still farther toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Sources:

Masters, Daniel, editor. Alfred E. Lee's Civil War. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2018, pgs. 138-141

Castel, Albert. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992, pgs. 165-166




[1] Major General John M. Schofield led the Army of the Ohio which included the 23rd Corps.

[2] Robinson’s attack was delivered in “Army of the Potomac style,” the regiments of the brigade formed in ranks, each regiment behind the other. The first regiment delivered its fire, then went to ground; the second regiment fired, then went to ground, etc. “Shocked, staggered, and shredded, the Confederates turn and flee,” wrote historian Albert Castel. “Robinson’s troops follow, still blasting away with their devastating volleys until the bugles call a halt.” Robinson’s counterattack halted the Confederate flanking effort. Castel, Albert. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992, pgs. 165-166

[3] The 3rd Wisconsin of General Thomas H. Ruger’s Brigade, Williams’ Division captured the colors of the 18th Alabama General Henry D. Clayton’s during the battle of May 15, 1864.  The colors of the 38th Alabama Infantry, also of Clayton’s brigade, were captured by Captain Thomas J. Box of Co. D, 27th Indiana Infantry of Ruger’s brigade the same day. Captain Box would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865 for capturing this flag. Sherman praised the action at Resaca, stating that “all our men showed the finest fighting qualities.”

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