The Confederate Defense of Resaca – May 9, 1864

In a pair of recent posts I wrote about the movement of the Army of the Tennessee through Snake Creek Gap to Resaca on May 9th 1864.   Let’s take a look at the other side — who was defending Resaca that day?

The Official Records make no mention of this, but in his book ‘Four Years On The Firing Line’ James Cooper Nisbet wrote that “On the first of May, I received an order to go to Resaca, to guard the W.&A. Railroad bridge across the Oostanaula river”. [1]  Nisbet commanded the 66th Georgia to which was attached the 26th Georgia Battalion and in his book he refers to having 1,500 “rifles”.  Nisbet wrote that when he got to the bridge at Resaca he found an old dilapidated battery and a company of cavalry.  In his book Lost for the Cause, Steven Newton identified two Georgia State Line regiments and a company of cavalry that were guarding railroad lines and bridges in northern Georgia.[2] It seems likely that what Nisbet found at the bridge was part of the Georgia State Line.  But just how many might have been at Resaca is unclear.  Perhaps a hundred?

Kelly’s cavalry division had been camped at  Resaca until May 4th when Gen. Johnston ordered it to join Gen. Wheeler at the front, bringing all the men who were properly mounted and equipped and “to have the men left considered as belonging to the defense of the place where our trains are”.[3]  The implication is that some portion of the division was not properly mounted.  In an article in the magazine North & South, Steven Newton interprets the order to mean that these men were left in Resaca and his review of the unit rolls for Kelly’s divisions suggests that it could have been several hundred men.[4]

In late April Cantey’s brigade had been sent from the Department of the Gulf to Rome, Georgia,[5] and then was ordered to Resaca on May 5th.[6]  Also on May 5th Gen. Maury, commanding at Mobile, reported that he had received orders to sent Daniel Reynolds’ Brigade to aid Johnston and that two regiments had already been sent with the rest going soon.[7]  By May 7th the first two regiments had arrived but had been sent further north to Dug Gap.[8]  The question is when did the other units of this brigade arrive.  Johnston wrote to Cantey on May 8th that one Arkansas regiment would arrive that day.[9]  Presumably another would get there the next day.

Also on the 9th, Johnston ordered Vaughan’s Tennessee Brigade to reinforce Cantey in Resaca[10] and Grigsby’s cavalry brigade, which had met the US troops coming out of Snake Creek Gap had fallen back to Resaca. [11]

So as McPherson arrived outside Resaca the afternoon of the 9th, there was a hodgepodge collection of units defending it composed of Cantey’s brigade, Vaughan’s brigade,  Grigsby’s brigade, portions of Reynolds brigade, Nisbet’s command, cavalry left behind by Kelly, and a detachment of the Georgia State Line.   All told, this probably represented 6,500 present for duty.

As the campaign was kicking off, Johnston had other men in motion in the backfield.  On May 7th Martin’s cavalry division had been shifted to Calhoun, about 5 miles south of Resaca.  He had been directed to communicate with the Cantey in Resaca and on the 9th Martin was identified as operating on the flank of McPherson’s command. [12]  Late on the 9th Johnston directed Hood to take the infantry divisions of Cleburne, Hindman and Walker to Resaca to make sure it was secure.[13]  So in addition to those already in Resaca, Johnston had a significant portion of his army moving in support.

The point is that by drawing in reinforcements from Alabama, and shifting around the forces already in northern Georgia, Johnston had adequately protected against the US attempt to make a quick strike at Resaca.  Rather than being caught with his pants down by the move through Snake Creek Gap, Johnston seemed to have the situation well in hand.

[1] Four Years on the firing line, page 270

[2] Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864, Savas Publishing, 2000; page 266.

[3] Johnston to Wheeler, May 4

[4] What Really Happened At Snake Creek Gap?, Steven Newton, North & South Volume 4 Number 3, 2001

[5] Conoley to MacKall, April 24

[6] MacKall to Cantey, May 5

[7] Maury to Polk, May 5

[8] MacKall to Williamson, May 7

[9] MacKall to Cantey, May 8

[10] MacKall to Clebunre, May 9

[11] The Opening of the Atlanta Campaign by Wm. C.P. Breckinridge, published in The Century Magazine April 1888.

[12] MacKall to Martin, May 7; Kilpatrick to Elliot, May 9

[13] Opposing Sherman’s Advance to Atlanta by Joseph E Johnston, published in The Century Magazine August 1887.


2 responses to “The Confederate Defense of Resaca – May 9, 1864”

  1. Dan Avatar

    Interesting points; I’ve been following your previous commentary on Resaca.
    As it turns out, I’m doing my graduate thesis on the Sixty-Sixth Georgia, so this is particularly interesting. I wasn’t aware of the Georgia State Line being there
    on May 9th. Nisbet, of course, made it seem in his memoirs that HE was the one who saved Resaca, almost single-handedly, by selecting a defensive position in Camp Creek and shooting McPherson’s advance to pieces. Nisbet also claimed that Cantey and his regiments didn’t arrive until the morning of the 9th (even though there is a telegram from Cantey on the 7th or 8th from Resaca), and that Cantey chickened out during the “attack” on the 9th. It’s a great example of how CW veterans often waxed heroic many years after the fact, placing themselves at the decisive locations, and always, of course, within earshot of the famous commanders. In truth, McPherson’s advance was tenuous at best; Nisbet’s fire was hardly destructive; and the battle was hardly worthy of the name (the regimental roster lists only 3 men killed or wounded). There is also a tantalizing sentence from Castel’s book on the Atlanta Campaign that implies that “some Georgians” (rough paraphrase) were supposed to be guarding Snake Creek Gap. I couldn’t find the source citation for that claim, but I took it to be that perhaps Nisbet was ordered by Cantey to post pickets in the gap and failed to do so. Now, it seems possible that the Georgia State Line might have been the culprits; but I guess we’ll never know for sure. I intend to cite your post in my work, if that’s alright with you?

    1. Ned B. Avatar
      Ned B.


      Thank you for the comment. I have no problem with you citing my post.

      My remarks about the Georgia State Line is a little bit speculative. In his book, Professor Newton identifies the 1st GA State Line (550PFD), the 2nd GA State Line (700PFD), and the State Scouts (100PFD) as “Guarding railroad lines and bridges in northern Georgia”. His source is William Harris Bragg’s ‘Joe Brown’s Army: The Georgia State Line’, a book I have not yet had the chance to look at. So as far as I know they could be spread anywhere from the Oostanaula to the Chattahoochee. But there are suggestions that some of them were at Resaca: Nisbet refers to finding a battery and a company of cavalry at the bridge; in Battles and Leaders is an essay by EC Dawes titled ‘The Confederate Strength in the Atlanta Campaign’ in which he claims a regiment of the Georgia State Line was with the army at the time of the battle at Resaca on the 13th; the book “A Higher Duty: Desertion Among Georgia Troops During the Civil War” refers to a Georgia State Line camp at Resaca in March 1864.

      I don’t have Castel’s book handy, but I bet his source is “The Opening of the Atlanta Campaign” by Wm. C.P. Breckinridge which appeared in The Century Magazine and later in Battles and Leaders. Breckinridge, who had been Colonel of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry in Grigsby’s brigade, wrote “Colonel Grigsby had been informed that a company of Georgia troops were on picket on the road to the gap, and at or near its eastern outlet.” These “Georgia troops” might have been the Georgia State Line.

      Then again I have a theory that there was another group of Georgia troops in the area: specifically Iverson’s brigade of Martin’s cavalry division which was based at Calhoun just south of Resaca. See the message from McPherson to Logan at the bottom of page 104 continuing onto the top of page 105 of the Official Records, Series 1 – Volume 38 (Part IV).

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