Back in 2012 I wrote a post about the Confederate defense of Resaca, Georgia, in which I argued that General Joseph Johnston took adequate measures to protect the town and the railway bridge from the movement made by the Army of the Tennessee through Snake Creek Gap on May 9, 1864. But a question remains: why didn’t Johnston defend the gap itself? The published records are incomplete such that it is impossible to determine precisely every decision and every move. But with some analysis and a little speculation, I hope to shed some light on the question.
Northwestern Georgia is dominated by long north-south ridges. Just west of Dalton, where the Confederate army was concentrated, is Rocky Face Ridge. About 8 miles to the west is Taylor Ridge, higher and longer than Rocky Face. Control of the valley in between these two ridges was central to the first few days of the Atlanta campaign in May 1864. There are a limited number of ways over, through or around these ridges. The main gaps are marked on the map below. Also marked is the hamlet of Villanow at the south end of the valley where the road between Ship’s Gap and Snake Creek Gap meets the north-south road along the valley.
When it became apparent that the US was commencing a campaign in northern Georgia, Johnston put his army on alert, called for reinforcements, and rearranged units that had been positioned in his rear. Screening Johnston’s front was the cavalry command of General Joseph Wheeler. The initial US advance came along the railroad from Ringgold toward Mill Creek Gap and from the north along the railroad from Cleveland, Tennessee, that passes east of Rocky Face ridge. Wheeler concentrated most of his cavalry in front of these immediate threats, but he also had men “picketing the front and flank of our army” as far down as Ship’s Gap.1 At 7am on May 7th, Wheeler was ordered “to leave a body of cavalry in the valley west and south” of Mill Creek Gap.2 This would maintain Confederate control of the valley between the two ridges and, as of the morning of May 7th, Johnston considered the defensive perimeter on his left to be west of Snake Creek Gap.
Sherman’s plan for May 7th called for the 20th Corps to cross Taylor ridge at Nickajack and Gordon’s gaps then push across the valley to provide cover for McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee to move through Gordon’s and Ship’s gaps to Villanow and then on to Snake Creek gap. As the 20th Corps crossed Taylor Ridge, “surprising the outposts of the enemy on the ridge”,3 they found “a cavalry picket of about 400 or 500 men at Gordon’s Springs”, on the east side of Gordon’s gap.4 These were presumably the cavalry Wheeler had left in the valley in response to the order mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Later in the day, Confederate Chief of Staff William MacKall sent the following to Wheeler:“Report from the officer commanding at Dug Gap on the Villanow road, says Dortch’s battalion has come to the top of the mountain and encamped with the infantry post. General Johnston says that it is absolutely necessary that a good regiment of cavalry under an officer on whom you can fully rely, be sent into the valley south and west of Mill Creek Gap. Please give positive orders on this subject; it will not do to leave that valley open to-night.” 5
It is my belief that this message has been misunderstood by other writers. It has been written that Dortch arrived at Dug Gap from the east but I can find no primary evidence to support this and I don’t believe it makes sense. I believe that the reason there was so much concern at headquarters about Dortch arriving at Dug Gap is that he had arrived from the west; that his battalion was the cavalry that US forces had encountered at Gordon’s Springs; his was the cavalry Wheeler had assigned to observe the enemy in the valley. By moving to the top of the mountain, Dortch was no longer in the valley; the road to Villanow was open. The concern at headquarters on the 7th about this exposure of the Confederate left is apparent in messages to General Martin at Rome directing him to move to Calhoun and to General Cantey at Resaca cancelling an order for him to move to Dalton.6
MacKall’s message to Wheeler stressed that cavalry, “under an officer on whom you can fully rely”, be sent back into the valley so as not “to leave that valley open to-night.” Wheeler sent the 9th Kentucky cavalry to satisfy this demand and the next morning (May 8th) Col. Breckinridge of the 9th Kentucky would report from 1½ miles west of Dug Gap.7 While technically he was in the valley, his position meant that he only covered the portion of the valley in front of Dug Gap and did not block the roads to Villanow. That day, a brigade of US cavalry under General Kilpatrick and a brigade of infantry from Geary’s division of the 20th Corps moved from Gordon’s Spring to Villanow, securing the route for the Army of the Tennessee. Meanwhile the other two brigades of Geary’s division advanced directly toward Dug Gap.8 Breckenridge observed and reported on these movements but, contrary to MacKall’s wishes, the valley had been left open. At the time, the lead units of the Army of the Tennessee, which had seized Ship’s Gap the night before, march to Villanow in the afternoon and reached Snake Creep Gap that night.
Johnston had wanted a cavalry presence maintained in the valley between Taylor Ridge and Rocky Face south of Mill Creek Gap in order to observe the US forces and maintain a perimeter west of the gaps in Rocky Face. But due to the strength and speed of the 20th Corps advance over Taylor ridge, the limited resources Wheeler assigned to the area, and the haste with which Dortch withdrew to Dug Gap, the valley was given up on May 7th. Sending the 9th Kentucky back over Rocky Face that night was too little too late; it couldn’t reestablish Confederate control over the valley. Like a football offensive line, the 20th Corps had pushed the Confederate cavalry screen back, giving Army of the Tennessee a clear path for his end run to Snake Creek Gap.
To be continued tomorrow.