The Battle of Resaca by Philip Secrist

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bschulte

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http://www.brettschulte.net/ACWBooks/atlanta.htm

The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign 1864. Philip L. Secrist. Mercer University Press (May, 1998). 102 pp. 13 maps.

This is a review and summary of Philip Secrist’s book The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign 1864. As I usually point out in cases like this, Mr. Secrist’s book is the only one to focus specifically on the Battle of Resaca, fought on May 14 and 15, 1864. In this early fight of the Atlanta Campaign, Secrist believes Sherman had a great chance to trap and destroy Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, thus ending the campaign before it had hardly begun. Instead, says Secrist, Sherman failed and doomed his Army to a long journey before they reached Atlanta. The book is rather thin at 102 pages, especially when one considers that only Part I (the first 65 pages of the book) is a narrative of the battle. Secrist originally wrote Part I as an article in the Spring 1978 issue of Atlanta Historical Society Journal entitled Resaca: For Sherman a Moment of Truth. Part II consists of the Battlefield from the end of the battle through today, with an emphasis on relic hunting and preservation efforts. The maps are average. On the plus side we have topographical lines on the standard maps, but these maps are of the Resaca area today. However, since the land has changed so little since 1864 (aside from the construction of I-75 directly through it!), this is not necessarily a large minus. The troop positions leave something to be desired on the standard maps. Sherman’s and Johnston’s lines are drawn as one large line, with Corps (and sometimes Divisions) marked off in a vague manner. Secrist does include other maps taken from the Official Records Atlas, but these are pretty small and a little difficult to read. On a lot of pages, text ends early, so this book is really even shorter than the listed 102 pages. On the plus side, Secrist is well-qualified to write the book. He has been studying the Resaca Battlefield since 1958, and is a noted relic hunter. I enjoyed his writing style. The book was definitely not a tedious read. All in all, though, The Battle of Resaca was too short for my taste. It just did not contain enough detail, and only whetted my appetite for more detailed discussion. Sadly, a more detailed discussion does not exist.

Part I of Resaca covers the events leading up to the battle and the Battle of Resaca itself. Sherman wanted a decisive battle somewhere north of Rome, Georgia in order to destroy Johnston’s Army, and he then hoped to enter Atlanta against minimal opposition. Secrist believes Sherman squandered this chance at the Battle of Resaca. Things started off well enough for the Yankees. Sherman sent James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee through Snake Creek Gap, inexplicably left undefended on Johnston’s left flank. McPherson then approached Resaca, a town along Johnston’s supply line, and was expected to cut the Western & Atlantic Railroad in order to force Johnston to retreat. At this point, Johnston would be cut off from Atlanta and would have to retreat through rough terrain. McPherson, given some leeway by Sherman’s order, decided to retreat west to Snake Creek Gap. Sherman believed McPherson had lost a golden opportunity, but he rushed his armies through Snake Creek Gap and formed west of Resaca on May 13. Johnston was there waiting for him.

The battle started on May 14 with an attack on the confederate lines near where Hood’s and Hardee’s Corps came together by the two XXIII Corps Divisions of Cox and Judah, along with some assistance by Carlin’s Brigade of Palmer’s XIV Corps. These attacks went badly, especially on Judah’s front, and he was sacked a few days later for his ineptness. Secrist was not surprised by this failure, saying "All things considered, the limited success of Sherman's brigadiers at the forks of the creek that day was not especially surprising."

As this attack was going on, Hood’s Corps finished coming up on the Confederate right, and Howard’s IV Corps, Army of the Cumberland extended the Union left facing Hood. However, Howard had not been able to anchor his left flank, and Hood launched the divisions of Stewart and Stevenson to try to roll up this flank. The attack went poorly, however. Stewart got lost in the woods, attacked due north, and hence was east of Howard’s flank. Stevenson initially had success, but was stopped by the 5th Indiana Artillery and Robinson’s Brigade of the First Division, XX Corps. Secrist believes this "effort was too feeble to pose a decisive threat", concluding that nightfall, a poorly coordinated Confederate attack, and a generous measure of good luck saved the Union left.

The last piece of fighting on May 14 occurred in the south on what Mr. Secrist refers to as “Polk’s Battlefield”. Logan’s XV Corps decided to attack Polk’s forward entrenchments west of Resaca at 6 P.M. in order to prevent Polk from reinforcing Hood’s attack on the other end of the line. The unfortunate members of Cantey’s Brigade, attacked and routed a few days earlier during McPherson’s abortive raid on Resaca, fared no better this time around. Logan seized the small hills Cantey’s men had been stationed on as they fled to Polk’s main line. Polk realized too late that these hills offered Sherman a perfect spot to shell Johnston’s only escape route south across the Oostanaula River. He attacked, but it was too little and too late. Sherman’s men had dug in on the hills and could not be dislodged. Here Secrist believes Sherman had a golden opportunity to capture Johnston’s Army whole on May 15 by attacking, but blew it. He says that Sherman was preoccupied with defending against an attack, or making sure he was ready to follow if Johnston retreated, rather than with the idea of attacking himself. Secrist compares this situation to McClellan and Lee at Antietam, and says Sherman lost an opportunity at Resaca similar to McClellan's at that battle. He also calls Polk’s Corps "newly-constituted and un-battle tested". Sherman, however, in the end spent May 15 entrenching these hills rather than attacking. I don’t necessarily agree wholly with Secrist’s thinking, but I’ll save that for later.

On May 15, Johnston was preoccupied with the threat Sherman posed on his left. He also had reports that Union troops had crossed the Oostanaula ****her west and were heading to cut him off. He sent Walker’s Division to deal with that problem. Johnston decided to attack Howard’s Corps again on May 15, but the Union forces were planning an attack of their own. Hooker’s XX Corps, supported by IV Corps on the left and XXIII Corps on the right, was to mount a carefully planned attack for limited objectives on Hood’s Corps. Secrist says that May 15 wasn't one of Hooker's better days. The Union troops secured ground in a ravine fronting the works of the Cherokee Battery and stayed all afternoon. That night they drug the four guns of the battery away after digging a hole in the Confederate outwork. “Despite the rejoicing produced by the capture of the Confederate battery”, says Secrist, “it was quite clear to all that the Union gains that day had fallen far short of expectations." Johnston "quietly and skillfully abandoned Resaca" on the evening of May 15.

In the last chapter of Part I, Secrist is extremely critical of Sherman. He indicates that Sherman had a reputation as a master tactician, and seeks to debunk that theory. In numerous battles, Secrist says, "Sherman consistently demonstrated mediocrity". He also does not think much of the rest of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign compared to the average view I have seen, saying Sherman "reverted to his proven strength--that of master raider". Secrist compares Resaca to Antietam, and Sherman to McClellan. He believes Sherman was lauded as a conqueror for his performance, while McClellan was cashiered for his, and concludes that Sherman lost a golden opportunity to “destroy” Johnston’s Army.

Part II of the book talks about the battlefields after the fighting had ended. Apparently the land is little changed since 1864, aside from the very noticeable intrusion of I-75 directly over the battlefield. The small hills Sherman captured on May 14 at “Polk’s Battlefield” were almost entirely wiped out. That area was irretrievably lost to study by historians. Secrist mentions relic hunting and dedicates a chapter to three men who have furthered study of the war due to their relic hunting. He also covers the constructions of I-75. In the end, Secrist believes that I-75 has caused errors of interpretation as far as troop positions and movements go, and he says some of these errors persist until today. Secrist adds an epilogue talking about the imminent (as of 1997) purchase of 1200 pristine acres of the battlefield.

Secrist writes well, and his story was easy to follow and interesting. I must take issue with some of his conclusions, however. First, he fails to cover the extremely controversial movements and results of McPherson in front of Resaca in any detail. I would have expected much more on this topic. Second, Secrist mentions that Sherman has a reputation as a master tactician that is unfounded. I’ve never heard of a prominent historian lauding Sherman’s tactical genius. Instead, Sherman’s operational and strategic abilities are talked about. In fact, I agree with Secrist’s belief that Sherman was not a great battlefield commander. He was surprised at Shiloh, lost heavily at Chickasaw Bayou, and failed to drive the enemy at Tunnel Hill during the Battles for Chattanooga. Third, Secrist seems wholly unimpressed by Sherman’s handling of the campaign, saying that Sherman's reputation is unwarranted, though he should get credit for waging a campaign based on his Army's and his own limitations. I again disagree to an extent. I don't think he waged a campaign based on limitations so much as waging one based on his strengths. Sherman was an excellent strategist, and his campaign, aside from the ill-advised assault at Kennesaw Mountain, was a model of maneuver to avoid bloodshed. And lastly, Secrist believes Sherman should have “destroyed” Johnston’s Army at Resaca by attacking Polk’s "newly-constituted and un-battle tested" on May 15. I say destruction of an army rarely if ever happened, and that Sherman is being held to an ahistorically high standard in this case by the author. I also don’t agree with his assessment of Polk’s Corps as "newly-constituted and un-battle tested". Out of this Corps, only Quarles’ Brigade had seen little combat. The rest of the men had seen their fair share of battle. In addition, Polk’s main line was much more formidable than his advanced line of the day before. What may have faced Sherman had he attacked these entrenchments was a slaughter. And Johnston was well aware that he could not lose his only line of retreat.

You should keep in mind while reading the comments below that this book is very thin at just over one hundred pages. I don't want what I'm about to say to come across as being overly harsh. With that caveat out of the way, let's proceed. There are only three pages of notes in the book. That doesn't compare very favorably to a lot of the tactical studies I've read. Neither do the one page bibliography and the two page index. Secrist relies almost exclusively on the Official Records for this volume, with very few other sources.
The maps are pretty good as far as topographic lines go, but the rest of the important items are lacking. Each army is depicted as one large line, and most of the time only Corps-level labels are applied. There are some other maps from the Official Records Atlas and other sources, but they are fairly small and hard to read. Due to the short length of the book and the average nature of the maps, there is not much here for a wargamer. I'd recommend looking around for published scenarios rather than attempting to create your own for Resaca, whether you are a computer, board, or miniatures wargamer.

This book is a nice little introduction to the Battle of Resaca for those interested, but it simply leaves you wanting more. The main part of the book describing the Battle is only 65 pages long. Secrist does produce an interesting read, but I want more. The book was apparently written as a way to bring attention to the plight of the Resaca Battlefield, and the need to preserve said field. In this Secrist appears to have been at least partially successful. After a quick perusal of the Friends of Resaca Battlefield web site, I read that 500 acres have been preserved. This falls short of the 1200 acres the author mentions in his epilogue, but it is a start. I get the impression that Mr. Secrist knows a great deal about Resaca, but this book is just not very large. It doesn't go into much detail, and I believe a much larger and hopefully definitive book on the battle can be written. Whether that book gets written by Mr. Secrist or someone else remains to be seen. All in all, I recommend buying this one because it covers a topic not covered in detail anywhere else. It is a stepping stone for future authors, and a nice introduction to the subject.

102 pp., 13 maps.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.
 

william42

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Thanks Brett. I'm been wanting to read up on the whole Atlanta campaign, as I'm not very clear on what all went on during that whole thing, and was looking for some good source material on it. Great review. I'll check for it at the local B&N.

Terry
 

bschulte

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william42 said:
Thanks Brett. I'm been wanting to read up on the whole Atlanta campaign, as I'm not very clear on what all went on during that whole thing, and was looking for some good source material on it. Great review. I'll check for it at the local B&N.

Terry
Terry,

You're welcome. There's not a whole lot out there on the Atlanta Campaign unfortunately. This one wasn't very widely distributed, so you might have trouble finding it at Barnes & Noble or Borders. I'd recommend going to www.abebooks.com or Amazon for it.
 
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