The Battle of Adairsville was an encounter between Union forces commanded by Major General William T. Sherman and Confederate forces commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign of the American Civil War.
The engagement took place in Bartow County, Georgia, near the town of Adairsville, on May 17, 1864. The battle was perhaps more significant for what did not happen than what did. Union forces were spared the possibility of a costly defeat when Confederate leaders failed to spring a well-laid trap after Sherman had divided his armies.
In late November 1863, Union forces commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant successfully lifted Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s siege of Chattanooga. Union victories at Lookout Mountain (November 24) and Missionary Ridge (November 25) forced Johnston to withdraw 30 miles south near Dalton, Georgia.
After the Federal breakout from Chattanooga, Grant was promoted to the special rank of Lieutenant General and placed in command of all Union armies. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of Federal operations in the western theater. Upon arriving in Washington, Grant devised a “total war” policy aimed at the Confederate military, transportation systems, and anything else abetting the Rebel cause. Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in the west. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign against Lee in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman led three armies, the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General James B. McPherson; the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield; and the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General George H. Thomas, out of Tennessee in pursuit of Johnston’s army in northern Georgia.
Between May 7-15, 1864, Sherman’s forces engaged the Army of Tennessee in the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, Georgia and then at the Battle of Recasa, near Recasa, Georgia. Although the fighting was inconclusive, Sherman outflanked the Confederate defenders in each case, forcing Johnston to pull back to the south toward Atlanta.
Finding the terrain unsuitable for establishing a strong defensive line near Calhoun, Georgia, Johnston continued south to Adairsville. As Sherman continued his pursuit of Johnston, the armies engaged again near Adairsville, Georgia on May 17. The battle consisted of a series a skirmishes throughout the day, which amounted to little more than a delaying action to allow Johnston to move farther south toward Cassville.
The Battle of Adairsville was perhaps more significant for what did not happen than what did. When Johnston withdrew from Adairsville, he sent one corps of his army to nearby Kingston to create a diversion, while the bulk of his army moved south toward Cassville. Johnston hoped that Sherman would believe that he was preparing to do battle at Kingston and mass the majority of Union soldiers there, while sending a smaller contingent to follow the Rebels headed for Cassville. Confederate forces commanded by Leonidas Polk and John Bell Hood would then ambush and destroy the Federals moving toward Cassville. Sherman took the bait and sent the Army of the Ohio, along with one corps of the Army of the Cumberland, in pursuit of the retreating Rebels. As Hood was moving his men into position, he discovered some Union soldiers near his rear. Fearing being caught between two columns of Federal soldiers, Hood fell back and rejoined Polk, failing to spring the trap. Thus, Sherman was spared the possibility of a costly defeat.