Prelude to the Battle
Federal Breakout from Chattanooga
In late November 1863, Union forces commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant successfully lifted Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union victories at the Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24) and the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25) forced Johnston to withdraw thirty miles south near Dalton, Georgia.
Grant Promoted to Lieutenant General
After the Federal breakout from Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to the special rank of Lieutenant General and placed him 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.
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.
Sherman Pursues Johnston in Northern Georgia
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.
Battle of Rocky Face Ridge
Between May 7 and 13, 1864, Sherman’s forces engaged the Army of Tennessee in the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, Georgia. Although the fighting was inconclusive, Sherman outflanked the Confederate defenders, forcing Johnston to pull back approximately thirteen miles near Resaca, Georgia. At Resaca, Johnston established a defensive line facing the west that was four miles long, stretching between the Conasauga and Oostanaula rivers.
May 13–15 — Clash at Resaca
On May 13, Sherman began testing the Rebel position. The next day he ordered an ill-fated assault on the entire Rebel front. The Confederates easily repulsed the Union attacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the Federals. Despite heavy losses, Sherman resumed the assault the next day. However, he also sent Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny, commanding part of the Army of the Tennessee, south across the Oostanaula River, threatening Johnston’s rear. Once again, Johnston withdrew; this time moving his army twenty miles farther south near to Adairsville.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Resaca was costly for Sherman. Estimated Union casualties totaled 4,000–5,000 soldiers (killed, wounded, captured/missing) compared with 2,800 Confederate losses (killed, wounded, captured/missing).
Although the Union suffered higher casualties than the Confederacy, the Battle of Resaca was a Union victory because Johnston yielded ground to Sherman’s seemingly inexorable drive toward Atlanta.