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’s Umbrella Strategy
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 and the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, and Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee in the west.
Sherman Moves into Georgia
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.
Fighting Along the Western and Atlantic Railroad
Throughout the summer of 1864, the Confederate and Union armies engaged in a series of battles between Dalton and Atlanta in northern Georgia. Most of the fighting occurred at places on or near the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Chattanooga and Atlanta. Both sides depended on the railway for supplies throughout the campaign. In a pattern that he often repeated, Sherman used flanking movements that threatened the railway to Johnston’s rear, forcing the Confederate commander to retreat south to protect his supply lines.
Hood Replaces Johnston
By mid-July, Sherman had driven Johnston’s army to the outskirts of Atlanta. Many Southerners, including President Jefferson Davis, had grown weary of Johnston’s strategy of retreat. On July 17, 1864, Davis relieved Johnston of his command, replacing him with General John Bell Hood. Known as an aggressive fighter, Hood was a veteran officer with a reputation for personal bravery who had suffered severe wounds at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). General Hood wasted little time responding to Southerners’ calls for action.
Atlanta Under Siege
Hood launched costly attacks against Sherman’s armies on July 20 (Battle of Peachtree Creek) and July 22 (Battle of Atlanta) that produced high Confederate casualties (over 13,000 men killed, wounded, captured, and missing. Despite his high losses, Hood prevented Sherman from penetrating Atlanta from the north and from the east. Foiled in his efforts to capture the city by force, Sherman besieged Atlanta in late July.
Wheeler Threatens Sherman’s Supply Lines at Dalton
Desperate to break the siege, Hood sent Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to northern Georgia to destroy railroad tracks and disrupt Sherman’s supply lines. On August 15, Wheeler approached the town of Dalton and demanded the surrender of the Union garrison. The Northern commander, Colonel Bernard Laibolt, refused to surrender. Wheeler attacked and drove the Union garrison into fortifications outside of town. Skirmishing continued into the night, but the Federals held out. The next morning, Wheeler retired and moved his cavalry into eastern Tennessee.
Aftermath of the Battle
The number of casualties at the Second Battle of Dalton is unknown. However, the battle was a Union victory, as Wheeler failed to cut the railroad supplying Sherman’s forces surrounding Atlanta.