May 7-12, 1864 — The Opening Phase of the Atlanta Campaign
The Atlanta Campaign opened at 3:00 AM on the morning of May 7th as the bugles of McCook's Federal Brigade sounded reveille at their camps near Ringgold. Federal troops occupied the village of Tunnel Hill and approached Buzzard's Roost Pass, as Mill Creek Gap has also been called. After seeing the heights, some Federals commented that "buzzards are roosting (up there)" and waiting for us to die. Federal General George Thomas called it "a slaughter pen."
With the gap flooded by Southern engineers and with Confederates entrenched along Rocky Face Ridge, Federal Commander General William T. Sherman probed the Confederate positions at Mill Creek while he sent the 25,000 men of McPherson's Army of the Tennessee around Johnston's flank through Snake Creek Gap to cut the Confederate supply lines at Resaca, 15 miles to the south. Meanwhile, Sherman sent 60,000 strong Army of the Cumberland under General Thomas, to test the Confederate defenses northwest of Dalton.
Morgan's Federal Brigade crossed Mill Creek and advanced into the gap to attack Gibson's Louisiana Brigade of Stewart's Division on May 8th. Protected by stout earthworks and two redoubts line with artillery, the Federals had little chance to break through the Confederate defenses. In a series of attacks from May 8th to May 11th, Gibson's Brigade lost just 29 men, while Northern attackers sustained over 200 loses.
Along the railroad, Mitchell's and McCook's Federal Infantry Brigades pushed deep into the gap on May 9th until they reached Baker's Alabama Brigade which was posted along the low ridge to the east of the gap. Stovall's Georgia Brigade continued Stewart's defenses at the foot of the ridge, while Clayton's Alabama Brigade was positioned on top of the ridge, completing Stewart's line. With Stovall along the ridge spur, Standford's Mississippi Battery supported the Confederates and commanded the valley below. After initially driving in the Confederate pickets, the Federals found themselves in a pocket (the low lying area inside the gap) and surrounded on three sides. Defiantly, the Federals dug in under a barrage of Confederate artillery fire.
On May 10th, "rain steadily fell holding the pungent smell of battle smoke" in the valleys keeping the two sides at bay, recalled Sergeant Henry J. Aten of the 85th Illinois, as one of the heaviest rain storms in years drenched the exposed men. By evening, it turned cold as North Georgia's 'Blackberry Winter' set in.
The morning of May 11th brought clearing weather, but Johnston's intentions remained cloudy to Sherman from his post atop Blue Mountain. After being told that Johnston was evacuating Dalton, Sherman began withdrawing his forces to support McPherson. To keep Johnston busy, Sherman renewed the attacks at Mill Creek Gap. The result was disastrous as Stewart's forces had not evacuated. Despite facing three times their number, Confederates in this sector lost only about 65 men in five days, while the Federals sustained nearly 300 casualties.
With the bulk of Sherman's Army passing around Dalton via Snake Creek Gap, Johnston ordered the evacuation of Dalton on the evening of May 12th. By daylight on May 13th, the two armies were at Resaca, only 90 miles from Atlanta. Sherman had maneuvered Johnston out of 'Fortress Dalton' without a full-scale fight, but Johnston had slipped out of the Federal's trap to fight another day.