The Battle of Resaca by Philip Secrist
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 farther 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
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"
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
102 pp., 13 maps.
© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.