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The Battle of Resaca by Philip Secrist

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  • Brett Schulte
    http://www.brettschulte.net/ACWBooks/atlanta.htm The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign 1864. Philip L. Secrist. Mercer University Press (May, 1998). 102 pp.
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 30, 2005
      http://www.brettschulte.net/ACWBooks/atlanta.htm

      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
      May 15.

      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"
      Johnston's Army.

      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
      subject.

      102 pp., 13 maps.

      © Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.
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