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Feature Article on Battle of Resaca. Topic: CIVIL WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in May, 1997


AREA MEN DIE, HURT IN "USELESS" BATTLE

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May 14, 1864. Resaca, Georgia. Only the most ardent students of the Civil War can recite the events that occurred on the rocky, rolling Georgia landscape outside the small railroad town of Resaca that day. For scores of soldiers from Shelby County, however, what happened in ten minutes on that site 133 years ago would forever represent the real meaning of hell on earth. As we approach Memorial Day, and the ceremony rededicating the tablets containing the names of over three hundred men who perished in that war, perhaps it is appropriate to pause for a moment and remember.

The winter of 1863 in Tennessee and Kentucky had been the most brutal in memory. The Army of the Ohio, commanded by General John Schofield, wintered in that region. It contained 37 regiments, including the 113th and 118th regiments, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The men had endured subzero temperatures and six months of quarter and half rations. Disease had decimated the ranks. The numbers for the 118th were typical. After leaving Lima, Ohio in the early fall of 1862 with 980 men, the unit reported 300 fit for duty by the first of May, 1864.

Dr. Albert Wilson, a physician in Sidney before the war, was a surgeon for the 113th. In a letter home dated January 14, 1864, he commented on the conditions: "We have been unpleasantly short of supplies of clothing and in fact the necessaries of life. I have been living in a tent all winter except that portion when we were in east Tennessee, and then we lived without shelters. But our poor horses and mules have been starving by the score ever since early fall."

It was therefore a tattered, but battle-tested Army of the Ohio that emerged from the mountains of Tennessee and entered the hills of north Georgia in late April. Its goals for the Spring of 1864 had been determined two months earlier in Cincinnati. There, General William Tecumseh Sherman and General Grant had met. Twenty-five years later, Sherman, when revisiting the spot, would remark to a friend: "Yonder began the campaign," he said. "He was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston. That was his plan...It was the beginning of the end."

Johnston was General Joe Johnston, whom President Jefferson Davis had personally selected to defend Atlanta from the expected Union spring offensive in 1864. Johnston was known and respected by his men as a determined fighter. Sherman was just as resolute. "I am to know Joe Johnston, and to do as much damage to the resources of the enemy as possible."

Johnston dug in near Dalton, Georgia, with his 45,000 battle-tested men. His units embraced a ridge line known locally as Rocky Face Ridge. At its height, it extended 800 feet above the valley below. Johnston's men, ordered to defend the region and Atlanta at all costs, made the most of the natural surroundings. Dr. Albert Wilson later wrote to his brother, Henry, in Sidney: "The position held by the enemy was called Rocky Faced Ridge (a part of which is called Buzzard's Roost). It is exceedingly well calculated by nature for defensive operations...and could have been held by a very small force against a very large one."

Sherman sent the Army of the Tennessee, under the command of General McPherson, through Snake Creek Gap, an opening in the ridge, with orders to attack Johnston's flank and seize the railroad at Resaca. Speed was essential. Sherman's orders were specific: "Do not fail...to make the most of the opportunity by the most vigorous attack possible." McPherson moved quickly indeed, arriving at Resaca on May 9, which prompted Sherman to exclaim: "I've got Joe Johnston dead!"

Decisiveness turned to caution. McPherson decided not to attack at Resaca, even though his orders directed him to do otherwise. McPherson feared that Johnston would turn on him, cutting him off from the rest of Sherman's army. Sherman would later comment to his young general: "Well, Mac, you have missed the opportunity of your life." (Sherman's comment would soon be prophetic, as McPherson would later die in action at the Battle of Atlanta in July of that year.)   McPherson's missed chance meant an opportunity for Johnston to reposition his men at Resaca- with defensive positions nearly as formidable as those at Dalton. Sherman gathered the rest of his forces, including the Army of the Ohio, at Resaca for what would be the first of a series of battles for the real prize: Atlanta.

As the light faded on May 13, the men of General Henry Judah's division of Ohio's 23rd Corps were in a state of near exhaustion. Judah's men, including the 118th, had just completed a punishing march of 100 miles in 5 days. Rumors spread among the men that five of their mates had died along the way, and that Judah had won a one hundred dollar bet by pushing his men to finish the march. There was also talk that Judah's drinking problem was becoming increasingly severe. As night fell, there was an uneasy quiet among the troops.

Company C of the 118th was composed mostly of young men recruited from the Shelby County town of Berlin, now known as Ft. Loramie. Company I contained many soldiers from Sidney, including Cassius Wilson, a brother of Dr. Albert Wilson. Luck would play a strange role in the fate of the men the next day. The regimental officers decided to leave Company I to guard supply trains in the rear, away from the hostilities. Company C was not destined to be as lucky.

Confidence in battlefield leadership is crucial for success, and there were problems here as well. Judah's actions had been questioned by his superior, General Schofield, but he decided to give Judah a last chance to redeem himself at Resaca. That decision would lead to the loss of many good men that day.

As dawn greeted the eastern sky, final battle plans were made. The main Union attack would be made at a right angle where the Rebel line turned to the east. Unfortunately, Judah never had the ground reconnoitered before the battle. Author Mike Klinger, in an article on the action at Resaca entitled Botched Union Attack, described the terrain the Ohio boys would have to cross: "The valley floor was nearly flat and several hundred yards wide. The creek bed was deep in spring runoff and in many places unfordable, The muddy banks were tangled with brush; jagged limestone rocks made the footing treacherous." The Confederate troops and their artillery on the opposing ridge had an open field of fire. It was a recipe for disaster.

At about noon, the Union commanders launched their ill-fated charge. Because of a delay by other federal units, the attack lacked the necessary coordination. Judah's field commanders sought his permission to halt and coordinate the attack with the troops to their left. Judah refused the request, and ordered the men to press forward.

Judah's division, on the right of the federal advance, entered the creek bottom virtually alone. Disaster struck with deadly suddenness. The Rebel fire poured in from straight ahead and to the left of the 118th. The steep bank made advancing next to impossible. Klinger described the action as follows: "With all hope of a cohesive attack shattered, Judah still refused to halt and re-form. He drove his division into that deadly valley. Those who reached the creek tried to hold out as best they could in waist-deep water and mud. Not only were they being slaughtered in appalling numbers, they were even losing the ability to fight back."

Compounding the problem was the fact that Judah failed to order his artillery into the action. Union gunners helplessly watched the slaughter below, and anxiously waited for word to commence firing. It never came. Across the rest of the Union line, fighting was just as furious, but the Federal attackers made better progress across the more level terrain. Lt. John Joyce of the 24th Kentucky later described the assault from his perspective: "We charged across an open field interspersed with dead trees that flung out their ghostly branches to welcome us to the shadows of death."

The 118th suffered the worst. In just ten minutes, the regiment had 116 causalities out of the 270 men who commenced the charge. Their casualty rate was greater than the units immortalized by Lord Tennyson in "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The Sidney Journal edition of May 27, 1864, reported that the regiment "suffered severely." Berlin and Cynthian Township soldiers George Baker, Joseph Beckman, and brothers James Clawson and Thomas Clawson never returned home. Capt. Stone, Lt. G. M. Thompson, Lt. A. O. Waucop, Sgt Major Ailes, and many others were among the wounded. Dr. Wilson treated the wounded after the battle. He anxiously inquired about brother Cassius, and was informed that his company had been ordered to guard duty, and, therefore, luckily missed the fight.

General Judah resigned shortly after the battle, due to 'illness'. He died within a few years of the end of the war. According to Klinger, Judah's gravestone was vandalized annually for years.

For as long as the survivors of the battle would live, their war remembrances would be defined by the ten minutes of hell at Resaca. The hard feelings about Judah also remained. Forty-seven years after the war, Ebenezer Davis of the 118th Volunteers bitterly recalled the war's most terrible moment for him: "The charge at Resaca, insane, useless charge, ordered by an intoxicated officer."

Only the Monumental Building and the tablets exist to remind us of the ten minutes at Resaca, and the valor of the Shelby County men who served and died there.

 

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