1864: “The Work Of Death Goes On”

In Camp near Atlanta, Georgia

June 9, 1864

When the enemy first made his appearance at Resaca, there was only one brigade of Cantey’s Division consisting of three regiments and one battery there, though there were some guns placed in batteries on the heights overlooking the town. This force succeeded in checking  the Yankees until reinforcements arrived, which by-the-way, did not come a moment too soon, for I verily believe that Johnston barely missed being caught in a bad box, and whatever may be said to the contrary, I shall always think that it was nothing more than sheer good luck and the lack of enterprise on the part of the Yankees that his communications was not cut off. I know that the wires were cut between Dalton and Resaca and all dispatches were sent by courier.

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the hardest fighting occurred, after which we evacuated the place, burning the bridges after us. We lost some guns and a considerable quantity of stores, and some of the men were forced to swim the river (Oostanaula) to escape capture. The order was well made without a doubt, though I am no military man and not capable of criticizing military movements. I have ventured to give you my ideas of what occurred there.

The order has been well conducted through-out and I do not believe that any General except Johnston could have effected it without serious loss. Sherman’s plan seems to be to flank us all the time; although Johnston has offered him battle time and again, he invariably declines it, and sets to work at this wire-pulling gun. The two armies are now confronting each other, each maneuvering for a pass. Sherman is massing his men on our right and has planted his troops on the Altoona Mountains. I presume his intention is to form a new base of operation at the Etowah River. 

The citizens all along the line of our March had pulled up root and branch, and removed with all their personnel. Folks farther south say that there is not much falling into the hands of the enemy.

The armies are doing nothing now. I say doing nothing for unless there is a heavy fight, we always say there is nothing going on, but there are many killed and wounded every hour,  for even if there is no heavy engagement the skirmish is kept up night and day, and the work of death goes on the while like the current of the flowing river, slow and even sometimes, and at others, as rapid as a catarack. There is not a day passes now that many victims are not offered up at the sacred shrine of Southern Liberty and every breeze brings the roar of the artillery.

The morale of the army was never better than it is now and the men are sanguine of success and their confidence in Johnston is unfinished. I will venture to say that if Bragg had conducted this order, that he would now have had a discontented and demoralized army. It has been remarked by everybody that there is less straggling than ever was known before, and every man is at the post assigned him…

Robert Patrick, quartermaster clerk, to his friend Alonzo Lewis – June 9, 1864

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 191-194)

An 1889 illustration of the Battle of Resaca.

The Battle of Resaca

This fight actually occurred in May 1864, but Robert Patrick’s letter is dated to the beginning of June and since he gives more details about the army and situation, it seemed best to keep the letters in “timeline order.”

The Battle of Resaca (May 13-15) pitted military forces of General Joseph E. Johnston (Confederate) and General William T. Sherman (Union) against each other as a result of Sherman’s maneuvers to force his opponent to abandon the railroad and communications at Dalton, Georgia. After prior days of marching and skirmishing, this battle opened with Union attacks on Confederate defensive positions.

Eventually, on May 15, Sherman’s men used newly arrived pontoon bridges to cross the Oostanaula River and head for Johnston’s supply wagons. This forced the Confederates to retreat. Following battles and constant skirmishing occurred before the Confederates fell back to Kennesaw Mountain and the defenses of Atlanta.

Aiming For Atlanta

The Battle of Resaca and other events detailed in this letter are part of the Atlanta Campaign. Why Atlanta? It was an important Confederate city, hosting an important hub of the southern railroad network. During the earlier part of the war, this city was believed safe from Union threat and had developed as a major quartermaster and supply depot; the city boomed as new industrial ventures were started to support the war effort.

Atlanta, Georgia in 1864

For example, by 1864 the southern city boasted a long list of important facilities including:

  • The Confederate Pistol Factory
  • Atlanta Rolling Mill (repaired railroad tracks and created plating for ironclads)
  • Several ordinance factories
  • Confederate Arsenal
  • Several factories producing all things needed for railroad tracks
  • Foundries to make buttons, buckles, and other essentials
  • Hammond Marshall Sword Factory
  • Flour Mills
  • Atlanta Steam Tannery (manufacturing leather items for the military)

If Sherman’s army could capture Atlanta, it would cripple the Confederate supply sources and also further open a pathway through the deep South, offering a new campaign of invasion.

Historical Musings

“What have you been doing?” Answer “Nothing.” How often do we hear that? Is it true? Nope. Even if someone is bored and not doing something important, they are doing something. (Sitting on the couch watching Gettysburg for the 180th time qualifies as doing something.)

Confederate earthworks at Resaca, 1864

Robert explains the reality of this in war. In primary sources and even more often in secondary sources, we get (or give) the impression that if a “big battle” wasn’t happening, nothing was happening. But there was still day to day life in camp or on the march. And – certainly by 1864 – daily fights and skirmishes had become commonplace. Robert reminds his friend and others who read his letter that every day the fighting took its toll in casualties.

Soldiers were injured or died at unnamed, unmarked places. They did not all fall at named and preserved locations like Resaca or Kennesaw. Roadways, stream banks, open fields all became fighting ground as soldiers in skirmish lines or on picket lines fired random shots or units went into “mini-actions.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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