Sherman and Thomas
2. Sherman and Thomas: What Happened to Thomas’ Plan for Snake Creek Gap?
General Sherman’s decision on his plan of attack for the first major movement of the Atlanta campaign in May, 1864 was very revealing of his inner thinking. There he was, three years into the war, and he had not really done anything noteworthy on his own. But then he found himself in command of the Western armies and wanted to distinguish himself and shape history in his image even to the point of discounting a brilliant tactical plan offered by his ablest subordinate apparently because he thought too much credit might accrue to Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland.
For the background on Thomas’ original plan, and Sherman’s modification of it and its aftermath, I will quote from Donn Piatt’s Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union.
I will then quote from Albert Castel’s history of the Atlanta campaign, the rebuttal to the standard line by Sherman apologists on why the General did not accept the Thomas plan.
The following is from Piatt’s Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union (P. 248-250).
General Sherman consulted General Thomas as to a plan of campaign, but unfortunately did not follow his advice. The hero of Chickamauga quietly traced upon the map a proposition that bade fair to annihilate the enemy. Johnston’s army, between fifty and sixty thousand strong, lay in front of Dalton, Georgia, manning the almost inaccessible heights and passes of Rocky Face Ridge and Buzzard Roost, with a small force of about three thousand men stationed at the fortified town of Resaca to hold the communications secure. Thomas proposed to throw his Army of the Cumberland, sixty thousand strong, through Snake Creep Gap, which he knew to be unguarded, in the rear of Johnston on his line of communication, between Dalton and Resaca, while Sherman held him at Dalton with the remainder of his forces. In this way the Confederate commander would be forced to fight Thomas at a disadvantage or, abandoning Dalton and his communications, retreat eastward through a rough and broken country, where his army would have been cut to pieces or disorganized. General Thomas was confident that should the Confederates turn on him he could defeat them with the Army of the Cumberland alone, as he had done before. This plan Sherman refused to adopt, alleging as a reason that he desired to hold Thomas’ army as a rallying-point for the other two armies, though what he wanted with such rallying-point, unless he expected his other two armies that numbered about as many men as Johnston had to run away, is hard to understand. We are forced to attribute Sherman’s willfulness to the jealousy felt by a general who never won a victory toward one who never suffered a defeat.
Sherman, however, was forced to accept enough of this plan to rob Thomas of the credit and himself of success. He sent the Army of the Tennessee, twenty-three thousand strong, under General McPherson, through Snake Creek Gap, not to throw themselves in the rear of Johnston as Thomas proposed, but with orders to destroy the railroad between Dalton and Resaca, then to fall back on Snake Creek Gap and lie in readiness to attack Johnston’s flank as he passed in retreat from Dalton on this line kindly left open for him, as doubtless, Sherman expected him to do.
What was the good of all this no man can understand, and the only effect of McPherson’s feeble effort was to demonstrate the wisdom of Thomas’ plan. He found the gap occupied by a slight force which he brushed aside, and marched within a mile and a half of the Confederate entrenchment’s at Resaca, which for three days after his appearance were manned by not more than three thousand infantry. Having thus warned the enemy of what might befall him, that gallant officer, having executed his order, fell back on Snake Creek Gap and fortified. Had Thomas with his sixty thousand men been there in McPherson’s stead, as he proposed, he would have occupied and held Resaca to the utter ruin of the Confederate general.
Sherman, having executed this brilliant manoeuvre, made some active demonstrations against the mountain-sides which he could not scale, and would have remained there, probably to this day if the Committee on the Conduct of the War could have found patience for such delay, had not Johnston discovered the insecurity of his own position, through the feeble demonstration of McPherson, and fallen back to his fortifications at Resaca with the loss of but few men.
Here is an anecdote illustrative of Thomas’ character: When he heard that McPherson had given as an excuse for not throwing his army in the rear of Johnston, that the dense forest prevented it, he quietly remarked: “Where were their axes?” and a day or so after, large portions of the army marched through this same impassible woods.
The following is from Castels’ Decision in the West (Appendix A):
Sherman, Thomas, and the Snake Creek Gap Maneuver
The famous British military historian and theoretician B. H. Liddell Hart argues in his Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), 239-40, that Thomas’s plan was impractical and too risky: 1) It would have meant “a crossing of routes and a probable entanglement of the lines of supply” because Thomas would have had to swing out to the right while McPherson moved to the center; 2) “in the spy-ridden country the sudden disappearance of Thomas’s army which had been so long facing the Confederates” would have been “likely to put them on their guard”; and 3) the “turning movement had to be made by an uncertainly known route, and with still greater uncertainty as to whether Snake Creek Gap would be blockaded,” in which case two-thirds of Sherman’s army would have “found itself locked out in front of this narrow defile, with Johnston free to strike swiftly at the remaining third and at Sherman’s precious base” of Chattanooga.
The counterargument to the above is as follows: (1) It would seem reasonable to assume that a commander of Thomas’s experience and competence would not have proposed a logistically impractical plan. (2) In fact he did not, for McPherson’s army, contrary to what Liddell Hart implies, moved into Georgia via the “center” at Chattanooga anyway, and it easily could have taken over the position of the Army of the Cumberland north of Ringgold without any “crossing of routes” or “entangling of lines of supply” while Thomas set out for Snake Creek Gap, a movement he thus could have begun sooner and made faster than did McPherson. (3) If the region was “spy-ridden”, then obviously the Confederate spies failed Johnston most miserably when he needed them, for throughout the first week of the campaign he lacked precise and reliable information about the movements and location of the Army of the Tennessee until after it attacked Cantey at Resaca. (4) Thanks to his February demonstration and subsequent reconnaissances, the way to Snake Creek Gap was not an “uncertainly known route” to Thomas, and certainly Thomas’s knowledge of it was superior to that of McPherson, who never had seen that area and had to rely on inadequate maps. (5) Since Thomas would have had cavalry with him, he could easily have made sure of his passage through Snake Creek Gap before committing his main column to it. (6) Even if Thomas had been “locked out in front of this narrow defile,” he presumably would not have remained there stationary but would have turned back in ample time to help defend Chattanooga in the extremely unlikely event of Johnston’s launching an offensive to take it.
Liddell Hart in effect abandons his own argument by admitting that Sherman might have “augmented McPherson’s army from Thomas’.” However, he then tries to salvage it by asserting that Sherman dared not do this because of “Thomas’ sensitiveness” and the danger of offending the Army of the Cumberland’s “jealous esprit de corps” by detaching units from it to reinforce McPherson. Liddell Hart ignores or overlooks the fact that Thomas himself suggested sending the XX Corps to McPherson when the latter failed to take Resaca or cut the railroad. Sherman, not Thomas, was the one afflicted by “sensitiveness” and a “jealous esprit de corps”. After suffering the humiliation, which rankled him the rest of his life, of having his beloved Army of the Tennessee stopped cold at Missionary Ridge while the Army of the Cumberland broke the Confederate line, he was resolved that the former would play the star role in the next encounter with the enemy.
Decisions like this one and at Kennesaw Mountain and, in fact, every decision where Sherman overruled Thomas’ advice, all totally backfired on him. These results must have galled Sherman considerably, considering he knew that his friend Grant had promoted him over Thomas. It may explain his disparaging comments about Thomas that he made behind Thomas’ back despite the fact that they both considered themselves best of friends. In a letter to Grant written just before he found out about Thomas’ great decisive victory at Nashville, he wrote, “I know full well that Gen. Thomas is slow in mind and in action…”. With ‘friends’ like that no wonder Thomas was lost to history.
Donn Piatt: Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union. New York & Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co. 1887
Albert Castel: Decision in the West, The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. 1992
H. V. Boynton: Sherman’s Historical Raid. The Memoirs in the Light of the Record. Cincinnati, OH: Wilstach, Baldwin & Co. 1875
Bob Redman: Sherman’s Worst Day of the War, The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, 2009
This page has focused on the Federal side of Snake Creek Gap events and the tactical mistakes made by General Sherman. What about the Confederate mistakes of General Johnston and General Wheeler in leaving the Gap undefended in the first place?
For an in-depth look, go to WHY WAS SNAKE CREEK GAP LEFT UNGUARDED. This is an unpublished paper by the Atlanta historian Wilbur G. Kurtz (1882-1967), courtesy of the Atlanta Historical Society, Inc. For non-commercial use only. All rights reserved.