The Decision to Abandon Cassville and Fall of Bartow
By Joe F. Head
(A Civil War Sesquicentennial Article Series by the Etowah Valley Historical Society in cooperation with the Bartow History Museum)
As the war moved into north Bartow County, records show Confederate General Joseph Johnston retreating from Resaca. His force of about 45,000 troops practiced rear guard actions with flanking and fall back strategies as he was facing a superior Union force of 98,000 troops. He frequently avoided frontal attacks to preserve men and resources.
Military records well document actions that occurred in Bartow County. According to the Official Report filed by General Sherman on 5/18/64 the following was noted about fighting around Adairsville:
“Johnston passed last night here. We overtook him at sundown yesterday and skirmished heavily with his rear until dark. In the morning he was gone and we are after him. By the night all heads of columns will be near Kingston…”
On May 18th, Johnston met with his commanders (Generals Hood, Hardee and Polk) in Cassville to discuss aggressive plans to stand and fight. Following encouraging news from the Virginia battlefields that Grant had suffered great losses, Johnston announced his decision to confront the approaching Union forces.
General Orders were issued by Johnston to his troops on 5/19/64:
“Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee, you have displayed the highest quality of the soldier, firmness in combat, patience under toil. By your courage and skill you have repulsed every assault of the enemy. By marches by day and marches by night you have defeated every attempt upon your communications. Your communications are secured. You will now turn and march to meet his advancing columns. Fully confiding in the conduct of the officers, the courage of the soldiers, I lead you to battle.”
Before dismissing the conference, he complied with an adamant request written by his wife to be baptized. That evening while in Cassville he arranged for a baptismal service, summoning General Polk who was an Episcopal Bishop and in the presence of his commanding generals kneeled and received the rite.
Cassville residents wrote frequently of the battle conditions surrounding the community. Journals, diaries and subsequent articles record the wartime fears. According to Frances E. Gaines in her article, “We Begged to Hearts of Stone” in the NW Georgia Historical and General Quarterly published 5/18/1964 she writes; “Silence reigned and we knew nothing that was transpiring outside our prison wall until 11 or 12 o’clock when hearing foot steps, all rushed to the door of the cellar and there confronted two Yankee soldiers. We were terrified, but thought it the best policy under the existing circumstances to surrender without further ceremony. We begged them not to shoot us and asked for protection.” She further writes; “The morning after the Federals took possession of Cassville, they set Mr. J. Terrell’s house on fire… Col. Warren Akin’s house was burned the next day.”
On May 19th Generals Hood and French journeyed to General Polk’s headquarters to have supper and discuss the situation. General Johnston was in attendance. The two corps commanders requested an “informal council of war.” Johnston’s plan was discussed at length and not well received by General Hood who felt he had a disadvantaged assignment and could not hold the line if directly charged. Polk agreed voicing the same concerns. General Johnston became apprehensive and decided to withdraw all forces to south of the Etowah River, therefore conceding Cassville and eventually Bartow to Sherman. In later documents Johnston writes that he regrets the decision to abandon Cassville. In an autobiography, Major General Oliver Otis Howard of the United States Army writes that a subsequent examination of the Confederate position revealed that Johnston had well prepared and selected strong cannon emplacements, dug trench works and concentrated troop deployment that gave him the advantage. At the end of the day the “Battle of Cassville” never happened and defaulted to only small skirmishes and rear guard actions at best as Confederates moved to south Bartow County.
Ultimately Johnston’s decision to abandon north Bartow and retreat across the Etowah River south of Cartersville put Cassville, Cartersville and Etowah at great risk. Johnston’s objective was to burn the Etowah River Bridge and hold Union forces on the north side for as long as possible.
General Joseph Johnston has often been criticized for his repeated “flank and retreat” tactics to stall and disrupt Union forces along the W&ARR. However, he constantly faced overwhelming odds and chose to defend the railroad using gorilla type tactics to achieve his goals. The Confederate forces set up a line of camps from Emerson to Allatoona and left Sherman master of everything north of the Etowah, but with a strategy to lure him into a treacherous mountainous terrain in favor of the Confederates.
Johnston left rear guard defenses in place to slow the advancement of Federal forces allowing time for the Army of the Tennessee to escape across the river. One classic example was that of Confederate sharp shooters stationed in the Cartersville Depot and surrounding area. Here they knocked out bricks for rifle ports and used the depot as a fort to delay Union troops. The depot suffered artillery bombardment and rifle shot, but the rebels held the position and were successful in stalling the Union advancement. Once the Confederates were across the river the rear guard troops were withdrawn. Before retreating, they destroyed the railroad tracks, telegraph poles, river wagon bridge and burned the railroad bridge.
Confederate forces took positions south of the river near Camp Foster with posted pickets. Camp Foster was likely an open field tent type facility and constructed by the State as a militia “Bridge Guard” installation under the authority of Governor Joseph Brown. Later this Bridge Guard became elevated to the Georgia State Line regiments. These regiments were inspired by the earlier Andrews Raid, which drew attention to the need to protect railroad bridges. Its primary purpose was to guard the river bridges, iron works and likely served other roles such as scouting and military training for recruits. The post typically was garrisoned with 300 to 1000 men who were exempt from military conscription by the confederate government.
General Johnston retreated to Emerson and established headquarters near the Bartow Iron Works at Stegall’s Station (Current day Love’s Truck Stop area). General Hardee headquartered at Moore’s Tavern, an old hostelry near the W&A RR underpass (Current day 293 and the Friendship Cemetery area) and General Polk headquartered near the Allatoona Community. Hood’s troops served as rear guard between Stegall Station and the Etowah River. These new positions were hoped to draw Sherman into the hilly Allatoona mountain terrain, but Sherman had seen this rugged topography as a young officer some 20 years before. As a result he moved his armies west as far as Euharlee and Stilesboro and crossed the river as a flanking maneuver to avoid facing Johnston in the Allatoona hills.
Once Union forces reached the river, Federals also dug trench works and established a fortification on the north side on the high ground next to the river bridge at the Etowah Depot. (Current day Thompson and Wienman) Both sides exchanged cannon fire until the Confederates abandoned their location as a result of Union forces crossing the river west of Cartersville and threatening a flanking action that would compromise their position. It is likely that the Confederates burned Camp Foster and other assets as they left the area.
The author wishes to express a sincere appreciation to Mr. David Archer for advice and use of his personal research materials to make this article project a reality. Also, a special thank you to J. B. Tate for his reviews and notes. Among other references the author wishes to acknowledge a number of works used in researching the article series including: Lucy Cuynus’ History of Bartow County Georgia, Official War Records, William R. Scaffe’s Allatoona Pass: A Needless Effusion of Blood, Frances Thomas Howard’s, In and Out of the Lines , Papers/letters from the Bartow History Museum, Joseph B. Mahan, Jr., A History of Old Cassville 1833-1864, Dr. Keith Hebert’s dissertation, “CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION ERA CASS/BARTOW COUNTY, GEORGIA” and Joe F. Head’s, The General – The Great Locomotive Dispute.
Joe F. Head
VP Etowah Valley Historical Society