Sherman called these mountains "...the doors of death."
The bluffs of Rocky Face presented William Tecumseh Sherman with his first challenge in the Atlanta Campaign. Joseph E. Johnston had chosen the site and prepared well for the Federal onslaught. Steep cliffs give way to a high gap called Mill Creek which locals refer to as "Buzzards Roost."
Just over two miles further south is Dug Gap, an equally imposing fracture in the mountain that runs along the western edge of Dalton, Georgia. To the north of the city the mountain dwindles to the floor of Crow Valley. When Sherman inspected the field he called it "doors of death" and gave the job of taking Rocky Face to General George Henry Thomas. The Union commander tested the area after capturing Tunnel Hill on May 7. The next day Thomas ordered troops to attack Dug Gap where well entrenched Rebel forces used large boulders to turn back bluecoats that outnumbered them 10 to 1. Stung by the defeat of his larger force Thomas decided to probe the line further north, near Buzzard's Roost, while General James Birdeye McPherson was moving south to outflank the Rebels in a pattern Sherman would repeat many times over the next five months.
General John Schofield, moving south from Red Clay, had been harassed by Confederate cavalry under the command of General Joseph Wheeler. Schofield dispatched a unit to brush back the bothersome Wheeler on May 9th as Thomas moved his attack further north. The Union cavalry lost contact with the main body of Schofield's Army of the Ohio and Wheeler pounced on the hapless unit at Prater's Mill, a rural complex of buildings. Handing the Union Army its first defeat of campaign, Wheeler's attack cost the Federals 150 men and their commander. Furthermore, the Army of the Cumberland had met with defeat in five full-scale attacks against the Rebel defenders of Rocky Face at Mill Creek Gap.
Bluecoats had twice made it to the top of the ridge only to be turned back by troops under the command of General Carter Stevenson. Now the evening was approaching and Sherman had nothing except causalities to show for two days of fighting. As he ate dinner that evening at the Clisby-Austin house in Tunnel Hill his despondence turned to feeling of euphoria with the receipt of a message from McPherson who had moved towards Resaca. His men were advancing toward the city and had met no significant opposition. Sherman banged the table, jumped up and exclaimed, "I've got Joe Johnston dead!". Now pacing around the room, Sherman decided to move his troops south in support of McPherson who by now, Sherman reasoned based on the time of the communiqué, must be in Resaca.
Union re-enactors charge during the Battle of Rocky Face
Leaving Thomas to demonstrate against the rebel line on the 10th, Sherman moved the rest of his army south. At the same time Leonidas Polk arrived at Dalton with 15,000 men bringing the Confederate Army of Tennessee up to full strength, or at least as large as it would ever be again. The minor demonstrations of May 10th were little more than an inconvenience to the rebels who had resisted numerous frontal assaults the two days prior.
On the morning of May 11, 1864 Carter Stevenson woke and sensed a problem. The gunfire of the past three days had stopped. He immediately communicated his suspicion to Gen. Johnston who ordered Wheeler on a scouting mission west of Rocky Face. Wheeler confirmed that the entire Federal Army had withdrawn and was apparently heading south along the west side of Taylor Ridge to hide the movement.
Faced with an opponent of superior numbers to his reat, Johnston had no choice but to withdraw south to Resaca. The battle of Rocky Face was over, not with a bang but a whimper