Mauled at Resaca: Eight Fatal Minutes for the 36th Alabama
The following letter, written by Orderly Sergeant Robert J. Davidson of Co. H of the 36th Alabama Infantry to his wife Clara, never reached its intended recipient. Davidson’s letter, a superb account of the Battle of Resaca, was inadvertently left behind the lines at Calhoun, Georgia and picked up by an Illinois soldier who sent it back to Clinton, Illinois for publication in the local newspaper.
The 36th Alabama Infantry was mustered into service in May 1862, spending the first year of its service as part of the garrison of Mobile, Alabama. It joined the Army of Tennessee prior to the Tullahoma campaign and was placed in an all-Alabama brigade under General Henry D. Clayton along with the 18th, 32nd-58th Consolidated, and 38th Alabama Infantry regiments. During the Battle of Resaca, Clayton’s Brigade was part of Major General Alexander P. Stewart’s Division of Hood’s Corps.
As Davidson describes in his account, the 36th Alabama charged outside of their breastworks on the morning of May 15, 1864 with tragic results: 90 casualties in only eight minutes. “What a terrible thing war is; you know nothing of its horrors by reading about it,” he wrote.
“The following letter written by a Secesh soldier to his friends at home was captured on Sherman’s line and sent home by one of our De Witt County boys. We have been requested to publish it.” ~ Clinton Public (Illinois), June 16, 1864, pg. 1
May 16, 1864
Ten days ago, we commenced to fight the Yankees on Rocky Face Mountain near Dalton, Georgia. What I have gone through since never will be erased from my memory as long as I live. I have come through it all, thanks be to God, safely. Since we commenced to fight them, we have not been able to get four hours’ sleep at one time; fighting all day, on the watch all night or retreating. The Yankees soon found out that our position north of Dalton was too strong for them to carry by assault; then they commenced the flanking process whereby they finally succeeded in getting us out of it. We left our stronghold with many regrets last Thursday night at 11 o’clock and retreated to the chosen battlefield of Resaca.
We marched all night and all the next day; we were so exhausted with loss of sleep and tedious marching that if we only stopped for five minutes to let wagons pass, we would all have to be woke up for as soon as we sat down we were instantly asleep. We suffered terribly. When we left Rocky Face that night, not a whisper was to be heard from anyone and we thought we had got away from the enemy without their knowing it and would have done so had not three men deserted from the 18th Alabama regiment and went to them and told them we were leaving. They started immediately after us and shortly after sunrise their cannon was thundering in our rear. We joined the other portion of our army, which had already commenced to fight the Yankees at Resaca. That night we worked all night building breastworks. Half a mile off we could plainly hear the Yankees cutting down trees and building their breastworks.
Next morning the fight commenced all along the lines except our part and we thought we were fortunate indeed. About 4 o’clock in the evening we were ordered to make a flank movement on the enemy; we succeeded and drove him back some two miles but night coming on we gave up the pursuit and returned to camp. About 3 o’clock on the morning of Sunday the fight again commenced along the center of our lines, still our part was spared. About 10 o’clock Sunday the enemy commenced to form his lines in front of our position. I knew our time was coming; he advanced in six lines of battle through an open field and it was the grandest sight I ever saw. Their number was estimated at 15,000 men; their dark blue uniforms emerging from the woods was a solemn sight. They saw our position and marched off to the left and disappeared out of sight. Every one of our men was ready with his gun loaded for the assault but they did not come.
Some fool now gave the order to get ready to get over the breastworks and charge a Yankee battery that was playing on us all this time. Thinks I, good God, what a fearful job! The order came and over we went; no sooner over than one man fell dead and three wounded. We advanced about 20 steps and had to lie down. Then the Yankees opened with artillery and infantry. Four companies of us lay down together and every volley they fired you could hear someone of our poor fellows cry out ‘Oh, I am wounded’ as the balls would strike him. We lay there three minutes when we were ordered to join the other part of the regiment about 50 yards off which we had got separated from.
As soon as we got to where it was, the command ‘Forward!’ was given and we went and such a terrible sight; I pray God I may never see again. Men falling wounded and dead at every step. We had advanced about 50 yards when we were compelled to retreat for the murderous fire we were under no human beings on earth could stand. We got back to our breastworks, being absent all of eight minutes during which time we lost 9 killed and 81 wounded in the regiment. Men who have been in all the big battles say they were never under such fire before.
Now, my dear, that was the time I had given up all hopes of ever seeing you again- I never done it before. I can only attribute my escaping unhurt to the kind watchfulness of merciful providence. Nearly all our wounded fell into the enemy’s hands as the night after we made our charge our whole army commenced retreating and we are now fixing up for another fight. When it will come off I don’t know but not long for the enemy’s artillery is at this moment plainly heard in the rear of our army in pursuit. How long this flanking process of the enemy is to continue is a mystery to me. If they keep on, they will certainly get to Atlanta after awhile and when they once get possession of that city, they city the rebellion is crushed. It was the general impression of our army that we would whip the Yankees this time but such is not the fact. Nor can I say that we have been whipped. We have continually fallen back to keep the enemy from getting in our rear for your must bear in mind that all we have to eat comes up the railroad from Atlanta, and if they destroy the railroad our bread stops, and a hungry army with no prospects of getting anything to eat could not be kept together 24 hours.
I have been so lucky in coming through safe thus far and I am in hopes that I will come out of all the fights without a scratch; but after we made that charge and to hear the wounded calling for us to come and help them when we dared not for the Yankee sharpshooters would have killed us instantly.
One of our company who was lying about 20 yards in front of our breastworks called me to please bring him a drink of water. I told him to hold on until dark and I would come, for I could not come sooner for it was certain death to do so. He lay still until after night when we brought him in; he was nearly stiff with cold. It was awful to look on the dead lying in the field that a few minutes before were talking with us and had as great a dread of being killed as anybody. There they lay with their troubles all gone. We had to leave them to be buried by the enemy. What a terrible thing war is; you know nothing of its horrors by reading about it.
Robert Davidson survived the war’s horrors and returned home to his beloved Clara. Davidson served as mayor of Selma, Alabama from 1879-1883 and passed away May 18, 1895 at age 66. Clara passed away 23 years later and is buried beside him at Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
Written by Dan Masters
Mauled at Resaca: Eight Fatal Minutes for the 36th Alabama