"...my situation was a desperate one..."
— Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails —
The Confederate "Army of Tennessee" that defended Dalton from November 1863 to May 1864 briefly returned here the following October. It was much depleted in both size and spirit. Their unsuccessful defense of Atlanta ended with its fall on September 2, 1864 to the three armies of Union Major General William T. Sherman. The defeated 40,000-man Confederate army under General John B. Hood regrouped at Palmetto, Georgia, southwest of Atlanta, while Sherman rested his 100,000 troops in Atlanta and pondered his next move.
A new Confederate plan called for Hood's army to march north toward the Ohio River, hoping Sherman's armies would follow. Hood would first attempt to disrupt Sherman's supply line, by striking the Western & Atlantic Railroad near Marietta, Georgia, and wrecking the line northward to Dalton.
The Confederate offensive began in late September 1864. Federal garrisons along the Atlanta to Chattanooga rail line had been strengthening their defensive fortifications. In Dalton, construction of a small earthen fort overlooking the railroad depot began in mid-September. "Fort Hill" and surrounding entrenchments were occupied by about 750 soldiers assembled from several units. The largest unit was the 44th United States Colored Troops ("U.S.C.T."), a newly recruited 600-man black regiment commanded by Colonel Lewis Johnson. Consistent with Federal policy, Johnson and all other officers were white. A German immigrant, Johnson had served in the 10th Indiana Infantry until organizing this regiment composed principally of former slaves from the Chattanooga area. Johnson was in overall command of Fort Hill and Dalton's Federal garrison as Hood's Confederates approached.
Confederate cavalry appeared in Dalton on October 12, and by the following day the bulk of the Army of Tennessee was on hand. ON the 13th Hood sent a message to Johnson demanding the garrison's surrender, adding that "if the place is carried by assault, no prisoners will be taken."
After learning that more than 20,000 Confederates with 30 cannon were withing 1,500 yards of his fort, Johnson reluctantly capitulated. In his official report, Johnson wrote, "I knew full well that I was in his power, and that my situation was a desperate one (and) that I could not hold out fifteen minutes...."
On October 14 the Confederates marched the captured Federal garrison west to Villanow, Georgia, where they were separated. Officers were paroled and a handful of white enlisted men were imprisoned. But the 44th U.S.C.T. enlisted soldiers were robbed, brutally treated and largely re-enslaved. Several were shot for not obeying directives, while other escaped and made their way to Chattanooga.
Hood's overall plan failed, as Sherman soon halted his pursuit, posted an intercepting force at Nashville, Tennessee and ordered other reinforcements there. The damaged railroad was repaired within a few weeks, and preparations began for 62,000 of Sherman's best troops to strike-out on a "March to the Sea." Johnson later commanded what was left of the 44th U.S.C.T. during the near destruction of Hood's army on December 15 & 16, 1864 at the Battle of Nashville.