[War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta by Russell S. Bonds (Westholme Publishing, 2009). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 426/544. ISBN:9781594161001 $29.95]
Students of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, while treated to an excellent campaign overview in Albert Castel's classic Decision in the West (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1992), reserve the right to be continually dismayed at the absence of full length battle histories of any of the campaign's great clashes of arms. Thus, any word of a new Atlanta book from a respectable publisher is bound to arouse the slumbering hopes of the faithful. Given this intense interest in a neglected campaign, it might be useful to begin a review of Russell Bonds's War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta by informing readers what the book is and what it isn't, so it can be evaluated in the context of the author's intent rather than what readers may wish it to be. While chapters summarizing Peachtree Creek, Bald Hill/Battle of Atlanta, Ezra Church, Utoy Creek, and Jonesboro(ugh) are present, along with descriptions of numerous other skirmishes and cavalry raids, these are not what one might consider traditional accounts replete with minute tactical detail and analysis. What readers do get is an expansive overview examination of the great events that occurred during and surrounding the battles, bombardment, and burning of Atlanta, all from both military and civilian perspectives. Post war remembrance and recovery is discussed, as well.
From a military standpoint, no new interpretations or revelations will greet the well read student, but Bonds's writing in War Like the Thunderbolt exhibits the same masterful stylistic command of historical narrative present in the author's first book, Stealing the General. The experiences of private soldiers add much personal flavor to Bonds's accounts of the fighting, but he centers much of his battle descriptions on the generals involved, their personalities and their military faults and strengths. In fact, much of the book's first half seems organized around linked biographical sketches.
Blending civilian and military perspectives, Bonds handles the artillery bombardment and later burning of Atlanta evenhandedly and well. He deftly summarizes and assesses the conclusions of historians about the extent of the damage, who was to blame, and General Sherman's direct and indirect role in it. Issuing no orders to destroy private businesses and residences, the commanding general nevertheless did little if anything to stop it in practice, commenting to more than one observer that the city was destined to burn and he could do nothing to change it. Indeed, self-justifications abound, and Bonds was able to assemble a remarkable number of like-minded responses among the private soldiers. Even when these men knew burning private property was against orders, they would confidently assert that 'Uncle Billy wanted it done'.
The book is well stocked with photographs. The cartography matches the text in terms of level of tactical detail (in this case, brigade and division scale). In them, modern roads underlay the historical action, giving modern readers some perspective of where these battles occurred (important, given the lack of preservation of the battlefields surrounding Atlanta -- an issue discussed by Bonds in an appendix). The addition of more topographical features would have been helpful, visually enhancing the author's colorful descriptions in the text of the wildness and difficulty of the terrain, and at the same time aiding reader comprehension of the reasons behind many of the critical delays and misdirected movements of attacking columns.
The endnotes are thorough and well worth browsing through, as commentary and analysis is scattered about in addition to good suggestions for further reading. Appendices include a division level order of battle and a transcription of an official report to Georgia's Governor Brown assessing in some detail the extent of the destruction to Atlanta [a carefully constructed city map was attached to the original].
Written in an inviting manner, but fully documented and solidly researched, War Like the Thunderbolt will likely appeal to a large range of readers. New or more general interest Civil War readers will undoubtedly get the most out of it, but veterans of the Atlanta Campaign literature should still find themselves challenged in places and the familiar parts worth another going over.