Monday, March 30, 2015

Jenkins: "TO THE GATES OF ATLANTA: From Kennesaw Mountain to Peach Tree Creek, 1-19 July 1864"

[To the Gates of Atlanta: From Kennesaw Mountain to Peach Tree Creek, 1-19 July 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. (Mercer University Press, 2015). Cloth, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:318/398. ISBN:978-0-88146-527-3 $35]

To the Gates of Atlanta by Robert Jenkins is the prequel to the author's unique and valuable study of the first major battle fought south of the Chattahoochee River titled The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864 (2014). The new book traces the movements and counter-movements of William T. Sherman's massive Union army group and Joseph E. Johnston's (later John Bell Hood's) opposing Army of Tennessee, it's text encompassing the three week period between the conclusion of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and the initial contested Peach Tree Creek crossings.

In similar fashion to his earlier book, the author's source material search in To the Gates of Atlanta was exhaustive in scope and the battle narrative skillfully developed. Jenkins first describes Sherman's post-Kennesaw abandonment of frontal attacks and resumption of grand turning movements. He then goes on to recount Johnston's establishment of a new line at Smyrna and the Campground and Ruff's Mill attacks by Sherman that quickly dislodged the Confederate army and forced it back to the Chattahoochee River and its prepared "Shoupade" line of defense.

Covered next is Sherman's crossing of the last great natural barrier between his army and Atlanta and Johnston's abandonment of the river line without a fight. The Army of the Cumberland's crossing of Nancy Creek in the face of General Wheeler's Confederate cavalry screen is detailed as are the battles fought over the Moore's Mill and Buckhead Road crossings of Peach Tree Creek on July 19. Perhaps the best of these is Jenkins's treatment (supported by four of the volume's maps) of the little known battle at Moore's Mill, a sharp encounter between the 15th Mississippi, 2 companies of the 6th Mississippi, and Daniel Reynolds's much reduced Arkansas brigade on one side and Jefferson C. Davis's Union XIV Corps division on the other. Initially successful in their dramatic bayonet charge with unloaded rifles against heavy odds, the Confederates were eventually turned away by overwhelming numbers.

The military narrative is cut into two event blocks (before and after the Chattahoochee River crossing) and sandwiched between these are profiles of generals Sherman, Thomas, Johnston, and Hood. The author's assessment of Johnston's conduct of the campaign is on the generous side of the historiographical equation. On the subject of the morale of the Confederate army during the Virginian's command tenure, Jenkins's extensive manuscript research uncovered unanimous rank and file approval of Johnston's care for their material needs and confidence in the general's blood sparing management of the army. How the heavy rate of desertion experienced by the Army of Tennessee during the North Georgia campaign can be reconciled with this is largely unaddressed but the author does at least note the potential contradiction. It has been proposed that most of the desertion was concentrated in those units whose members were originally from areas in the direct path of war, with the lure of home defense rendering personal thoughts on Johnston irrelevant. The author appreciates William T. Sherman as practitioner of the operational art but deplores the Ohioan's record of making war on the civilian population, at least when extended to acts like the forcible exile of Roswell's female factory workers. The George Thomas profile is a positive one, and, in making his case, Jenkins does not rely as much as other Thomas defenders have done on tearing down Grant in order to elevate the status of the Virginian. The author's views on Hood are largely in step with current thought. Placed in the unenviable position of fighting someone else's battle (Johnston's Peach Tree Creek plan of action), Hood was placed in a tight spot right from the beginning. In common with many modern students of the campaign, Jenkins feels that Hood formulated a largely sound plan for Atlanta's defense, one derailed as much by the frictions of war, failures of key subordinates, and Union fighting skill as it was by any particular lack of judgment on Hood's part. The most recent developments in Hood historiography are unfortunately not addressed, their omission perhaps simply an issue of timing.

In addition to the above leadership assessments, Jenkins also briefly analyzes the famous "Shoupades", discussing both the initial puzzlement of those tasked with manning them and the defense system's ahead-of-its-time nature [according to Jenkins, the Shoupade arrangement would have found a recognizable home in a WWII mobile defense but shocked Confederates used to continuous lines of earthworks]. When it comes to campaign numbers and losses, Jenkins criticizes the use and misuse of numbers in the Atlanta Campaign literature but doesn't offer readers a particularly compelling reason to feel confident in the round figured O.R.-based numbers he himself uses. This is a common failing in the Civil War literature.

There are some problems with the presentation of the material. With frequent typos, footnote formatting errors, mistakes with names, and the like, To the Gates of Atlanta shares some of the same editing concerns present in The Battle of Peach Tree Creek. The battle maps are fine for troop positions but they use modern suburban Atlanta as their terrain backdrop, hindering clear understanding of the historical topography. Also, visualizing how the contending armies got to those key points mentioned in the battle narrative can be difficult for the reader to fully comprehend as the book provides no illustration of the historical road network and lacks clear operational scale action maps.

The book's discussions of the Johnston-Davis relationship, the issue of Johnston's popularity among the men in the ranks, and its chapter length military profiles of Sherman, Hood, and Thomas offer few surprises for those already steeped in the campaign literature, but many of the engagements fought during the lead in to the Battle of Peach Tree Creek (especially the one at Moore's Mill) are fully studied in print for the first time in To the Gates of Atlanta and are additionally revealed to be more militarily significant than previously believed. In this reviewer's opinion, this is where the strength of the book primarily lies and the chief factor behind its ultimate recommendation to readers.


More CWBA reviews of MUP titles:
* Last to Join the Fight: The 66th Georgia Infantry
* The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864
* Going Back the Way They Came: The Phillips Georgia Legion Cavalry Battalion
* I Will Give Them One More Shot: Ramsey's First Regiment Georgia Volunteers
* The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864
* Volunteers' Camp and Field Book
* Griswoldville
* Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City

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