[The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, OB, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:222/287. ISBN:978-1-4696-2241-5. $35]
It has been a long time coming but the gaping chasms in book length battle coverage for the 1864 Atlanta Campaign are now being rapidly filled. Happily, some of the best Civil War military historians in the field are crafting these battle studies and, even better, getting them right with reader expectations on the first attempt. One of the contributors to this welcome trend is Earl Hess, whose previous book on Kennesaw Mountain was masterful. In addition to being the first full length treatment of the subject, his new volume The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta is yet another strong effort that will be difficult to surpass in the future.
As he does with all his work, Hess effectively incorporates into his Ezra Church battle narrative source material from archives located across the country. The July 28, 1864 battle is presented in four stages (entirely appropriate given the piecemeal nature of the attacks), each recounted in lavish tactical detail. The first Confederate charge, which stepped off roughly at noon, involved John C. Brown's division of S.D Lee's Corps. Beginning on the left with Brantley's Brigade, Brown's unsuccessful assault eventually covered the entire front. This was followed by Lee's next division (Henry Clayton's), which aggressively assailed the left of the Union XV Corps at the angle of the Army of the Tennessee's refused line of defense [XV Corps facing south with XVI and XVII Corps fronting east]. Upon the repulse of Clayton, Brown's reserve brigade (Manigault's) moved forward and struck the XV Corps center on its own. Finally, Edward's Walthall's division of A.P. Stewart's Corps arrived on the field and responded to Lee's pleas for help by crashing into the Union right (where Brantley failed earlier) and center, all to no avail.
Curiously, the battle was essentially an all infantry affair, with little to no artillery involvement on either side. On the subject of losses, figures for the Union side are widely accepted as 632 killed, wounded and missing but quantifying Confederate casualties in a satisfactory manner has proved elusive. The book does not make a special study of the Confederate count, accepting the more conservative estimates of around 3,000.
Upon close inspection, it becomes clear why the Confederate attacks failed. Each division attacked on its own and there was very little coordination between brigades as well, a tragic hallmark of Army of Tennessee assaults throughout the war. Terrain was also a factor, with the Union defenders having the luxury of higher ground and a naturally angular line offering many opportunities for both converging and enfilade fire. The three steep ravines that effectively divided the battlefield substantially hindered the attackers, who went in with little knowledge of the ground. The fire discipline displayed by the veteran boys in blue, who were also protected by makeshift breastworks, had an important role in inflicting horrific casualties and stopping each successive attack cold. Finally, the command and control shortcomings of the attacking Confederates were not shared by the defending federals. Union commander O.O. Howard's calm and close direction of his army (with some timely interventions on his part) paid dividends. John A. Logan's 15th Corps, the target of Lee's assaults, benefited from a timely stream of heavy reinforcements from unselfishly cooperative 16th and 17th Corps commanders.
Hess does a very fine job of presenting the battle in the context of the larger Union strategy of extending the federal line south and beyond the Confederate left, with the goal of eventually striking the railroad below Atlanta and forcing its evacuation. The fighting at Ezra Church ends around two-thirds of the way through the book and extensive attention is directed toward the immediate aftermath of the battle, the plight of the wounded, and the continued flank extension of Sherman's confident army group. By the author's estimation, Lee's bloody repulse delayed Sherman's movements by only six days, a brief period not worth the massive bloodshed expended in the effort.
The contrast between the opposing high commands at Ezra Church could not have been more stark. Even with a highly controversial change in top command (with newcomer O.O. Howard replacing the popular and competent John A. Logan as head of the Army of the Tennessee) the Union mass redeployment from left to right proceeded smoothly. Overall, Howard moved with caution but his three corps quickly and skillfully assumed mutually supportive defensive positions once they reached a point west of Atlanta. On the Confederate side, army commander John Bell Hood directed newly appointed corps commander Stephen D. Lee to block the Union advance at Lick Skillet Road, with the intention of setting up a flank attack the next day by A.P. Stewart's Corps. Lee instead violated the spirit and intent of Hood's orders and attacked Logan's Corps frontally. With Hood's attention diverted by the pair of Union cavalry raids running around south of Atlanta, the Confederate army commander was not personally present at Ezra Church. His absence throughout the fight has been strongly condemned in the literature but Hess rightly contends that Lee's impetuous and poorly managed attack was neither ordered nor expected, making much of the criticism of Hood misplaced. On the other hand, with Lee being new to the Army of Tennessee, one could make a reasonable argument that Hood should have felt the need to oversee in person the operation that led to Ezra Church, but, as Hess observes in the book, it seems unlikely that the established facts of Lee's high command incompetence (so clearly borne out during his recent defeat at Tupelo) would have had sufficient time to make their way through the army before the general's arrival in Atlanta.
Hess has maintained in this book and others that a key factor driving Union success during the Atlanta Campaign was their domination of the skirmish line. This was demonstrated at Ezra Church during both the initial federal push against the Confederate cavalry screen and the later infantry fighting around the Lick Skillet Road, but the author doesn't really articulate what he sees as the reason(s) behind the Union army's skirmish line supremacy. Surely by 1864 the veteran officers and men of both armies developed similar skills for operating in no-man's-land. Was it sheer Union numbers (more, and fresher, men to spare on the skirmish line), disparities in morale and confidence, the essentially inexhaustible supply of ammunition available to Sherman's legions that tipped the scales, or all of these or something else? It's an interesting argument that one would like to see more fully developed. The maps in the book are a bit rudimentary, more schematic in nature than the accurately scaled and finely detailed battle cartography current readers have come to expect. The positions and movements of each regiment are clearly delineated but terrain features are rendered in minimalist fashion (e.g. the forests, tree lines and fields so often mentioned by the participants are absent, with only roads, breastwork lines and a general idea of the contours of the sloping ground and ravines represented on the page).
Hess's brilliantly written account of the Battle of Ezra Church clearly demonstrates that, despite the gross disparity in casualties, Ezra Church had several nervous moments for the defenders and was not the "easy" Union victory that tradition has suggested. The battle is significant in that it represents the third and final Confederate attempt to arrest the advance of Sherman's army group by offensive maneuver. For the rest of the campaign, Hood's diminished army would be forced into a reactive operational position. The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta is another ground breaking contribution to the campaign's assemblage of canonical works from Earl Hess, who incredibly manages to maintain a highly prolific output without any relaxation of scholarly standards of excellence. Highly recommended.
More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South
* A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter
* Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia
* A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People
* Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign
* With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North
* The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina
* West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864