Though he's also written biographies of Union generals John A. Logan and Frederick West Lander (as well as an interesting study of Lincoln's nomination), Gary Ecelbarger is perhaps best known as one of the finest researchers and writers of Civil War battle history. He made his mark first with a pair of original examinations of early phases of the 1862 Shenandoah Campaign [We Are in for It: The First Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862 (White Mane, 1997) and Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester (Oklahoma, 2008)] before moving out west to the 1864 Georgia Campaign with The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta (Thomas Dunne, 2010).
Staying with the Atlanta Campaign, Ecelbarger's new book is the upcoming Slaughter at the Chapel: The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864 (Oklahoma, Oct '16), and it is the subject of today's Q&A session with the author.
DW: Hi, Gary. When you started the project, what unresolved questions about Ezra Church interested you the most?
GE: I approached this battle study with a goal to uncover the entire make up and location of both attacking and defending lines, the number of troops engaged, exactly how many troops went down killed and wounded as well as the chronology and decisive moment of the battle. As it turns out, I was able to get closer to all of those defining points but still found the exact answers to be elusive.
My greatest thrill of researching and writing battle studies is the completely unexpected discoveries and revelations. In the case of Ezra Church it was uncovering new answers to what heretofore had been considered already resolved issues. For this battle the spectrum ranged from the rather trivial (example, the fact that Lt. Col. Thomas Shields of the 30th Louisiana Battalion was not an Ohioan as previously misstated numerous times), to more meaty discoveries and their implications, such as uncovering the fact that the Henry-repeater-wielding 66th Illinois was not called into action for this battle (every other study of Ezra Church misidentifies this regiment as engaged in battle that day) while two sister regiments of its brigade did fight as reinforcements. This discovery not only challenges the previously accepted record of this battle, it forces one to question upper command’s lack of appreciation of repeating rifles in the midsummer of 1864, which in my opinion is also a revealing new discovery. Most of all and most importantly, I presented new cases about what commanders knew and didn’t know and what their objectives and orders were. Again, I entered this project believing these were resolved issues, so it was quite a revelation to discover otherwise.
DW: You obviously have a very high regard for the command abilities and combat record of John A. Logan. What do you think of Sherman’s “excuses” for replacing him at the head of the Army of the Tennessee with the West Pointer O.O. Howard?
GE: In pure hindsight, we can say that Sherman’s decision to replace Logan with Howard was not at all detrimental to ultimate Union success because it would be hard to pinpoint a serious campaign misstep that Howard made while at the helm of the army. It is also easy to recognize that Logan’s greatest attribute — as explained by a division commander, his ability “to call out of his men every particle of fight that was in them” — would necessarily be blunted by elevating Logan from corps command to army command. Excuses aside, it’s clear from Sherman’s most relevant explanations for choosing the West Pointer over the man he later admitted to be “perfect in combat” is that Sherman placed a higher premium on the Department of the Tennessee over of the Army of the Tennessee, which meant that organization and logistics superseded tactical acumen for the chief he sought. I don’t fault Sherman’s reasoning, but I do question his belief that Logan was not up to that task and that Howard somehow was in the summer of 1864, particularly since Howard became the first outsider to enter the helm of Grant’s and Sherman’s former army (and did so with a very “sketchy” record) while Logan had a three-year, very positive history with the personnel of the Department of the Tennessee, was easily the most successful of Sherman’s seven infantry corps commanders of his entire army group at this point of the campaign, and to my knowledge had not demonstrated any shortcomings in the non-battle functions of the army.
DW: Howard took over from Logan “on the march,” a difficult situation made more so by being tasked with taking the lead of a major operation. How would you rate his performance in his first battle as an army commander?
GE: He won the battle in which only his brand new army was engaged. But it wasn’t easy and Howard appears to have made inexcusable errors, such as his lax attention to artillery deployment. But overall, Howard took full advantage of the fortune of owning the high ground and his army was on the desirable side of a 6:1 disparity in casualties because of it. It’s hard to imagine a more lopsided victory than this; there doesn’t seem to be any avenue for a counter assault on July 28. In the end, Howard’s greatest contribution to his army’s victory was that he let the Army of the Tennessee handle all the tactics from the corps to the brigade level without micromanaging them. There was no need to this day.
DW: S.D. Lee is often portrayed as the goat of Ezra Church, but your book makes a persuasive case that army commander John Bell Hood’s creation of the conditions leading to a high likelihood of failure outweighed the tactical mistakes of his subordinates. By 1864, every corps commander should have been able to coordinate a two division assault, and Lee apparently learned little or nothing from his Tupelo experience. Do you think Lee was simply unsuited to corps command responsibility?
GE: Although every corps commander should have been able to coordinate a two-division assault by the summer of ’64 as you rightfully contend, I contend that very few of them would have done a better job of it under the same, immense time constraint (Lee had to attack ASAP before the XV Corps line completely established itself and dug in). Lee’s castigation and belittling of his men after the battle was counterproductive and certainly unbecoming of a corps commander. Yet, at the tactical level, I don’t echo the conclusion that is usually offered regarding his performance at Ezra Church. In hindsight, the only chance Lee’s assault could have succeeded at the time he launched it would have been to align farther northwest with heavier, two-directional pressure applied to the yet to-be-deployed right flank of the XV Corps. Yet, given his necessity to strike quick and hard to gain the heights assigned to him, Lee’s rapid deployment and huge hit upon the Union XV Corps line was impressive: six of his seven brigades attacked, temporarily pierced, and inflicted significant casualties upon nearly the entire two-mile U-shaped defense confronting them, and did so beginning in about 90 minutes and continuing within three hours after receiving Hood’s orders a full two miles from the point of deployment. That Lee was able to attempt this in his second day as a commander of men he had never seen before, while coordinating the effort in full compliance with his mission and instructions, is a worthy performance—certainly not perfect, but also not the real cause of his corps’ defeat.
DW: Hood’s shortcomings in planning and directing the Ezra Church operation are laid out clearly and comprehensively in the book, and we’ll leave it to readers to peruse them in their totality. In your mind, what was Hood’s gravest mistake?
GE: Hood was stuck in a box. So certain and concerned was he that Sherman would inevitable launch a mass assault at any weakness that he [Sherman] could sniff out in Hood’s defensive ring around the city that Hood felt reluctant to send out S. D. Lee to enact Hood’s plan until after 10:00 a.m. that morning of July 28. It proved to be too late and the real cause of Lee’s defeat. If Hood sent Lee out of Atlanta at a reasonable time—just one to two hours earlier—Lee would have been the first to hold and secure the high ground before XV Corps skirmishers even penetrated the area, and would have done so with minimal or no Confederate casualties while forcing Sherman to send Howard’s army into an inevitable Union bloodbath in an attempt to force Lee off those heights. The late start forced Lee to launch costly and fruitless assaults to gain the same heights he should have occupied without the loss of a single man. Hood’s vacillation was undoubtedly his greatest mistake.
DW: Do you believe that Hood’s battle plan as originally conceived had a reasonable chance for success (and what do you see as the best case scenario for the Confederates on July 28-29)? The two-day timetable immediately struck me as sub-optimal (to put it as kindly as possible).
GE: We can only speculate on what the definition of “success” would have been for Hood if his plan worked to perfection (or at all, for that matter). It was not nearly as grandiose as his battle plan for July 22 east of Atlanta. I believe Hood expected to inflict serious damage against Sherman’s advanced troops (Howard’s Army of the Tennessee) on the western side of Atlanta and at least temporarily thwart Sherman’s offensive and give Hood a respite. The two-day timetable was unreasonable because it assumed that S. D. Lee could hold off mounting Union pressure with only two divisions (8,000 men) for as long as an entire day, an entire night, and following morning until Stewart’s four divisions could slip around and shock assault the Union right flank. The other weakness of the plan was the assumption that Stewart was up to the task to coordinate a 14,000-man offensive. Based on Stewart’s unimaginative and ultimately failed assaults on July 28 with two divisions, I doubt his ability to have succeeded in accordance with Hood’s original plan while in charge of twice as many men.
DW: Your argument that the top-to-bottom gutting of the Confederate Army of Tennessee officer corps from months of continuous fighting (including several decidedly untimely high-ranking losses during the battle itself) accounts for many of the problems experienced at Ezra Church is well orchestrated in the book. You are much less persuaded than others have been by the notion that terrain was a key factor in Union victory. Can you explain why you feel this way?
GE: I don’t feel that way regarding terrain! Whoever reached and held the heights that surrounded and included Ezra Church would have the greatest advantage for fighting this contest on the defensive, so I placed a premium on describing the importance of securing those hills. Perhaps you refer to other terrain features: woods, waterways, etc. I suppose I am less persuaded here because I don’t believe that in their entirety, these terrain features were unique to Ezra Church at all. They both aided and hampered infantry, blue and gray, at the same time in this battle as they did in nearly every Civil War battle. In fact, the uniqueness of the Ezra Church terrain is that limited open ground for field of fire was part of the reason why there was virtually no Union artillery salvos fired after the opening minutes of this contest. So shouldn’t that terrain feature have aided the attacking Confederates instead of being “a key factor in Union victory?” A final observation I should offer here is that if you walk the grounds of the Ezra Church battlefield today, you will be able to identify three creeks—two of them fairly deep—that ran both parallel and perpendicular to the Confederate attack and clearly exist between the two opposing lines today. However, it must be noted that the two available period (summer, 1864) engineer maps of the battlefield indicate than only one of those streams (the one identified as “Dead Brook” in the macabre Harper’s Weekly image in its Aug. 27, 1864 issue) crossed the Union defense line and extended to the Confederate position at the time of the battle. Regardless, one would be hard pressed to find first-hand accounts that even mention this stream let alone identify it as one that hindered the Confederates that deadly day.
DW: You were sort of getting what I was after with the rhetorical question you posit in the middle part of your answer, that the unfortified and wooded Union position along the "heights" did not offer defensive advantages to the degree that others have maintained. Anyway, you mark Ezra Church as the battle that finally broke the spirit of the rank and file of the Army of Tennessee. Given the offensive elan demonstrated later in the war at Franklin, were you referring specifically to the 1864 North Georgia Campaign or were you arguing in the book that the battle represented a more permanent tipping point?
GE: I truly was referring to the May-September 1864 campaign ending at Atlanta.
DW: In your estimation, is this morale element the most significant outcome of the battle?
GE: Ezra Church culminated nine calendar days of battles where the Union became increasingly confident and the Confederates became increasingly disarrayed and desperate. The diaries and letters from both sides provide strong evidence for this. I see little evidence of Confederates launching a dispirited attack at Ezra Church like there exists for the first day at Jonesboro a month later. My opinion is that the difference is due to morale. Ezra Church impacted the psyche of the soldier as a lasting consequence for the rest of the summer campaign, but it cannot be overlooked that another outcome of the battle is that the viciousness of this fight did factor in to slow Sherman’s momentum and ultimately delayed his infantry from penetrating the final rail lines into Atlanta by a month. Would Lincoln have won his re-election if that delay extended into early November? I suppose that’s a different topic for discussion ...
DW: Thanks for your time, Gary. What’s next for you?
GE: Thank you, Drew for the opportunity to discuss Ezra Church. I’m pretty well ensconced in this campaign and plan at least two more books about it, including one about the Battle of Dallas (Georgia). I eventually expect to return to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 with an emphasis on the final two weeks of that famous campaign. I’ve completed a significant amount of research and some of the writing for two of my projected works, but I don’t expect to publish my next book for at least 3 more years, which of course also depends on who my next publisher will be.
DW: Sounds great. Readers, look for Gary's book Slaughter at the Chapel: The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864 to be released in a few weeks. My review should be posted soon after. In it, I will include a brief footnote laying out (as I see them) the major differences between the Ecelbarger and Hess studies of the battle.