Monday, October 10, 2016

Review of Ecelbarger - "SLAUGHTER AT THE CHAPEL: The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864"

[Slaughter at the Chapel: The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864 by Gary Ecelbarger (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:218/288. ISBN:978-0-8061-5499-2. $26.95]

A bloody clash between the Union Army of the Tennessee and portions of two Confederate Army of Tennessee corps, Ezra Church was the last of three major battles fought outside the city of Atlanta between July 20 and July 28, 1864. Though the Army of the Tennessee was ultimately triumphant in the July 22 Battle of Atlanta, it suffered heavy casualties restoring the line, and its popular commander, James B. McPherson, was killed. Nevertheless, the battered and bruised Union army, to be joined by newly appointed leader O.O. Howard (who would replace temporary commander John A. Logan on the march), was quickly tasked with leading William T. Sherman's new plan of action, which involved a counterclockwise shift of the entire Union army group west and around the Atlanta defenses. If all went well, the last railroad lifeline into the city would be severed, forcing the Confederates to either fight at a disadvantage or abandon Atlanta entirely.

Naturally, aggressive Army of Tennessee commander John Bell Hood sought to thwart this latest existential threat to his hold on the city. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Hood's plan to first block Sherman's vanguard (Logan's Fifteenth Corps) north of the Lick Skillet Road and then engulf the enemy flank and rear from the west broke down into an uncoordinated series of frontal attacks that cost between 3,000 and 3,500 Confederate casualties. Adding insult to injury, Union losses were only one-sixth of that figure.Slaughter at the Chapel: The Battle of Ezra Church, 1864 fully recounts the events of this battle, while also marking it as an important turning point in the campaign. From that point onward, the fighting morale of the Confederate soldiers defending Atlanta was broken.

According to author Gary Ecelbarger, the best evidence suggests that Hood planned a two-day battle (July 28 and 29). During the first phase on July 28, S.D. Lee, less than two days in command of his corps, would take two divisions three miles west of Atlanta on the Lick Skillet Road and seize the heights around Ezra Church. The next day, A.P. Stewart would march four divisions (his own corps plus one unnamed division) across the rear and beyond Lee's position and wheel around and behind the Union right flank, rolling it up from the west. It was an ambitious plan with a decidedly odd timetable that depended too much on the Union opponent remaining static and doing the expected. Still unsure of Union intentions, Hood delayed ordering Lee to move out until late morning, by which time Logan's corps had already deployed in a refused L-shaped line atop the heights (with Ezra Church located at the bend of the 'L').

Lee, who was ordered to refrain from general offensive moves unless control of Lick Skillet Road was directly threatened, sent his leading division (John C. Brown's) directly to the attack without waiting for Henry Clayton's following division to deploy to its right. Brown's assault, which briefly overlapped and outflanked the Union right, was the best coordinated attack of the day, but the Federals quickly rallied to recover any lost ground. A lone charge by Brown's reserve brigade (Arthur Manigault's) also resulted in no appreciable gain and high casualties.

A half hour later, Clayton's division attacked the enemy line on both sides of Ezra Church, his movement a messy piecemeal advance (highlighted by the astounding sacrifice of Gibson's Brigade) that ground up his division. At this point, Hood abandoned his original plan and sent Stewart in support of Lee. Stewart guided his leading division (Edward Walthall's) into the worst possible avenue of attack, the roughly same ground crossed by Brown but now newly reinforced by fresh troops from the Union Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps. Walthall's attack, which was launched at 2 p.m. and lasted roughly an hour in duration, did little more than add greatly to the Confederate casualty list. Thankfully for the Confederate rank and file, the wounding in rapid succession of Stewart and W.W. Loring (the general commanding the division immediately behind Walthall's) resulted in the battle petering out with no further assaults on that day.

As with all his previous works, the author's battle narrative in Slaughter at the Chapel is superb. While it certainly helps that the actual battle was fought in distinct stages, Ecelbarger organizes his account of the battle in a clear manner, skillfully weaving small unit tactical detail with astutely informed leadership analysis and terrain appreciation. His efforts are supported by an excellent set of 11 maps, which trace the movements and positions of individual regiments as much as possible while also emphasizing the sloping, heavily wooded nature of the battlefield. Readers are familiar with descriptions of the extremely rugged nature of the ground fought over north of the Chattahoochee River during the initial phases of the Georgia Campaign, but it does deserve repeating that the fighting ground immediately around Atlanta itself was often little more conducive to organized military maneuver, and the maps do a good job of demonstrating that reality. With essentially no artillery and only the most rudimentary of temporary breastworks located along the battle line, a persuasive argument is made in the book that the primary difference maker in the battle was superior Union command and control (trumping previously raised issues like terrain advantages or more effective Union firepower*). The Confederate officer corps, already decimated by the relentlessness of the 1864 campaign (especially at the lowest level, with captains frequently leading regiments), was further brutalized at all command levels and at each phase of the Ezra Church battle.

Given Lee's very poor performance in corps command (demonstrating at Ezra Church the same leadership weaknesses displayed earlier at the Battle of Tupelo), Ecelbarger's willingness to assign much responsibility for the disaster at the feet of Lee is rather surprisingly restrained. His point that the Union forces might have put to equally good use the time that the impatient Lee could have used to assemble both of his divisions for a coordinated attack is well taken to some degree, but it cannot entirely excuse Lee's conduct, especially when only a relatively brief delay in attacking might have made an immense difference in the outcome of the battle. The author appropriately condemns Lee's rather shameful blaming of his men (who in actuality fought like lions) for a lack of spirit on the attack, as well as his collusion with Brown in scapegoating Manigault's Brigade.

Competing views on Lee's shortcomings aside, Ecelbarger is almost surely correct in placing most of the blame for the Ezra Church defeat upon Hood himself, who detained Lee within the Atlanta defense for nearly the entire morning. This act practically ensured that the Ezra Church heights would be already occupied by Howard's army by the time Lee arrived. The Confederate army commander also never personally visited the battlefield (though he was only a few miles away) while also neglecting to appoint a single leader for the action when both Lee and Stewart were present on the same battlefield. One might argue that Hood's absence was justified by his need to maintain overall direction of the army (and keep high level tabs on the Union cavalry raids to the south), but surely the Ezra Church movement was a moment in the campaign too critical to entrust entirely to the green S.D. Lee. William J. Hardee (even though he and Hood did not personally get along well) could surely have handled the relatively static Atlanta front while Hood was away.

If any one person could be described as the "hero" of Ecelbarger's narrative, that individual would be John A. Logan. Swallowing his pride at being replaced by Howard, Logan led the Fifteenth Corp magnificently during the Ezra Church battle, coolly coordinating the defense and inspiring his men. The author clearly believes that Logan, by his long and distinguished combat record and high degree of success handling increasing levels of responsibility, at the very least deserved more serious consideration for the post of permanent command of the Army of the Tennessee. Ecelbarger finds little reason to support Sherman's contention that a West Point-trained officer was essential to managing the administrative aspects of department and field army command.

While this review might give the impression that the book focuses more on the Confederate perspective, the study does provide equal attention to both sides. In addition to detailing the actions of Union division, brigade, and regimental officers that together served to produce the lopsided victory at Ezra Church, the book emphasizes the high degree of flexibility found within the command structure of the Army of the Tennessee. The book's account of the battle keenly notes numerous important moments when officers were instantly and unselfishly willing to coordinate with, and temporarily serve under, officers outside their own direct chain of command. This uncommon trait bore the greatest fruit during the mid-afternoon phase of the battle, when fresh regiments from the other two army corps were quickly and seamlessly inserted into the Fifteenth Corps defense line at a critical moment.

The appendix section of the book has three parts. The first consists of orders of battle, the second discusses the evolution of how Hood (through official reports and his memoir) sought to present the battle to posterity, and the last looks at the physical transformation of the battlefield between war's end and the present.

Slaughter at the Chapel is another clear winner from Gary Ecelbarger, demonstrating yet again why he is considered one of today's finest authors of Civil War battle history. With the publication of two admirable Ezra Church studies in as many years, a significant gap in the military historiography of the Atlanta Campaign has finally been satisfactorily bridged.



* - Below is a brief outline of some of the key differences (at least as I see them) between Gary Ecelbarger's Slaughter at the Chapel and Earl Hess's The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta (UNC Press, 2015). While giving the more highly effective Union command and control its just due, Hess credits Union terrain advantages (especially the ravines that effectively divided the battlefield) and superior fire discipline within the Army of the Tennessee for being instrumental to victory. Ecelbarger is much less convinced. He is also not persuaded by Hess's belief that a major component of Union success was their domination of the skirmish line (an argument that I found intriguing but too underdeveloped in Hess's book to properly assess). Far more sympathetic to Hood's command performance and giving more tactical credit to Howard than Ecelbarger does, Hess also believes that S.D. Lee should shoulder more of the responsibility for the battle's outcome, his own analysis determining that Lee operated too far beyond the acceptable bounds of Hood's orders. Just in terms of scope of content, Hess's study is the more expansive of the pair for the time periods before and after the battle. Slaughter at the Chapel's map set is much the superior of the two. Both tactical accounts of the fighting are top notch, and both convincingly mark the battle as the point when the Confederates lost the capacity to launch further offensives of a scale significant enough to seriously hinder Sherman's advance.


3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this interesting review. I also really appreciate the fact that your reviews often compare the book under review with previous books on the same topic. Very helpful in deciding which one(s) to buy. Looks like both the Ecelbarger and Hess books are keepers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, John.

      Beyond the issue of maps, I honestly couldn't endorse one over the other as being clearly superior.

      Delete
  2. Hi Drew
    Thanks for the review. Both sound great. From other postings, it is also good to know that both authors are going to continue working on Georgia Campaign.

    Don H.

    ReplyDelete

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