Friday, December 3, 2010

Ecelbarger: "THE DAY DIXIE DIED: The Battle of Atlanta"

[The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta by Gary Ecelbarger (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).  Hardcover, 13 maps, illustrations, OB, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:249/317. ISBN:978-0-312-56399-8  $26.99]

Gary Ecelbarger's The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta is the first full length treatment of the bloody July 21-22 fight east of the city, remarkable for the death of Union Army of the Tennessee commander James B. McPherson and intense clashes around local landmarks like Bald Hill and the "white house" of the Widow Pope. Professional and avocational historians alike have been remarkably reluctant to write histories of the battles that together comprise the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. In some ways, it is understandable in the sense that the battles were often chronologically close together and only decisive in a cumulative sense, but far smaller and less significant Civil War fights have been treated to impressive works of military historical value. Ecelbarger does not say so in so many words but his study impresses upon the reader the truth that Confederate general John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee, at best, had the strength remaining for one coordinated assault capable of crushing a portion of General Sherman's army group. July 22, 1864 was that effort and The Day Dixie Died demonstrates well its author's assertion that it was the most decisive battle of arguably the war's most decisive campaign.

Ecelbarger begins his study with a brief description of the fighting atop Bald Hill two miles east of Atlanta between the Confederate divisions of Patrick Cleburne and Joseph Wheeler and a pair of divisions from Frank Blair's 17th Corps under Giles A. Smith and Mortimer Leggett. It was an episode characterized less by a brilliant defense than excessive caution (again in a critical moment of the campaign) on the part of James B. McPherson. His army strongly positioned against Hood's weakest flank, he failed to move aggressively, likely forfeiting a golden opportunity to capture Atlanta.

All phases of the next day's battle are well documented in the book. The original plan of having William J. Hardee's corps conduct a night march around McPherson's southern flank, capture Decatur, and move west to attack the federal left rear, proved to be unrealistic. The alternate plan, fixed on the fly, was for Hardee's force (four divisions led by W.H.T. Walker, Patrick Cleburne, William Bate, and George Maney) to hit the Union left directly at its southern terminus, while Wheeler's cavalry division moved northeast to capture the federal trains at Decatur. Additionally, Benjamin Cheatham's corps (the divisions of Carter L. Stevenson, John C. Brown, and Henry Clayton's) together with Gustavus Smith's four brigades of Georgia militia, would launch a diversionary attack directly east from Atlanta.

The cavalry under Wheeler fulfilled their mission of capturing Decatur, but failed to prevent the escape of the  Army of the Tennessee's immense wagon train (estimated at 1,600 teams). The infantry attack went even worse, with Walker's division wasted in frontal brigade sized assaults against the unexpected presence of Grenville Dodge's understrength16th Corps (a pair of well led divisions under the Thomas Sweeny and John Fuller). Cleburne's division advanced west of Walker, passing through a gaping wooded gap between 16th and 17th Corps and striking the division of Giles Smith. Smith's bluecoats manned the refused flank of the Union army a half mile south of Bald Hill. Maney's division deployed on Cleburne's left and rear, and together they drove the Union forces from the lower works and back on Bald Hill. There, with the aid of timely reinforcements, the defenders stiffened.

The circumstances surrounding the death of McPherson inside the wooded area in Cleburne's front is covered well by Ecelbarger, as well as its consequences, short lived as they may have been, to army cohesion. The ascension of 15th Corps commander John A. Logan to head the Army of the Tennessee in mid battle sent ripples down the chain of command caused a temporary confusion within an army already back on its heels from relentless, if badly disjointed, Confederate assaults.

Cheatham's "diversion" was then launched en echelon from right to left, penetrating the Union line in two places, at the point where the Georgia Railroad and Decatur Road passed through the works1 and through a short section works one half mile to the south. Both breakthroughs were effectively contained and eliminated by the determined efforts of Logan and his subordinates. A final Confederate evening assault by a division sized force assembled ad-hoc by Patrick Cleburne failed to break the federal left and the battle finally ended.

Ecelbarger rightly points toward coordination problems, either through early leadership casualties, terrain difficulties, or typical command failures, for the inability of Confederate forces to achieve more on July 22 to compensate for the loss of approximately 6,000 men (against less than 4,000 for U.S. forces). Heat and exhaustion from the long march led to heavy straggling, as well. The author's enumeration of leadership casualties, with 30 general and field grade officers lost in a single day, is testament to the ferocity of the battle and the degree to which the fighting decapitated Hardee's Corps, crippling its effectiveness for the rest of the campaign.

The author also clears up some the popular mythology surrounding the battle, especially the notion that Sherman withheld reinforcements to the Army of the Tennessee, preferring to allow them to avenge McPherson's death on their own. In truth, substantial reinforcements were present or immediately available. Ecelbarger's timing of events also highlights the implausibility of claims that Union defenders frequently hopped back and forth across their own breastworks, repelling simultaneous assaults from both directions.

The battle narrative in The Day Dixie Died is presented at a mixture of brigade and regimental scales. Some readers might wish for more regimental level detail, but even the most demanding students of tactical minutiae will be largely satisfied with Ecelbarger's writing. The maps, thirteen excellent full page creations by noted cartographer George Skoch, match the scale presented in the text in terms of troop positions and movements, with terrain features also finely rendered.

In the nitpicking department, a pair of important commanders left the narrative a bit soon. Hardee disappears once the fighting begins, and Wheeler similarly leaves the scene after his capture of Decatur and attenuated pursuit. Perhaps the author subconsciously subscribes to Thomas Schott's2 contention that Civil War historians place too much emphasis on a corps commander's ability to influence events after the first bullets fly. It's also unclear if the failure to detect Dodge's 16th Corps was a reconnaissance omission on Wheeler's part or a consequence of an altered plan leaving no mounted units to spare for screening the infantry advance. Regardless, Confederate intelligence gathering was abysmal.

On the spectrum of tactical depth, The Day Dixie Died lies somewhere in between that found in popular military non-fiction and the author's previous work on the Battles of Kernstown and Winchester/Front Royal. Generally speaking, it is a very workable compromise that should satisfy readers in both camps. The essential canon of Atlanta Campaign military studies, pitifully small as it may be, has a significant addition with this highly recommended study.

1 - This is the scene depicted in the famous cyclorama painting, a part of which is reproduced in the book.
2 - Published in essay form in Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr. (University of Tennessee Press, 2010).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I think many more books should be written on individual battles of the Atlanta campaign.

    Bragg and Hood were the two most aggressive commanders of the Army of the Tennessee and the most luckless (for the most part). Too bad there couldn't be a new book comparing and contrasting their leadership of the Army of Tennessee.



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