Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hess: "KENNESAW MOUNTAIN: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign"

[Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign by Earl Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Hardcover, 21 maps, table, photos, orders of battle, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:242/337. ISBN:978-0-4696-0211-0 $35]

Although several 1864 Atlanta Campaign overview histories have been published, by far the deepest being Albert Castel's deservedly celebrated Decision in the West (1992), battle studies remain scarce. Thankfully, Earl Hess has addressed this deficiency for the period from late June through early July in exemplary fashion with his new book Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign.

The meat of the book begins with Kolb's Farm, but the set up text and maps together comprise one of the best summarizations in brief (less than 30 pages) of the military campaign up to that point, accounting for nine successive Confederate fortified lines between Dalton and Kennesaw Mountain, but particularly useful in understanding the period June 5 - June 19. A full chapter is devoted to Kolb's Farm, a battle that highlighted both John Bell Hood's inaptitude for higher levels of command and the growing danger to the left flank of Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, which was deployed in a semi-circular line covering Marietta and anchored on the twin eminences of Big and Little Kennesaw.

For the June 27 Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, General Sherman committed only eight brigades from his massive army group. Although skirmish fire broke out all along the front, the relatively small number of isolated attacks afforded Hess the opportunity to explore each attack in detail, a task he attends to with the considerable descriptive and analytical skill one expects from one of today's very best Civil War military historians.

The battlefield terrain, the extremely rugged natural landscape as well as the field fortifications designed by the Confederates to exploit any advantages offered by the local geography, played a critical role in breaking up and stalling the Union assaults. In Kennesaw Mountain, readers of Hess's earlier three-volume series on eastern theater field fortifications will find the same depth and type of information for the fieldworks around Kennesaw. The battlefield today offers the best example of a continuous line of preserved earthworks in the entire park system, and their shape and arrangement at key points are wonderfully illustrated by the author's field note-based drawings. The locations and course of other features, like skirmisher pits, traverses, reserve lines, redoubts, batteries, and communication trenches, are also traced [note: most of this material is located in the appendix]. The only complaint associated with the maps is the rather bare look to them.  With the focus on unit locations and defensive line arrangements, the drawings omit natural terrain features outside of streams and ridge lines.

Each attack -- Fifteenth Corps opposite Pigeon Hill, the Fourth Corps fronting Patrick Cleburne's division south of the Dallas Road, and the Fourteenth Corps against Cheatham Hill -- is minutely detailed. The latter, famously undertaken by the brigades of McCook and Mitchell and the one lodged closest to the Confederate works, has slightly more space devoted to it. This is understandable, given the great level of sustained fighting and the post-battle controversy over whether more might have been achieved if the gallant McCook had not fallen. A factor common to each attack was the deep column formation employed, a choice lamented by both contemporary officers and modern historians. Thick undergrowth and deep gullies located between the lines served to break up the columns before contact, and enemy regiments, able to concentrate their fire both directly and obliquely upon a narrow front, induced the Union attackers to go to ground, stalling the assault. Hess makes an excellent additional point in questioning the decision to deploy each brigade in a column of regiments. By this time in the war, regiments were so reduced in size that the width of the columns were imprudently narrow. Sherman himself comes under a great deal of criticism in the literature (much of it deserved) for tactical blundering on many battlefields, but it should be remembered for Kennesaw that he left it to his subordinates to choose where and how to conduct their attacks. In addition to an unusual, but refreshing, amount of attention paid to formation arrangements, Hess also fashions in these chapters one of the literature's best characterization of the type of brutal and sustained close-range fighting associated with the perfection of field fortifications and no-man's-land obstructions during the final year of the war.

In addition to the heavier assaults, the same day extension of the Union right flank and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps demonstrations against Big Kennesaw and the Confederate far right are also recounted. The book ends with Sherman's reinforcement in the days following the battle of the flank march begun on the 27th. This movement forced Johnston to once again abandon a strongly fortified position, stopping briefly at Smyrna Station before retreating south across the Chattahoochee River.

Hess's history of the battle certainly offers little that would aid Sherman's attempts at self-justification in the wake of his army group's failed Kennesaw assaults. The fear (unrealistic as it was in hindsight) that Johnston might detach part of his army to reinforce Lee in Virginia was present throughout the entire campaign, with nothing particularly distinguishing Kennesaw from other enemy positions that were turned rather than attacked. It is also equally puzzling to reader and author alike that, given how easily and quickly Johnston was flanked out of his Kennesaw position after the battle, Sherman would have deemed it necessary to attack the strongest works he'd yet encountered. There was no reason to believe that Johnston would not yet again simply retreat when threatened. Similarly, there is nothing exceptional about the Kennesaw position that should have induced Sherman to believe his own communications vulnerable there any more than any of the other times he temporarily abandoned them in order to conduct turning movements. The only line of reasoning that Hess seems to have at least some sympathy for is the 'experiment' argument, with Sherman testing the defenses with a deliberately small part of his army in order to reduce the consequences of any failure. Even here, the extent of the casualties would argue against this. Regardless, the defeat was minor in the overall scheme of things, and Sherman quickly righted the ship, getting back to the maneuver warfare he did best.

Demonstrating exhaustive research, abundant visual aids, and unusually thoughtful approaches to operational and tactical discussion and analysis, Kennesaw Mountain is everything serious Civil War military history readers want from modern battle studies. Beyond this more general appreciation of the value of Earl Hess's work, the completely satisfying manner in which this book bridges a significant gap in the Atlanta Campaign historiography makes it all the more indispensable to the Civil War library.

More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* 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


  1. Hello Drew

    I'd ordered this book with high expectations prior to reading your review. Based on the review, I won't be disappointed. I think this is the author's 3rd published book in the last year.

    I hope he has another project in mind.

    Thanks for the review
    Don Hallstrom

  2. Don and Drew,

    I started reading this one the moment it arrived, and I'm into the late wrap-up chapters now. Don, you won't be disappointed. It's a great book, and Drew did his usual thorough job touching on all of the key points. Earl Hess has gotten to the point where I read his books the moment they come out. I cannot say that about anyone else currently.

  3. Drew: Thanks for this review. I echo what Brett has said. I haven't read the book yet, but have skimmed it and as usual Hess adds value with his own by-now standard diagrams of fortifications and entrenchments. I continue to be amazed that an author who is this prolific manages to turn out top quality work every time. Your observation about the maps is "spot on" - but these days I'm just happy that a publisher agrees to include maps at all.

  4. It's definitely an early contender for best battle study of 2013.

  5. Sounds great.

    Having been to the battlefield a couple of times, when you stand on Pigeon Hill you have to shake your head at the bravery of the attacking Union forces. They faced some terrible ground.

    I'm really looking forward to this much detail on the battle.


  6. Hello Drew

    My copy arrived today. Looks like a great book.

    I was reading the preface and Prof. Hess mentions an ongoing project on fortifications. I would say based on his previous work and some of the subject of this book, that he must be considered one of the experts on this subject?


  7. Looking forward to getting this book. We did some research at Kennesaw for our book and WOW what a battlefield!!! Hiking both MTs gave me a new appreciation for the soldiers in battle here. My husbands Great Grand father "Ambrose" fought there with Sherman. I am sure the book will be hard to put down when it gts here to me.


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