Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of Davis: "A LONG AND BLOODY TASK: The Atlanta Campaign from Dalton through Kennesaw to the Chattahoochee, May 5-July 18, 1864"

[A Long and Bloody Task: The Atlanta Campaign from Dalton through Kennesaw to the Chattahoochee, May 5-July 18, 1864 by Stephen Davis (Savas Beatie, 2016). Softcover, 12 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, OB, reading list. 192 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-317-1. $14.95]

It's a bit ironic that a series calling itself Emerging Civil War has thus far hearkened back to an earlier time in Civil War publishing, disproportionately lavishing its attention upon the big eastern theater battles. Of its extensive run of current titles, less than a handful deal with the western theater and none address the fighting in the Trans-Mississippi. Thankfully, with Franklin and Shiloh entries already in the queue, a pattern change is in the air. Stephen Davis is another ECW contributor going West, taking on the 1864 Georgia Campaign in two volumes, the first being A Long and Bloody Task: The Atlanta Campaign from Dalton through Kennesaw to the Chattahoochee, May 5-July 18, 1864. The second, All the Fighting They Want: The Atlanta Campaign, from Peachtree Creek to the Surrender of the City, July 18-September 2, 1864, will follow later this year.

A Long and Bloody Task offers an operational level narrative and tour of the first two and a half months of the Atlanta Campaign. Davis, the author of an introductory history of the campaign and a lengthy treatment of the bombardment of Atlanta, here constructs a fine overview of military events in North Georgia. Of course, detailed accounts of Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Pickett's Mill, and Kennesaw Mountain are out of the question given the space and format considerations of the series, but the author explains succinctly and well the operational maneuvering of both sides. In a long sequence of action-reaction steps, William T. Sherman's army group neutralized the enemy's terrain advantages by constantly levering Joe Johnston out of strong defensive positions by using wide flanking movements to the west, shifting to the east only after reaching the Chattahoochee River line. The book's many maps are at a corresponding high level of perspective, for the most part tracing corps movements and drawing general battle lines rather than zooming in at a tactical level.

In his command discussions, Davis (like many others) contrasts the indifferent battlefield management skills of Sherman with the general's considerable and oft demonstrated operational level acumen. While the author notes Sherman's general aversion to fighting bloody set piece battles, he also paints a portrait of a man with an exceptionally callous attitude toward casualties when battles proved necessary (a controversial assessment drawn in the book from pretty thin context). For the Confederate side, Davis is sharply critical of Johnston's fatalistic passivity and general lack of imagination in handling his end of fighting the campaign. The author also rejects the popular assignment of blame to corps commander John Bell Hood as the spoiler of Johnston's alleged golden opportunity for a masterstroke at Cassville.

Some ECW series titles integrate their driving tours into the main narrative while others keep it separate. Davis's is among the latter group. The tour feature of A Long and Bloody Task has five main stops, with detailed driving instructions and one or more site visits at Dalton, Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Pickett's Mill, Gilgal Church, Pine Mountain, and Kennesaw Mountain. Six appendices are included, among them a longer look at Pickett's Mill, a writer's personal reminiscences of visiting Kennesaw Mountain, a glance at the remains of the Chattahoochee River Line defenses, and a discussion of Union engineering and logistics. In the final two, Davis refutes the opinion long held by some that keeping Johnston in command was the best hope for saving Atlanta and ponders the state of the post-Centennial Hood historiography while also summarizing the most recent developments (with more promised for Volume 2).

Certainly not intended as any kind of replacement for Albert Castel's magnum opus or any of an increasing number of specialized battle studies, Stephen Davis's A Long and Bloody Task serves a different purpose as a concise yet authoritative history of the opening period of the Atlanta Campaign, one accompanied by a similarly broad brushstroke driving tour.


  1. Thank you for the in-depth review of A Long and Bloody Task! We appreciate all of your thoughtful comments and feedback. Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:

  2. For me, the first half of the Atlanta Campaign is one of my favorite aspects of the whole war. To see it get any treatment is excellent.
    May have to look into this title. And, hopefully, someone convinces Savas Beatie or someone else to write a book length study on Resaca.


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