Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Review of Allison - "ATTACKED ON ALL SIDES: The Civil War Battle of Decatur, Georgia, the Untold Story of the Battle of Atlanta"

[Attacked On All Sides: The Civil War Battle of Decatur, Georgia, the Untold Story of the Battle of Atlanta by David Allison (CreateSpace-Author, 2018). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. 372 pp. ISBN:9781977761903. $26]

Of the series of battles fought in North Georgia during the critical summer of 1864, the July 22 fighting was the bloodiest and arguably the most dramatic of the entire campaign. There's a reason the events of that day came to be known as the Battle of Atlanta. With the epic confrontation on and around Bald Hill appropriately dominating modern descriptions and interpretations of the battle, the much smaller and far less significant same-day engagement fought a short distance to the east at Decatur has received comparatively little attention. Though appropriately linking Decatur and Bald Hill, the new standard history of the July 22 battle, Gary Ecelbarger's The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta, devotes less than a handful of pages to the former, a small cavalry versus infantry showdown on the far right flank of General Hood's audacious swing around the southern end of General Sherman's converging army group. David Allison's Attacked On All Sides: The Civil War Battle of Decatur, Georgia, the Untold Story of the Battle of Atlanta gives Decatur its first full-length treatment and appreciation.

The book begins with a hefty background section. In addition to broadly tracing army movements leading up to the battle and describing at some length the Decatur town layout and environs, the author offers brief biographical sketches of major figures involved in the battle (with a strong focus on those that authored accounts of the action) and the units that fought there. As is often the case, the small size of the Decatur battle allows space in the text for more extensive profiles of the regiments and batteries engaged. Though supported by a small cavalry detachment and reinforced late, the Union defense of Decatur in the main consisted of only a single infantry brigade (63rd Ohio, 25th Wisconsin, 35th New Jersey, the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, and a section of Michigan guns) commanded by Colonel John W. Sprague [Second Brigade, Fourth Division, Sixteenth Corps]. The attacking force consisted of a large part of Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry, this mounted host significantly outnumbering Sprague's infantry in the fight. The rich prize at Decatur was the estimated 1,600 wagons composing the entirety of the Army of the Tennessee's ordnance and supply trains.

In its integration of numerous published and unpublished firsthand military and civilian accounts, the informational content of Allison's battle narrative impresses. A more seasoned practitioner might have weaved the primary source material together with less repetition, but the high level of granular detail provided by Allison in regard to unit positions, tactical movements, and their relationships to established landmarks throughout the estimated three hours of fighting allows the reader to follow the course of the battle with a reasonable degree of understanding. There are some unfortunate missteps along the way. Though a pair of maps depicting the town layout at different scales is included, the author commits the cardinal sin of publishing a battle book without a battle map of any kind. The general course of the fighting is readily extracted from the text, but some finer points are easily lost without map guidance. On another presentational note, while the study is extensively annotated the author's common practice of further interjecting bracketed editor's notes into the main text is frequently and unnecessarily distracting.

In convincing fashion, Allison does not try to prop up the historical significance of the Decatur engagement, nor does he exaggerate any of the proposed 'lost opportunity' elements of the battle. Though the author justly compliments Wheeler's execution of his dismounted cavalry attack while also crediting Sprague for conducting an able defense of the town, the numerical disparity, though great, was not overwhelming. Even heavily outnumbered Civil War infantry typically did well fighting enemy cavalry, and this fact combined with powerful Union artillery support and subsequent reinforcement meant that Wheeler's chances for sweeping aside Sprague and destroying the vast Union wagon train were much slimmer than they might have appeared at first glance.

After Wheeler pushed the blue defenders through and beyond the town, he was directed to break off his own attack and join General Hardee's struggling main assault off to the west. While some have observed that this was a grave mistake that might have saved a large part of the Army of the Tennessee's transportation from destruction, Allison, like others have also suggested, is likely more correct in determining that Wheeler would have found much more than be bargained for north of Decatur if his assault had been continued.

The book also devotes a great deal of attention to the aftermath of the battle. As was the case with the battle itself, Union press accounts and sources regarding casualties are more numerous than their Confederate counterparts and more complete. A large percentage of Union losses were in prisoners (though not great enough to indicate any kind of general rout), and Allison also explores connections between these men and both the infamous Andersonville prison and the Sultana maritime disaster.

Allison also extends his biographical profiles begun earlier in the study into the post-battle and postwar periods. With the help of Lisa Rickey and Blaise Arena, the book devotes special attention to the lives of three Battle of Decatur participants (Howard Forrer and Solomon Spitler of the 63rd Ohio, and John Fleming of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery). All three chapters are worthwhile reading, but Rickey's lengthy and extensively researched recounting of Forrer's life and death is particularly noteworthy.

Mostly in areas of format and presentation, David Allison's Attacked On All Sides possesses some of the quirks and foibles commonly found in self-publishing, but the study's overall quality and value greatly exceeds what we typically get from that source. In addition to having significant local history appeal, the book, which explores the July 22 fight at Decatur at unprecedented depth, should grab the attention of students of the Atlanta Campaign as well.

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