Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review - "Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War" by Earl Hess

[Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). Hardcover, 19 maps, 3 tables, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,294/417. ISBN:978-1-4696-4342-7. $45]

The publication of the third and final piece of Earl Hess's acclaimed eastern theater field fortifications trilogy1 back in 2009 undoubtedly left at least some readers hoping that the author might do the same for the western theater. It took a little while, but the answer to that question has finally been definitively answered with the release of Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War. The new study is a clear extension of the earlier work, sharing multiple elements of presentation and theme with the eastern trilogy (most closely from the Overland Campaign volume).

At its most basic level, Fighting for Atlanta is an operational history (and a good one at that) of the entire 1864 campaign in North Georgia. Admirably well balanced between Union and Confederate perspectives, the text is closely focused on the defining role of field works—the offensive (and later defensive) earthworks constructed by the Federals in opposition to the entirely defensive Confederate trench networks. While some Union regimental reports claim to have constructed as many as three dozen trench lines during five months of active movement, the book outlines at some length the eighteen major lines of fortifications that manifested themselves over the roughly one-hundred mile distance between Dalton, Georgia in the north and Palmetto Station south of Atlanta.

Like he did with his earlier trilogy, Hess appropriately attempts to raise awareness of the small corps of engineer officers that had such a large impact on how the Atlanta Campaign was conducted, the most important figures in this group being chief engineers Orlando Poe on the Union side and Stephen Presstman on the Confederate side. While Sherman's command had dedicated engineer regiments, both armies liberally employed pioneer detachments. Given the enormity of the work, however, it was the men in the ranks that did the overwhelming majority of the digging, and especially the refining, of the earthworks. It was the same on the Confederate side, though impressed blacks did most of the hard labor on the pre-planned Chattahoochee River and Atlanta City lines.

With the book's principal focus on field fortifications, it is at least understandable that the research is a bit more limited in range than it could otherwise have been, but the absence in the bibliography of some of the good to excellent recent battles studies (ex. those of Jenkins, Ecelbarger, and Butkovich) is striking. On the other hand, the breadth of manuscript research is impressive and what we've come to expect from the author's excellent body of work. Hess scoured archives all across the country for firsthand references to Atlanta Campaign fortifications, and his study is immeasurably enriched by their perspectives and what they have to say regarding both technical details and what life was like in the trenches.

Similar to his study of the Overland Campaign, Hess finds that the Atlanta Campaign's opposing lines of extensive earthworks were not planned by either commander but rather the result of constant contact between the armies, with a noticeable acceleration after the Union breach of the Etowah River line. Like their compatriots in Virginia, soldiers in Georgia viewed digging as essential to their survival and sought protection at every opportunity, even though Sherman (and later Hood) greatly feared that the practice would harm the fighting spirit of the men when it became necessary to operate outside the trenches. Even given the North's material advantages in static warfare, Sherman studiously wanted to avoid anything approaching siege warfare, predicting that once forward momentum was killed it would be difficult to get moving again. Steady forward progress without the horrendous levels of combat casualties that were being suffered at the same time in the East also buoyed Union morale and confidence in ultimate success. On the Confederate side, while there's only limited primary source evidence to support the idea that the rank and file were greatly demoralized by Johnston's continuous retreats and abandonment of strong earthworks without a fight, there seems little doubt that the men were psychologically run down and physically fatigued to a significant degree by months of constant duty in the trenches.

In the book Hess also draws similarities between the Overland and Atlanta campaigns when it came to the skirmish line and the eventual Union dominance of that critical space being a key factor in their overall success. The book documents how manpower losses on the skirmish line often met and even exceeded levels experienced during major battles. Some units reported that over half their casualties for the entire campaign occurred during skirmishing. The author persuasively attributes much of this acquired Union supremacy to extremely liberal expenditures of rifle and artillery ammunition, levels that the far more logistically-constrained Confederates could not hope to match. Losing pickets and skirmishers as prisoners (or deserters) was also a major problem. During the entire war, both sides struggled with balancing the need to deploy skirmishers in numbers sufficient enough to keep the enemy at a distance but not so many that the parent units would suffer crippling losses when the skirmish line was overrun during a sudden enemy rush. It would seem logical to suggest that the excessively passive nature of the Confederate defense during Johnston's tenure (in combination with their opponent's highly aggressive posturing) made the southern army particularly vulnerable to disproportionate losses of this kind.

The author's earlier work on eastern theater fortifications was criticized in some quarters for not delving into enough granular detail on earthwork design elements and construction. Though the Atlanta Campaign book still lacks engineering drawings like those seen in the manuals of the period, the descriptive text does remedy some of the older complaints. For visual reinforcement, Hess also makes good use of the famous Barnard photographs. Additionally, for those most interested in such things, the book has a fairly extensive appendix that offers further information regarding trench attributes and their supporting obstructions (the last a major component of what made Atlanta Campaign field fortifications so exceptionally daunting to attack). In addition to briefly comparing Union and Confederate design practices, the section delves into the processes of earthwork siting and construction, and it even discusses the tools involved.

The maps are another source of legitimate complaint. While plentiful, they are rather spartan in appearance and limited in features, lacking scale and much in the way of tactical-level terrain landmarks. There are some insightful inserts here and there, but the hand-drawn maps mostly offer only a modest representation of the general extent of the many lines of earthworks described in the text. Some of the defense lines (for example, those associated with the August 31 Jonesboro battle, the opposing lines at Lovejoy Station, and the Union tĂȘte de pont on the Chattahoochee) are missing support drawings altogether.

The 'tactics' of the book's subtitle do not refer to the unit formations and battlefield tactics employed in overcoming fortifications in front but rather the use of trench lines themselves as tactical tools in support of operational goals. Hess builds a persuasive argument that Sherman's mastery of the tactical employment of trenches, combined with Johnston's failure to adapt, was a decisive factor in Union success. Whenever the federal armies confronted Confederate defenses, they rapidly constructed a closely conforming line of offensive trenches (still imposing in nature but lacking ditches and other obstructions that would inordinately impede attacking from them). This offensive-defensive line would then be as thinly manned as calculated risk would permit, freeing up entire corps and even full armies for sweeping movements around Confederate lines. That Johnston consistently abandoned without much of a fight his carefully constructed fortifications in the face of this strategy only encouraged Sherman to continue with it. The terminally risk-averse Johnston was never willing to leave a skeleton force in his own trenches and gather the balance of his army to directly confront Sherman's moves around either flank. Hess is probably right that the ultimate result would likely have been the same if Johnston had done so, but intercepting Sherman's columns would not necessarily have resulted in a series of bloodbaths and any significant slowing of the pace of the Union advance (which was almost unbelievably rapid) could have had major political consequences in the North. Others both within and outside the Army of Tennessee tried without success to impress upon Johnston the need to create some kind of countermeasures to Sherman's winning strategy. The Confederate defense line created by Francis Shoup2 on the north side of the Chattahoochee was specifically designed to house the smallest number of defenders in order to free up troops to contest the upstream and downstream river crossings of the enemy, but Johnston declined to even consider the opportunity.

Finally, the book also stresses the critically-important impact of environment and terrain on operational movements as well as the characteristics and features of the field fortification systems that supported them. The upland zone of operations (with its tall and long north-south ridges and protected valleys) favored Sherman's preferred offensive strategy of bypassing Confederate prepared positions, while the extremely rugged lowlands between the mountains and Atlanta (which were filled with thick vegetation and crisscrossed by gullies and rivers) enhanced the defense. The Union advance significantly slowed in this region, and the Confederates put the area's ready supply of vast wood resources to good use in revetting earthworks and constructing huge expanses of slashing and abatis along with supporting palisades, chevaux de frise, and angled stakes. The environmental impact of this mass consumption of previously undeveloped natural resources, especially the harvesting of timber for obstructions, would linger for decades and represents another point of relative contrast between the Atlanta and Overland campaign fortifications.

Full of insights, some familiar to readers of Hess's prior work and others freshly new in their application to the 1864 Georgia Campaign, Fighting for Atlanta is another indispensable contribution to the study of Civil War field fortifications. With other topics like coastal and river defenses still available for similarly fruitful treatment, one hopes that the author is not done just yet.

1 - All from UNC Press, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (2005), Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (2007), and In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (2009).
2- The famous "Shoupades" that formed the distinguishing feature of the Chattahoochee River Line are briefly but usefully discussed in the text. While they received decidedly mixed reviews from Confederate troops accustomed to continuous lines of earthen fortification, the effectiveness of the Shoupades' enclosed (and mostly mutually supporting) infantry bastions spaced eighty yards apart and connected by wood palisades buttressed by detached batteries was never tested in battle and the experiment never repeated.

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