Monday, June 24, 2019

Review - "Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation" by Larry Peterson

[Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Larry Peterson (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Softcover, 34 maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xx,262. ISBN:978-1-62190-472-4. $29.95]

All Command Decisions in America's Civil War series titles have substantial campaign elements1, but Larry Peterson's Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign: The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation is the first to shift the focus from a single major battle to an extended campaign consisting of multiple large-scale clashes. In this case, the book follows the course of the Atlanta Campaign from December 1863 through September 1864. This higher level approach involves more decision-making at the national and departmental levels, but the structural format of the analysis remains the same.

For those unfamiliar with the series (the rest of you can skip this paragraph), the basic definition of a "critical" decision as established by creator Matt Spruill remains consistent among now several contributors. It can be articulated as an apex decision that shapes "not only the events immediately following it but also the events from that point on" (xii). Analysis of critical decisions progresses through five areas with the subheadings Situation, Options, Decision, Results/Impact, and Alternative Decisions and Scenarios. The initial and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a key crossroads moment in the campaign. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (two to four in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Results/Impact section recounts what happened and shows readers how those events shaped the rest of the battle and beyond. The Situation and Results/Impact sections frequently reference earlier decisions in a meaningful way, providing further evidence and vivid reminder that truly critical decisions have cascading consequences over a long campaign. Optional in previous volumes, every critical decision has an Alternative Decisions and Scenarios section in this book and each delves into reasonable alternative history conjecture(s) based on interesting choices not made. Photographs and twenty original maps accompany the decision analysis.

As was the case with the earlier battle-oriented installments, a broad range of decision types are involved, classified here as "strategic, operational, tactical, organizational, personnel, and logistical" (xii). As mentioned above, lower level tactical decisions feature far less prominently in this campaign study. As seems appropriate, Atlanta Campaign critical decisions were made exclusively by army commanders and above (previous volumes frequently featured corps, division, and even brigade-level decision-making). Of the twenty-one critical decisions, ten are tactical, four personnel related, three strategic, two organizational, one operational, and one logistical in nature. Six were made at the national level by Lincoln (1), Davis (3), and Grant (2); ten by Sherman at the departmental level; and five at army command level by McPherson (1), Johnston (3), and Hood (1). One might interpret the 17:7 disparity between Union and Confederate critical decisions as indicative of a campaign dominated by bold Union initiative matched against a more passive Confederate reactive approach.

These kinds of books don't lend themselves to conventional reviews so just a few examples will be taken from the book's critical decision analysis for brief discussion. This should offer prospective readers at least some sense of what to expect. Collectively, the six national decisions serve as ample reminder that high-level decisions made during the planning process often go a long way toward deciding the outcome of military campaigns before the fighting even starts. President Davis's decision to place General Joseph E. Johnston at the head of the Army of Tennessee, an act celebrated by many within the army, created the command match-up perhaps least favorable to Confederate hopes: a passive, risk-averse general (Johnston) versus an aggressive commander wedded to the indirect approach and well equipped to carry it out (Sherman). In terms of options, Davis could have chosen (1) a replacement for Bragg from among the Confederacy's short list of full generals, or (2) promoted a capable corps or division commander. Though he briefly entertained giving the job to General Hardee (who declined it), Davis felt himself constrained to follow option 1 and choose either Johnston or Beauregard. Of course, the choice was Johnston, whom Davis considered the lesser of those two evils, and the result was a disastrous Fabian strategy that failed to even slow let alone arrest Sherman's progress. In his alternative scenario discussion, Peterson is somewhat sympathetic of Davis's narrow mindset in that the author also finds a dearth of Confederate lieutenant generals suitable for major army command. He does mention some promising candidates, among the very short list Richard Taylor, but for some reason maintains that their then current positions made transfer unfeasible. The whole decision process is a signal reminder of how unnecessarily inflexible Davis was in selecting candidates for army command. It also highlights the Confederate high command's utter failure to both identify and groom promising young officers for higher military office. This contrasts sharply with what the Union Army was able to do so successfully with Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and others.

Sherman's critical decision to order General McPherson to take the Army of the Tennessee on a wide flanking march around the Confederate left and seize the railroad at Resaca promised great results right off the bat, but McPherson's own critical decision to pull back into Snake Creek Gap after the lightly defended town was within his grasp remains the subject of enduring controversy. McPherson's orders from Sherman allowed for two options: (1) advance through the gap and seize Resaca, cutting Johnston off from Atlanta; or (2) pull back to the gap and await reinforcements if heavy resistance was encountered. McPherson's decision to return all the way back to Snake Creek Gap after achieving an insignificant break in the railroad line north of Resaca is commonly considered one of the great 'lost opportunities' of the war. In the alternative scenario in which McPherson recognizes the weakness of the Resaca defenders and captures the town, the author sees Johnston as having only three options in response: attack, retreat, or surrender. Only the middle option seems likely. Most later observers consider McPherson's occupation of Resaca as tantamount to forcing Johnston to surrender (or at the very least lose most of his army as an effective fighting force), but Peterson reminds those taken to such exaggeration that an eastern escape route, though more difficult to traverse, was indeed available. He even provides a map of a possible line of retreat. However, even if the Confederate army survived it would have been in a very tight place after having been forced to concede both the railroad and the inside track to Atlanta to Sherman's still very fresh army group.

The final example is also the last critical decision made during the campaign. After John Bell Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta after his Jonesboro defeat, Sherman had two options: (1) pursue Hood's beaten army, or (2) withdraw back to captured Atlanta for well-earned rest and needed refit. Peterson sees Sherman's decision to rest as the most practical option. It resulted in Hood's army breaking contact and getting away without further harm, but one could argue that at this late stage of the campaign Atlanta itself (rather than the Army of Tennessee) had become the more pressing target. Atlanta and the weighty political rewards reaped by its conquest were already fairly won. At least for the moment, Hood could wait. Interestingly, Peterson does not figure Sherman's greatly weakened cavalry arm into the pursuit calculations. He also curiously did not incorporate how that came to be in any of his earlier critical decision discussions. As we know, Sherman sent his mounted forces off on long-range raiding operations that resulted in the destruction of a large proportion of his available cavalry.

Extensive driving tours are a main feature of series titles, and this one follows a 14-stop route between Chattanooga and Jonesboro. Each stop is usefully integrated into the main text's critical decision analysis. Detailed driving directions, 14 modern road maps, and numerous excerpts from historical accounts and official reports supplement the discussion. While the series overall does a fine job of maintaining format consistency, it should be mentioned that the rest of the volumes do not follow the Spruill titles (Stones River and Second Manassas) in offering additional detailed tactical maps in the tour section. Orders of battle, notes, bibliography, and index round out the volume.

The unique format of the Command Decisions in America's Civil War series continues to foster a disciplined approach to military decision analysis that promotes useful reflection and reconsideration of supposedly settled history and opinion2. Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign also successfully demonstrates that the established series format can be readily adapted to focus on more extensive military operations encompassing a string of major engagements. Recommended.

1 - The first four volumes in the series cover the Stones River, Second Manassas, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga battles. Similar to this one, another campaign installment has also been recently released for the 1862 Kentucky Campaign. As for whether the series format is better suited for battle vs. campaign topics, I would reserve judgment/opinion until there are more examples of the latter.
2 - The series is broadly effective in countering arguments that the critical decisions evaluated within are frequently self-evident in nature and their analysis conventional.

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