Thursday, March 30, 2023

Review - " July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta " by Earl Hess

[July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta by Earl J. Hess (University Press of Kansas, 2023). Hardcover, 27 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvii,313/428. ISBN:978-0-7006-3396-8. $44.95]

When the Confederate Army of Tennessee under new commanding general John Bell Hood was in the middle of launching what was hoped to be a decisive blow against General George Thomas's Army of the Cumberland along Peachtree Creek on July 20, 1864, the eastern approaches to Atlanta became more exposed in the process. Poised to exploit that vulnerability was General James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee, which was inching toward the city from that direction with the tiny Army of the Ohio vainly attempting to fill the gap between McPherson's right and Thomas's left. Fortunately for the Confederates, the slow tempo of operations east of Atlanta gave Hood, who failed to do much damage to Thomas's command in his first engagement as an army commander, just enough time to respond to the threat.

Its supporting cavalry detached on a raiding expedition, McPherson's cautious advance eventually reached Atlanta's outer defenses, where heavy skirmishing took place on July 21. The next day, after a long and tiring night march around McPherson's open flank, General William J. Hardee's corps, supported hours later on its left by General B.F. Cheatham's corps, launched a furious assault on McPherson's army. Through the opposition's fortuitous placement of reserves (though relatively small in number, those defenders occupied a strong position well behind the federal left), Hardee's four-division attack made only limited gains against the Army of the Tennessee's flank and rear. Defining events on that sector of the battlefield included the desperate fighting around Bald Hill and the death of McPherson. However, stabilizing one front weakened another, and marshaling reinforcements to aid in the repulse of Hardee's Corps dangerously thinned the Union front line opposite Cheatham's fresher divisions. Benefiting from that, Cheatham's attackers scored a breakthrough against the Fifteenth Corps. Mortal danger was quickly averted, though, as Union lines were swiftly restored through a well-coordinated response from the Army of the Tennessee and its new commander, General John A. Logan. The heavy action east of Atlanta on that day likely resulted in over 10,000 combined casualties and was arguably the most dramatic event of the entire campaign.

Until very recently, most of the 1864 battles fought in North Georgia between Rocky Face Ridge and Jonesboro have not received book-length histories of their own. Albert Castel's classic campaign history, still the best available, offers good information about the July 22 battle, but Gary Ecelbarger's The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta (2010) finally gave it its first full standalone treatment. Now, more than a decade later, we have in Earl Hess's July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta the most comprehensive account of the battle yet published.

Utilizing an expansive research effort typical of his work, Hess creates a very detailed yet readily comprehensible picture of the July 22 battle. No previous account has exhibited this degree of depth when it comes to tactical-level interpretation of the battle. All of that description and analysis is augmented by a very large map set of excellent quality, the professional cartography commissioned for this book being a dramatic improvement over the author's self-drawn output of recent years.

The study's analytical range encompasses tactical, operational, and strategic aspects of the July 22 battle. The author appreciates the boldness and creativity of Hood's indirect approach to dealing with McPherson's threat, yet he also finds clear explanations as to why the ensuing attack on the enemy front, flank, and rear utterly failed to accomplish what it set out to do. It was a plan that promised excellent results on paper, and proved in large degree to be foiled by simple bad luck, but, as Hess notes, it also was representative of its designer's habit of underestimating the human factors involved along with the frictions commonly attached to all major operations. Some have claimed that the July 22 battle significantly disrupted Sherman's timetable, but, as Hess also points out, such arguments ring hollow in light of subsequent events.

On the Confederate side of the equation, a number of factors contributed to Hardee's inability to crush the Army of the Tennessee. Hess cites the great length of front involved, highly disruptive terrain effects (ex. many units had to navigate swampy bottomlands, negotiate a large pond, or thrash through dense thickets before coming to grips with the enemy), and the exhausting night march that preceded the assault. Of the two right-most divisions, the commander of one (General. W.H.T. Walker) was quickly killed and the other was poorly led. Even Patrick Cleburne's celebrated division (justly regarded as one of the army's most cohesive hard-hitters) attacked in largely piecemeal fashion on that day.

Indeed, lack of coordination within and between upper-echelon formations proved to be the bane of the Army of Tennessee's existence throughout the conflict. The consensus opinion among students of that star-crossed army is that its regimental and brigade-level leadership and fighting qualities were the equal of any army on either side, but that high level of competence and efficiency sharply diminished as one progressed up the army order of battle. Hess's views are fully in accord with that general observation, but his analysis of the July 22 battle reveals that, in many cases on that day, even the leadership and cohesion within brigades was losing its edge. Thus the sequence of disjointed, piecemeal attacks conducted by Army of Tennessee brigades on July 22, even though they did end up scoring some notable tactical successes, on the whole did not demonstrate their typical hard-hitting impact or their traditional steadiness on defense when faced with an enemy counterattack. Hess notes that only half of the brigades of Cheatham's corps (formerly Hood's) even made it into the fight. Earlier in the campaign, Hood's first impression of the corps that would eventually be handed to Cheatham was that its fighting quality rated among the lowest in the army. In his recent two-volume military biography of Hood, Stephen Davis strongly contests Hood's assessment, but Hess finds fault rather with Hood's failure to improve the corps during his tenure leading it. Going by the ease with which their gains were stopped and then erased, brigades from Cheatham's Corps in particular seemed more confused than elated by their success.

While Hardee's attack revealed many of the same command and control problems found during Cheatham's, Hess is much less inclined to question the competence of the army's senior corps commander for what happened on July 22. Keeping in mind that an estimated one-third of Hardee's strength was lost to straggling during the long, exhausting night march that preceded the assault, the author seems mostly content to forgive the corps' July 22 woes on the basis of simple exhaustion. Hess also attributes the atypical performance of Cleburne's Division primarily to that factor, its pre-battle exhaustion level heightened further by its involvement in heavy action on July 21. Nevertheless, both Hardee and Cheatham were able to produce moments of crisis for the Army of the Tennessee.

Of course, the other side obviously played an equal part in thwarting Hood's attack on July 22. Hess's narrative draws a very telling contrast between the friction-filled command structure of Hood's army and the Army of the Tennessee's well-oiled machine, which responded to each crisis with alacrity and firm, well-coordinated resolve on all levels. Even the loss of its commander in the middle of the battle, which necessitated a number of high command changes, seemed only minimally disruptive. A microcosm of this can be seen in the story of Mersy's Brigade. The unsung heroes of Hess's account, the brigade played key roles in both repulsing Hardee's flank attack and, on the other side of army's front versus Cheatham's men, pushing back and sealing off the startling enemy breakthrough near the railroad cut.

Recognizing that McPherson cut an inspiring leadership presence and was a more than competent administrator, Hess casts doubt on the very well-liked general's capacity for army-level battlefield command (at least at this stage of the young officer's career). While it didn't help that Sherman ordered his cavalry screen away, McPherson positioned his army for the events of July 22 with less than due diligence. Though the detachment that so roughly discomfited Hardee's two right divisions was expertly placed (and well managed by Grenville Dodge and other generals), the fact remains that the army's open left was far from adequately refused.

While the battle raged, General John M. Schofield, the commander of the Army of Ohio, proposed a major offensive counterstroke to relieve the Army of the Tennessee, but Sherman denied him with the famous, or infamous, quip that he was going to allow his former command to fight it out all by themselves. Oddly, that seems to most often be portrayed as as a positive sign of Sherman's calmness under fire and supreme confidence in the Army of the Tennessee. Hess, on the other hand, joins Schofield and others in the belief that Sherman missed a golden opportunity to perhaps cut off an entire third of Hood's army. How an offensive with that goal might have unfolded, or whether there was enough daylight left to achieve such a decisive result, is not fully explained.

Hess engages with other Atlanta Campaign historians throughout the book, most closely with Gary Ecelbarger, the author of the only other July 22 study that rivals his own in breadth and depth. From a readership perspective, an argument could be made that Ecelbarger's study most enticingly straddles the zone connecting popular and scholarly history, with Hess's book more firmly situated in the latter sphere. Unfortunately, when you title your book The Day Dixie Died critics of that view will tend to focus on that particular interpretive point and perhaps not give the book's other qualities the credit they are due. Indeed, the greatest divide between the two authors lies in their assessments of the strategic impact of the July 22 battle. Ecelbarger believes (at least at the time he wrote the book) that the fight was the campaign's decisive turning point and that it "wrecked the Confederate Army of Tennessee through and through" (The Day Dixie Died, pg. 215). In his view, that outcome rendered the fall of Atlanta inevitable and formed a key cog in the sequence of events leading up to President Lincoln's reelection. Though Hess's objections to that line of interpretation, as expressed in both preface and main text, are perhaps belabored, they do strike one as being more persuasive. In stark contrast, Hess portrays July 22 as a significant yet still just incremental step in a long series of interconnecting military events that formed the Atlanta Campaign. This more cautious approach to interpreting the battle's impact makes more room for the role of contingency and, in light of subsequent events such as the Battle of Ezra Church, strongly contests the notion conveyed by Ecelbarger that Hood's army was essentially wrecked by the end of the July 22 battle. Ezra Church battle histories from both authors (here and here), more similar to each other than their July 22 books, were published back to back in 2015-16, and one wonders if that research and writing process might have altered Ecelbarger's earlier views on the strategic-level significance of July 22.

In addition to his main battle narrative and multi-level analysis of it, Hess veers into many interesting side topics associated with the battle. The book's lengthy account of McPherson's death (an event that in some ways overshadowed popular memory of the rest of the battle) is nicely augmented by further insights into the memorialization of the popular general during and after the war. The saga of the Atlanta cyclorama painting is recounted at some length, that massive art form lauded by the author as being exceptionally accurate in its detailed portrayal of the battle. There are also some brief preservation remarks in the text. Due attention is given to the plight of the battle's wounded and disposition of the slain, too. Unfortunately, according to Hess's research, documentation that might narrow our estimates of Confederate losses (which range from an impossibly low 3,000 on up to an equally unlikely 10,000+) does not exist.

Other substantial writings on this topic, including those already mentioned above, certainly retain their value, but it's fair to say that Earl Hess's July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta possesses more than enough matching and unique strengths to consider it the new standard history of that event. Further narrowing remaining gaps in our understanding of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, this book is another great contribution from one of the masters of Civil War battle history writing.

1 comment:

  1. The sheer volume of Hess's work is staggering. Combined with the quality, it leaves one speechless.


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