Friday, May 31, 2024

Review - "The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta" and "The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City" by David Powell

[The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta by David A. Powell (Casemate Publishers, 2024). Softcover, timeline, maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, index. Pp. 128. ISBN:978-1-63624-289-7. $24.95]
[The Atlanta Campaign, 1864: Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City by David A. Powell (Casemate Publishers, 2024). Softcover, timeline, maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, reading list, index. Pp. 128. ISBN:978-1-63624-291-0. $24.95]

The 1864 Atlanta (or North Georgia) Campaign can be neatly divided into two distinct phases. The first, contested between May and the middle of July, stretched from Dalton, Georgia to the Chattahoochee River, and it ended with the shocking mid-campaign replacement of Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston with John Bell Hood. While that period witnessed some sharp fighting in places, it was mostly characterized by flank movements and retreats. Hood's ascension inaugurated a very different second phase, one also distinguished by large-scale maneuver but this time featuring a series of high-intensity pitched battles and cavalry raids that finally concluded with the Confederate evacuation of Atlanta in September. Part of the Casemate Illustrated series' growing line of American Civil War titles, the two volumes of David Powell's The Atlanta Campaign, 1864 follow the above-mentioned outline.

With series titles bounded by a 128-page limit, and with narrative text and illustrations of many kinds and sizes (including full-page) all competing for that space, skill at condensing complex events is at a premium and small-unit detail (i.e. regimental-scale action descriptions) necessarily selective. In both volumes Powell demonstrates a mastery of teasing out the essentials of strategic, operational, and tactical matters while also keenly identifying and critiquing the most salient leadership decisions. Covered in Sherman's Campaign to the Outskirts of Atlanta are the events of Dalton, Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Pickett's Mill, Dallas, Kolb's Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, and the Chattahoochee River defense line. Supplementing the volume's concise narrative is a campaign timeline, orders of battle, color maps, photographs (both contemporary and modern), color artwork, and period illustrations. It was also nice to see an appreciation of artist and early Atlanta Campaign historian Wilbur Kurtz included as one of the sidebar profiles.

Sampling some of Powell's observations from the first book, it's suggestive that the author agrees with Earl Hess regarding increasing Union dominance of the skirmish line being a factor in the campaign. Johnston's repeated failure to exploit river lines of defense and his inability to find ways to discomfit enemy crossings in any serious manner is a puzzlement that Powell shares with others. Notorious for being scornful of earthworks designed and constructed by anyone not under his own supervision, Johnston continued in that fussy vein when it came to his blunt dismissal of any notion of employing Francis Shoup's Chattahoochee River Line and its innovative network of "shoupades." Of course, we'll never know how effective they might have been in freeing up troops for mobile operations. During his command tenure in Georgia, Johnston constantly complained that he was outnumbered 2-to-1, when, as Powell maintains, something closer to a 1.3:1 ratio was more often the reality (at one point during this early stage of the campaign only an estimated 10,000 men separated the opposing strengths). On the other side of things, Powell also highlights the organizational inefficiencies imposed by Sherman's arguably unwieldy army group structure consisting of three armies, each widely different in size and support systems.

The second volume, Peach Tree Creek to the Fall of the City, takes the reader through the decisive phase of the campaign, which included the fighting at Peach Tree Creek, the July 22 "Battle of Atlanta," Ezra Church, Utoy Creek, and Jonesboro. In between discussions of those battles, the operational pauses, line extensions, sweeping maneuvers, and cavalry operations that were features of the fighting around Atlanta are addressed.

All agree that, at brigade-level and below, the Army of Tennessee fought as well as any Civil War army, but at the higher echelons the situation was far different. In this book Powell joins a chorus of historians finding fault with Hood, who was new to army command, for assigning unrealistic tasks and objectives to his subordinates. Even so, it was also frequently the case that Hood was poorly served by his corps (ex. William J. Hardee on July 22 and S.D. Lee at Ezra Church) and division commanders (ex. Carter Stevenson on July 22 and William Bate on more than one occasion). On the Union side, Powell follows in the footsteps of David Evans (the campaign's premier chronicler of Union cavalry operations during this period) in criticizing Sherman's misuse of his army group's considerable mounted resources. More broadly speaking, Sherman is praised in both books for his exceptional skills in logistical management and operational maneuver. Also, the command shuffling that necessarily ensued after high-level leadership casualties and removals was far more seamless in Sherman's army group than it was in the Confederate army.

In terms of what to expect from the cartography, simple line drawings tracing opposing army fronts are common to the first volume, and map coverage of the second book's bigger battles depicts the action at varying formation levels from corps down to brigade. With their thick, glossy pages and extra-sturdy softcover binding (complete with front and back flaps), the material quality of the volumes is high.

The specialist literature associated with the 1864 Atlanta Campaign has grown by leaps and bounds over recent years, but there is always a place for fresh introductory-level options that incorporate the latest in cutting edge research and writing. With their authoritative narrative overviews and their diverse and aesthetically pleasing collections of visual aids and supplements, the two volumes of David Powell's The Atlanta Campaign, 1864 fit that bill and more.

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