Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Review - "The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864" by Robert Jenkins

[The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. (Mercer University Press, 2024). Hardcover, 21 maps, 32 exhibits, photos, appendix section, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,247/402. ISBN:978-0-88146-931-8. $39]

Both Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston remained very much in character as their 1864 campaigns unfolded. On the Virginia front, despite the near-catastrophic leadership and manpower losses suffered by his army the previous year, Lee still maintained his customarily aggressive mindset against advancing Union forces. In stark contrast to Lee, Johnston ceded the initiative in North Georgia from the outset, adopting a far more passive approach to his wilderness clash with William T. Sherman's mighty western army group. Believing the odds stacked against his Army of Tennessee much too great to risk attacking moves and pitched battles, Johnston elected to trade space for time and hope that his wily opponent gifted him a favorable opening for an offensive counterstroke. It has often been proposed that the events of May 17-19, 1864 provided Johnston with just such an opportunity to turn the tables on his foe. Contrary to Confederate hopes and expectations, however, no such potentially campaign-altering battle materialized. Instead, the failure and disappointment stemming from the infamous "Cassville Affair" became a topic of enduring misunderstanding and controversy.

As the story goes, a plan involving a sharp backhand blow germinated in Johnston's mind on May 17 at Adairsville and matured by May 19 into an offensive operation. With the Army of Tennessee concentrated at Cassville after falling back from Adairsville upon multiple routes, John Bell Hood's corps would spring back and launch a surprise attack against an isolated and presumably strung-out portion of Sherman's pursuing host. That never came about. Rather than initiating a grand battle, Hood, who encountered the unexpected presence of a Union force of unknown size opposite his own flank, called off the May 19 morning attack and returned to a defensive posture. A disappointed Johnston, who doubted the veracity of Hood's claim, accepted that his plan miscarried and ordered his army to fall back again and entrench atop a new patch of high ground southeast of Cassville. There, the Army of Tennessee would await an expected Union attack on the morrow. Once again, things did not go as planned. Two of the army's senior officers (Hood and Leonidas Polk) pointed out that the high ground abandoned earlier in the day provided Sherman's gunners with prime rifled artillery platforms from which to enfilade Confederate lines. According to those two trusted corps commanders, such fire would render their fronts indefensible within hours. Startled by Hood and Polk's misgivings, though disagreeing with their stance, Johnston immediately ordered a general retreat across the Etowah River. The morning and afternoon/evening events comprising what came to be known as the Cassville Affair distressed the civilian leadership in Richmond, prompted the campaign's first major schism within the Army of Tennessee's high command structure, and demoralized an army rank and file promised both an end to retreats and an opportunity to inflict a telling blow on the enemy.

The problem with the traditional line of interpretation outlined above is that it was largely formed and perpetuated by Johnston in defense of himself and his actions. There have always been doubters of Johnston's version of events as handed down to posterity (Richard McMurry being one of the most prominent among them), but the substance of the entire affair has received remarkably little in the way of detailed reexamination over the years. That has changed in a major way with the publication of Robert Jenkins's The Cassville Affairs: Johnston, Hood, and the Failed Confederate Strategy in the Atlanta Campaign, 19 May 1864.

Examining each key component of the Cassville Affair in turn, Jenkins divides his analysis into two distinctive yet obviously connected sequences. These major event groupings are the Cassville Affairs of the book's title, the first being the aborted offensive that was the morning Cassville Affair and the second the abruptly abandoned defensive action that was the evening Cassville Affair. In each part, Jenkins, an attorney by profession, effectively combines blow-by-blow narrative accounts of the military movements and key decisions of both sides with the kinds of meticulously argumentative evidence breakdowns that one might assume lawyer-historians would revel in presenting to their captive reader-jurors. In addition to demonstrating a clear mastery of the confusing cartographic history of the series of events and misunderstandings that unfolded between Adairsville and Cassville, Jenkins skillfully enhances his own prodigious primary source research with a 'back to basics' critical analysis of original sources and influential secondary works. An item of particular interest is the author's reintroduction of McMurry's decades-old research findings in regard to a notable staff officer journal, samples of which underwent revision and one version of which (termed the "O" Sample of the T.B. Mackall journal) was submitted in altered form by Johnston himself for publication in the Official Records.

All key events that led into and comprised the May 19 Cassville Affair—including the Confederate retreat from Adairsville to Cassville, the Union pursuit and the fighting for Rome, Hood's movements north of Cassville and the Union cavalry operations that undid his plans, the May 19 afternoon redeployment of both armies southeast of Cassville, and what went into Johnston's ultimate decision to retreat across the Etowah without a battle—are described at consistently satisfying levels of clarity and detail. As Jenkins convincingly demonstrates, the high command's flawed knowledge of the road network around Cassville, in particular along the path of Hood's flanking march, directly led to a major thoroughfare (the Spring Place Road) being left completely unguarded by the Confederate cavalry screen. Union cavalry exploited that critical gap, and their startlingly aggressive plunge into Hood's flank and rear disrupted and ultimately halted the ambush offensive planned for the day. Of course, when military plans badly miscarry it is very often the case that the enemy also had something to do with it, and the book makes the case that Sherman's posture and decision-making profoundly influenced what happened and what didn't happen at Cassville. Disappointed in his mounted arm up to that point, Sherman lit a fire under his cavalry subordinates, and the book argues persuasively that that had a demonstrable impact on the cavalry's newfound aggressiveness. Significantly, is also pointed out by Jenkins that even if Union cavalry hadn't discovered and exploited the gap in Wheeler's screen northeast of Cassville the road principally targeted by Hood's ambush would have been empty that day solely due to Sherman's direct intervention.

Several noteworthy conclusions emerge from Jenkins's study. The author could find no evidence that Johnston, as he later claimed, developed a full-fledged offensive plan beginning on the 17th at Adairsville. Even the offensive action outlined for the 19th was Hood's plan, to which Johnston acquiesced. Additionally, instead of demonstrating a commanding general's mastery of the situation at Cassville on the morning of the 19th, Johnston's subsequent writings (as critiqued at length by Jenkins) instead revealed that the general possessed remarkably ill-informed conceptions of Hood's flank movement, the enemy threat to it, and the road network over which the day's events unfolded. Dismissing Hood's and Polk's claims that the army's afternoon orientation was indefensible in the face of concentrated enfilade fire, Johnston still ordered another retreat, citing the dangers inherent in attempting to hold defensive positions that two of his corps commanders had no confidence in maintaining. Citing evidence that points in a different direction, Jenkins alternatively concludes that this was essentially a latter-day excuse and Johnston most likely retreated upon receiving false reports that Sherman's men had already crossed the Etowah in force and were threatening Confederate lines of communication. In presenting that justification for his actions, Johnston failed to cite Hood and Polk on record in regard to their dual support for launching a major attack from those same positions both generals felt could not be defended. One might be tempted to believe that Johnston's story, in which he professed a determination to hold his ground and only retreated after two of his principal subordinates lost their nerve, was chiefly formulated to make the Fabian general, who was justifiably skeptical of the advisability of attacking Sherman's concentrated forces over the ground favored by Hood and Polk, look more like a fighting general to his critics. In sum, the book presents a strong case that the available evidence does not support Johnston's popular version of the Cassville Affair and his role in it.

Critical to understanding both the military movements meticulously traced in the narrative and the historiographical arguments and debates that emerged later, the volume's prodigious map set does not disappoint. Ranging from contemporary rough sketches and detailed military engineer drawings to well-executed modern cartography, the book's 21 numbered maps (and around a dozen more 1-2 page maps presented under the "exhibit" label) provide all the military detail readers might wish to have at their fingertips when evaluating the text. The maps are critical pieces in explaining all the period and modern understandings (and misunderstandings) associated with the historical road network spanning the large area of operations south of Adairsville, north of the Etowah River, and well east and west of the Western & Atlantic Railroad corridor. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the exhibits and maps are collected together near the front of the book. It is perhaps worthy of recommendation that knowledgeable and novice readers alike familiarize themselves with both before grappling with the volume's complicated discussions of the relevant geography. The maps, in conjunction with their detailed captions, bountifully arm the reader with the situational awareness necessary to more fully and more readily grasp the essential nuances found in the book's historiographical arguments and source debates, many of which tend to plunge deeply into the weeds.

This volume weighs the evidence and persuasively reasons toward a fresh understanding of a key series of disputed events from the early stages of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. As is always the case with historical discourse, questions and points of disagreement surely remain, but all future studies will have to contend with Jenkins's powerful arguments. Indeed, one looks forward to reading how David Powell, with whom Jenkins frequently discussed matters pertaining to Cassville, addresses this period in the first installment of his upcoming multi-volume history of the campaign. The Cassville Affairs is highly recommended.

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