- The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta by Earl J. Hess
Earl J. Hess is an expert on Civil War combat tactics and the Atlanta campaign. He combines both of these subfields of Civil War history in this work, the first book-length study of the battle of Ezra Church—a five-hour engagement that took place west of Atlanta, Georgia, on July 28, 1864, in which 9,144 Federals repelled assaults by about 11,000 Confederates, inflicting 3,000 casualties on the southerners while sustaining only 632 losses. In recounting the events of this overlooked battle, Hess answers two fundamental questions: why were the Federals victorious, and how near to defeat did they come? Both questions are important because Ezra Church is widely considered the last opportunity that the Confederates had to save Atlanta.
Hess received his doctorate from Purdue University and has taught at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, since 1989. He is recognized as a leading scholar in the field of Civil War military history, with nearly twenty books and 120 articles and reviews to his credit. In preparing this book, Hess searched libraries and archives across the nation, surveyed the battlefield and created his own maps, and discovered numerous photographs and sketches pertinent to the story. When combined with his skill as a writer, the result is a clear, concise monograph.
In explaining why the Federals were victorious, Hess delves into Civil War combat analysis—his expertise. He convincingly argues that the Federals won because they were veteran soldiers, with high morale and a willingness to cooperate, fighting as either skirmishers between the lines or infantrymen behind breastworks located on high ground. It was the combination of experience, leadership, morale, tactics, and topography that best explains the Federals’ success. It is worth noting that throughout his analysis of the fighting, Hess doubts the tactical importance of rifle muskets. He repeatedly offers evidence that many soldiers did not fire at ranges greater than a hundred yards. Hess’s refutation of the “rifle revolution” thesis should come as no surprise. He established his opposition to it in his book The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence, Kans., 2008), and he continues that opposition here.
Less convincing is Hess’s second argument: that the Federals almost lost the battle of Ezra Church. This interpretation brings Hess into direct conflict with General William T. Sherman and most scholars of the Atlanta campaign. [End Page 687] To prove Sherman and the others wrong, Hess presents numerous quotations from soldiers who fought in the battle, which confirm that the fighting was desperate and devastating. In other words, the Federals involved in the battle felt fortunate to have survived the Confederate onslaught. Military history is replete with accounts of combat in which, from the soldier’s perspective, the fighting was fierce and frenzied. At the grand tactical level, however, such contests often appeared less dramatic—the shifting of several reserve units serving to stymie the assaulting force. That was the case at Ezra Church. Thus though this reading risks clinging to the traditional interpretation of Ezra Church, the disparity in casualties (632 Federals versus 3,000 Confederates) suggests that the fight was bloody but not close.
Overall, this book is a powerful history of a neglected battle in the Atlanta campaign. Hess’s research, analysis, and writing are strong. His photographs, sketches, and maps are clear. Though he may overreach with some of his conclusions, Hess has brought to light a Civil War battle that has been overgeneralized by historians and overgrown by the city of Atlanta.