Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 203-204
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In Atlanta Will Fall, Stephen Davis offers an overview of the 1864 Atlanta campaign and a detailed defense of the generalship of John Bell Hood. Davis argues that by the time Hood took command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee on July 18, 1864, he "was without realistic strategic options" to save Atlanta (ix). The fall of Atlanta was a foregone conclusion because of several reasons, writes Davis, including the numerical superiority of the Northern armies. Sherman's armies always outnumbered the Army of Tennessee, something that William T. Sherman knew and used to his advantage in maneuvering the Confederates out of north Georgia. This disparity in numbers between the armies also influenced Hood's predecessor, Joseph E. Johnston, convincing him at the start of the Atlanta Campaign that his men might not be able to hold their lines around Dalton and certainly not launch an offensive against the enemy.
Davis's work is similar in some ways to that of Richard McMurry, another longtime authority on the Atlanta campaign. Both historians are highly critical of Joe Johnston, Davis stating in Atlanta Will Fall that the general's "unhappy characteristics" included "passivity, overcaution, fear of failure [and] [End Page 203] uncommunicativeness" (198). Johnston's behavior during his tenure as army commander in Georgia did nothing to counter his reputation for retreating earned earlier in the war. Sherman, on the other hand, gets high marks from Davis for his careful attention to logistics and planning, aggressive determination, and his strategy in north Georgia of repeatedly flanking the Confederates out of entrenched positions with a portion of the Union army.
Hood's ascension to command of the Army of Tennessee led to a dramatic change in Southern tactics. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government appointed Hood to command with the expectation that he would fight for Atlanta, and the crippled general fulfilled this expectation. The Southern battle plans that resulted in the engagements at Peachtree Creek and Atlanta on July 20 and 22 were attempts by Hood to duplicate the successful flank attacks of his mentor, Robert E. Lee. Hood did not achieve all that he hoped for in these engagements because of the mistakes of inexperienced subordinates, the dispositions and actions of Union troops, and Hood's own command style, which emulated that of Robert E. Lee.
Sherman conducted a grand wheel to the Federal right in late July, which Hood attempted to blunt with a flank attack that resulted in the battle of Ezra Church. Davis rightfully places much of the blame for the bloody and futile frontal assaults launched that day by the Confederates on Hood's young and inexperienced corps commander, Stephen D. Lee. During the subsequent siege of Atlanta, Davis gives Hood credit for keeping his army supplied, attempting to rebuild its strength, and sending the Confederate cavalry into the enemy's rear to disrupt his supply lines. When Sherman orchestrated a massive flank march in late August 1864 that resulted in the severance of the last rail line into Atlanta, Davis argues that Hood did "all he could to avert the inevitability of the campaign's outcome" (199). Ultimately Johnston, not Hood, "should get the blame for the Confederacy's disastrous campaign failure" (200).
Atlanta Will Fall is a highly readable book with many strong points, although Davis is sometimes not critical enough of Hood, as in his discussion of the June 22, 1864, battle of Kolb's Farm. Davis clearly has a grasp of the published primary sources on the Atlanta Campaign, which he supplements with the use of a small number of important manuscript collections. Much of his analysis of the command decisions made within the Army of Tennessee and the Confederate government, particularly during the critical time leading to Johnston's removal from command, is impressive and convincing. This book is a fine contribution...