- Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign by Earl J. Hess
In mid-June 1864, after weeks of maneuvering and marching, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign for Atlanta sputtered to a stalemate. Eager to renew operations and fearful that Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston might shuttle troops to support Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, on June 27, 1864, Sherman ordered eight brigades to make a three-pronged frontal assault on the rebels’ enviable, well-fortified Kennesaw Mountain line. Conducted at close range, the ensuing combat at places like Cheatham’s Hill and Pigeon Hill was particularly savage—leaving the battlefield littered with the bodies of nearly three thousand killed or wounded Union soldiers. Confederate casualties were comparatively few—only seven hundred men killed, wounded, or missing. Despite the significance accorded to the battle by its veterans, who made pilgrimages to the battlefield well into the twentieth century, these costly assaults have received remarkably little attention from scholars.1 From the prolific pen of historian Earl J. Hess comes the first comprehensive treatment of this significant leg of the Atlanta campaign.
Hess begins the book with a brisk review of the Atlanta campaign’s early weeks. By mid-June, nearly three weeks of unremitting rain had plastered the roads with mud and rendered Sherman’s usual strategy of maneuvering around the enemy flank impractical. Two days after Joe Hooker’s crushing tactical victory against John Bell Hood in the fight at Kolb’s Farm [End Page 594] failed to extract the rebels from their entrenchments, on June 24, Sherman ordered a frontal assault on Kennesaw Mountain. Individual chapters, well illustrated with period photographs and useful maps, narrate in beguiling detail the headlong attacks of the federal Fifteenth, Fourth, and Fourteenth Corps on the line held by Major General William W. Loring’s Army of Mississippi and Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Joining a growing body of scholarship, Hess pays particular attention to the effect of the environment—deep ravines, daunting slopes, and dense vegetation—on the course of the battle. Two concluding chapters consider the fight’s grisly aftermath and the renewed campaign of maneuvers that brought the Union forces within a whisper of Atlanta in early July.
While Hess concedes that he cannot earnestly quarrel with “the consensus of opinion among historians … that the attack on June 27 was a mistake” (225), he ultimately renders a more forgiving appraisal of Sherman, persuasively dismissing the general’s most vocal postwar detractors—none of whom, he points out, took part in the assault. In Hess’s richly contextualized analysis, the attack on Kennesaw Mountain was “an experiment” in which Sherman’s forces “swallowed its modest casualties on June 27 and kept moving toward Atlanta with its level of field effectiveness undiminished” (225). The author likewise rejects the claims (most of them made by devotees of General George Thomas) that Sherman was bent on another frontal attack in late June. And while the battle was undoubtedly “the high point of Confederate soldier morale during the Atlanta campaign” (161), it ultimately “drained the patience of Johnston’s superiors,” who rejected his “Fabian strategy of remaining on the defensive” and turned instead to the tactics of John Bell Hood (214).
Kennesaw Mountain is a traditional campaign study insofar as it is a story of “high-command problems, decisions, and triumphs on both sides of no-man’s-land” (xiv). The author, unlike George C. Rable, Richard Slotkin, and other recent practitioners of the “new military history,” is rather uninterested in placing the battle into its larger social and political contexts.2 On the other hand, the book is a stunning example of a new and welcome departure in military histories of the Civil War—increased attentiveness to the wrenching, human experience of combat.3 Rather than hover at a distance to marvel at acts of heroism and valor, Hess invites us to see, hear, feel, and smell the battlefield from the ranks. We “suffer from enemy fi re...