- Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil Warby Earl J. Hess
Earl J. Hess's latest volume adds more evidence to one of his central verdicts, that in the course of Civil War campaigns, a major factor in their execution and outcome involved extensive use of entrenchments. Concerning the contest for Atlanta, Hess argues that the four-month event saw some of the most intense and enduring uses of temporary fieldworks in any western theater campaign. He also views William Tecumseh Sherman as far more adept at blending entrenchment and maneuver than the overly cautious Joseph E. Johnston or the comparatively rash John Bell Hood. True to intent, Hess focuses almost exclusively on the interplay between command decisions, troop movements, and human alterations to natural topography. Though he aims to bond environmental historiography to military tactical studies, Hess recognizes his work remains heavily weighted to the latter.
Arranged chronologically, from combat around Dalton and Resaca, Georgia, in May 1864 to Federal securement of the Gate City that October, the text epitomizes Hess's penchant for order. It also reflects his exceptional accumulation of research material, including copious War Department reports, modern archaeological surveys, and primary source collections from an impressive number of archives. The book's minimalistic maps provide little sense of place and landscape, but its high-resolution images of forts and trenches (compliments of George N. Barnard, a civilian photographer contracted by the Union) vividly illuminate the construction methods and available materials for both armies. Much like the wartime photos, Hess brings rich detail to combat engineering, resource management, equipment requirements, and troop deployment. These and similar specifics will find a receptive audience among military historians, war colleges, and battlefield [End Page 709]guides. Arguably the lessons herein would also be relevant in overland operations such as Afghanistan, where short-range weapons and rugged landscape prevail.
For most other readers, the text may seem long on specifics yet short on the human element, with one great exception—the chapters covering the contest for Kennesaw Mountain. A deft synopsis of Hess's 2013 text on the subject, these chapters detail the tangible human pathos of trench warfare, with each side exposed to the relentless elements, engrossing stench of rotting corpses, and exhausting fears of artillery and sharpshooters. Altogether the section reads like a haunting precursor to the battles of Ypres and Verdun. Otherwise, general audiences may be better served by Hess's encompassing Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861–1864(Chapel Hill, 2005) and more contextual Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation(Baton Rouge, 2017).
Concerning whether the Atlanta campaign was unmatched in the western theater in its use of temporary fieldworks, students of Vicksburg may find Hess less than convincing. On Sherman's skill in using fortifications as offensive and defensive weapons, Hess's point is more solidly grounded. Perhaps the most poignant contribution involves an invaluable reminder. As we attempt to understand historical phenomena through our two-dimensional media of print and maps, we must take pause and contemplate the four-dimensional reality of space and time in which our subjects lived and died. For the citizen-soldiers and their officers who struggled in the fight for Atlanta and in many contests like it, their first and most rational impulse was to seek vantage points within the earth itself. If we are to better comprehend how the Civil War transpired, we would do well to view history from the same position.