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  • Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War by Earl J. Hess
  • John Matsui (bio)
Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War. By Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. 408. Cloth, $45.00.)

Near the beginning of Fighting for Atlanta, Earl Hess notes the breakdown in the supply of shovels to the Confederate Army of Tennessee by July 1864. This is a crucial development in an account of the interplay of tactics, terrain, and trenches in the campaign for Atlanta. Logistics mattered, in the ultimately unsuccessful defense of Atlanta as elsewhere, and Hess's Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation (2017) focuses on that very subject. After a brief overview of the campaign's personnel and tactics, the text follows a chronological chapter order. This book is structured in line with Hess's trilogy on Civil War trench warfare, and it will be most appealing to readers with an interest in nineteenth-century static warfare and scholars of trench warfare more generally.

It is telling that the Confederacy conferred higher rank on its engineers than did the Union. Sherman's chief engineer during this campaign was a mere captain—although Orlando Poe temporarily held brigadier general rank in 1862—and as such could command little authority or respect from volunteer generals who did not know better. Joseph Johnston began the campaign with a lieutenant colonel as chief engineer. John Bell Hood had the good sense to request the transfer of the Army of Northern Virginia's chief engineer to Georgia when he took command in July. A native of New York, Major General Martin Smith graduated from West Point along with D. H. Hill and James Longstreet. Having helped plan Vicksburg's defenses, Smith was captured along with its garrison and by April 1864 was Lee's chief engineer. Smith spent May and early June preparing the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg as Grant's army lumbered forward, as Hess notes in his In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and [End Page 125] Confederate Defeat (2009). Yet by the time Smith reported to Hood, his talents were largely wasted.

As with Grant's men in Virginia, Sherman's armies were accustomed to digging at least basic rifle pits whenever they halted. In line with Brian Wills's assessment of Sherman's prejudice against the Army of the Cumberland in George Henry Thomas: As True As Steel (2012), Hess notes Sherman's negative views of the main element of his force. Sherman claimed that "a fresh furrow in a ploughed field will stop the whole column, and all begin to intrench" (90). He argued that—unlike his old Army of the Tennessee—Thomas's army was so accustomed to the defensive that at all ranks it was all but impossible for Sherman to change its mindset to aggressive, offensive action. By the end of the campaign, units in Sherman's other armies were at least as adept and rapid in the digging of rifle pits as the Army of the Cumberland. Jacob Cox, commanding a division in the Army of the Ohio, noted on August 30 that in fifteen minutes flat his men dug sufficient defenses to repel an onslaught by Confederate infantry. Unlike their rebel counterparts, Sherman's men had access to large and easily replenished stocks of shovels and other entrenching tools.

Historians interested in matters beyond the military naturally gravitate toward the question of African American involvement in the campaign. Scholars of Sherman's armies know that Sherman resisted the assignment of black regiments to his active field forces, relegating them to the defense of his supply line. Hess notes that for at least the first half of the campaign, enslaved laborers played little role in bolstering Confederate defenses. Only at the line of the Chattahoochee River were about one thousand African Americans impressed to construct a defensive line in early July. What remains telling is that Union soldiers assumed that the equivalent of a small army of slaves was employed to strengthen rebel fortifications.

My early point about shovels raises a larger question about Confederate supply shortages, given the...


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