Was the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta THE decisive moment of the Atlanta Campaign, and by extension, the battle that secured Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 and won the war? In The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta, veteran Civil War author Gary Ecelbarger argues the merits of this battle (also known as the Battle of Bald Hill) as the turning point in the long struggle for this key Confederate production, transportation, and supply center. His detailed, regimental/battery level look at the battle, the first modern history of the battle, is old school military history at its finest.
Author Gary Ecelbarger has written eight books and numerous magazine articles on the Civil War and has led several tours of the Atlanta Campaign. He has established himself as a top-tier author of detailed tactical campaign and battle histories, with two earlier works on the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and has also delved into the intimidating and established world of Lincoln Literature. At the time of this review, Ecelbarger is committed to writing Civil War non-fiction full time.
By late July 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign had moved to the doorstep of Atlanta. Sherman had managed to mostly avoid heavy casualties as he maneuvered Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston out of several strong positions. Johnston’s lack of willingness to give battle in the eyes of Confederate President Jefferson Davis led to his removal and replacement by John B. Hood as Sherman’s army started to encircle Atlanta.
Hood, ever aggressive, attacked north of the city against George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland but was repulsed with heavy casualties at the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20, 1864. As the Union Army of the Tennessee approached from the east, Hood devised a new plan which if successful, would drive this highly successful army into the Army of the Cumberland, forcing Sherman to withdraw north of the Chattahoochee River to regroup.
It was a bold plan, but Hood desperately needed some breathing room. He sent Hardee’s Corps and Wheeler’s Cavalry south and then east of the city, looking for the vulnerable Union left flank. Army of the Tennessee commander James B. McPherson knew his left flank was vulnerable, and he posted the Union XVI Corps to partly cover the gap. While Wheeler was successful in driving a Union brigade away from the city of Decatur in McPherson’s rear, the first elements of Hardee’s attack hit right where the XVI Corps was positioned to intercept such an effort.
Patrick Cleburne’s Division, the next in line to attack, managed to roll up the flank of the XVII Corps, then facing west toward Atlanta. Some of Cleburne’s men penetrated deep into the Union rear in the large gap between the XVI and XVII Corps. It was here that McPherson was shot and killed as he was reconnoitering the situation in his left rear.
The situation became even more desperate as Frank Cheatham’s Confederate Corps launched determined assaults from the earthworks on the outskirts of Atlanta. Union soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee were forced to move from one side of their breastworks to the other as they repulsed attacks from almost opposite directions.
After a close call, Hood’s army was bloodily repulsed, suffering more than twice as many casualties as the Union army, and perhaps more importantly, losing a much larger than normal number of officers leading divisions, brigades and regiments. Hood’s gamble had failed, and his army retreated back into the entrenchments around Atlanta.
Penning tactical histories down to the regimental/battery level can be challenging work. Authors run the risk of becoming bogged down so far in the details as to lose sight of the overall picture. Ecelbarger never succumbs to this risk, writing clearly and also relying on maps from George Skoch to relay the action clearly and concisely. Ecelbarger set the stage clearly in the early chapters, and covers the key moments of the battle, including the only death of a Union army commander in battle, very well. His conclusion does a good job of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the key players in the battle and covers the Atlanta Cyclorama in the aftermath of the war.
Ecelbarger’s main point is that the Battle of Atlanta was THE decisive moment in the Atlanta Campaign, a campaign which until now has been regarded as almost devoid of such moments. He believes the catastrophic losses applied to the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s command structure created a void which was never filled, even more so than the raw casualty numbers. As such, he places more importance on the Battle of Atlanta than the preceding (Peachtree Creek) and succeeding (Ezra Church) battles on the outskirts of the city. The author goes on to categorize the Atlanta Campaign as the most important military campaign of the entire Civil War in that it won for Lincoln reelection in 1864. Placed in this context, the Battle of Atlanta could then well be considered the most important battle of the war.
One item Ecelbarger stressed was the possibility of the destruction of McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee as if this was a real possibility. During the Civil War, the only armies which were in a sense destroyed were taken in sieges, not on an open field of battle. In this reviewer’s opinion no amount of success by Hardee’s Corps on the morning of July 22 would have caused the destruction of even a corps sized portion of McPherson’s Army. Even wildly successful attacks by Longstreet at Second Bull Run and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville did not cause the destruction of armies. It just did not happen.
Readers are probably wondering how The Day Dixie Died compares to Russell S. Bonds’ War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta. Happily, these books have very different points of emphasis. War Like the Thunderbolt uses the city of Atlanta as its focal point and tells the story of not only the armies and battles but also of civilians and others caught in the city in its last days as a Confederate stronghold. All of the battles around the city are covered, just not in detail, at the division level as a small portion of the book. As this review clearly shows, The Day Dixie Died is a tactical history of the Battle of Bald Hill on July 22, 1864. The other battles around Atlanta are mentioned only in the context of the Bald Hill fight. The books complement each other well, with Bonds’ book being the first to read if reading these in tandem is considered.
The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta is the first modern tactical history of the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, a rectification long overdue. Author Gary Ecelbarger argues forcefully for the battle’s place as the most important single action of the most important military campaign of the Civil War. Readers are left to decide how persuasive the author is in his argument. Those who enjoy old school military history and the Atlanta Campaign will want to own this book. The coverage of the social aspects of the battle and battlefield are not as prevalent as some other modern battle studies. Gary Ecelbarger is one of the best authors of Civil War battle and campaign history writing today. Here’s hoping he continues looking at the battles around Atlanta with looks at some of the other battles in July 1864. This book is recommended.
I would like to thank Loren Jaggers at St. Martin’s Press.
Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
Note: The book is also available in Ebook format.