Civil War Book Review: Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign

Hess, Earl J. Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign. (The University of North Carolina Press, April 22, 2013). 344 pages, 25 illustrations, 21 maps, 1 table, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-4696-0211-0 $35.00 (Cloth).

KennesawMountainShermanJohnstonAndTheAtlantaCampaignHessWhy did William T. Sherman decide to attack one of the most strongly fortified and imposing positions the Confederates held during the entire Atlanta Campaign when he had simply maneuvered around such positions in the past?  Why did he attack with only eight of fifty-four brigades and leave the details to his subordinates?  How was the morale of the western Union armies affected by what the newspapers considered a disaster?  Earl J. Hess answers these questions and more while continuing his run of excellent battle/campaign studies with Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign.

Earl J. Hess is one of the most prolific quality authors of Civil War books going today.  In fact, if he is the author/editor, you are assured of a quality product which will be sure to thoroughly cover whatever topic is being discussed.  His most recent books on the 1864 Siege of Knoxville and The Civil War in the West are just two examples.  Other reviews of Professor Hess’ books which have appeared at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog include:

Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign focuses on the portion of the Atlanta Campaign immediately following operations along the Dallas-New Hope Church-Pickett’s Mill “Hell Hole” line until operations reached the Chattahoochee River, from roughly June 5 to July 3, 1864.  Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army retreated east towards the Western and Atlantic Railroad, covering Marietta, Georgia all the way while burning through three prepared, fortified positions.

Ultimately, the Confederates used the frowning crests of Big Kennesaw, Little Kennesaw, and Pigeon Hill as the final defense of Marietta.  These strong earthworks wrapped all the way around the city, starting in the north, winding around the western side of the city and covering it all the way to about due south.  Hood’s Corps of Johnston’s army was originally stationed on the right end of this line, north of Marietta, but as Sherman probed for a way around the Confederate left near Kolb’s Farm, Hood was pulled from the lines and  sent in that direction.  His ill-considered attack on the Federals in that area on June 22 only succeeded in bloodying his own forces.

As the two sides settled into the positions they would occupy for roughly two weeks, Sherman decided to mount a head-on attack against the Kennesaw line, even while Schofield’s Army of the Ohio was busy working around the Confederate left flank.  Hess thoroughly covers the reasons why he believes Sherman decided an assault was necessary in an appendix, and I won’t spoil the surprise here.  After the decision was made, Sherman left the preparations to his subordinates.  Ultimately, on June 27, 1864, only eight of his fifty-four brigades made an assault in earnest at three points along the Confederate line.  Three brigades of the Fifteenth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee assaulted the southern end of Pigeon Hill, the three brigades of John Newton’s division from the Fourth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland hit Cleburne’s crack division further south, and two brigades of the Fourteenth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland attacked the Dead Angle, defended by Vaughn’s Brigade of Cheatham’s Division.  All three attacks, as well as supporting skirmishing, failed to even briefly pierce the main Confederate line.  The day was a bloody failure, and Sherman’s flanking operations continued to the Chattahoochee River, ultimately taking the armies to and south of Atlanta.

So why did the attack even occur, given that Sherman was already pursuing his usual course of flanking Johnston out of one of the strongest positions he held in the entire campaign?  Hess has his beliefs, covered as I mentioned earlier in an appendix.  It seems hard to determine what Sherman really thought before the attack happened versus what he said after the attack had turned into a bloody failure.  Why also, did Sherman only commit eight of his fifty-four brigades in a frontal assault?  Was he trying to minimize the number of casualties in the event of a failure, in essence taking a calculated gamble?  Hess characterizes it in essence as “an experiment.”  Lastly, why did the Cumberland Army’s troops attack in dense columns in difficult terrain?  The answer to this question would seem to be make an excellent topic for a journal or magazine article, and in my recollection Hess doesn’t explore this question as much as I would have liked.  Instead, he simply writes it was the decision of the Corps commanders as to how they arrayed their troops.  It seems exceedingly odd, however, that all of the Cumberland brigades attacked in column on that day.

The strongest part of this book, a straightforward tactical retelling of the Battle of Kolb’s Hill and the attacks on Kennesaw Mountain, lies in Hess’ use of primary sources.  He puts the reader right there with McCook’s men as they struggle through difficult terrain and climb the slope toward the dead angle, finally clinging to an area very close to Vaughn’s Confederates due to a mistake in the layout of the Rebel earthworks.  Readers can imagine the view the Confederates must have had from the slopes of Big and Little Kennesaw along with Pigeon Hill, especially of artillery firing and the June 27 Federal attacks.  Hess’ descriptive narrative makes clear this campaign and especially this set of clashes occurred on some of the most difficult terrain imaginable.  The term “flat” is of no use to describe the mountainous terrain of northwestern Georgia.

Other than arguably the soon to come battles around Atlanta proper, no portion of the Atlanta Campaign is as famous as the June 27, 1864 Federal attack against Kennesaw Mountain.  It is curious then, that Hess’ book is one of the first modern studies to appear on the battle.  Kennesaw Mountain June 1864: Bitter Standoff at the Gibraltar of Georgia by Richard Baumgartner and Larry Strayer, is light on original text and focuses more on eyewitness acconts as well as images to tell the story.  Russell Blount’s Clash at Kennesaw: June and July 1864 appeared late last year, and I plan to read it shortly to compare to Hess’ work.  This pretty much covers the modern accounts, a situation which seems similar for all of the individual battles of the Atlanta Campaign, though the shortfall seems to be diminishing rapidly as others realize what fertile ground remains.

A standout appendix on the Confederate fortifications, including excellent drawings by the author after a thorough study of the battlefield, helps to round out the book.  Anyone who had read Hess’ book on the 1864 Knoxville campaign or any of his three books on fortifications in the Eastern Theater will see more of the same here, with the same equating to excellence.  Hess managed to find some really odd examples of works in the Kennesaw line, including one infantry redoubt he dubbed the “Odd Redoubt.”  It was also interesting to read about what the Confederates did when they encountered massive rocks where they wanted to dig trenches.  Hess would have, no doubt, provided similar coverage of Union earthworks, but they have sadly been almost completely destroyed over the years.  A short review of how the battlefield in the area of the Confederate earthworks were slowly but surely saved over the years provides a nice bookend to the study.

The maps in the book were numerous, providing the right levels of detail as the narrative goes from strategic to tactical considerations.  However, a serious concern is the way the maps are rendered entirely in black and white with black lines representing roads, creeks and rivers, and even sometimes elevation.  This might not have mattered as much if the battle covered had been fought on relatively flat terrain, but the Kennesaw battlefield featured some of the most varied heights you will find on a Civil War battlefield and to this reviewer could have been done better.  The tactical maps do go down to regimental level, appropriate considering the tactical nature of the narrative and the relatively small number of men engaged versus the titanic struggles back east.

With Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, Earl J. Hess provides a very good if not spectacular book on the late June to early July 1864 operations involving the Kennesaw line.  I cannot say how his book compares to Russell Blount’s version of events, not having read Blount’s work just yet.  I will say that Hess’ book is considerably longer and presumably goes into more detail on the attacks.  Hess’ strengths in this particular book are his use of primary sources to paint a vivid picture of that bloody day as well as his intricate drawings of the Confederate earthworks involved in the June 27, 1864 attacks.  Anyone interested in the Atlanta Campaign will find this to be centerpiece of their collection and more than adequate coverage of this phase of the Sherman-Johnston strategic showdown.  Let’s hope Hess focuses his attention on other periods of this neglected but important Western campaign in the future.

Note: This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.


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