Army on Hess, 'Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War'

Earl J. Hess. Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Illustrations, maps. 408 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-4342-7.

Reviewed by Thomas Army (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Published on H-CivWar (March, 2019)
Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version:

On August 22, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln received a letter from his close friend and political champion, Henry J. Raymond, cofounder of the New York Times and chairman of the Republican National Committee. Raymond’s message was both pessimistic and realistic: if the 1864 president election were held tomorrow, Lincoln would lose to Democratic candidate George McClellan, and the Republicans would lose their opportunity to pass permanent emancipation legislation and perhaps even the chance to save the Union. The following day, Lincoln penned his now famous memorandum stating, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.”[1]

Eleven days later, General William T. Sherman telegraphed Washington with news of the most significant achievement of Union arms in 1864: “So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.”[2] The announcement of Sherman’s victory flashed across the North and inspired countless celebrations, including fireworks, prayers of thanksgiving, and in Washington, New York, Boston, and other cities, one hundred-gun salutes. Only two months later Lincoln won reelection, and the Confederacy’s eventual demise was virtually assured.

How Sherman successfully campaigned over the tall ridges of northern Georgia against Joseph E. Johnston’s formidable Army of Tennessee and eventually captured Atlanta is a question military historians continue to debate. Now Civil War historian Earl J. Hess has turned his considerable talent and skill to investigating the most critical and central aspect of the Atlanta Campaign. In Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War, Hess more than delivers on his promise to demonstrate the relationship between tactical operations, the landscape, and fieldworks in the campaign. In describing the nascent dawn of trench warfare that culminated in World War I, Hess pays close attention to the engineers, pioneers, infantry, and bondsmen who constructed the trenches outside Atlanta, as well as the emotional, physical, and psychological impact on the men who lived, fought, and died in them.

Brilliant and extensive primary source research is the sine qua non of Hess’s books, and this work is no exception. His thesis, skillfully argued and thoroughly supported, is that “the Federals used field fortifications more effectively than their opponents did because they learned how to use them for offensive purposes, not just defensive aims” (p. 4). Using the Official Records, personal letters, diaries, memoirs, historical photographs, and his own remarkable field research—including his own photographs of the remains of Confederate breastworks at Dug Gap and Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, Georgia—the author has produced a readable but dense volume that will appeal to Civil War students and scholars but not to casual readers looking for an introduction to the grand tactics and strategy of the Atlanta Campaign.

Although parts of the book include technical language (for example, soldiers protect “the embrasure with a mantlet” [p. 224]), and other parts require the reader to recognize multiple actors (such as staff officers, engineers, and regimental, divisional, and corps commanders), Hess tells a number of compelling stories. For example, in an effort to dig a new position near the enemy on June 28, 1864, at Cheatham’s Hill, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Langley of the 125th Illinois and a corporal crawled out under cover of darkness and dug a new line approximately twenty-two yards from the Confederate trench line. Langley and his compatriot used empty hardtack boxes as a temporary shelter until they could fill the boxes with dirt and use them as a shield against potential enemy rifle fire. Eventually, these two courageous men were joined by others who dug a trench long enough for the entire regiment.

Additionally, during the Confederates’ attempt to hold the Chattahoochee River Line in July 1864, Chief of Artillery Francis A. Shoup proposed to create “a system of works of a somewhat novel character” that would be large enough for the entire army but also capable of being held by only one division (p. 143). Four and one-half miles long, the line’s key was a system of self-contained redoubts, dubbed Shoupades, to serve as strongpoints. In Hess’s words, this was “a formidable obstacle to a frontal attack. It was one of the most impressive examples of Rebel engineering in the war” (p. 147). Sherman never tested the line with a frontal assault.

Hess adroitly describes the “unprecedented” story of the Union Seventeenth Corps’s defense of its line against the ferocious assault of William J. Hardee’s Confederates at the battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, during which the Federals succeeded in “repelling the enemy in two opposite directions with a line in air” (p. 181). To do this, Union troops had to jump from one side of their defensive position to the other to repel at least five uncoordinated Confederate attacks. Furthermore, the author successfully argues that in no other engagement of the war did skirmishers play as critical a role in the outcome as they did in the summer of 1864 in northern Georgia. Samuel W. Price of the 21st Kentucky wrote, “That campaign might properly be termed the skirmishers’ war” (p. 287).

The book is further enhanced by Hess’s description of life in the trenches. He writes, “The intense heat of the Georgia summer made it difficult to nap during the day, and sometimes flies swarmed so thickly during the daylight hours that sleep was impossible for that reason as well” (pp. 234-35). Additionally, the photographs taken by George N. Barnard, the official photographer of the Military Division of the Mississippi in 1864, provide superb images of Confederate fortifications, and Hess’s useful legends highlight the unique aspects of the construction.

The author also discusses, albeit to a limited extent, the role slaves played in building Confederate fortifications during the campaign. He notes that slaves worked on the Atlanta City Line and on Shoup’s Line north of the Chattahoochee River. Yet at the time, Union engineer Andrew Hickenlooper believed General Johnston used “an army of negroes” to construct nearly all Confederate fortifications from Dalton to Smyrna Station, southeast of Kennesaw Mountain. Hess suggests these “rumors” were true, although “they tended to be greatly exaggerated” (p. 309). At a time when people are thinking more about the past and racial reconciliation, Hess could have devoted more attention to the exploitation of slave labor during the campaign. This is a missed opportunity.

Because of the nature of the book, a glossary of technical terms, such as “palisades,” “traverses,” “chevaux-de-frise,” and “tête de pont,” would have been helpful. Also, the maps throughout the book are of limited use to the reader. For example, the map on page 274 showing the Federal defenses of Atlanta lacks a compass and scale, and the symbols and overlapping lines are confusing. Furthermore, the addition of maps depicting a broader view of the campaign and highlighting the extensive Union flanking movements would have been helpful.

The ineffective maps, however, do not substantially detract from the importance or quality of this book. Hess has written another gem. It will be essential reading for any Civil War enthusiast or scholar who wants to study what was arguably the most important and complex campaign of the entire war, the campaign that ensured Lincoln’s reelection and arguably saved the Union.


[1]. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 514.

[2]. United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 38, pt. 5, 777.

Citation: Thomas Army. Review of Hess, Earl J., Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2019.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.