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Book Review: Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (by Richard McMurry): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, by Richard M. McMurry, University of Nebraska Press, 402-472-3581, 222 pages, $32.

Ever since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Civil War historians have focused most of their attention on the campaigns and battles fought in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. This emphasis on what happened in the eastern theater has often downplayed and sometimes completely overshadowed important events in the West. For example, not too many years ago, you could count all the books written about the Atlanta Campaign on the fingers of one hand, and one of those would have been Margaret Mitchell's classic novel Gone with the Wind. Only recently have Civil War historians begun taking a closer look at this long-neglected struggle.

Among the foremost of these scholars is Richard McMurry. The author of numerous books, pamphlets, and articles about various aspects of the Atlanta Campaign, his latest effort, Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy, is part of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series, published by the University of Nebraska Press. This series aims to find "new ways of viewing military campaigns by looking beyond the battlefield and the headquarters tent to the broader political and social context within which these campaigns unfolded…." If this sounds like a difficult task in the wake of several recent and excellent books about the Atlanta Campaign, McMurry readily admits it is.

But instead of looking beyond the headquarters tent, he actually spends most of his time inside it, analyzing the strategy, tactics, logistics, and organization of the opposing armies that battled for Atlanta during the spring and summer of 1864. Except for a brief foray into Northern presidential politics on the eve of the 1864 elections, his emphasis is decidedly military, a synthesis of his earlier work and that of several other authors. While there are not many surprises, McMurry's conclusions are, as always, thoughtful and perceptive, and some of them will undoubtedly provoke controversy.

For example, McMurry contends that Ulysses S. Grant's grand strategy in the spring of 1864, putting all his armies in motion at once, was a failure. Instead of pinning down the Confederacy's dwindling manpower reserves, as the Union general-in-chief hoped, his flawed plan allowed the South to rush troops from idle garrisons on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to reinforce outnumbered Rebel armies in Virginia and Georgia. These troops not only helped turn back the Union offensives up Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and the James River, but also staved off defeat in Georgia and ultimately prolonged the war.

McMurry also faults Grant for giving command of the Union armies west of the Appalachian Mountains to his friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, a man with an admittedly lackluster reputation in the spring of 1864. McMurry argues that George H. Thomas, the senior officer in the western theater, would have been a much better choice. Unlike Sherman, Thomas had never lost a battle and, with Thomas in command, McMurry asserts, there is "a very high probability…the campaign in Georgia would have ended two or three weeks after its opening…."

McMurry does not dwell on details. He takes the long view, and this is not a book for anyone hoping to get down in the trenches with Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. However, readers unfamiliar with northern Georgia geography will likely be frustrated by the publisher's failure to provide enough detailed maps that include all of the place names and battles McMurry mentions. Illustrations are also scarce. There is not a single image of the Union and Confederate commanders who are the focus of this book, and McMurry does not see fit to tell his readers much about them. Instead, he deftly moves two faceless armies from the opening skirmishes at Tunnel Hill to the final battle at Jonesboro, and then excoriates the commanding generals on both sides for their "sins of omission."

He faults Sherman for two major errors: not sending enough men through Snake Creek Gap to turn General Joseph E. Johnston's left flank at the outset of the campaign, and later, for failing to deliver the coup de grace that would have destroyed the three isolated segments of the Confederate army after the Battle of Jonesboro. McMurry contends that if Sherman had aggressively pursued either of these opportunities, "he almost certainly would have broken Secessionist power in the West for all time and hastened the end of the war by many months."

While Johnston gets high marks for restoring the shattered morale of the Confederate Army of Tennessee after its humiliating defeat at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, he also gets cited for several lapses of leadership. Johnston's failure to fortify Snake Creek Gap cost him the best defensive position in northern Georgia, and McMurry roundly criticizes him for passively remaining on the defensive, hoping Sherman would make a mistake, even after it became clear this wait-and-see strategy was not working.

Johnston's successor, General John Bell Hood, fares somewhat better. McMurry applauds Hood's last-ditch efforts to at least try to do something to stop Sherman, but he admits the crippled Kentuckian's expectations were unrealistic. While Johnston asked too little of his army, Hood demanded too much. His plans to overwhelm isolated portions of Sherman's army in the battles of Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, and Ezra Church required long marches and precise maneuvers that overtaxed his men's endurance and his staff's ability. In McMurry's view, Hood's best option would have been to wait Sherman out by digging a line of trenches on the southwest side of Atlanta, covering the vital Macon and Western Railroad, Sherman's sole source of supply. Just where Hood was supposed to find the troops necessary to man several additional miles of trenches, McMurry does not say.

He does, however, neatly summarize the strategic significance of the Atlanta campaign. "It assured Lincoln's reelection…, demoralized the Rebels and inspired the war-weary people of the North," he writes. "In doing these things, it made ultimate Federal victory, the abolition of slavery, and the end of the old national order inevitable."

Although McMurry occasionally indulges in feats of hindsight and shaky leaps of logic, the end result is a solid and thought-provoking little book. Atlanta 1864 is a must-read for any serious student of the Atlanta Campaign.

David Evans
Athens, Georgia







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