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Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign

 Earl J. Hess,  University of North Carolina Press

In the summer of 1864, two great armies engaged in a deadly, red-dirt minuet in the hills of northern Georgia. Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had set his sights on taking Atlanta, while his opponent, General Joseph E. Johnston, was focused on Sherman.

Their dance macabre halted on June 27 before the twin peaks of Kennesaw Mountain, near Marietta. Frustrated by weeks of indecisive flanking movements, Sherman broke form and hurled 15,000 hardened Western soldiers against a well-positioned, deeply entrenched foe. When that rainy day of bloodletting ended, the troops who fought there would be forever changed by their experience. Veteran historian Earl J. Hess relates the participants’ story with clarity and dignity, as befits the uncommon valor he describes, providing a succinct battle narrative.

Hess’ monograph reads like a staff ride organized by an officer intimately familiar with the area’s topography. The terrain was important to the battle’s tactics as well as the campaign’s strategy. Maps and photographs help to provide a sense of place in Kennesaw Mountain, but readers without some familiarity with the Atlanta Campaign may still become overwhelmed by the myriad references to the many gaps, ridges, rivers, roads and creeks in northern Georgia.

The ball for this part of the campaign opened at Kolb’s Farm on June 22. The fight there ended as a small Union victory, and John Bell Hood’s attack drew criticism from the other Confederate officers involved in the battle. But Hess concludes that “Despite the mistakes and the needless sacrifice of one thousand men…Johnston would have been forced to evacuate his Kennesaw Line on June 23.” Evaluating the larger tactical picture, Hess points out that “Sherman once again was stymied in his efforts to compel the enemy to leave his Kennesaw Line.” The mostly inconclusive action at Kolb’s Farm prompted Sherman to try to break the logjam five days later.

For the fighting men, Hess contends, “Kennesaw Mountain loomed large in the lexicon of battle as much for its challenges to the campaigning life of the common soldier as for the threat of injury and death from bullets or shell fragments.” By deftly interweaving his own insightful analysis with battle accounts, as recorded in the diaries and letters of combatants, Hess makes a convincing case for the importance of this still unappreciated battle and also argues for a new interpretation of the tactics that long-maligned Joe Johnston used in Georgia.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.