HESS: Fighting for Atlanta (2018)

Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War by Earl J. Hess. University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Cloth, ISBN:978-1469643427. $45.00.

Earl Hess has justly carved out a reputation as one of the most prolific, and best, military historians of the Civil War in recent memory. Hess’ Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War is Hess latest important contribution to our understanding of the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Following the approach and conceptual framework within his well-regarded trilogy of works on Civil War field fortifications in the East, Hess focuses his attention on the Union and Confederate operational and tactical use of fortifications in the struggle for Atlanta. In what could otherwise be a dauntingly complex—or offputtingly dry—subject, Hess manages to elucidate the pragmatism, adaptability, and often ingenious perseverance of the opposing armies in their duel across the north Georgia landscape. A fascinating and perhaps poorly-understood story emerges as a result.

“The key to the intense reliance on hasty fortifications in 1864 was the Federal policy of continuous contact,” Hess argues, “maintaining the pressure of a campaign against the major Confederate field armies without letup for months at a time” (9). In that sense, the fortification practices and tactics of the Atlanta armies reflected similar practices in the Virginia battles of 1864. The armies, Hess finds, constructed a staggering eighteen major lines of fortification from Rocky Face Ridge to Palmetto Station during that summer, implementing and, in some cases, perfecting, a nearly bewildering array of defensive works.

Fieldwork construction in the Atlanta Campaign was a “communal affair” carried out by details from infantry units, though overseen by trained military engineers (9). Intricate or complex fieldwork construction was sited, designed, and directed by dedicated engineers, but most of the trenches and fortifications of the Atlanta Campaign were actually constructed by non-engineers—either infantry or pioneers. Sherman’s engineers were, Hess finds, a capable lot, ably led by Orlando M. Poe. The Confederates’ chief engineer was Stephen W. Presstman, and he was likewise a competent and energetic officer.

A strength of Hess’ study is his ability to relate the study of fieldworks to both tactics and terrain. Terrain was always of critical importance in Civil War combat, and Hess demonstrates how both sides were able to map, assess, plan, and implement both offensive and defensive tactics accounting for the shifting topography of the North Georgia countryside. Further, Hess relates the practices of both Union and Confederate engineers to Sherman’s insistence on momentum, flanking, and forward movement, along with Johnston’s defensive adjustments, retreats, and the demoralizing abandonment of strong position after strong position. Hess also usefully relates both sides’ tactical, operational, and organizational practices to morale within the armies and to the overall progress and objectives of the campaign as a whole.

Fighting for Atlanta contains dozens of diagrams, sketches, and other illustrations of various fortifications, some of which are more helpful than others. Detailed scale drawings would have doubtless added immensely to the costs of publication, but more precise and detailed maps including topography and elevation would have been very welcome. Fortunately, many clear and helpful photographs of the Atlanta fortifications exist, and Hess uses these to great effect.

Thoughtfully, Hess includes an appendix evaluating different types of fortifications, their construction methods, and the relative effectiveness and utility from both Union and Confederate perspectives.

At the end of his extensive analysis, Hess concludes that while both Union and Confederate forces used elaborate and extensive field fortifications in the Atlanta Campaign, the two sides employed them rather differently. Johnston (and later Hood) understandably relied upon fortifications for a largely defensive purpose, primarily to forestall flanking maneuvers, and their tactics and practices reflected this overall approach fairly consistently. Sherman, on the other hand, used fortifications more effectively, and achieved both offensive and defensive objectives because of this effectiveness. The widespread use of these fortifications, Hess reminds us, took an environmental toll, clearing huge areas of timber and undergrowth and altering local ecosystems dramatically—sometimes permanently.

Field fortifications became one of the defining features of the Atlanta Campaign, and Hess’ insightful and fascinating study will remain the standard work on the subject for the foreseeable future.


Andrew S. Bledsoe is the author of Citizen Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War.

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