July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta by Earl J. Hess. University Press of Kansas, 2023. Cloth, ISBN: 9700700633968. $44.95.
Atlanta. Crown jewel of the Confederacy and Gate City into the Deep South. Atlanta. The prize of a four-month red dirt minuet between the relentless advance of three Union armies—100,000 strong—under Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and the dogged parry-and-retreat tactics of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s star-crossed Army of Tennessee. Atlanta. Site of the July 22 battle that was the largest of a campaign where the Confederates, now under the aggressive generalship of Major General John Bell Hood, came the closest to achieving a major tactical victory over the Union juggernaut. Atlanta. A battle that the Iowa journalist Luston Dunham Ingersoll called, “a warfare of giants.”
The battle of July 22 is the subject of Earl J. Hess’s latest, superbly constructed examination of one of three engagements fought to determine the fate of Atlanta. His keen insights into that day’s massive slugfest presents new interpretations of the battle’s strategy and tactics, the thinking of the officers in the field, and the recollections of the men who fought it. The result is a pitch-perfect operational history with a level of detail never achieved in previous studies of that pivotal day.
Hess has mastered the vast bibliography of primary and secondary sources to provide a stupefying level of specificity about unit placements and troop movements. As an example, consider his description of the first artillery shots fired into Atlanta by Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith’s division on July 20. “Capt. Francis De Gress ordered his Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery to fire three shells from its 20-pound Parrotts at a range of two and a half miles. Signal officers observed as these rounds struck buildings in the town.” Fortunately, the many maps prepared by the ever-reliable Hal Jespersen serve as an invaluable adjunct for the reader and provide visual context to Hess’s precise prose.
“The contest between Sherman and Johnston was heavily influenced by the geography of northwest Georgia,” Hess writes. The author is intimately familiar with the vegetation and the rivers, creeks, and ravines that crisscross the 100-odd miles between Chattanooga and Atlanta. July 22 is Hess’s fourth book about the Atlanta Campaign, and he respects the important roles played by geography and terrain.
Once Sherman’s blue legions cross the Chattahoochee River on July 17, a movement Hess characterizes as a “crossing the Rubicon moment” for both Union and Confederate forces, he begins a day-to-day examination of each army’s strokes and counter strokes leading up to July 22, including “the short but bitterly fought battle for Bald Hill from 8 A.M. to about 10 A.M. on July 21.”
Hess organizes his monograph by dividing the fighting on the afternoon July 22 into five phases: the fighting along Sugar Creek from noon to 3 P.M.; the fighting south of Bald Hill from 1 P.M. until 5 P.M.; the Confederate breakthrough along the Georgia Railroad and the subsequent Union counterattack that restored the line; the Confederate efforts to control ground south of Bald Hill and subsequent fighting to the east from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M.; and, finally, the fight for Decatur, occurring simultaneously with the action around Bald Hill. It’s a demanding read, but for those who can keep up with Hess’s relentless storytelling a rewarding one. He concludes his study with chapters on the week following the battle and its enduring place in Lost Cause myth and veteran memory.
Hess is not shy about offering a revisionist analysis of the day’s events. The author explains how his views differ from those of previous chroniclers. Hess maintains that “Sherman was in no better condition to capture Atlanta after the battle than before it.” He concludes, “There is little reason to assume a Confederate victory that day would have resulted in the Confederates retaining Atlanta in the long run or in the electoral defeat of Lincoln three and a half months later.”
Why, then, study the battle in such detail? Hess’s answer is that July 22 “started with one of the most complete tactical surprises suffered by any field army, North or South, during the Civil War.” Furthermore, Hess argues, “the combination of maneuver, unit handling, stout combat by the individual soldier, and combative spirit by both sides make July 22 one of the most interesting battles in American history.” Whether you agree or disagree with Hess’s analysis, enjoy this carefully constructed battle narrative written by one of the Civil War’s most talented chroniclers.
Gordon Berg has published dozens of articles and reviews in popular Civil War periodicals. He writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.