Stephen Davis is a well-known historian of things American Civil War, especially as they pertain to the Atlanta Campaign. Learning his craft under the tutelage of the late, great historian Bell Irvin Wiley, Dr. Davis has brought this campaign to life in a number of works including Atlanta Will Fall: Sherman, Joe Johnston, and the Yankee Heavy Battalions (2001), and the companion to this book, A Long and Bloody Task: the Atlanta Campaign from Dalton through Kennesaw Mountain to the Chattahoochee River, May 5 – July 18, 1864 (2016).
This book is one in a series of works comprising the Emerging Civil War Series, published by Savas Beatie LLC, that, according to its website, “offers compelling and easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important battles and issues.” What they are creating is a new, public platform for historical discourse, aimed at a new generation of historians. While Dr. Davis does not belong to that generation necessarily, the effort – indeed, any effort to create new interest in America’s seminal event – is well warranted. These works (currently, if my count is correct, there are 18!) examine various aspects of our favorite war with fresh new eyes. The results, if this book is any indication, provide concise but thorough evaluations of battles and men that give the reader both the flavor of the subject as well as the taste to learn more. In that, they are a success.
Should the reader desire, there is any number of books in the historiography of the Atlanta Campaign available for study. In my opinion, the holy grail of these is Albert Castel’s Decision in the West: the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. But of equal value are William Scaife’s The Campaign for Atlanta, Richard McMurry’s Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy, and, of course, the aforementioned works by Dr. Davis. Believe me when I say that if you want to learn about this campaign that did so much to end the war, there are materials aplenty to help you in your search.
But let this book be your starting point. Dr. Davis has done a great job of discussing the strategy and tactics of the endgame at Atlanta that makes it easy to read and easy to follow. He seldom goes below Divisions when explaining the tactics of each engagement so the reader does not have to keep up with the movements and counter-movements of untold regiments that sometimes make the larger histories cumbersome. And he provides plenty of maps, pictures, and markers to help the reader keep everything straight. After telling the story, Dr. Davis even points the reader in the direction of learning more with instructions for a detailed driving tour of Atlanta, including all the monuments in and around the city, and hints of the tangible history that awaits at the Atlanta History Center and at the Cyclorama. And finally, he even lays out the complete Union and Confederate Orders of Battle so the reader has a place to go to find his or her favorite regiment.
One of my favorite points of discussion here was of the tactics employed by the commanding generals. Most of the histories talk of how Sherman maneuvered the Confederacy out of Atlanta, aided in the end by the wild frontal assaults of his opponent, John Bell Hood. Dr. Davis points out that even though he maneuvered Joseph Johnston out of Georgia (and out of a job!), on five occasions (Resaca, New Hope Church, Pickett’s Mill, Kennesaw Mountain, and Utoy Creek) during the campaign, Sherman ordered frontal assaults on entrenched positions. All were repulsed. Hood, on the other hand, cast as a General who knew only how to attack, continually envisioned getting his army on Sherman’s flanks. For a number of reasons, this didn’t happen, but as Dr. Davis says, “After a century and a half, the literature has yet to catch up on this point.”
How important was the Atlanta Campaign? Mary Boykin Chestnut put it this way: “These stories of our defeats in the Valley (Shenandoah Valley where Sheridan had defeated Early) fall like blows on a dead body. Since Atlanta, I have felt as if all were dead within me, forever.” Again, Dr. Davis sums it up best.
“History is what it is. The best we in today’s armchair can conclude is that the North won the American Civil War, and that General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta was a signal event contributing to Union victory.”
Learn about that event here. If you’ve always wanted to know more about how Atlanta was “fairly won”, but thought you didn’t have the time to read the big books or visit the city, the All the Fighting They Want is the book for you. And you just may find that you have the time for more after all.
Reviewed by John Mason