Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign
The Twenty-One Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation
University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee, 2019, 242 pages
Book Review published on: September 20, 2019
Larry Peterson has provided an interesting look at the 1864 Atlanta Campaign in the American Civil War, which will appeal to a certain segment of readers and possibly infuriate others. The reason for this potential polarization is that the book, as part of the “Command Decisions of America’s Civil Wars” series, is based on the concept of “what if” history. Those who like alternative history will find interest in debating Peterson’s claims, but those who are looking for an in-depth study of the reasons behind those decisions will not find much new.
The author states in his preface that the “major premise of this study is that once you know what happened, the next step is determining why an event happened. Understanding the critical decisions is the vehicle for asking and answering this question.” Despite this claim, the narrative has only 118 pages of text with an appendix, titled “Driving Tour of the Critical Decisions of the Atlanta Campaign,” that takes up the bulk of the remaining book. The appendix is useful for visiting the sites but irrelevant to the author’s stated purpose of the book. In any case, the amount of material devoted to decision-making is sparse.
The main narrative is divided into seven chapters within which the twenty-one decisions are examined. Each decision is structured into several parts: (1) the situation, (2) the options or choices open to the decision-maker, (3) the decision (the actual decision that was made at the time), (4) the results and impact of the decision, and (5) alternate decisions and scenarios (this is the “what if” discussion). Thus, the second part (explaining different options) and last part (alternate decisions and scenarios) of each decision examined by Peterson take up a large segment of the narrative, leaving little space for the author to detail the reasons behind the actual historical decisions made at the time. In short, if readers want to understand the reasoning behind a crucial decision made in this campaign, for example William Sherman’s decision to leave the railway line of communications, they would be better served by examining Albert E. Castel’s Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, which devotes far more effort into explaining that decision. This is not meant to say that Peterson’s insights on the decisions made in the Atlanta Campaign are not useful. In many ways, he provides condensed summaries of the key decisions of the campaign, and his appendix, for a tour of the battlefields, is a kind service to those who enjoy battlefield tours. Still, he offers nothing new to the historical field.
As to Peterson’s foray into alternative history, his explanations of scenarios that “might have been” are interesting, and in some cases, may generate good historical inquiry, but like any examination of this type, his conclusions are based on suppositions that are sometimes treated as fact. For example, in the discussion of Joseph Johnston’s decision (or nondecision) to keep his cavalry with the army instead of raiding Sherman’s supply line, Peterson posits that cutting Sherman’s supply line would have slowed the federal advance and forced the federals to put more troops to guarding the railroad line. While this is a reasonable claim, it is only one of many possibilities and perhaps not even the most likely. First, the basic assumption is that Johnston’s cavalry would have effectively cut Sherman’s rail supply line. Yet the Civil War has far less examples of a successfully cut supply line (e.g., Holly Springs in the Vicksburg Campaign) than cavalry raids that failed to hinder the enemy’s supplies (George Stoneman at Chancellorsville and Philip Sheridan in the Overland Campaign). The Confederate cavalry might never have reached the railroad, it might have been destroyed by intercepting forces, it might have been discouraged by the blockhouses and Union guard forces deployed by Sherman to prevent these raids, and even if they had cut the line, the Federals would likely have had it up and running in days without altering their operational maneuver in any way. As Winston Churchill once wrote, “The terrible ifs accumulate.” The nature of Peterson’s study is to simplify vast possibilities into manageable outcomes by arbitrary culling.
In addition, the first three decisions examined by the author are based on options that were not realistic at the time. The fact that Jefferson Davis detested Johnston so much personally, and still felt compelled to make him commander of the Army of Tennessee, shows how few alternatives Davis really had. Likewise, President Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Ulysses Grant as general in chief, while not inevitable, was certainly the natural result of Grant’s victory at Chattanooga. The press, Congress, and the public expected nothing less—it was not a major decision as much as an expected outcome. Finally, Grant’s decision to travel with George Meade’s army was critical, but the options were between staying in Washington, D.C., or moving with the Army of the Potomac. Grant could not be the general in chief and then act as a theater commander in the west because Congress and the president demanded he be in the east. And all of the conjecture of Sherman winning the war in 1864 is far too many “ifs” from reality.
Book Review written by: Curtis S. King, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas