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Book Review : The Fall of Atlanta: Beyond 'GWTW'

February 11, 1988|JONATHAN KIRSCH

War So Terrible: Sherman and Atlanta by James Lee McDonough and James Pickett Jones (Norton: $19.95, 385 pages)

"What most people know about Sherman's Atlanta campaign," remark the authors of "War So Terrible," "was acquired at some point between 'Tara's Theme' and 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!' "

James Lee McDonough and James Pickett Jones provide an authoritative but also readable and often dramatic account of Sherman's conquest of Atlanta in "War So Terrible," a short course in Civil War history that will fill in the gaps and correct the misimpressions of "Gone With the Wind." We are reminded that the reality of the Civil War is no less horrifying, no less heartbreaking, than its depiction in novels and movies--the authors succeed in evoking the vivid character of Sherman himself and the intimate details of his Atlanta campaign without sacrificing the scholarly detail of genuine history.

The authors remind us that the conquest of Atlanta was crucial to the ultimate Union victory in the Civil War. Lincoln, approaching the elections of 1864, was engaged in bitter political skirmishing that threatened his prospects for re-election. Conscription had prompted "scandal, violence and rioting." Above all, frustration and fatigue were endangering the Union war effort: "Northern war weariness probably constituted the Confederacy's best hope of establishing itself as an independent nation," the authors explain. "Clearly then, if the triumph of the Union and of Lincoln--in a sense one and the same--were to be assured, the federal armies needed to defeat the Confederates somewhere to achieve something really significant, and in a decisive manner. Victory was the one obvious antidote for war weariness."

Lincoln and Grant called upon William Tecumseh Sherman to deliver a victory, and--as we discover in "War So Terrible"--they could not have found a more colorful or memorable soldier. (He also ranks with Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Patton as among the most quotable generals in recorded history.) What is most striking, however, is the contemporary quality of Sherman's strategies of war-making, which anticipate the "total war" of the 20th Century. "We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South but we can make war so terrible that they will realize its futility," Sherman told Grant, "however brave and gallant and devoted to their country."

Industry and Technology

Sherman's campaign was based on industry and technology--he supplied his advancing armies by railroad, and he brought down Atlanta by denying the railroad to its defenders. ("It's not 'villainous saltpeter' that makes one's life so hard," Sherman said of the Army's traditional dependence on animals for transportation of supplies, "but grub and mules.") Throughout his campaign, Sherman ordered the systematic destruction of railroads and factories, as well as the "scorched-earth" policy that characterized his march to the sea. His unremitting (and indiscriminate) bombardment of besieged Atlanta resembles nothing so much as the London Blitz of World War II.

"War . . . is cruelty," Sherman once remarked in a variant of his famous epigram, "the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."

History professors McDonough (of Pepperdine University) and Jones (of Florida State University) describe each skirmish, each charge, each battle in the kind of detail that a Civil War scholar will appreciate. (Their account sent me to the dictionary to determine that enfilade refers to "gunfire directed from either flank along the length of a column or line of troops.") The authors also engage in a kind of running commentary on the quality of command and soldiering on both sides, comparing the judgments of various other historians and resolving that 'the superiority of Southern generals is largely a myth."

Drawing on their scholarship, including their researches into various collections of Civil War letters, diaries and memoirs, the authors give us an equally vivid picture of war from the perspective of the foot soldier. The Civil War, we are reminded, was a particularly intimate one. Between skirmishes, Yanks and Rebs would sometimes approach each other, exchanging tobacco and food and (much to the consternation of their officers) war news; occasionally, opposing units would strike a deal to fire over each other's heads. Cockfighting, baseball and psalm-singing were favorite pastimes of soldiers on the eve of battle. And when snow fell on the Georgia countryside, soldiers on both sides engaged their comrades in spirited snowball fights.

More often, however, the fighting was vicious, the suffering intense and the losses especially tragic. Three brothers serving in the same Confederate battery were slain, one after the other, as they succeeded each other in the dangerous job of tending a muzzle-loading cannon in battle. After one battle on the road to Atlanta, Union troops found the bodies of a Confederate chaplain--"shot, said some of the Confederate wounded, when he attempted to recover the body of his son, a captain who had just been killed." The Yankee's own chaplain, who had insisted on accompanying them into battle, had fallen nearby.

Between the scenes of private valor and the sweep of grand strategy, the authors convince us that we are witnessing one of the decisive moments of the Civil War, or any war, in "War So Terrible." "Hindsight provides the historian with a seemingly invincible tool for analyzing and recognizing the far-reaching significance of Sherman's 1864 campaign," they observe.

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