Book Review: July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta

July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta. By Earl J. Hess. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2023. Hardcover, 432 pp. $44.95.

Reviewed by Patrick Kelly-Fischer

In July of 1864, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman closed in around Atlanta, beginning the process of cutting the several railroad lines that supplied the city. Sherman’s largely uncontested crossing of the Chattahoochee River, the last natural barrier, was the last straw for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He sacked Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose cautious and largely passive defense had preserved the Confederate Army of Tennessee, but at the cost of ceding most of northern Georgia and allowing Sherman onto Atlanta’s front doorstep.

In Johnston’s place, Davis appointed Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, a famously aggressive commander who immediately sought opportunities to attack Sherman. The first attempt, at the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20, failed. Hood then sent a third of his army on a bold overnight march around Sherman’s exposed left flank, reminiscent of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, successfully placing Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s entire corps where it was in a position to crush the Union Army of the Tennessee. The resulting battle on July 22 is the subject of Earl J. Hess’s latest work.

Hess is one of the most prolific authors writing about the Civil War today. His long list of published works include deep dives into discrete topics such as field artillery, fortifications, and supplies and logistics. But he has also written extensively on various battles and campaigns, including several that occurred during the Atlanta Campaign.

July 22 is, as the title suggests, focused almost entirely on that single day of fighting. Hess very quickly covers the early stages of the campaign, providing just enough information to place the battle in context for the reader. He zooms in to provide more detail on the relevant units’ movements in the days leading up to July 22, 1864, and the heart of the book is about the fighting on the day itself. The July 22 fighting was at times disjointed and confused. Difficult terrain added to the complications. But Hess has arranged the work to correspond with waves of Confederate attacks and Union counterattacks. The book is more or less chronological and laid out in a way that is compelling and exciting, while also helping readers better understand of the flow of events.

In addition to the fighting, Hess at times focuses in on the combat around Bald Hill on July 21, the skirmish around Decatur on July 22, and the death of Major General James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee, one of the highest ranking battlefield deaths of the war. The final sections of the book speak to the impact and aftermath of the battle, the scant preservation efforts around the battlefield, and aspects about historical memory of the battle over the intervening years.

Hess brings his trademark attention to detail in his recounting of the battle. It is clear from the very first pages that he has meticulously researched every aspect of the fighting, and plumbed the depths of available sources. Despite the relatively scant scholarly attention this battle has previously received, he has painstakingly accounted for each regiment’s positioning through each phase of the fighting. He is also quick to admit when the sources conflict, or leave us with insufficient information and therefore unable to state specifics or draw clear conclusions.

Hess’s work is in close dialogue with what he views as the other major recent work on the battle, The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta, by Gary Ecelbarger. Hess does not shy away from highlighting where Ecelbarger and he draw different conclusions. One point where the two historians seem to differ considerably is in their individual interpretations about the decisiveness of the fighting on July 22 to the Atlanta campaign, the presidential election of 1864, and the overall war.

Hess threads the needle by explaining the battle as dramatic, significant, and deeply impactful to the participants, without overstating its importance. He explicitly dismisses the notion that this single day decisively swung the outcome of the entire war, which is sometimes an easy trap for an author to fall into when they spend months or years of their life focusing on a single topic.

This may not be the book to start with if one is not already somewhat familiar with the Atlanta Campaign. However, it does a very effective job of setting the table for the reader, while still assuming some prior knowledge.

With July 22, Hess, as he has so many times before, gives Civil War enthusiasts plenty of new evidence-based food for thought to challenge their preconceived notions.

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