Archive | April, 2022

Review of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, by Albert Castel

19 Apr

“Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” This memorable dispatch written by Union General William T. Sherman succinctly summarized his army’s efforts over five months in 1864 which culminated in the capture of one of the Confederacy’s most vital cities.  Writer Albert Castel provides a superb narrative of this epic military operation in his monumental Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Besides describing the results of the campaign concerning the fortunes of war in the western theater, Castel’s title also alludes to his thesis that claims Sherman’s achievement directly affected the outcome of the presidential election, and thus, the ultimate outcome of the war.

Organizing his chapters by the months of 1864 in which the campaign took place, Castel writes a clear and comprehensive narrative of the events of the campaign. His style is somewhat unique, relating his narrative in the present tense as events unfolded and presenting information the leaders of the respective armies had at their disposal at the time. This unusual technique has the effect of only heightening the drama as events unfolded, and is evidence of a masterful command of an incredible amount of information about this months-long, complex operation and its place in the war as a whole.

Union overall commander Ulysses S. Grant’s master plan was to put the utmost pressure on Confederate forces throughout the country. This required Sherman to drive southward from Chattanooga with Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army and the key railroad city of Atlanta as his objective. From Tunnel Hill in far north Georgia to the banks of the Chattahoochee River close to Atlanta, Sherman’s and Johnston’s forces played a high stakes game of maneuver as Johnston tried to place his force in front of Sherman who constantly resorted to turning the Confederate flank. Castel covers it all: Resaca, Cassville, Pickett’s Mill, New Hope Church, Marietta, and others. By mid-July, seeing that Johnston had not halted Sherman’s approach and offered no concrete plan for success, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sacked the commander in favor of aggressive John Bell Hood. Hood took the offensive immediately and launched relatively well-planned but poorly executed attacks at Sherman that failed to reverse the momentum of the campaign. After a final clash at Jonesboro, south of the city, Sherman had cut off all railroad access to Atlanta, tightening his grip which forced Hood to give it up by early September and leading to Sherman’s now famous message.

Besides providing a complete military picture, Castel interposes the importance of the 1864 election as he states clearly how the course of the war determined the course of politics. As Grant’s overland campaign and siege of Petersburg failed to produce a definitive result against Robert E. Lee, Castel points to the importance of Sherman’s drive against Atlanta. Many politicians, newspaper editors, and even Abraham Lincoln himself felt that the Democratic Party would win the election and alter the prosecution of the war, and perhaps take their victory as a mandate for a cessation of hostilities. Sherman intently felt the pressure himself to bring about a much-needed victory which he achieved by capturing Atlanta. Castel firmly states Atlanta’s fall clinched the election of Lincoln and the eventual downfall of the Confederacy.

Throughout the narrative, Castel offers well-crafted analysis of commanders. For instance, Union General James McPherson is scolded repeatedly for his cautiousness and failure to take advantage of opportunities, most notably at Snake Creek Gap and Resaca. He discusses Johnston’s failure to offer any real plan to stop Sherman, and Hood’s reckless attacks which decimated the Army of Tennessee. Castel exclaims Hood simply tried to do too much at times. And although not intended, Castel is tough on Sherman himself although his actions proved victorious, Sherman failed to capitalize on opportunities to deliver a killing stroke to the Army of Tennessee. Castel seems to prove that Sherman preferred raiding over fighting and that Atlanta was always his main objective and never the destruction of Johnston/Hood’s army. Castel firmly believes that Hood’s army should have been destroyed/captured, thereby preventing the horrendous Nashville campaign from ever taking place.  

Decision in the West is now thirty years old, but it remains the single best volume on this critical campaign of the war. The book contains over 500 pages of text and features an enormous amount of information, but it never feels like too much. He describes battles and marches in detail without getting tedious and provides both sides equal treatment.  Other books about Atlanta have of course been written since 1992, but none so far have completed the job so thoroughly. We will continue to wait.


Review of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long, by Richard D. White, Jr.

5 Apr

A consummate dictator, Huey P. Long ruled over Depression-era Louisiana while serving as governor and senator and left one of the more unique legacies in American political history. His imprint on his home state is remarkable even to this day, and appears as all the more so when one realizes how brief was but stunningly complete was his reign. In a mere seven years in office (1928-1935), he managed to take over Louisiana politics and become a nationally-known figure with presidential ambitions. I recently had a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Richard D. White, Jr.’s acclaimed biography of this legendary figure, Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long.  I found it to be worthy of the praise it has received as perhaps the best account of the life of this giant in Southern political history.

White recently retired from his position as the dean of the Ourso College of Business at LSU, having served as professor of public administration prior. Previous to the publication of Kingfish, he authored Roosevelt the Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner 1889—1895.  White paints a detailed portrait of his subject in his biography of Long, tracking him from his humble north Louisiana roots all the way to the height of his power, when an assassin’s bullet cut him down in halls of the skyscraper capitol he caused to be built in Baton Rouge. By any measure it is an incredible story of ambition and accomplishment, but also one of greed, corruption, and an unusual—one might say perverse—hunger for power. By the time Carl Weiss steps out from the shadows in the corridors of the capitol on September 10, 1935 with his .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun, looking to settle a personal grudge, readers are almost rooting for someone to cut Long down to size.

It is undeniable that Long did a lot for Louisiana. The roads and bridges he built modernized its antiquated transportation infrastructure, for example, and his investment in Louisiana State University transformed it from a struggling local school to an institution of national standing. His commitment to give Louisiana schoolchildren free textbooks at a time in which they were expected to pay for them (and not all families could afford such an expense) was a vital plank on his gubernatorial platform. But Long always had an angle for self-aggrandizement in anything he did, and he would pursue and punish anyone whom he believed to not be loyal to him in his pursuit of power. By that I mean not just political foes, but their families, friends, and businesses. No vendetta was too small for him to devote time to ensuring personal ruin, as he was a petty, vindictive, and self-righteous man. Long ran Louisiana with a mafia-boss style that struck fear into anyone who dared oppose him at the height of his power in an administration that comes as close as any in American history to a totalitarian regime.

Long had an unusual self-confidence and persuasiveness, which he combined with an unmatched work ethic and energy that overwhelmed his opponents and enabled his rise. He was able to in short order take over Louisiana politics owing to these qualities and the fact that he campaigned to everyday citizens in words they could understand with a populist-style message about the need to reform a system that he alleged kept them in poverty. He railed against the wealthy and powerful corporations, proposing what can only be described as communist schemes to cap individual incomes and spread collective wealth. A bitter enemy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had designs on the presidency. The relatively short period of his reign, a whirlwind of despotism and boundless ambition rendered palatable to his subjects by numerous and substantial tangible positive improvements in Louisiana, are unlike anything before or after in local American politics. Kingfish tells a remarkable, entertaining, and enlightening tale. It is well worth a read if you have an interest in learning why the name Huey P. Long still looms so large in Southern history.