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.

CPW/JMB

2 Responses to “Review of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, by Albert Castel”

  1. Savas Beatie April 19, 2022 at 11:44 PM #

    A masterful title I enjoyed very much, though I know readers who could not get past the first-person presentation.

    David Powell (author of many books including the award-winning Chickamauga Campaign trilogy) is currently writing a multi-volume presentation for Savas Beatie on the entire Atlanta campaign. It promises to be at least four volumes.

    My hunch is my late friend Al’s magnum opus is about to be replaced. He would understand and appreciate the added scholarship.

    • The Historians Manifesto April 21, 2022 at 7:28 PM #

      We look forward to seeing Powell’s work. Loved Castel and the way he wrote the narrative.

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