Why was the Battle of Ezra Church so Crucial? Ask the Common Soldier
by Gordon Thorsby
Picture of a Union Camp outside Chattanooga
“The battle was brutal and simple. ‘They done the charging and our men did the shooting.” This was one description of Ezra Church (or Ezra Chapel both are used).
There were many outcomes from the fight at Ezra Church on July 28, 1864. For the common soldier, North and South, it wasn’t because Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (below right), only six days after being promoted to command of the Army of the Tennessee who proved his ability as an army for good. There was no doubt he was the man to replace McPherson. It wasn’t because Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee (below left) had very recently been promoted to Corps command in the Army of Tennessee. It wasn’t for the interesting note that Union Howard and Confederate Lee were classmates and friends at
West Point. It wasn’t because Ezra Church ended Hood’s bloody offensives around Atlanta and defeats each time. Hood was simply running out of troops. It wasn’t about commanders who already knew frontal assaults consistently resulted in severe losses but they kept doing it anyway. Why was Ezra Church so important? Ask the common soldiers.
Ezra Church was all infantry and lacked artillery. Ezra Church was almost completely musket vs. Musket. The losses on both sides were almost delivered solely via the minie ball. The rifled musket could drop men at long distance and yet the lines of blue behind breastworks
dropped scores at a time between 50 and 100 yards. The tightly packed lines of Confederate brigades attacked piecemeal advancing across an open field and to awaiting Yankee breastworks beyond. On July 1, at Gettysburg, the Union I Corps from the Army of the Potomac fired somewhere around 241,000 rounds in an all day battle. At Ezra Church, in only five hours and with about the same numbers of soldiers involved, Ezra Church fired approximately 33% more rounds than Pennsylvania.
Was the common soldier capable of firing more effectively? Was the repeating rifle influential? Stones river, with more men fired fewer rounds than at Ezra Church. At Ezra Church, the air was indeed filled with lead. One might wonder that for the number of rounds fired and with veteran soldiers there would be more
casualties inflicted. If one concluded that, it might be a myopic view. Many casualties were struck multiple times. Many Confederate line officers seeing their lines and the number of men falling ordered their troops to go to the ground because standing had one guarantee; become a casualty. Trees were barked by the conical rounds and in several instances gray casualties were found lined up single file behind trees. Federals were behind breastworks that included headlogs.
Ezra Church proved that the shovel and the pick were as important as the rifle and Union infantry caught without the tools, would probably never be without them from then on. Though Hood argued prior to Ezra Church that entrenching and retreating was “weakening the spirit of the army,” Kennesaw, Ezra Church and Jonesboro proved otherwise. The common soldier, understood the strength of these basic tools. Both sides used them and they paid off every time.
Ezra Church proved once again that greatest force at the narrowest point of attack was critical. At Antietam, Chickamauga, Perryville, and Peach Tree Creek, the piecemeal occurred. Commanders repeated the error again. Lessons never learned.
Skirmishers were important but the power of one skirmish line over another skirmish line made a difference. After each repulse, The Union XV Corps pushed out strong skirmish lines and slowed each advancing enemy force. Each Confederate advance was known before they became visible. After Ezra Church, fire superiority along the skirmish line gave an army that possessed it the battle initiative.
From Harper's Weekly
The Confederate soldiers in the lines proved their bravery in the face of a seemingly predictable outcome. The losses for the engagement were 632 Union losses and somewhere between 3,300 and 5,000 Confederate losses. The Confederate numbers are conservative estimates. Hood stated in his orders, “You have but to will it, and God will grant us the victory your commander and your country expect.” For the common soldier, this type of statement had to be most discouraging. Easier said than done? Southern commanders complained that soldiers did not fight with the zeal that the conditions required. Based on the obvious results of each attack it did not require a genius to stop sending brigades forward yet commanding officers did. The results were predictable.
Each fight around the Atlanta was another step toward final victory of the campaign for Sherman. After Ezra Church, there was a small fight at Utoy Creek, a small Southern victory, and then Jonesboro and another large Union victory. Couldn’t Richmond see that no matter the costs, Atlanta was going to fall. When did the costs to the Army of Tennessee outweigh the benefits? The responsibility for the repeated defeats at Atlanta are not Hood’s. He was brought on to go on the offensive and with that, the cost of soldiers' lives was Richmond’s responsibility alone. The Common soldier did more than was possible.
The Battle of Ezra Church, by Hess, Earl;. J, University of North Carolina Press, 2015, pp. 203-205.
Decision in the West, Castel, Albert, University Press of Kansas, 1992, pp. 428-432.
“National Tribune,” Albert B. Crummel, April 25, 1888.
War Like a Thunderbolt, Bonds, Russell, Westholme Publishing, 2009. P186.
Fighting for Atlanta, Hess Earl J., University of North Carolina, 2018, pp285-286.