The four day investment of Decatur, Alabama has merited little more than a brief mention in most histories of the Fall 1864 Tennessee campaign. With General Hood seeking a suitable crossing point1 over the Tennessee River for a strike at Stevenson, Decatur was a secondary option. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the farther west the Army of Tennessee traveled in the quest for a crossing the more time and distance factors conspired against Hood's original plan of breaking Union rail communications near Stevenson and advancing into middle Tennessee along the Chattanooga-Nashville axis.
According to A Slight Demonstration author Noel Carpenter, the failure to quickly secure Decatur seriously damaged Confederate opportunities for success in Tennessee against the temporarily scattered Federal garrisons. In addition to forcing the consumption of critically low supply reserves, the delay also led the Confederate army to take up the direct path to Nashville. This circumstance yielded to the federal army the direct supply and communications conduit between Sherman's army in Georgia and the Tennessee capital2.
The federal defense of Decatur was a textbook example of a successful defense of a fortified post against a vastly superior attacking force. While overall commander BG Robert S. Granger is criticized for his inability to grasp the strategic situation, post commander Col. Charles Doolittle is praised. Doolittle's mobile forward defense strategy, in combination with his well timed and organized sorties, inflicted serious losses on the Confederate skirmish lines and disrupted their artillery emplacements. In addition, the federals made far better use of their own artillery.
John Bell Hood and his subordinates are rightly criticized for the carelessness of their forward deployments3. Patrick Cleburne failed to monitor his left flank near the river, allowing nearly the entire skirmish line on the Confederate left flank to be gobbled up by a brilliantly planned and executed sortie by the Union defenders. The Confederates badly mismanaged their artillery deployments across the board. Careless planning by A.P. Stewart on Hood's right allowed another Federal thrust to wreck a multi-battery earthwork aimed at interdicting shipping and breaking up the Union pontoon bridge. The bridge's continued operation allowed the garrison to increase its strength from that of a small brigade to around 5,000 men over the course of the demonstration.
Utilizing a suitable array of published and unpublished sources, Carpenter's narrative is a well written one, and his concise chronicling of the operational movements of the opposing forces sets up well his detailed depiction of the tactical situation at Decatur. The author's clear reconstructions of the Confederate approaches and Federal countermeasures, frequently detailed at regimental level, are exemplary. My only complaint is the dearth of maps. There are only two, a strategic overview and an endpaper map of the Decatur defenses reproduced from the O.R. atlas. Additional maps would have been very helpful in clarifying troop positions and movements.
In the end, Noel Carpenter's A Slight Demonstration makes a strong case for the reexamination of the opening moves of Hood's 1864 Tennessee campaign, and their importance in determining how the campaign would ultimately be conducted. This compact volume well deserves a prominent place in the library of standard histories dealing with this campaign.
1 - As an appendix, Carpenter includes a very informative table of Tennessee River fords and ferries located between Chattanooga, TN and Florence, AL. Names, locations, brief assessments of the character and condition of the crossings, and other remarks are detailed.
2 - In hindsight, this doesn't appear critically important, but Beauregard, Hood, and the rest of the Confederate high command believed so at the time.
3 - Concurring with the opinion of most current researchers, the author found no evidence to believe any of Hood's failures before or during the Decatur operation were laudanum-induced.
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