Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nicholls: "A Masterful Retreat"

For such a focal point of attention for both sides, not much has been written about the Civil War at Cumberland Gap. However, Lewis D. Nicholls's recent book A Masterful Retreat: The Story of the 7th Division's Retreat Across Eastern Kentucky From Sept. 17-Oct. 3 1862 [Avant Garde Publishing, 2006] partially rectifies this gap (pardon the pun) in the literature. It covers the Union capture and occupation of the Gap in the summer of 1862 and the garrison's long retreat in the face of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky by Bragg and Smith.

Nicholls begins his book with a nice operational history of the 7th Division's June 1862 campaign to wrest Cumberland Gap from the Confederates. The U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Morgan (7th Division, Army of the Ohio), quickly discovered the difficulties of occupying the mountain stronghold. Poor roads meant Cumberland Gap could not be supplied adequately from Kentucky and it was easily outflanked by other gaps in the Cumberland Mountains.

In the summer, when Kirby Smith bypassed the gap and crossed his army into Kentucky, Morgan's 7th Division was isolated and eventually forced to retreat. Nicholls recounts this 200 mile retreat to the Ohio River in great detail, including the efforts of 900 Confederate cavalrymen under John Hunt Morgan to block and harass this movement. Like the subsequent findings of the army, Nicholls absolves George Morgan of any blame for the abandonment of Cumberland Gap.

While an examination of the notes reveals an adequately researched book, I was disappointed in the lack of a bibliography. The book also suffers from poor maps and editing. However, none of these flaws would lead me to discourage anyone interested in Cumberland Gap and the 1862 Kentucky Campaign from reading this book, which competently covers the subject matter with a depth of detail unlikely to be found elsewhere in the literature.

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