Friday, October 28, 2011

Patchan: "SECOND MANASSAS: Longstreet's Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge"

[Second Manassas: Longstreet's Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge by Scott C. Patchan (Potomac Books, 2011). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Page main/total:146/205. ISBN:978-1-59797-687-9  $26.95]

Book length treatments of portions of Civil War battles are typically the purview of Gettysburg scholars and enthusiasts. However, with Second Manassas, Scott Patchan instead offers readers a new look at James Longstreet's crushing August 30, 1862 attack that decided the Battle of Second Manassas in the Army of Northern Virginia's favor.  With its main narrative text coming in at less than 150 pages, Second Manassas: Longstreet's Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge is tightly focused on activity south of the Warrenton Turnpike, the heavy fighting at Chinn Ridge and Henry House Hill with some attention paid to the southern end of Dogan Ridge.

The military historical writing skills displayed in Patchan's previous works have vaulted him into the higher echelon of Civil War campaign and battle history authors. It's obvious he knows the ground, and few exceed his ability to convert a deep knowledge of the source material into a coherent, detailed, and engaging tactical narrative.

In Second Manassas, the story of Longstreet's left to right echelon attack unfolds masterfully, but the common wisdom that the attack was a classic counterpunch executed in textbook fashion is overthrown. Part of the problem was a faulty command structure, which got the attack off to a bad start. Bizarrely, Hood retained command of his own brigade (leaving a lowly staff captain in nominal charge) as well as his division and Nathan Evans continued to lead his brigade semi-independently. Cadmus Wilcox did the same with his own division. Through blunder, he ended up personally advancing with his old brigade, leaving the division's other two behind.  The result was a weak, disjointed initial attack instead of a solid avalanche of two whole divisions hitting the almost entirely open Union flank.

As more and more Confederate brigades and divisions were committed on Hood's right, they were forced into an early left wheel in order to dislodge stubborn federal units positioned atop Chinn Ridge instead of advancing directly to Henry House Hill and cutting off the Army of the Potomac's retreat. Leadership of brigades and regiments was generally superb, but problems existed at division level. While Patchan is effusive in his praise of Confederate division commander David R. Jones, his writing is critical of James Kemper's lack of control and Richard Anderson's caution (although he admits that it is difficult to assess Anderson's role without his missing report). Stonewall Jackson also comes under fire for not demonstrating strongly enough against the federal right and for not using his own long arm to draw some of the attention of the massed federal batteries atop Dogan Ridge.

However, as Patchan makes clear, the other side had something to do with lessening the impact of Longstreet's attack.  Brave and quick thinking Union officers ensured their defeat on the left would not turn into disaster.  The brigades of Nathaniel McLean, Zealous Tower, John Koltes and Wladimir Krzyanowski did wonders on Chinn Ridge, while the Pennsylvania Reserves and Sykes's division of Regulars held firm at Henry House Hill until outflanked at dusk. Criticism of the uninspired performances of corps commanders Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell, who sent reinforcements to the left in driblets, is factual and restrained, avoiding the mocking tone of abuse one often finds heaped upon the reputations of both men.

A minor complaint I have with the book is the relegation of any discussion of Longstreet's role in the attack to a brief section of the concluding chapter, which actually comprises a very nice overall summary of the successes and failures of the various Confederate command levels -- corps, division, brigade, and regiment. A much larger problem can be found with the cartography.  So many of the maps are difficult to read, due to small size and blurry printing.  This is too bad, as the level of detail, in terms of terrain features and unit positions and movements, is otherwise excellent.

One question a reader might reasonably ask is why read Patchan when we already have John Hennessy's universally acclaimed Return to Bull Run? Hennessy himself generously offers an answer to the question in his introduction to Patchan's book. Ensuing decades inevitably witness the uncovering of new source material that can be used to fill the knowledge gaps that remain sprinkled throughout all battle histories.  In addition to its unique tactical presentation of the Chinn Ridge and Henry House Hill fighting, the information in Patchan's Second Manassas acts as a corrective to all prior work.  A new library essential, it should be paired with Hennessy on all Second Manassas bookshelves.

1 comment:

  1. Drew, spot on analysis. Definitely one to add to the bookshelf. It's a shame about the maps, as it looks like they are extremely detailed. But the quality of reproduction reminds me of the mimeograph sheets we used to get back in grade school.

    Chris Van Blargan

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