Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of Powell - "THE CHICKAMAUGA CAMPAIGN - BARREN VICTORY: The Retreat into Chattanooga, the Confederate Pursuit, and the Aftermath of the Battle, September 21 to October 20, 1863"

[The Chickamauga Campaign - Barren Victory: The Retreat into Chattanooga, the Confederate Pursuit, and the Aftermath of the Battle, September 21 to October 20, 1863 by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2016). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 392 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-328-7. $34.95]

The first two volumes of David Powell's Chickamauga Campaign trilogy1 were received with great enthusiasm by serious students of the great three-day2 Civil War battle fought in the wilds of North Georgia during September 18-20, 1863. Earlier this year, the Harwell Award committee didn't wait until the project's completion to show their appreciation for Powell's work, conferring the 2016 honor on the middle book in the series, Glory or the Grave. Just released, The Chickamauga Campaign - Barren Victory finally completes Powell's Herculean labors.

Barren Victory begins where Glory or the Grave ended, with nightfall on the 20th and the conclusion of the famous Union defensive stand at Horseshoe Ridge. By the morning of the 21st, the impressively resilient Union army had already reconstructed a solid new line of defense, with George Thomas occupying the center at Rossville, Alexander McCook's Corps on the right stretching west toward Lookout Mountain, and Thomas Crittenden's Corps on the left aligned northeast along the slopes of Missionary Ridge. The Union cavalry also took up blocking positions in front of the infantry. Though its line could be outflanked on both ends by a determined enemy advance, the Army of the Cumberland held a strong front and was far from a panicked mob. As Powell notes, it will be forever impossible to guess what might have transpired had Braxton Bragg organized an immediate pursuit with his entire army, but it seems clear from the situational picture presented in the book that further Confederate success on the 21st (of the kind that might have sparked a general Union retreat and complete evacuation of Chattanooga) was far from assured. As of that morning, Bragg himself failed to comprehend the true scale of his army's victory at Chickamauga and was not prepared (psychologically or organizationally) to launch an all-out pursuit. In Powell's highly persuasive view3, the most ambitious possibilities suggested by subordinates like James Longstreet were simply beyond the logistical capabilities of Bragg's army, half of which was composed of ad hoc reinforcements that had arrived at the front without their own transportation and supply arrangements.

While a general pursuit was not ordered, the Confederate cavalry corps were actively moving forward. In addition to describing Union defensive arrangements in some detail, Powell ably recounts the probing attacks conducted by Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry corps against both the Union center at Rossville Gap and the federal left at the Sutton Farm atop Missionary Ridge. The book also traces Joe Wheeler's belated northerly approach along the base of Lookout Mountain, a sluggishly developed threat to the Union right flank that was opposed by Robert Mitchell's federal cavalry.

One might argue over the proper point of demarcation between the end of the Chickamauga Campaign and the beginning of the Chattanooga Campaign, but Powell satisfactorily concludes his own examination of active operations with the September 22 and 23 pull back of Union forces into the Chattanooga defense lines. While these retrograde movements were underway, Confederate infantry and cavalry also drove the Union covering forces back into the city (or, in the case of Spears's Brigade at Lookout Mountain, across the river). Another chapter looks at the plight of the wounded and prisoners of Chickamauga.

The narrative's final section briefly reexamines long disputed issues regarding dissension within the Army of Tennessee high command and, on the Union side, the relief of Rosecrans and the reorganization of the Army of the Cumberland. Unlike some, Powell doesn't believe that James Longstreet, who was instrumental to Confederate victory on September 20, actively schemed to replace Bragg from day one (or ever, really). The usual suspects take their lumps in Powell's command analysis, but it bears repeating how poorly Bragg was served by his highest ranking cavalry officers (Forrest and Wheeler)4. Of the Confederate infantry division commanders who fought at Chickamauga, the author singles out John Bell Hood, Bushrod Johnson, A.P. Stewart, and John C. Breckinridge for their battlefield prowess demonstrated on the 20th. On the Union side, the book's treatment of William Rosecrans is more positive than the traditional one distorted by his enemies. In terms of underappreciated Union figures, John Brannan and Thomas Wood (in spite of his infamous action on September 20) are praised for their efforts on the battlefield. While Powell has determined that the heroic circumstances surrounding Gordon Granger and James Steedman's fortuitous arrival on the battlefield have been exaggerated to their historiographical and personal benefit, he does rate the contributions of both men as absolutely vital in regard to their enabling the Snodgrass Hill position to be maintained on the final day.

Whereas volumes 1 and 2 were both massive tomes, the narrative portion of Barren Victory comes in at a comparatively modest 134 pages. The rest of the book, excluding the bibliography and index, is composed of a series of appendices. The first appendix (co-authored with Steven Wright) explores in greater depth the harrowing North Georgia odyssey of Colonel Louis Watkins's Kentucky cavalry brigade, as that small force sought to ride through a gauntlet of victorious Confederates and reach the safety of Union lines. The story of its rout by Wheeler on the 21st could have been inserted into the main narrative to good effect, but the fact that the appendix also rather extensively covers Watkins's Civil War career before and after the campaign makes its outside placement entirely understandable.

The second appendix also significantly expands upon a topic raised in the main text, this time the controversy over the relief of Rosecrans. Similar to the findings of Dan Vermilya in his recent study of James Garfield's Civil War career, Powell discovered no direct ties between Garfield's actions and Rosecrans's ouster (the decision already having been made days before Garfield's meeting with Stanton) beyond some indiscreet correspondence between the future president and his friend Salmon Chase. The real culprit on the scene was Charles Dana, whose official dispatches intentionally pictured the Army of the Cumberland as being in far worse condition than it actually was and also willfully distorted the mindset and intentions of Rosecrans.

A duo of appendices represent complete, annotated orders of battle for each army. These also include strength numbers. Paired with the OBs are loss tables, which break down the battle casualties into killed/wounded/missing categories and further indicate percentage loss figures for each unit. All four appendices delve into Powell's research methodology, as well, with the wide range of sources used including monuments, unit reports and returns of all levels, and quarterly ordnance reports. In compiling his loss figures, the author also went the extra mile in poring through hundreds of newspapers, which were rich sources of casualty information. The final appendix is an examination of a late October strength return for Polk's Corps, perhaps most interesting for what it tells us about the extent to which its component formations were able to recover from their Chickamauga losses.

Barren Victory is also where the trilogy's massive bibliography finally appears. New information is discovered (or rediscovered) all the time, of course, but this particular compilation will serve scholars and enthusiasts alike as the standard Chickamauga source collection far into the foreseeable future. Powell also adds unit associations to the list of manuscript collections, an extremely helpful aid that he rightly contends should become common practice. Beyond a number of typos, the book lacks noticeable problems of any great significance. A wish-list item missing from the volume's cartography is a detailed map of the Chattanooga earthwork defenses constructed by the Army of the Cumberland in the immediate aftermath of Chickamauga.

In content scope, detail, and analysis, David Powell's uncommonly comprehensive Chickamauga trilogy clearly surpasses all previous efforts. Current students of western theater Civil War military history will likely never find the need for another Chickamauga tactical study volume in their lifetimes, or perhaps even those of their descendants.

1 - Volumes 1 and 2:
The Chickamauga Campaign - A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 - September 19, 1863 (2015).
The Chickamauga Campaign - Glory or the Grave: The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863 (2015).
2 - The Battle of Chickamauga has traditionally been considered a two-day battle, but Powell argues convincingly that the fighting on the 18th should also be included as part of the main battle. Whether this view will gain general acceptance remains to be seen.
3 - A new military biography of Braxton Bragg authored by Earl Hess concurs with Powell's assessment of the Army of Tennessee's limited options. Like Hess, Powell also regards Bragg as an able strategist and organizer whose dismal personal leadership qualities unsuited him to field army command.
4 - See Powell's Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign (2010).


  1. Thanks, Drew, for this in-depth review of Powell's work. It was such a pleasure to work with him on this one personally, as I did, because it was so impressive even in manuscript form (which is not very often the case) and this campaign has always held my interest.

    Keep up the good work. Independent Civil War publishing depends on the work you and a handful of others do.

    --Theodore P. Savas

    1. For a long time, I regarded Chickamauga as the least interesting of the major western theater battles. Over recent years, Powell and Robertson have changed my mind about it, most particularly the campaign aspect.

  2. Thank you for this detailed review. I appreciate the kind words. This whole project has been a labor of love for me, and I hope others find it insightful

    1. You deserve a long rest.

    2. No, he does not. And he doesn't get one. Powell, back to work.

  3. Hi Drew

    With the successful completion of this 3 volume history. I had originally thought that multi-volume studies were more of an exception.

    Then I began to think about it and I realized, SB has one that is 1/2 way done and another upcoming.

    Thinking about campaign studies specifically, I've heard UNC Press is publishing a multi-volume Petersburg. I also assume at some point the 2nd volume of Hartwig's Maryland Campaign will be completed. Other campaigns like the Georgia Campaign, Valley Campaign 1862 or 1864 etc would all seem to fall into this category of potential mulit-volume publications.

    Perhaps they are not a rare as I thought they were. I would assume that a multiple volume, biography, regimental, campaign history provide publishers with a new set of concerns before starting the project.

    As a reader I'm just glad that so much good publishing continues.

    1. Yes, it's easy to imagine the reasons why publishers might be hesitant to commit to a three (or more) volume set.

      I had forgotten about Greene's Petersburg series. I have no idea when the first book is scheduled to appear.

    2. It is fraught with risk, especially when you don't have anything after vol. 1 in hand. With Powell it was a true leap of faith better on his vertical status.

      Sometimes a topic is so well done you simply cannot cut enough out of it to make it one volume.

  4. Are there any plans to release Powell's tetralogy as a box set? (Vol 1-3 plus Failure in the Saddle) Probably unlikely as the only nonfiction box set I can recall seeing was an anniversary edition of Foote's trilogy, but I suppose it can't hurt to ask.


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