Sunday, January 14, 2007

Wittenberg: "The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign"

[Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign by Eric J. Wittenberg. (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2006). Pp. 300, $32.95, Hardcover, photos, 29 maps, notes, appendices. ISBN 1-932714-17-0)]

On March 10, 1865, a great cavalry battle was fought at a muddy, nondescript intersection west of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Initially routed by a dawn surprise assault by three divisions of Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry, two brigades of Federal cavalry under the command of Hugh Judson Kilpatrick soon rallied and drove the rebel horsemen from the field. Although a clear Union tactical victory, author Eric Wittenberg argues that the battle was also a significant Confederate success as it was crucial in allowing General William J. Hardee’s infantry corps to escape across the Cape Fear River unscathed.

Grounded in original research of a high order, The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads is a skillfully organized and well-written campaign and battle history. Wittenberg’s work both reinforces and fills in gaps left behind by other recent historians of Sherman’s Carolinas campaign. His work augmented by dozens of detailed maps, the author has pieced together an excellent operational history of the campaign’s mounted operations and his discussion of the battle itself can confidently be termed definitive. Although an informed reader can reasonably quibble with the degree of importance the book assigns to the battle, its conclusions are based on a sound analysis of the evidence.

Criticism of the command leadership from both sides is evenhanded. Rightly chastised for not properly picketing his camp, Kilpatrick is given proper due for his well-executed counterattack that drove the enemy from the field. As is made clear, the “shirttail skedaddle” is only part of the story. For his part, Hampton did not adequately guard his own rear during the night and his command’s pre-battle terrain reconnaissance was poor, a major factor in his eventual defeat.

The author and Savas Beatie are to be commended for the inclusion of so many fine maps, the paucity of which is a major failing in so much Civil War publishing today. Not only are troop movements traced, but terrain features of all kinds and elevation lines are included. The battlefield of Monroe’s Crossroads is visually recreated in painstaking detail. It’s an impressive effort.

Even though the text and visual aids leave precious little cause for complaint, the number of typos are a few too many to escape comment. Additionally, confusion does arise in places where the operational maps and text do not match, but these are minor distractions, usually having to do with units far from the main action. None of these flaws materially detract from the value of the book. Monroe’s Crossroads is stirring history that’s meticulously researched, with conclusions that are boldly stated yet always supported. Students of mounted warfare and those readers interested in the final desperate months of the Civil War should reserve a space on their bookshelf for this groundbreaking campaign history.

(The following review is reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol. 9 #6, pg. 87, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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