Thursday, December 16, 2010

Powell: "FAILURE IN THE SADDLE: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign"

[Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2010). Hardcover, 15 maps, photos, tour, order of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:274/383. ISBN: 978-1-932714-87-6 $34.95]

Confederate missteps committed during the September 1863 Chickamauga Campaign are most often laid at the feet of commanding General Braxton Bragg and his principal subordinates, generals Leonidas Polk, D.H. Hill, and Thomas Hindman. Much of the literature either glosses over or omits entirely the significant impact of errors made by the leaders of the mounted forces of the Army of Tennessee, beginning with corps commanders Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest. David Powell's Failure in the Saddle is an exhaustive descriptive and analytical account of the role of the Confederate cavalry in the campaign, and provides an expertly researched assessment of the varied performances of its corps, division, and brigade leaders.

Powell does a very good job of keeping his narrative sharply focused on the cavalry and its operational and tactical role in the campaign and battle. One cannot imagine a better balance struck between the author's often micro-detailed handling of the cavalry and the need to provide enough context for the reader to understand the larger picture. One is always kept abreast of how the cavalry's failures directly impacted the rest of the army.

While the book duly notes the mistakes of Braxton Bragg, both in general and in specific regard to the cavalry, the officer singled out for severest censure is the ranking cavalry general in the Army of Tennessee, Major General Joseph Wheeler, who seems to have neglected badly almost every important task assigned him. His greatest failure occurred a the very beginning when, given the task of scouting the Tennessee River crossings below Chattanooga and screening the army's left flank, Wheeler moved his corps dozens of miles to the south, only keeping two small regiments behind to do the job. This allowed the Army of the Cumberland's crossing to pass unhindered and unreported, a grave and unforgivable error. Wheeler also either ignored or was slow to react to a series of orders from Bragg to close up on the army's left in the days before the September 18-20 Battle of Chickamauga, keeping half of Nathan Bedford Forrest's command from its own task of securing the West Chickamauga Creek bridges and screening the army's right flank. During the battle itself, Wheeler accomplished little beyond overwhelming two small isolated Union brigades in separate actions. During the pursuit, the diminutive Georgian repeatedly failed to maintain contact with the retreating Federals, even to the point of sending his men miles to rear for rest.

Although his own performance was mixed, at least Nathan Bedford Forrest was active. Powell is critical of Forrest's September 17 failure to concentrate his available force and secure the Alexander and Reed's bridge crossings before the arrival of the infantry. The 18th also did not go well, although it was not all his fault. The morning was frittered away with a mix up in orders and the foot soldiers had to spend the greater part of the afternoon clearing the federal cavalry from the west bank. The trouble it took infantry to complete the task casts some doubt upon how feasible it would have been for cavalry alone to succeed, but Powell makes a good point that Forrest could at least have masked the blocked main crossings and secured alternate ones. On the other hand, skillful handling of cavalry seems to have been beyond Forrest subordinate John Pegram, who proceeded to foul up every assignment given his division. Like many judgments leveled against historical figures, some of Powell's criticisms of Forrest, formulated from peaceful consideration of decades of exhaustive research, seem too harsh by half given the lack of help rendered by Forrest's colleagues and subordinates, as well as his own need to make snap decisions amid the fog and chaos of battle. Nevertheless, blunders were made. Forrest's most significant and objectively censurable error, in this reviewer's opinion, was his failure to properly screen the Confederate right flank (John Bell Hood's infantry) that evening. Instead, the mounted flank guards were actually behind the road providing Hood's line of communication [a situation finely illustrated in a map]. Additionally, a gaping hole in the federal center was missed, as well as the position of the Union army's northern flank, information of grave importance to Bragg's plan to envelop the enemy left. During the pursuit, Forrest also provide poor intelligence about the Army of the Cumberland's temporary position at Missionary Ridge. All of these points are clearly and irrefutably outlined by the author.

As for corps subordinates, Powell praises William Martin, an officer that flawlessly executed his orders to scout and screen the McLemore's Cove operation. Gabriel Wharton, Wheeler's other division commander, performed competently although he was given no opportunity for independent action. On the other hand, John Scott, a brigade commander under Pegram, did his part as badly as his division commander, uncovering the army's base at Ringgold on two occasions, leaving his assigned post without orders at Red House Bridge, and never cooperating with Pegram. With officers like these, it is no wonder Forrest had a rocky beginning to corps command, although Frank Armstrong and George Dibrell proved themselves worthy of campaign laurels.

Powell ends his study in a manner that one wishes more authors would think to do. The penultimate chapter spends almost thirty pages summarizing the book's findings in a step-by-step manner, while the final section discusses in some detail the historiography of the campaign as it pertains to the Confederate cavalry. Most studies treat their wrap up only cursorily, as if in too great a hurry to end the book. Similarly, historiographical analysis, widely considered to be of limited value to the larger group of readers, is too often cut from non-academic publications or left buried in the end notes for independent investigation. Not so here, with Powell ably contrasting the findings of Connelly, Tucker, Cozzens, Woodworth, and Hallock, as well as that of the Forrest and Wheeler biographers.

The book's fifteen maps, of the operational and tactical variety, effectively complement the text. Other supplementary materials include an excellent driving tour (complete with detailed directions, photos, and GPS coordinates), an order of battle with strength and loss information and analysis, and the text of Colonel Alfred Roman's inspection report of Wheeler's corps. A reassessment of the famous confrontation between Forrest and Bragg and an author interview are also present as appendices.

Readers accustomed to the celebratory portraits of southern cavalry in the eastern theater literature might find Powell's analysis to be quite a shock and a revelation. Joe Wheeler was no J.E.B. Stuart and the western Confederate cavalry often paled in comparison to its eastern brethren in terms of discipline, organization, equipment, and leadership. In addition to this expertly managed expose of the structural failings of the western mounted arm, Failure in the Saddle should be considered a vital part of the small but growing essential Chickamauga bookshelf, joining the work of Cozzens and Robertson as exemplars of the best of modern scholarship. It is very highly recommended.


  1. Drew,

    Thank you for such a detailed assessment of "Failure In The Saddle." I worked hard to try and deliver as balanced an assessment of the Rebel Horse's role in the campaign as I could, and to try and give the reader some idea of not just how things went wrong, but what the larger impact was.

    I have wondered how people would react to my dissection of Nathan Bedford Forrest, given the high praise usually heaped on that officer. I strove to defend each of my assessments with extra care, because of the contrarian nature of some of my conclusions, and also because I wanted to be fair to the man. You may be right that sometimes the axe of judgement falls too harshly, but at least I have presented my evidence before the bench.

    In fact, my opinion of NBF actually went up a bit in the writing of this book - I came to realize that he was thrust into the role with little support, training, or even decent subordinates. Often his best troops (Armstrong and Dibrell) were detailed elsewhere, and he had to rely instead on the far weaker reeds of Pegram and Scott - hardly a fair substition.

    Dave Powell

  2. Dave,
    I don't think you'll catch too much flak at least from the thinking 'Forrest people', mainly because none of his legend status really derives from his Chickamauga role. I hope it's not news to his admirers that he was a very difficult subordinate, but I could be wrong!

    The far greater indictment is that against Joe Wheeler. I don't know if he has any major defenders in the literature anymore (IIRC, Longacre was pretty benign toward him in "Cavalry of the Heartland"), but as time goes on their job just becomes more and more difficult.

    Thanks for writing, and nice work.



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