Friday, January 27, 2012

Wittenberg: "THE BATTLE OF WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS: Averell Fails to Secure West Virginia"

[ The Battle of White Sulphur Springs: Averell Fails to Secure West Virginia by Eric J. Wittenberg (The History Press, 2011). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:139/189. ISBN:978-1-60949-005-8  $21.99]

Geo. S. Patton and W.W. Averell
The U.S. cavalry raid that culminated in the August 26-27, 1863 Battle of White Sulphur Springs was conducted for a curious reason, the hoped for seizure of the law library at Lewisburg, the legal possession of which was claimed by the new West Virginia state government. For their part, the Confederates mistakenly assumed the raid was yet another attempt to sever the vital Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and disrupt the region's salt works.  Cavalry historian Eric Wittenberg's The Battle of White Sulphur Springs is a complete history of this raid, with a concluding section examining preservation issues surrounding the battlefield.

The Union force that was defeated at White Sulphur Springs, a new and understrength brigade of recently mounted West Virginia regiments (plus the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry), was led by the experienced raider Gen. William Woods Averell.  This command, designated the Fourth Separate Brigade, left Winchester, Virginia on August 5 and traveled southwest, where a supporting force from Beverly hooked up with it near Huntersville, where the new arrivals would serve as Averell's rear guard. The raiders continued east to Warm Springs before turning southwest toward Lewisburg, in Greenbrier County.  Meanwhile, the Confederates were not idle. Although Col. William L. "Mudwall" Jackson did little to hinder Averell before or after the White Sulphur Springs battle, a Confederate infantry brigade under the temporary command of Col. George S. Patton intercepted the raiders at a rugged mountain pass just outside White Sulphur Springs.  Averell was defeated in a sharp fight, but was able to skillfully retrace his steps to ultimate safety.

Wittenberg is clearly an admirer of W.W. Averell, at the very least believing him to be an underappreciated and unfairly maligned Civil War figure. In his book, he lauds the New Yorker's ability to quickly mold disparate elements into an effective raiding force, one that would go on to perform well on other Civil War fields.  Although the case presented in the book did not strike this reader as particularly persuasive, the author considers Averell to be the Union's premier cavalry raider.  However, with a full comparative investigation of Averell's raiding career lying beyond the scope of the book, a more in depth defense of this claim might make for an interesting magazine article by Wittenberg. Several Confederate officers are also singled out for praise.  Modest in his assessment of his own role in the battle, Patton was instrumental in engineering the Confederate defensive victory.  Lt. Col. Walter Edgar is also rightfully commended for his successful pressure-packed handling of Patton's center.

The author's description of the raid's origin, together with his biographical sketches of the regiment, battery, and brigade commanders from both sides, provide readers with a solid background into prominent people and events surrounding the raid.  The book's tracing of the raid path, and its summarization of the Confederate attempts to block and cut off the invader, are equally good.  Of course, the detailed tactical account of the Battle of White Sulphur Springs comprises the heart of the book, the skillful construction of which is probably second nature to the author at this point in his extensive military historical writing career.  The action unfolds at regiment and battalion scales, and the important roles played by the artillery of both sides are noted.  The confining nature of the terrain is described well in text (as well as amply demonstrated visually by a set of excellent maps created by Steven Stanley), with the rugged high ground on both flanks precluding turning movements. With few better options, the battle played out as a series of back and forth frontal attacks.  For its size, the Battle of White Sulphur Springs was particularly bloody, and it is certainly unusual for a cavalry raid to experience a sanguinary two-day fight over the same ground.

Like all large collections, the Civil War Sesquicentennial Series battle histories published by The History Press vary in depth and quality, and The Battle of White Sulphur Springs is among the very best the series has to offer. The research, maps, and writing are exceptional, and the volume's long term value is certainly enhanced by its stature as the only book length study of the subject. Author Eric Wittenberg is to be commended for significantly raising the profile of this obscure raid and battle. His Battle of White Sulphur Springs is highly recommended reading for all students of the war in West Virginia.

1 comment:

  1. Drew,

    Many thanks for your very kind words about White Sulphur Springs. As you probably know, I find the obscure to be the most interesting things, and this certainly was an obscure action when I started on it.

    You're right--I do admire Averell, and have long sought to try to rehabilitate his reputation a bit as I firmly believe that he was the victim of an injustice suffered at the hands of Phil Sheridan. His many good traits and his long and very successful career as a raider are all too often overlooked because of how that career ended.

    Again, I very much appreciate the kind words, and I'm pleased to know that you found redeeming value in this work.



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