Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mowery: "MORGAN'S GREAT RAID: The Remarkable Expedition from Kentucky to Ohio"

[Morgan's Great Raid: The Remarkable Expedition from Kentucky to Ohio by David L. Mowery (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, 25 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:165/190. ISBN:978-1-60949-436-0 $19.99]

A definitive-scale scholarly study of Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan's "Great Raid" through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio in July 1863 has yet to be written, but David L. Mowery's Morgan's Great Raid is an excellent overview and one of the most appealing volumes in The History Press's rapidly expanding Civil War Sesquicentennial series. In around 150 pages of narrative, the author follows closely Morgan's route of march and the innumerable battles and skirmishes fought along the way. Additionally, the composition of the contending forces are systematically introduced, from Morgan's own cavalry division of two brigades to the host of Union infantry, cavalry, artillery, militia, and naval formations hastily assembled to intercept and destroy the Confederate raider. Word economy is so skillfully employed to keep the book within the space limitations involved in the series of which is it a part that no element feels particularly rushed. Even the larger fights, like the one late in the raid at Buffington Island, are only described in brief, but enough information about the forces involved, their operational and tactical maneuvers, and the terrain fought over is presented to give readers a good idea of where the fighting occurred, what happened, and why the clashes ended like they did.

Immensely aiding comprehension of these events are the 25 maps that accompany the text. The first two trace the entire course of the raid from beginning to end, noting the progress of Morgan as well as up to seven different concurrent Union pursuit paths. The rest cover a host of battles (including Tebbs Bend, Lebanon, Corydon, and Buffington Island) and at least 16 separate skirmishes. Beautiful to behold, the informational value in terms of visualizing landscapes and military movements and positions is just as impressive. The inclusion of so many maps of such high quality immeasurably enhances the understandability of the text. The map set alone is worth the price of the book, and many, like the Corydon maps, are among the best representations of their subject one can find anywhere in the literature.

Presumably to enhance its popular appeal, the book is not footnoted. This reduces its scholarly value, but I would tend toward giving the author the benefit of the doubt. The facts of Mowery's background and the depth and breadth of sources listed in the bibliography give off a favorable vibe. The author's more focused expertise really becomes apparent when reading the extended section covering Morgan's time in Ohio. Mowery's intimate involvement in the creation of the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail of Ohio and co-authorship of an as yet unpublished guidebook (with the Ohio Historical Society) clearly shines through. To my knowledge, it is the best available mapping and historical description of that portion of the raid.

Any cost-benefit analysis of John Hunt Morgan's contributions to the Confederacy's war effort in the western theater will be controversial. For every successful raid hailed by his admirers, his critics can point to a high profile disaster. Mowery is clearly among those holding a generally sunny view of the Kentuckian's service. Although he acknowledges that Morgan was insubordinate [not only did the Kentuckian take more men than authorized, he flagrantly disregarded an order to remain south of the Ohio River and within recall distance] and the Great Raid did, in fact, result in essentially the complete destruction of an entire division of irreplaceable Confederate cavalry, Mowery argues that the balance of raid results (in terms of damage to enemy infrastructure, casualties inflicted, and disruption to Union operations) was positive overall.  While it is true that Morgan's raid substantially diverted Ambrose Burnside's attention from his planned invasion of East Tennessee, it was probably less decisive a factor than Mowery suggests in the book, given that Burnside had to wait for the return of the 9th Corps (sent earlier to Grant's siege lines at Vicksburg) anyway before he could begin.  Finally, given the comparable highs, and fewer lows, experienced by other Union and Confederate cavalry raiders, elevating Morgan's raiding style to one particularly worthy of study as a progenitor of twentieth century blitzkrieg warfare isn't a terribly persuasive argument.

Even so, the undoubted content strengths of the book far outnumber episodes of questionable interpretation. As a history of Morgan's Great Raid in popular narrative form, David Mowery's study is unequaled in the Civil War literature. Even without the preferred scholarly trappings, I am of the opinion that it is the best history of the raid yet published.


  1. I was the cartographer for this book and I appreciate the kind remarks about the maps, but I want to ensure that people know that they are valuable not only for the style that I applied, but for the intricately detailed source material that David Mowery researched and provided to me.

    Hal Jespersen

  2. Just received my copy. The maps are outstanding and cover in detail even the smallest engagements of the raid. Hopefully Mr. Mowery plans on expanding this study. I also hope to see more of Mr. Jespersen's maps in future studies.


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