Saturday, June 22, 2013

Butkovich: "THE BATTLE OF PICKETT'S MILL: Along the Dead Line"

[The Battle of Pickett's Mill: Along the Dead Line by Brad Butkovich (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:163/205. ISBN:978-1-62619-042-9 $21.99]

After decades of profound neglect, a steady number of battle studies associated with the 1864 Atlanta Campaign have been published in recent years. The latest of these is Brad Butkovich's The Battle of Pickett's Mill: Along the Dead Line. Though his previous books have dealt with miniatures gaming, the author is clearly a keen student of the standard elements and structure of modern Civil War battle narrative.

The book opens with a brief summary of how the armies came to fight over Pickett's Mill, Creek, and Road on May 27, 1864, with William T. Sherman's army group crossing the Etowah River and striking cross country, only to be met by Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee at Dallas and New Hope Church. All the while, the reader is introduced to the corps, division, and brigade commanders that would meet at Pickett's Mill. The battle itself was the result of an attempt by George Thomas to turn the exposed Confederate right, interposing a force between Johnston and his rail communications. The operation was assigned to O.O. Howard, who massed one of his own Fourth Corps divisions under Thomas Wood and Richard Johnson's Fourteenth Corps division beyond the presumed right flank of the enemy. The attack was met and repulsed by Patrick Cleburne's infantry division, the cavalry division of John Kelly, the mounted brigade of W.Y.C. Humes, and a pair of reinforcing infantry brigades led by Edward Walthall and William Quarles. Butkovich conveys to the reader in great detail both the terrain difficulties (supported by a nice set of modern photographs) and the movements of each regiment. A multitude of participant accounts are also woven into the narrative.  The post-battle section of the book describes the plight of the wounded, the operational consequences of the Union defeat, and the current physical state of the battlefield. With encroaching development often the most worrisome issue for those seeking to preserve Civil War battlefields, the primary threats to Pickett's Mill have been natural ones, from devastating flooding to pine beetle infestation.

The author reserves high praise for the brigade and divisional level generalship exhibited by the Confederates, with Cleburne skillfully extending his right to meet Howard head on and inflict terrible losses. The Confederate dismounted cavalry screen also proved unusually adept at thwarting the Union infantry thrust astride both sides of Pickett's Mill Creek. In stark contrast to the Confederate response, the Union operation was bungled badly. The author rightly faults Howard and Wood for not coordinating the attack. Each of Wood's brigades (first Hazen, then Gibson and Knefler) attacked independently, and Scribner's brigade of Johnson's Division was stymied by the dismounted cavalry. Nathaniel McLean's Twenty-Third Corps brigade, Howard's connection with the rest of the army, completely failed in its mission to divert Cleburne's attention from Howard's main attack on the Confederate right. With Union losses approaching 1,600 men and Confederate casualties something less than 650, Pickett's Mill was a costly battle given its small size. The Confederate victory also forced Sherman to redirect his turning effort to the other flank, opposite Dallas.

Butkovich clearly understands the critical importance of useful cartography to any good battle study. To that end, he's created a very good set of tactical maps for this book. Containing all the unit position and terrain information one might wish for, they are excellent representations of each phase of the battle.  The author's wargaming background also undoubtedly influenced the book's heightened attention directed toward tactical formations in the text and numbers data in the order of battle appendix.  On the down side, there are a few too many typos, especially early on, and the thinner than expected bibliography makes one wonder if it is a selective listing rather than a full accounting of sources used. Regardless, The Battle of Pickett's Mill is easily the fight's best published treatment to date.


  1. Great and interesting review.

    I have been reading Jeffry Dean's excellent essay on the battle in the early Savas essay book 'Campaign for Atlanta and Sherman's March to the Sea'.

    So far it has been the best and most detailed account of the battle I have read.

    This new book looks like it will add even more to the story.


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