Friday, April 17, 2015

Powell: "THE CHICKAMAUGA CAMPAIGN - A MAD IRREGULAR BATTLE: From the Crossing of the Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 - September 19, 1863"

[The Chickamauga Campaign - A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of the Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 - September 19, 1863 by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2014). Hardcover, 28 maps, photos, notes, appendix, index. Pages main/total:650/693. ISBN:978-1-61121-174-0 $37.50]

With only two major modern campaign studies to its credit [Glenn Tucker's Chickamauga (1961) and This Terrible Sound (1992) by Peter Cozzens], Chickamauga is one of the rare Civil War battles with coverage inversely proportional to its scale and significance. The first of three volumes, David Powell's The Chickamauga Campaign - A Mad Irregular Battle kicks off a massive project that should go a long way toward addressing the historiographical imbalance*.

Many books like this begin with overlong background discourse of the type unnecessary to their well defined and informed niche audience, but A Mad Irregular Battle knows its target readers well, dispensing quickly but thoroughly with Chickamauga's historical setup. All major Civil War operations are complicated affairs rife with tangled webs of contradiction and confusion but the Chickamauga campaign and battle perhaps defy easy understanding more than any other, with man and nature equally responsible. Powell does a wonderful job of cutting through this historical fog, his skillfully woven operational campaign and tactical battle accounts providing unprecedented detail and clarity (not an easy combination to pull off). Spotlighting the Army of the Cumberland's generally good intelligence gathering and its commander's diversionary skills, the book carefully traces Union General William Rosecrans's daring and risky plan to sweep toward and below Chattanooga on a wide front. The tabletop of war, stretching from the initial Tennessee River barrier to the seemingly endless series of parallel ridges and valleys beyond (all only sparsely populated and densely choked with forests and streams), is clearly recreated in the text, as are the effects this forbidding terrain had on movements and lines of communication.

Initially caught off guard, Braxton Bragg abandoned Chattanooga but reinforcements from all corners of the Confederacy allowed his army to stay in the fight. Powell details Bragg's failure to damage the Union army when it was scattered across the landscape, most famously at McLemore's Cove, and carefully analyzes the reasons behind those lost opportunities. Typical Army of Tennessee command dysfunction, only enhanced by the presence of so many new faces and egos, combined with confusing orders and untimely losses of nerve made a mockery of Bragg's plausibly grand plans.

In its coverage of the initial fighting along Chickamauga Creek on September 18, the book makes the strongest case possible that the battle should really be considered a three-day, rather than two-day, affair. Overnight adjustments by both sides, Rosecrans's sidle to the left and Bragg's frustrating struggle to mass of his own army across the creek, are thoroughly documented. From opening guns at Jay's Mill through the conclusion of Patrick Cleburne's fruitless divisional night assault at Winfrey's Field, the September 19 battle is recounted in extraordinarily detailed yet easily understood fashion over nearly 350 pages of text. Powell's level headed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the generals leading armies, corps, divisions, and brigades during these events are sometimes non-traditional but never obtusely contrarian or bent on creating outsized heroes and villains.

The author has always been a keen student of western theater mounted operations and his rich depiction of the contrasting effectiveness of Union and Confederate cavalry leadership and organization proves very useful in understanding the Chickamauga campaign and battle. At the beginning of the campaign, Confederate cavalry commander Joe Wheeler's incredible dereliction of duty left nearly 90 miles of front essentially unguarded. Later, he failed to coordinate protection of the army's front and flanks during Bragg's contemplated campaign counteroffensives and on the 18th and 19th the Confederate cavalry helped render what should have been a hammer blow to Rosecrans's exposed left yet another missed opportunity. On the other side, the Union cavalry was masterful in comparison, causing Bragg no end of worry to the safety of his army's right flank and shifting base of operations beyond. The gallant stands of General Minty at Reed's Bridge and Colonel Wilder at Alexander's Bridge, each episode meticulously recounted in the book, were instrumental in upsetting Confederate plans and saving the Union army from considerable embarrassment, if not outright defeat.

The generous map set allows the reader to easily follow campaign progression and trace regimental scale movements on the battlefield. Unit positions and terrain features are fully rendered and closely tied to the text. For a book with 28 maps (far more than the typical battle study), it might seem puerile to demand more but it would have been really helpful to have a few more snapshots of the entire battlefield situation at each stage of the back and forth fighting on the 19th.

In contrast to the relative scarcity of Chickamauga publications the amount of available source material is staggering, and with decades spent scouring archives and digesting the relevant published primary and secondary sources there doesn't seem to be much of significance that Powell hasn't uncovered. While a bibliography of most frequently cited works won't appear until the second volume, footnotes are available throughout. The final volume in the trilogy will carry the bulk of the appendices and a complete list of sources but A Mad Irregular Battle does contain an important supplement, orders of battle that include number and loss data created from the latest research.

While the impact of Powell's trilogy will not be fully apparent for some time yet (volume 2 is scheduled for a June 2015 release), A Mad Irregular Battle clearly demonstrates that an exceptional achievement in western theater Civil War military history is in the offing. It seems beyond question that these three books together will eventually comprise the accepted standard in Chickamauga studies.

* - see also Powell's Chickamauga map study and Confederate cavalry analysis.


  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks so much for reading this first installment and for writing the detailed review.

    As a note to readers, Vol. 2 is being formatted now, all maps are done, as is all my developmental editing, and we are still on schedule for a late June release. It is longer than Vol. 1. As wonderful as that installment is, in my opinion the second volume is even better.

    I am so proud and humbled to be able to work with a researcher and author of David's caliber, and make his magnum opus available to everyone. Thank you all for your support.

    Ted Savas

  2. Drew: As always, a nice, thorough, objective review. The only thing I'd add is that Dave's deep familiarity with the terrain, especially as it was in 1863, shines through here. It's hard to imagine that anyone is better qualified to wrote about and analyze this battle, and the end product proves it..

  3. Drew

    Thanks for the review. I've been a collector of Savas Beatie publications from the beginning. When all three volumes are published, this will be considered a brilliant accomplishment. I'm really looking forward to the 3rd volume and the information that will be included.

    I've heard David Powell is moving on to the Georgia Campaign. I think that the Georgia Campaign is starting to receive some overdue attention, but would look forward to what Mr. Powell would deliver.


    1. Don,
      You have plenty of S-B stuff to look forward to. According to Sarah, "Resisting Sherman" will ship from the printer around May 19 and "The Gettysburg Cyclorama", "Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg", "Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign" and "The First Battle of Petersburg" will all be available in June.

  4. Hi Don,

    Thanks for your support and tip of the hat. We believe we have to earn your support with each book, and strive to do so.

    Dave is wrapping up the third installment as we discuss appendices, etc. for that volume. I know he is doing his research now on the Atlanta Campaign for a couple volumes of our Savas Beatie Military Atlas series, i.e., "The Maps of the Atlanta Campaign," and I believe is aiming to finish up his "The Maps of the Chattanooga Campaign" as well.

    I wish we could clone him x 20.

    Thanks again.


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