Monday, November 16, 2015

Backus and Orrison: "A WANT OF VIGILANCE: The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9-19, 1863"

[A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9-19, 1863 by Bill Backus and Robert Orrison (Savas Beatie, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, tour guide, appendices. 190 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-300-3. $14.95]

A new volume from the prolific Emerging Civil War group of writers, A Want of Vigilance addresses the oft neglected Bristoe Campaign, an indecisive yet vigorously pursued October 1863 military operation involving George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Though overshadowed by the massive bloodletting of the following year, total casualties were not insignificant and the Confederates lost several valuable brigade commanders killed or badly wounded, further leadership losses they could ill afford after Gettysburg's officer toll.

Authors Bill Backus and Robert Orrison begin by effectively set the scene of the Fall 1863 seat of war in Central Virginia before launching into a fine overview treatment of the series of Confederate offensive maneuvers aimed at turning the Union position from the west and perhaps falling on Meade's flank and rear. During the second week of October, cavalry battles involving the screening forces of both sides were fought at James City (Oct. 10) and Brandy Station (Oct. 11). JEB Stuart overreached and was surrounded at Auburn on October 13-14, necessitating a rescue operation by Richard Ewell's II Corps. After that close call, the overall Federal situation remained precarious, however, and Meade's army soon was in full retreat up the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. At Bristoe Station on the afternoon of the 14th, the Army of the Potomac repelled with heavy loss several charges from A.P. Hill's pursuing III Corps and escaped across nearby Broad Run during the night. With the Union army now firmly entrenched at Centerville, Lee ran out of options and withdrew, but not before Stuart's cavalry routed their Union counterparts at Buckland Mills on October 19.

With even the relatively short flank marches of the Bristoe Campaign stretching the logistical capabilities of Lee's army to the limit, readers of the book can readily appreciate the poor state of the support services of the post-Gettysburg Army of Northern Virginia and how they limited Lee's offensive options. In another area of concern, while the autumn campaigns allowed the Federals to identify and weed out ineffective commanders of their own (ex. French and Sykes), the Bristoe operation offered yet another clear indication of how an Army of Northern Virginia without Jackson and Longstreet was only a shadow of its former self when led by the likes of Ewell and Hill.

The relatively small scale of the Bristoe Campaign battles and skirmishes allowed fairly detailed accounts of each action [James City, Brandy Station, Auburn, Bristoe Station and Buckland Mills] to be presented in the book. Operating within the established constraints of the series format, Backus and Orrison demonstrate a great deal of skill in the art of campaign narrative. Supporting their text is a fine set of detailed maps.

In addition to the multitude of photographs and other illustrations that have become a hallmark of the ECW series, there is also a nine-stop driving tour, which is incorporated into the main text rather than offered as a separate feature. The appendices address a variety of topics. There is no way to know exactly what Lee said during his oft quoted rebuke of Hill in the wake of Bristoe Station, but from the five available sources evaluated by Backus in the first appendix it seems reasonable to conclude that heated words were spoken. Another piece recounts a 1st Maine Cavalry reconnaissance mission and other contributors survey the Rappahannock Station, Kelly's Ford, and First Bristoe Station battles. Along with a preservation timeline and orders of battle, a brief appreciation of the campaign as more than a historical blip between Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign is included. The only thing that really mars the reading experience is the excessive number of print gaffes (some quite embarrassing in nature) missed by the proofreading process. That issue aside, A Want of Vigilance ranks among the best entries in the ECW series to date and one looks forward to seeing more work from authors Backus and Orrison.


  1. Thank you for the review on "A Want of Vigilance" by Bill Backus and Robert Orrison. We appreciate the review and are glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read and review our book. We hope that the book serves as an avenue for people to get out and see the locations involved in the Bristoe Campaign. Many are well preserved. Also, we believes it fills a gap between "Gettysburg and Grant". We enjoyed working on . We have noted the edit mistakes and hope to have them corrected in any future editions.

    Thanks again, we appreciate it!
    Rob Orrison

  3. Good to see someone has written about this oft overlooked campaign.

    Any idea if the Emerging Civil War series plans to have a book about the Mine Run Campaign?

    1. I don't know but given the pace of their output I wouldn't be surprised to see one before too long.



***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.