Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of Belcher - "THE CAVALRIES AT STONES RIVER: An Analytical History"

[The Cavalries at Stones River: An Analytical History by Dennis W. Belcher (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2017). 7x10 softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:262/301. ISBN:978-1-4766-6536-8. $39.95]

Published last year, Dennis Belcher's first-of-its-kind history of the cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland [see review] ably traced the development and operations of the Union mounted arm in the western heartland. In that book Belcher lamented how understudied the mounted actions of the Middle Tennessee Campaign of winter 1862-63 have been in the existing literature. Taking up the banner himself, his new study, The Cavalries at Stones River: An Analytical History, emphatically fills the void.

Part One looks at the movements of Union and Confederate cavalry beginning with the conclusion of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and running up through Christmas Day of that year. The book provides a solid overview of the winter repositioning of both armies in Middle Tennessee and describes in some detail the many skirmishes and raids fought between the opposing cavalry forces. Given the foraging value of the area's fertile plains, both sides sought to control as much of the countryside as possible.

Belcher does a good job of defining the strengths and weaknesses of each side's mounted arm during the late-1862 period. Confederate cavalry chief General Joseph Wheeler's command certainly had shortages of arms and equipment, but its ranks were much more numerous (collectively comprising over 20% of total army strength) and initially better organized than their Union counterparts, who were parceled out to infantry control and persistently short on good horses. Critics of Army of the Cumberland commander William S. Rosecrans chide him for excessive preparation (the kind of deliberate style of generalship that got his predecessor, Don Carlos Buell, removed), but Belcher is much more sympathetic to Rosecrans's considerable problems, especially those concerning the serious material and manpower weaknesses of the Union mounted arm. The author compellingly supports Rosecrans's contention that the Union cavalry needed to be sorted out first before any general advance could be considered. The important role the "new" Union cavalry played in keeping their highly aggressive enemy counterparts at bay (and staving off disaster at several key points) during the Stones River Campaign seems to bear out the legitimacy of such a viewpoint. According to Belcher, Rosecrans should share credit with new cavalry chief General David Stanley for achieving such a quick turnaround in organization, arms, mounts, and confidence.

Part Two of the book discusses at length the cavalry organization of both armies, in the process providing informative capsule unit histories of the opposing regiments and batteries. This section usefully supports the main narrative but also should serve readers well in the role of a reference tool. The organizational tables collected throughout the book are helpful, as well.

Part Three comprises roughly half the book's narrative and recounts in minute fashion the cavalry's actions during the campaign and battle of Stones River. For the opening days of the campaign, Belcher effectively argues that the mounted brigades of both sides achieved their respective goals. Though roughly handled in spots, Wheeler's brigades were able to keep the enemy's heavy columns from unexpectedly striking the Confederate infantry and they also provided enough breathing space to allow the Army of Tennessee to concentrate at Murfreesboro without great hindrance. On the federal side, Stanley's troopers effectively screened the Union advance, seized vital water crossings intact, and protected the Army of the Cumberland's flanks and rear from enemy strikes.

During the next phase of the campaign, cavalry skirmishing continued until both armies settled into positions opposite one another and in front of Murfreesboro. On December 30, Wheeler embarked on a 60-mile raid around the Army of the Cumberland, disrupting the Union lines of communication with Nashville by capturing supplies and destroying isolated wagon trains. On the following day, the Battle of Stones River would begin.

On the morning of the 31st, with so many Union and Confederate cavalry still off to the north (including chiefs Wheeler and Stanley), mounted fighting was concentrated on the western extremity of the Stones River battlefield, with Colonel Lewis Zahm's blue brigade facing off with General John A. Wharton's more numerous gray troopers. Wharton offered indispensable assistance to the main Confederate attack, repeatedly turning the Union right throughout the morning hours and capturing great numbers of men and equipment. After finally dispersing Zahm's plucky brigade, they even briefly captured the Army of the Cumberland's main supply train before being driven off by reformed enemy units and fresh reinforcements (most prominent among the latter the 4th U.S. Cavalry regiment). For all the damage done by Wheeler's raid on the 30th, the author is undoubtedly correct that the Confederate cause would have been even better served by the tactical presence of Wheeler and his men on the main battlefield on December 31. On the Union side, the leadership of cavalry division commander Colonel John Kennett was far from effective on the 31st, further reinforcing the propriety of placing Stanley above him as army chief of cavalry.

On the east end of the battlefield, across Stones River, General John Pegram's brigade of two cavalry regiments has been blamed by some, then and now, for providing false intelligence regarding the continued presence of heavy Union forces on that flank subsequent to the aborted morning advance of Van Cleve's federal division. This alleged failure in turn kept General Breckinridge from sending timely reinforcements from his division to support the main Confederate attack in the center opposite the Round Forest. In the author's determination, there is too little documentation available (after early morning, only a single 10am dispatch survives) to support the view that Pegram was derelict in his information gathering duties (or was the party responsible for the false report of a Union column coming down the Lebanon Pike behind the Confederate right). The more likely explanation for the command missteps on the right is one of simple miscommunication between Breckinridge and Bragg, who heartily disliked one another. According to the author, there just isn't enough evidence available to assign blame for the alleged intelligence failures on the Confederate right to anyone in particular. Certainly there was enough Union activity at the fords (including that of engineer troops) to sow further confusion over their intentions. What more could have been achieved by throwing additional troops against the strong Union center is questionable anyway.

The final cavalry phase of the December 31 battle occurred during the mid to late afternoon hours, when Stanley and Colonel Robert Minty arrived on the Union far right flank, to the confront the Confederate brigades of Wheeler and General Abraham Buford, who also reached the main battlefield late in the day (replacing Wharton's exhausted troopers). Initially, forced to give ground, Stanley spied an opportunity for a mounted charge, and, in the final act of the day, outflanked and drove back the Confederate cavalry. The action again demonstrated to all the value of Stanley's judgment and leadership qualities, but it also illustrated a contrast in fighting style between Wheeler's dismounted cavalrymen and Stanley's use of the saber for shock effect.

On New Year's Day 1863 Wheeler was again tasked with taking his cavalry behind the enemy army and attack its trains, many of which were conveying Union dead and wounded back to Nashville. This time, the federal cavalry was much better prepared for Wheeler's foray. Wharton's brigade failed to dislodge the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics near La Vergne, and the main body with Wheeler was repulsed after destroying only a few wagons.

On January 2, like they had two days earlier, right flank communication breakdowns between army headquarters, division commander Breckinridge, and the cavalry meant that Pegram (and now Wharton) were given no clear instructions from above to participate in the Confederate attack, which was decisively repulsed. There's no indication that the cavalry could have changed the result, but the botched coordination effort gave all concerned another public black eye. In further raid action on January 3, Wheeler fought a skirmish at Cox Hill and his mistaken report that Rosecrans was being heavily reinforced is cited by some as heavily influencing Bragg's decision to retreat, a criticism that the author reasonably dismisses as a convenient cover.

The author certainly appears to have done his homework. He integrates a wide array of primary sources into his study, including a numerous and geographically wide assemblage of manuscript resources. Belcher also consulted a multitude of unit histories, government documents, and newspapers to go along with his demonstration of a solid grasp of the relevant published literature. The historical narrative is also well supported by maps from noted cartographer George Skoch. On the complaint side, some repetitious passages could have been trimmed away and there is a superabundance of typos in the text.

Belcher, who praises Stanley throughout, is more divided on Wheeler's performance, though he seems higher on Wheeler's potential and later war career than most modern critics. While Bragg was complicit in the raiding philosophy that took valuable cavalry away from tactical support of the main army, Wheeler too often acted like another brigade commander rather than chief of cavalry (indeed he retained personal command of his old brigade). Such failings Belcher primarily attributes to Wheeler's inexperience in carrying out his new responsibilities. Though Wheeler's raid on the 30th, his one truly noteworthy achievement of the campaign, would result in much material damage, it did not affect at all the fighting capacity of Rosecrans's army. In addition to his intelligence gathering mistake on the 3rd, the rest of his battlefield actions outside December 30 were either modest gains or defeats, but Belcher once again views those events as evidence of growing pains rather than demonstrations of ingrained incapacity. The military merits of Joe Wheeler will always remain a source of debate.

Though the old stereotype of the southern cavalryman superior in both marksmanship and riding ability will seemingly never die, the book's portrait of the Union cavalry's speedy qualitative transformation under Rosecrans and Stanley convincingly reinforces the view that, in terms of comparative performance in the field, leadership and organization trumped most other factors. Belcher's book convincingly frames the Stones River Campaign as the first major step taken by the western Union cavalry toward achieving operational and tactical parity with their southern foes. With David Powell's definitive series of Chickamauga studies and now Dennis Belcher's work on Stones River, we now have fully developed descriptive accounts and analyses of cavalry leaders, forces, and operations during the two signature campaigns fought between the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee.


  1. Nice review. And the "look inside" feature at Amazon shows the presence of maps. Real maps. What a novel idea for a book on a military action.

    1. Out of Belcher's six books, I've read three plus parts of another, and this one is his best work, IMO. I probably should have mentioned in the review that the author is also Stanley's biographer, but I had forgotten that bit already (that particular book didn't do much for me).


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