Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review of Scales - "THE BATTLES AND CAMPAIGNS OF CONFEDERATE GENERAL NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST, 1861-1865"

[The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861 - 1865by John R. Scales (Savas Beatie, 2017). Hardcover, 109 maps, photographs, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:459/480. ISBN:978-1-61121-284-6. $32.95]

Drawing deep interest from Civil War scholars and enthusiasts alike, the divisive historical memory and military legacy of Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest have both been discussed in innumerable books and articles. While cognizant of the spectrum of modern views surrounding the man, John Scales nevertheless focuses solely on the military career of the controversial general in his new book The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865. Beginning with Forrest's early war period battalion-level operations in Tennessee and Kentucky and ending with his surrender on May 9, 1865 at Gainesville, Alabama, the volume is by far the most comprehensive treatment of Forrest's Civil War command history to date.

Offering essential details in a workmanlike manner, Scales's succinct operational and tactical narrative accounts encompass seemingly every skirmish, battle, and campaign that Forrest was involved in during the war, both as independent commander and subordinate officer. These events are far too many in number to mention here in summary, and it's probably safe to say that even the most well-read students of western theater Confederate cavalry operations (or just western military campaigns in general) will sometimes find themselves on unfamiliar ground.

The author's approach to the source material is more narrowly targeted synthesis than exhaustive original research. Given the breadth of coverage involved, the bibliography isn't particularly large, and the footnotes indicate a core reliance on the O.R. with key support from a small but informed selection of classic and modern Forrest-related publications. As heavily as Scales leans on the best single works available for particular campaigns and battles, he does not pass on the views of those authors unfiltered. In some chapters, the footnotes clearly demonstrate thoughtful critical analysis of those sources. The Chickamauga section offers the best example of this. While Scales clearly respects David Powell's work on Forrest's conduct during the campaign, and indeed uses Powell's Failure in the Saddle (2010) to frame much of the discussion, the author disagrees with a great number of Powell's analyses and conclusions when it comes to Forrest (outlining the substance of his objections at some length in the footnotes). That said, Scales does skirt around some of Powell's strongest criticisms. It would be interesting to hear or read a formal debate between the two, as their disagreements go to the heart of one of Forrest's more commonly cited negative traits, namely his lack of performance when forced to operate in the close subordinate role.

Supplementing the book's military narrative is a very large collection of mini-tours that allow the reader to follow in the hoof prints of Forrest from the beginning of the war to the end. The sheer number of these tours and the depth of attention given to the driving/walking directions provided are indicative of a remarkable determination on the part of the author to see the ground upon which every action described in the text occurred. Equal in impressiveness is the book's gigantic map collection. 109 in number and created by cartographer Hal Jesperson to support both main text and tours, they detail all three levels of military action (strategic and especially operational and tactical) in a satisfactory manner. Many readers will also appreciate the multitude of organizational tables included once Forrest's command responsibility expanded to division-level and beyond.

Scales obviously admires Forrest's generalship, fully concurring with William T. Sherman's oft-repeated statement that Forrest "was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side." The author surely draws on his own career as a U.S. Army special forces brigadier general in enumerating and evaluating the qualities that made Forrest so successful at so many different levels of command. In the view of Scales, Forrest possessed an uncanny situational awareness and natural ability to survey the field at a glance. The general was also a Civil War rarity in that he was equally proficient at operations and tactics. As part of the latter, he always seemed to know where to place his artillery to best effect. He was decisive and bold without being unduly rash, and excelled in intelligence gathering, employing deception, and altering original plans on the fly. Forrest additionally proved indefatigable in pursuit. Scales cites recurring examples in support of these appraisals throughout the book. Looking beyond the general's string of impressive tactical successes, the study also asserts with some justification that at several points during the war Forrest's actions also held strategic significance. For example, Forrest's Murfreesboro raid in summer 1862 did much to save Chattanooga from imminent capture (it would be over a year later before the key city was finally taken by Union forces), and one could argue, as Scales does, that Forrest's December 1862 attacks on the railroad network in West Tennessee (in combination with the more famous Holly Springs Raid) helped prolonged Vicksburg's survival by up to six months.

The author can also be critical of Forrest. Scales acknowledges that Forrest's temper got the better of him on a number of occasions, but claims this potentially debilitating personality trait greatly improved as the war progressed. Forrest's compulsion toward personal reconnaissance (not trusting others to do the work) and leading from the front also meant that he was frequently wounded and out of action for periods of time. His discipline could also fail. While Forrest generally kept his men well in hand, he lost control of them at Fort Pillow. Like others have argued, Scales views the killing by Forrest's command of black troops in the act of surrendering (or after having already been captured) as the darkest stain on Forrest's war record. Beyond the brutality of it, the event also provided a propaganda boon for the other side that far outweighed anything gained from it. Scales certainly agrees that Forrest was at his very best in the independent role, but the author remains far less convinced than most of Forrest's alleged insubordination and incapacity in situations when the general was more directly under the thumb of higher ranking officers. The author would have done well to address this divergence of views in the final chapter's overall assessment of Forrest. Other complaints are relatively few in number. One can quibble with author conclusions here and there, but the main distraction as a reader is with the sheer volume of proofreading oversights.

The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865 is a uniquely strong combination of narrative history, atlas, and tour guide. Anyone interested in western theater cavalry operations, and those of General Forrest in particular (of course), will benefit from reading this authoritative, and sometimes controversial, assessment of the fighting career of a general that many still consider the Civil War's greatest untutored military genius.

8 comments:

  1. John SinclairJanuary 12, 2018

    Enjoyed the review and look forward to reading my copy sitting on my bookshelves. The large amount of maps is incredible though very welcome. Ted Savas, this book's publisher, recently wrote that maps are usually the financial responsibility of the author. Whoever is responsible here, Mr. Savas, the cartographer, or General Scales (or all 3 of you) - thank you!

    John Sinclair

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I was reading it I was wondering to myself how many royalty reports it was going to take to pay for all these maps!

      Delete
  2. Interesting that the proofreading is poor; modern publishing ! If this book is successful will Forrest get his statue back in the park? Ha-ha !

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Drew
    Thanks for the review, I've not started my copy yet. It seems proofreading has become more of a problem lately?
    I assume this is some type of software glitch that is causing this? I assume this is something that is affecting all publishers?

    D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some publishers still do a good job of it, but even then you can encounter great inconsistency. I would have to think human error is involved more than anything else. I still come across many big books with less than a handful of obvious errors (and sometimes even none that can be recalled after reading), so some internal practices are still effective.

      BTW, by "obvious" I mean missing words, misspellings, misused homonyms, etc., not technical violations of grammar rules in sentence construction.

      Delete
  4. Sounds like a great book and I love the inclusion of so many maps. However, the "sheer volume of proofreading oversights" makes me want to wait for the second edition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think everyone has a different tolerance for this sort of thing. Judging from what I see from other reviewers, it seems that mine is lower than most. I don't know. In this case, I wouldn't let it deter you from buying the book.

      Delete
  5. Thank you for the review of “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest” We appreciate your 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: https://tinyurl.com/y7lsnthz

    ReplyDelete

Blogger ID not required, but if you choose not to create one please sign your post with your name (no promotional information, please). Otherwise, your comment and/or link may be deleted.