Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review of Spruill & Spruill - "DECISIONS AT STONES RIVER: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle"

[Decisions at Stones River: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle by Matt Spruill & Lee Spruill (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). Softcover, 26 maps, photos, diagrams, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:214/270. ISBN:978-1-62190-378-9. $29.95]

New approaches to framing the study of Civil War campaigns and battles are always welcome. In this vein, University of Tennessee Press has recently launched a new series that will focus on the most "critical" high command decisions made by both sides and how those choices shaped the course of events before, during, and after major battles. With Decisions at Stones River: The Sixteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle and Decisions at Second Manassas: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle, the first two volumes of the Command Decisions of America's Civil War series have now been released. Others covering both eastern and western theater battles are already in the works.

In a necessary first step, Decisions at Stones River co-authors Matt and Lee Spruill firmly establish a hierarchy of decision-making and define for readers exactly what they mean by the term "critical decision." In the hierarchy, there are decisions, important decisions, and critical decisions. Only the last group is "of such magnitude that it shape(s) not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle thereafter" (pg. xii). Several excellent narrative accounts of the Stones River battle exist in the literature so the differentiating emphasis in this book and the others in the series will be on why things occurred as they did, and to a more limited extent how things might have occurred differently if other choices had been made. Because the consequences of each decision must be "so great as to change the sequence and course of events" (pg. xiv), the authors wisely limit (with few exceptions) their examination to high-level decisions, those made by corps commanders and above in each army's leadership and command structure. In addition to being most sensible, this parameter should place a check on the popular temptation to blow out of all proportion the impact of more micro-scale tactical decisions. Because the unpredictable fortunes of war can render seemingly smart decisions disastrous (and vice versa), the authors also do well to avoid referring to particular choices as intrinsically "good" or "bad" ones.

For Stones River and many other Civil War battles, one might reasonably question the existence of sixteen truly critical decisions, but the series will approach decision-making from a very broad perspective. In any given series volume, critical choices in the areas of strategy, operations, tactics, organization, logistics, and personnel might be addressed. In the case of Stones River, the sixteen critical decisions are slotted within three of those categories: organizational (2), operational (4), and tactical (10). At nine Confederate decisions versus seven Union, side balance is fairly even.

In Decisions at Stones River, analysis of each critical decision follows a standard organizational format developed for the series. Discussion proceeds through five subheadings—Situation, Options, Decision, Result/Impact, and Alternate Decision/Scenario. The first and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a crossroads moment in the campaign or battle. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (two or three in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Result/Impact section recounts what happened and how those events shaped the rest of the battle and perhaps beyond. The Situation and Result/Impact sections quite often reference other decisions in a meaningful way, further reminding readers of their interconnectedness and the cascading consequences of critical decisions made earlier. Not present for every decision, the optional Alternate Decision/Scenario section delves into alternative history conjecture based on choices not made.

Three examples, one for each of the decision categories referenced above, should suffice to illustrate how the book works. The first is an organizational decision. With the problems caused by divided command structure during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign in mind, two options were available to President Davis for organizing Confederate forces in Middle Tennessee: (1) keep the Braxton Bragg and E.K. Smith commands separate or (2) consolidate their forces under the senior general. This particular decision points to a potential pitfall of the series, wherein one option is a clear no-brainer with the rest having little or no reasonable justification. On the face of it, this might preclude interesting and meaningful discussion. However, in this case the Spruills effectively use the consolidation decision (in conjunction with another high-level organizational decision to strip the army of one of its divisions) as a springboard for analyzing the reorganization of Bragg's army and demonstrating to readers the "far-reaching consequences" organizational decisions would have on the Stones River "plan of attack, scheme of maneuver, and allocation of combat power." As the book goes on to show, other critical choices would flow from and be limited by these very early ones.

The second example is a three-option operational-level decision involving General Bragg's disposition and use of his available cavalry force of six brigades. The first option was for Bragg to send his two raiding brigades (under Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan) immediately behind enemy lines to harass the the enemy and provide early warning of a federal advance. The second option would direct Forrest and Morgan to conduct deep raids against enemy supply lines in Kentucky and Tennessee. The third choice would involve keeping all the cavalry nearby for close tactical support. All options could be justified militarily, but Bragg selected the second one. Both deep raids caused significant material damage, but while Forrest played a role in forcing General Grant to pull back in northern Mississippi Morgan's actions had no inhibiting affect on General Rosecrans's ability to sustain his own advance in Middle Tennessee. Additionally, the impact and result of Bragg's critical decision left the Confederate army without the services of Forrest and Morgan's 5,600 horsemen at Stones River. This particular decision is also one of those with an attached "Alternate Decision and Scenario." It posits the benefits at that Bragg would surely have gained from keeping Forrest and Morgan nearby in close support, with any of several different tactical options having the potential to significantly alter the course of the Stones River battle.

A critical tactical-level decision that confronted Union army commander William S. Rosecrans comprises our third and final example. Similar to First Bull Run, both armies at Stones River planned to attack the flank of the other. In this case, Bragg beat Rosecrans to the punch, leaving the federal commander to either continue with his original offensive plan (and hope to steal the initiative from the enemy) or go on the defensive to free up troops to confront any enemy breakthroughs that might occur (with different options related to how many men would be sent to shore up the Union center and right). Rosecrans chose the safest course, his defensive measures enabling the Army of the Cumberland to stabilize its position. Just as important, this early critical decision also made possible other critical choices down the line that would eventually lead to victory.

The book also has a lengthy appendix section. In addition to army orders of battle, there's an extensive Stones River tour that focuses on the ten critical decisions made on the immediate battlefield. Similar to their treatment in the classic U.S. Army War College series of guidebooks, the tour stops in Decisions combine driving and walking orientation with author narrative and lengthy excerpts from firsthand accounts. Even if skipping the tour section, readers would be well advised to consult the tactical maps in the appendix, which are generally more detailed than those found in the main text. As the maps are directly tied to both critical decision situations and tour stops, the book's cartography is one of its great strengths.

With Decisions at Stones River, the Command Decisions in America's Civil War series has gotten off to a very promising start. Civil War students, even those intimately familiar with the topic at hand, will appreciate the volume's fresh approach to thinking about Civil War campaigns and battles.


  1. Drew: Nice review - I like your approach of taking an example from each decision "level". As you point out, the authors do a good job of showing how some of the selected decisions dictated the course of the battle down the chessboard. Next up - 2 BR.

    1. Thanks, John. I just took the SBR volume out of the plastic the other day. Are you reviewing it for CWN?

    2. Haven't been assigned tat one so I got it on my own. My skim indicates that it's a worthy companion to the SR volume but I'll leave to you the thorough once-over. The projected Powell volume on Chickamauga sounds promising, especially given its larger number of evaluated decisions.

    3. I haven't decided if I'm going to do a full review of SBR or a Snapshot feature mentioning differences, format improvements, etc. It'll most likely depend on the quantity and quality of May and June releases.


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