Monday, October 1, 2018

Review - "Decisions at Chattanooga: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle" by Larry Peterson

[Decisions at Chattanooga: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle by Larry Peterson (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). Softcover, 24 maps, 13 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,85/191. $29.95]

In 2018 alone, University of Tennessee Press has released the first four volumes of its unique Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series, which offers readers a new way of looking at campaigns and battles completely different from the traditional narrative history format. Preceding Larry Peterson's Decisions at Chattanooga: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle were Decisions at Stones River, Decisions at Second Manassas, and Decisions at Chickamauga. That's a pretty remarkable pace of output for a single calendar year, and there are many more in the pipeline.

The earlier CWBA review of the Stones River volume referenced above discusses the series structure at some length (see the link), but it bears repeating just what the series definition of "critical decision" is. In essence, a military decision is critical if it is "of such magnitude that it shape(s) not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle thereafter." In addition, these decisions involve a multitude of campaign facets both on and off the main battlefield, including "strategy, tactics, operations, organization, logistics, and personnel." The critical decision analysis follows a prescribed series pattern of:

Alternate Decision/Scenario

Situation establishes the context of the dilemma (most often high command related) to be decided, Options lists and describes the choices available (in this volume, 2-4 in number), Decision outlines the historical option chosen, and Results/Impact recounts the often multi-level consequences of the decision and explains how they affected the rest of the battle and perhaps beyond. Alternate Decision/Scenario is optional and delves into plausible conjecture of 'what might have been' had a different decision option been selected.

In this volume there are nineteen critical decisions in the areas of strategy, tactics, organization, logistics, and personnel. Though strict categorization isn't terribly important to the overall thrust of the analysis, operational decisions are absent from Peterson's list; however, one could make a good argument that sending Longstreet to Knoxville was an operational decision in addition to being an organizational and personnel-related one. With ten Union decisions and nine Confederate ones, the list is evenly balanced by side.

The fact that nine of the nineteen critical decisions preceded the November 24-25 battle by some time (with three more decided on the eve of the fight) serves as a signal reminder that the course and outcome of battles were very often significantly shaped long before the soldiers started shooting at each other. Bragg's limited pursuit after Chickamauga, poor layout of his siege lines around Chattanooga, dispatch of Longstreet to Knoxville, and retention in command—in combination with the actions of Lincoln (who consolidated his western command structure and sent heavy reinforcements from the east) and Grant (who ordered the "Cracker Line" fully opened and Sherman to Chattanooga)—all greatly stacked the odds against Confederate success before November 24.

On the 23rd, Grant ordered Sherman to the Union left to attack Tunnel Hill on the following day and directed Thomas to make a reconnaissance in force opposite Missionary Ridge in the center. On the Confederate side, in a move that would forever puzzle observers, Breckinridge directed engineers to construct a new defense line along Missionary Ridge's topographical crest rather than the military crest.

Six decisions are associated with the two-day Battle of Chattanooga. On the 24th, Bragg would reinforce one flank (by sending Cleburne to the north end of Missionary Ridge) and abandon the other (leaving Lookout Mountain to the Federals). That same day, an uncharacteristically hesitant Sherman would stop short of the Confederate Tunnel Hill position and entrench. For the decisive day of action on the 25th, Sherman would tentatively attack with only a part of his available force, Thomas would demonstrate in the center, and Thomas's army would famously make the collective decision to attack the heights on their own without orders. The book's single post-battle decision revolves around the Confederate retreat and Bragg's (probably self-evident) determination to entrust the rear guard to General Cleburne.

Generally speaking, one of the series directives is to avoid labeling decisions as "good" or "bad," but sometimes missteps are exceptionally egregious, leaving such characterizations unavoidable. In the case of Chattanooga, the battle's traditional heroes (Cleburne and the rank and file of Thomas's army) and goats (Bragg, Longstreet, Breckinridge, and Sherman) emerge from Peterson's decision analysis, and it's hard to argue with most of those conclusions. In hindsight, it's easy to make every big decision seem obvious, but Peterson does a good job on the whole of presenting reasonable options and plausible discussion of alternate outcomes and scenarios. Like other series contributors have done before him, the author also emphasizes connections between decisions where appropriate, with earlier ones opening up further options downstream and closing others.

There are twenty-four maps in total, evenly divided between the main text's decision discussion and the extensive battlefield tour appendix (the latter another primary and very useful feature of the series). These are mostly at brigade scale and above, and the tour maps do not show unit positions, emphasizing instead the modern landscape, road network, and stop locations. Union and Confederate orders of battle round out the appendix section.

With an admirably streamlined presentation that is both highly convenient for battlefield touring and able to be read at home in only a couple of sittings, Decisions at Chattanooga is another solid entry in the series. There's more to look forward to in the near future as well, with the author already at work on an Atlanta Campaign volume that has an expected 2019 release.

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