Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review - "Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863" by Eric Wittenberg

[HOLDING THE LINE ON THE RIVER OF DEATH: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg (Savas Beatie, 2018). Hardcover, 17 maps, photos, notes, orders of battle, driving tour, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xx,208/282. $29.95]

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree of danger that the Union Army of the Cumberland and its commanding general William S. Rosecrans found themselves in on the morning of September 18, 1863. However, while the overall threat had certainly not passed, only twenty-four hours later the Union military situation in North Georgia had been altered so dramatically over that brief period that even outright victory could be at least contemplated again. Though the September 20 deus ex machina that resulted in a sweeping Confederate victory at Chickamauga understandably clouded what came before it, the Union cavalry's accomplishments on the 18th against heavy odds remain impressive by any measure. Ironically, a major reason why the events of that day have remained obscure and underappreciated for so long is that the Union cavalry forces—the "Saber Brigade" of Colonel Robert H.G. Minty and Colonel John T. Wilder's "Lightning Brigade" of mounted infantry—did their job far too well. In addition to upsetting Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Braxton Bragg's excellent plan of battle, the skillfully conducted delaying actions and subsequent defensive stands of Minty and Wilder at the Reed and Alexander bridges impeded contact between the main bodies of the opposing armies for so long (essentially for an entire day) that for nearly 150 years the events of the 18th were not even considered an elemental part of the main Chickamauga battle. A profound reassessment of this historiographical misstep, Eric Wittenberg's Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863 fully recounts the day's events and persuasively argues that Minty and Wilder were key figures in shaping the course of the battle.

The early stages of the book satisfactorily address the several weeks of intense maneuvering and skirmishing that led both armies to Chickamauga Creek. In addition to providing readers with a clear sense of the relative positions of both sides on the eve of battle, these chapters also contain extended biographical sketches of the two towering figures of the narrative, Minty and Wilder. The organizational makeup and historical background of Minty's "Saber Brigade" and Wilder's "Lightning Brigade" are thoroughly outlined as well, with important emphasis placed on the force-multiplying nature of their breechloading shoulder arms (a heavy proportion of which were Spencer and Colt repeating rifles).

Wittenberg provides ample evidence in the book to support his contention that the coordinated actions of Minty and Wilder's brigades on September 18 together represent a textbook cavalry delaying action. At the beginning, the author informatively describes the pattern of expertly-placed outposts and picket lines established by both officers beyond the Union army's far left (or northern) flank, a position held by General Thomas Crittenden's infantry corps. His narrative then goes on to recount at some length the many clashes that occurred east of Chickamauga Creek between detachments of blue troopers and heavy columns of advancing Confederate infantry and cavalry. These events took place at a number of road intersections and narrow defiles through north-south running ridges. After delaying the enemy for hours, the overmatched Union cavalry fell back to strong positions behind the creek's west bank, and the heavy fighting that occurred at Reed's Bridge (Minty) and Alexander's Bridge (Wilder) is fully explored in the book. The text descriptions of all of these movements and combat actions are well supported by a series of detailed original maps drawn by Mark Moore.

The author primarily ascribes federal success in completely disrupting Bragg's original timetable to the tactical leadership and role understanding of Minty and Wilder, who wielded their experienced and superbly-armed commands with exceptional skill. However, Wittenberg also concedes that Confederate mistakes materially aided Union efforts and favorable terrain continually channeled advancing enemy forces through narrow bottlenecks that allowed the vastly outnumbered federals to use their qualitatively superior arms and artillery to greatest effect. Of course, even the best defensive topography is useless on its own, and both Wilder and Minty exploited the available ground to maximum advantage.

The great value of close cooperation in desperate situations is also well demonstrated in the book, with multiple examples presented of Minty and Wilder generously sharing troops even when both commands were stretched to the breaking point. They also kept their superiors continually updated with accurate intelligence, and it is certainly not to either man's discredit that their information was blindly ignored (particularly by Crittenden) for way too long. The book also goes on to show that the brigades rendered further important service on that day in keeping the Confederates off balance and at arm's length during the dusk and early nighttime periods before finally being relieved overnight by infantry.

Overall, Wittenberg builds a rather irrefutable case that Minty and Wilder were primarily responsible for saving Rosecrans's army from being placed in a position from which disaster was highly possible and orderly extrication difficult to foresee. While it might seem inevitable that the Army of Tennessee's high command, given its prior record in the field, would have found some way or another to screw up even the best of advantages, the fact does remain that Bragg still swept the field at Chickamauga after the Union cavalry completely upset his most promising plan of attack. Even so, a close reading of Wittenberg's study certainly does reveal that the skillful actions of the two Union cavalry brigades profoundly reduced Confederate chances for achieving truly decisive results and significantly enhanced the likelihood that any southern battlefield victory gained through Bragg's subsequent improvisations would come at a Pyrrhic cost.

Presentation is superb all around, and, as expected, maps and photographs abound. Also attached is a fairly extensive 40-mile driving tour of important sites mentioned in the book. The appendix section includes discrete orders of battle for the Minty and Wilder engagements along with an old Q&A formatted discussion of vidette and outpost duties and responsibilities reproduced from a classic French cavalry treatise.

There's really not much to criticize. In some of the full-page maps details might be rendered too small for some visual tastes, but it seems an acceptable compromise between depicting intimate small-unit actions while at the same time providing enough spatial context to appreciate their significance and connections to other happenings on the field. On the word usage front, even after a centuries-long presence of blended ethnicities in the British Isles and Ireland, with one parent born in Scotland and the other in Ireland one wonders whether County Mayo native Minty would ever have referred to himself as an "Englishman" as Wittenberg does throughout the book.

Now having authored Gettysburg* and Chickamauga companion studies, Wittenberg has firmly documented his earnest belief that the mounted operations that opened both battles represent two of the war's finest examples of a cavalry versus infantry delaying action. As the more eastern theater focused Wittenberg admits, one might even regard Minty and Wilder's feats of arms on September 18 as more impressive than Buford's far better known and much more widely celebrated July 1 cavalry fight. The author also joins noted Chickamauga luminaries like David Powell and William Glenn Robertson in presenting an unassailable argument that the battle should be, like Gettysburg, considered a three-day affair. A product of sound research and finely-tuned reasoning and analysis, Holding the Line on the River of Death is a superbly constructed Civil War cavalry study that is richly deserving of top-shelf placement within the modern literature's rapidly expanding Chickamauga Campaign library.


* - See the author's "The Devil's to Pay": John Buford at Gettysburg - A History and Walking Tour (2014).

15 comments:

  1. Drew: Thanks for this (as always) thorough review. One of many aspects which for me stand out in both books is the analysis which invokes modern US Army doctrine. In addition, Appendix C to this book enhances the points being made. Both books also stand out for bucking the current prejudice against sufficient and competently-prepared maps.

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    1. I'm trying to think of some comparable Confederate cav vs. inf delaying actions (comparable in the sense of having a defining role in a major battle). Maybe Wheeler at Perryville. I don't know. I'll have to go down a list of battles and ruminate.

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    2. I thought about this and while not a delaying action, I think the closest comparison is Forrest at Chickamauga. His cavalry felt out the Union presence and fought them until infantry came up. I think the problem with finding a similar Confederate delaying action is that they were on the tactical offensive in most battles.

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  2. Drew, just a quick note to thank you for the very kind words. As reviews go, it just doesn't get a whole lot better than this one. I am humbled by it and greatly pleased that you enjoyed it.

    You might be interested to know that Dave Powell and I are combining our efforts to do the first detailed tactical study of the Tullahoma Campaign that is the result of my fascination with Minty and Wilder, who obviously play critical roles in that campaign too.

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    1. I am indeed interested in that bit of news. I'm sure it will be great. Thanks for staying out West!

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    2. "Dave Powell and I are combining our efforts to do the first detailed tactical study of the Tullahoma Campaign"

      Excellent news. Much like the Meade-Lee events in 1863 Virginia, Tullahoma is a campaign that got largely forgotten because it was "not written in letters of blood" as Rosecrans so aptly observed.

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  3. Ditto Eric's comment. Thanks for the thorough review. So glad you enjoyed it And I might add that Savas Beatie will be publishing the Tullahoma campaign book.

    BTW, Eric's new book will soon be available in audio also.

    (John F., hope you will leave a review on Amazon and elsewhere. It helps a lot.)

    --Ted Savas

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    1. Ted: "Great minds" ... I had done that before seeing this.

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  4. Thanks John. I don't see it yet, but am very interested to read it when it goes live.

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    1. I think they say it takes 24 hours - or something along those lines.

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  5. Replies
    1. So when your law books get stacked up too high you dream about being a mountain man?

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  6. Drew: Regarding Wheeler, that's an interesting possibility. If I recall correctly, he significantly embellished what he was up against in his report. As usual, he also fumbled getting the intel back to Bragg, Another possible entry I thought of was Fitzhugh Lee on the Brock Road on May 8, 1864. Granted he was up against cavalry but (partly due to Sheridan's ineptitude - something I'm sure Eric can comment on), he held things up long enough for Lee to win the race to Spotsylvania.

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  7. Hadn't thought about that possibility. Actually it's my climbing addiction = Wyoming mountains = Jed/Davey Jackson/Bill Sublette/John Colter/Hugh Glass. I kind of like the idea of a solo explorer carrying only his Hawken and the Bible. Besides, Leonard DiCaprio already has laid claim to Glass.

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  8. Good review. I recently read the book and you have given an accurate assessment.

    I also had some difficulty with the description of Minty as an Englishman. He was referred to as an "Irishman" by his contemporaries that I have read. He has claims made on him by Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada! Like many immigrants, his origins are more complex than they might appear at first glance.

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