Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review - "Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation" by Larry Peterson

[Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation by Larry Peterson (University of Tennessee Press, 2019) Softcover, maps, photos, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages:xvii,195. ISBN:978-1-62190-519-6. $29.95]

Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign: The Twenty-Seven Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation is the sixth installment in University of Tennessee Press's rapidly expanding Command Decisions in America's Civil War series. The list of contributing authors is continually expanding, and this particular volume is Larry Peterson's third [see also his Chattanooga and Atlanta titles].

For those unfamiliar with these books, the basic definition of a "critical" decision as first established by series creator Matt Spruill has remained consistent over the course of the six volumes. It can be articulated as an apex decision that shapes "not only the events immediately following it but also the events from that point on" (xii). Analysis of critical decisions progresses through five areas with the subheadings Situation, Options, Decision, Results/Impact, and Alternate Scenario. Situation, the initial and typically lengthiest part of each decision analysis, describes the state of affairs at a key crossroads moment in the campaign. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the enumerated decision Options (in this case up to five in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined very briefly before the Results/Impact section recounts what happened and shows readers how those results shaped ensuing events. The Situation and Results/Impact sections frequently reference earlier decisions in a meaningful way, providing further evidence and vivid reminder that truly critical decisions have cascading consequences over a long campaign like this one. Each decision also has an Alternate Scenario section that delves into reasonable alternative history conjecture(s) based on one or more interesting choices not made. In the appendix section is another consistent series component, the driving tour. In this case, ten tour spots associated with the critical decision analysis can be visited. In support of both main text and appendix are 22 maps (11 historical military maps and 11 modern tour maps, all original creations by Alex Mendoza). Also included are orders of battle for both armies.

Though the general format remains the same for every series title, it is apparent that individual authors have been granted a small degree of freedom to vary content structure. As was the case with Atlanta, Peterson's Kentucky volume shifts emphasis from battle decisions to campaign decisions (note the subtitle change in both books from decisions that defined the "battle" to those that defined the "operation"). Though there are tactical-level decisions examined in the book, including several battlefield decisions related to the Confederate victory at Richmond, any related to Perryville are omitted by design, with the author raising the possibility that those might be covered in a separate volume sometime in the future.

The Kentucky Campaign volume shares the same range of six critical decision types offered in the author's earlier Atlanta Campaign title, classified here again as "strategic, tactical, organizational, operational, logistical, and personnel." (xiii). The book's 27 decisions are further subdivided into six campaign time frames beginning with the campaign's original conception and ending with Bragg's largely uncontested retreat from the state. Of the total number of decisions examined in the book, thirteen are strategic, seven tactical, two organizational, two operational, one logistical, and finally three are related to personnel appointments. That distribution supports the notion that early, high-level decisions did most to shape the character of the campaign (and for the Confederates formed key sources of their ultimate failure).

Although the author seems a bit more sanguine that most regarding Bragg's opportunities for achieving strategic success in Kentucky, Peterson is almost certainly correct that the Confederate failure to establish a unified command structure (an almost inexplicable blunder with responsibility primarily placed at the feet of President Davis but also shared by generals Bragg and Kirby Smith) practically doomed the campaign from the start. On the Union side, Buell's decision to not confront the Confederates early in the campaign allowed the initiative to pass to the enemy. Buell's initial actions would aid the Confederates by partially mitigating the negative effects of their divided command structure. In effect, the Union commander's reactive approach also set up the loss of both the Munfordville post defenders and nearly an entire division at Richmond.

The book has the novelty of including a shared critical decision for the first time in the series, but for this operation in particular the author might also have considered the opportunity to expand the critical decision concept beyond those made by individual commanders and political leaders. The collective decision of the proslavery Kentucky population to not support the Confederate invasion is arguably the critical decision that most affected the outcome of the campaign. Prominent Kentucky Confederates convinced the high command that large masses of Bluegrass citizens were ready to lift the yoke of Union oppression and needed only the presence of a large Confederate army to support a popular uprising that would fill Rebel ranks with untold thousands of eager volunteers. The fact that the determination among Kentuckians to remain loyal to the Union was already solidified more than a year before the invasion does argue against its inclusion as a critical decision that specifically shaped the 1862 operation, but the issue remains that the combined Confederate armies of Bragg and Kirby Smith made their own decisions under entirely false assumptions and expectations stemming from it.

In the end, if you liked Larry Peterson's other contributions to the series then you'll surely want to pick up a copy of Decisions of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, which employs the same style and approach.


  1. Drew: Good review, as always. I'm skeptical about leaving Perryville to a separate volume. With the limited forces actually engaged and a one-day combat, coming up with a sufficient number of "decisions"/options to warrant a book seems challenging.

    1. The fit seems questionable to me, too. It seemed like he was envisioning the possibility of a battle sub-series consisting of only battlefield tactical decisions.

    2. I think that for obvious reasons the Atlanta volume could be supplemented by a "battles" volume with the significant actions at Resaca, Dallas area. Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree, Bald Hill, Ezra Church and Jonesboro. Far less to choose from in Kentucky 1862.

    3. I am here from the future to report that there does indeed appear to be a Decisions at Perryville book coming out. It's listed on Amazon as unreleased with no release date currently available, but it does apparently exist.

      Isaac Dickman

    4. Isaac,
      Its release date has been pushed forward into next year, currently set at 3/16/22.



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