Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review - "The Battle of Hurricane Bridge, March 28, 1863: With the Firmness of Veterans" by Philip Hatfield

[The Battle of Hurricane Bridge, March 28, 1863: With the Firmness of Veterans by Philip Hatfield (35th Star Publishing, 2019). Softcover, maps, photographs, chapter notes, appendices, index. Pages main/total:xviii,224/303. ISBN:978-0-9965764-7-5. $19.95]

On March 28, 1863, four companies of the 13th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry occupying an earthen fort overlooking a bridge spanning Hurricane Creek squared off against ten companies of dismounted Confederate cavalry (two detached battalions of the 8th and 16th Virginia cavalries) under the command of Brigadier General Albert Gallatin Jenkins. The garrison refused a summons to surrender and after five hours of long-range firing the Confederates pulled back and continued on to their original destination of Union-held Point Pleasant. Countless military actions of scale similar to this one occurred during the Civil War, and receiving any kind of book-length coverage often depends on a prospective writer having a deep personal connection to place or subject. That is clearly the case with the origins behind The Battle of Hurricane Bridge, March 28, 1863: With the Firmness of Veterans, its author Philip Hatfield having spent a good portion of his youth in and around Hurricane, West Virginia.

One can argue with solid justification that Hurricane Bridge does not really deserve 'battle' status (even the local historical marker calls it a skirmish), but most readers by now are probably beyond getting too bent out of shape over such distinctions. Clearly the upgrade makes the book more noticeable, but Hatfield also largely succeeds in making the case that both the fight and the larger operation that it served are worthy of closer study. On March 18, 1863 Jenkins's command started from Dublin, Virginia on what would be an arduous journey of some 200 miles to the lower Kanawha River Valley. The Hurricane Bridge garrison was directly in the path of Jenkins, who was targeting the supplies, horses, and cattle supposedly located at the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant. According to Hatfield, the operation also served as a useful diversion to help clear the way for the Jones-Imboden Raid. On the other hand, the connection might be more incidental than planned, and the most complete modern study of that larger and much better-known operation (Darrell Collins's The Jones-Imboden Raid) does not even reference Hurricane Bridge in its index.

Hatfield's use of events surrounding Hurricane Bridge as illustrative of the 'inner war' that existed in the more hotly contested and alternately occupied parts of western Virginia is appropriate and informative. Both Union and Confederate forces that fought at Hurricane Bridge had local men in their ranks, and the book documents the abuse that area civilians of all political persuasions suffered during the months preceding the battle. After briefly losing control of much of the river valley in 1862, federal forces were firmly back in charge by the time of Jenkins's raid, and one of the bridge garrison's primary tasks was to protect the local pro-Union population from marauding guerrillas and raiding Confederate cavalry. Interspersed throughout the narrative are a great multitude of military and civilian biographical sketches, so the book possesses a heavy genealogy and local history flavor.

Hatfield informatively and persuasively addresses a number of longstanding debates related to the fight. The location of the fort has traditionally been a source of some contention among researchers. In placing the fort on the west bank of the creek atop a nearby hill overlooking the bridge, the author cites supporting archaeological evidence combined with documentary sources that orient the earthworks as being dominated at long range by higher ground to both east and south. Challenging those that have chastised the Confederate commander, who lacked artillery, for fighting at Hurricane Bridge at all, Hatfield reasonably points out the danger to Jenkins of leaving a active enemy force in his rear and astride his main line of communication. On the other hand, Jenkins, who wisely declined a direct assault in favor of long-range sniping, should have known that taking the fort without artillery was a losing proposition if the enemy kept their nerve. Finally, some writers have suggested Jenkins failed primarily because his dismounted cavalrymen were not trained in infantry tactics and many were armed with shotguns. Hatfield convincingly dismisses these arguments with evidence showing that Jenkins, in anticipation of the expedition, had requisitioned hundreds of infantry rifles (more than enough to fully outfit his ten companies) and drilled his men in infantry tactics for weeks prior to leaving his camps.

Other author interpretations seem to occupy shakier ground. Citing his own examination of Union muster rolls and morning reports, Hatfield believes that the Union commander, Captain Johnson, significantly undercounted his available defenders. Unfortunately, his own strength table located in the chapter notes, which has math/typo problems of its own, does not strongly support this view. The author's claim that the Confederates liberally employed imported long-range Whitworth rifles in the firefight is also unconvincing. Given the very limited number of extremely costly Whitworth rifles that passed through the blockade during the war and how they tended to be distributed, it's difficult to believe that they could have been present in substantial numbers in Jenkins's small cavalry command operating far from the main fighting fronts. According to the leading expert on the sharpshooters of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy's best armed and equipped force, there were at most one or two Whitworths awarded to the best marksmen of each sharpshooter battalion.

After covering the Hurricane Bridge fighting, the book goes on to satisfactorily address Jenkins's failed attack on Point Pleasant on March 30 and the retreat of the Confederate forces. A brief account of another action that occurred at the bridge the following December is also provided. With none of the Point Pleasant raid's operational goals achieved and with high casualties incurred (Jenkins lost up to 20% of his strength), the whole affair was a complete failure from the Confederate perspective. In the end, the Union hold on the lower Kanawha was only reinforced.

Though the book unfortunately does not contain a bibliography, the chapter notes indicate that the author relied heavily on primary sources. Supplementing the text are a great number of photographs, mostly adequate maps, and a substantial appendix section containing orders of battle, a selection of Union and Confederate company muster rolls, and a Union casualty table for Hurricane Bridge.

In addition to being an interesting and useful exploration of a local civil war in many ways similar to that experienced by citizens of other deeply divided border regions, Hatfield's study offers the first truly comprehensive examination of one of western (soon to be West) Virginia's more obscure mid-war military operations. Anyone interested in Civil War West Virginia military history and society will benefit from reading this book.

6 comments:

  1. Drew:

    Always nice to see a little-known engagement receive a fuller treatment, especially from an author with an apparent life-long interest. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention.

    Speaking of the author, I wonder as a matter of trivia whether his ancestors were involved in the infamous Hatfield-McCoy "skirmishes" along the West Virginia - Kentucky border! :)

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    1. Hi John,
      See: https://cwba.blogspot.com/2011/07/hatfield-other-feud-william-anderson.html

      He has a new edition of that one published through 35th Star, too.

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  2. Drew,

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I agree 100% with John's opinion. I have the book and only thumbed through it and have no basis for any opinion on its content but I was impressed with the page count, maps, and what at first glance appears to be a more detailed treatment of what amounts to as you note a 4 company to battalion size engagement at best. Interesting that he fits this tiny engagement into the larger tactical picture. I honestly think that is the key to the success of these small scale studies - helping readers understand why a particular small skirmish was being fought, at such and such a place, and such and such a time. Have a soft spot for books like this. It was interesting to see your comments that the ECW Series format would be perfect for smaller engagements studies such as this. I agree. The format would be well suited. Wishing Ryan Quint all the best in completing his ECW book on Dranesville. Curt Thomasco

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    1. I have a big soft spot for books like this one, too. I would review even more of them if people would send them to me. Self-publishing authors and micro-presses (the more common sources of these kinds of things) are the hardest to contact.

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  3. Interesting; if Jenkins cavalry was thus trained and armed Lee should have used it to advantage until Stuart arrived at Gettysburg.

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    1. I don't think the book suggests that any units beyond the small dismounted detachments that took part in the raid received the extra training. It doesn't look like the 8th participated in the Gettysburg Campaign, either.

      Thanks for commenting, but please remember to sign your name next time.

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