Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review - "The Damnedest Set of Fellows: A History of Georgia's Cherokee Artillery" by Fisher & Waters

[The Damnedest Set of Fellows: A History of Georgia's Cherokee Artillery by Gary D. Fisher and Zack C. Waters (Mercer University Press, 2020). Cloth, 11 maps, photos, footnotes, roster, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:246/308. ISBN:978-0-88146-739-0. $35]

Literature treatment of most topics related to Civil War artillery (including organization, training, and tactics) still lags far behind that of the other two main service branches of the Union and Confederate armies. Infantry and cavalry regimental histories continue to be produced at a steady clip through both academic and popular presses, but the same cannot be said for artillery battery studies. Even more uncommon are published histories of Confederate batteries that fought out west with the Army of Tennessee. Addressing that particular area of neglect is Gary Fisher and Zack Waters's The Damnedest Set of Fellows: A History of Georgia's Cherokee Artillery. The battery is most remembered for the dramatic way it lost its guns at the Battle of Resaca in 1864, but Fisher and Waters amply demonstrate that the Cherokee Artillery made its mark on many other western battlefields.

Modern Civil War unit studies typically follow one of two general formats, each having strengths and weaknesses complementary to the other. The first employs in-depth demographic metrics and analysis to explore enlistment motivations while also drawing meaningful connections with the home front communities and larger societies that spawned them, all of that accompanied by a service history mostly rudimentary by comparison. The second main type largely eschews unit demography along with most economic, social, and political contextual analysis in favor of providing readers with an exhaustive treatment of the unit's Civil War campaign and battle experience. The Damnedest Set of Fellows clearly belongs in the latter category.

The Cherokee Artillery was a prewar militia battery, its officers and men primarily hailing from Floyd County, Georgia. The battery and its commander, Capt. J.G. Yeiser, entered Confederate service immediately, leaving their home county in mid-June 1861 for training at Camp Brown near Big Shanty. Though Yeiser would lead the mixed-composition battery during its earliest operations in Tennessee, Belgian immigrant Max Van Den Corput would become the officer most closely associated with it.

Performing a task rather unusual for artillery, the unit's first active field service after being bounced around a bit involved anti-partisan sweeps in the rugged hills and mountains of East Tennessee. The battery was also closely involved in the fighting around strategically important Cumberland Gap. There the Cherokee Artillery helped repulse initial Union probes and fell back with the rest of the garrison when the gap was outflanked and abandoned. In the ensuing command shuffle, Yeiser was promoted and his former position as battery captain assumed by Van Den Corput. During the opening phase of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, the battery and the rest of General Carter Stevenson's division blockaded the isolated Union division left behind to hold Cumberland Gap. The federals escaped and fled north into Kentucky, evading a Confederate pursuing force that included the Cherokee Artillery.

With the campaign in Kentucky unsuccessfully concluded, the battery joined General Braxton Bragg's army in Middle Tennessee before being transferred yet again, this time to Mississippi. With Union forces threatening Vicksburg from the north, one gun was sent to Fort Pemberton where it helped repulse General U.S. Grant's Yazoo Pass expedition in early spring 1863. However, after Grant later crossed the Mississippi River below Vicksburg and advanced inland with his army, the rest of the battery met disaster at Champion Hill on May 16, losing all of its guns there. The survivors were parceled out as needed during the Vicksburg siege. Upon exchange the battery was reorganized and reequipped with four new 12-lb. Napoleons. Though the Cherokee Artillery missed the Army of Tennessee's only major victory at Chickamauga, the battery saw heavy action on both flanks of Bragg's 'siege' line at Chattanooga, most conspicuously on the right where the gunners significantly assisted General Patrick Cleburne's stubborn defense.

Though Resaca is chiefly remembered for Union general James McPherson's missed opportunity there, the Cherokee Artillery was at the heart of arguably the most remarkable incident of the battle itself. Ordered to occupy a vulnerable entrenched position well forward of the main defensive line, the battery was swamped by a Union assault that resulted in the abandonment of all four guns and the loss of perhaps half the battery's strength. The Cherokee Artillery's stranded Napoleons were then removed during the night by federal infantry, who famously dug through the earthworks right under the noses of their Confederate opponents and dragged off the pieces with ropes.

Have lost their full fighting complement of artillery pieces yet again, the men feared the battery would be disbanded, but they were soon reequipped and sent back into action by June 1. According to the authors, the battery may not have seen much if any combat during the rest of the army's withdrawal to Atlanta. Historians still argue about how the majority of the rank and file perceived the change in army commander from Joseph E. Johnston to John Bell Hood, but at least one member of the Cherokee Artillery described the event as casting a "universal gloom" across the Army of Tennessee. Assigned to the Atlanta earthworks during most of the battles fought for control of the city, the battery made a brief appearance in the field only at Jonesboro (where it was apparently unengaged).

After Atlanta fell to General William T. Sherman's army group, the Cherokee Artillery accompanied Hood's depleted army as it broke contact with the enemy in North Georgia and struck once more into Tennessee. Though the battery was engaged in a diversionary bombardment in support of the army's movement to Spring Hill, the gunners remained in the rear during the subsequent Franklin battle. The battery did see significant front line action at Nashville and also during the retreat, losing one gun along the way.

After the disaster in Tennessee, the battery accompanied many of the army's other surviving units to North Carolina. Poorly supported in front line action yet again, the Cherokee Artillery was overrun for the final time in a sharp clash with Union general Stoneman's cavalry raiders at Salisbury, NC on April 12, 1865. What the record might be for how many times an artillery battery lost its full complement of guns to enemy action during the Civil War is unknown, but it's notable that the Cherokee Artillery suffered that fate three times.

Give their comparatively small pool of potential diarists and correspondents, artillery companies can be difficult research subjects for modern unit historians seeking an abundance of firsthand source materials. Though it appears that no manuscript collection examined by the authors included significant writings from the battery's officers (including captains Yeiser and Van Den Corput), enough rank and file accounts (supplemented by other primary sources) were found to construct a narrative reasonably rich with contemporary flavor. The inclusion of a detailed roster appendix makes the volume a useful reference tool as well.

The Damnedest Set of Fellows stands tall on its own terms as a solid Civil War battery history, but, as mentioned before, the fact that the book offers a rare glimpse into the Army of Tennessee's long arm greatly enhances its distinction. By way of both association and direct treatment, the study in some ways also serves as a useful artillery battalion (Johnston's) history. All of these features make the book well worthy of recommendation.

2 comments:

  1. Drew, Thanks for the excellent review. I am buying it. "adds some color to actions" - especially interested in the Resaca episode, the action on Bragg's flanks at Chattanooga, role in Fort Pemberton on the Yazoo, actions at Spring Hill & Nashville, the "anti guerilla" sweeps early on in East TN and finally losing their guns for a 3rd time - how depressing at Salisbury to Stoneman's Cavalry. I bought a few other unit histories (based on your reviews) to cover the gap - no pun intended - in the literature regarding the Confederate inital occupation of the Cumberland Gap then the outflanking and abandonment until they returned - until a book is written on the Cumberland Gap and it's role early on in the war. Specifically - The book on Rain's 11th Tennessee and Vaughn's East Tennessee brigade - although I use Vaughn's book to cover more the late 1864 fighting in East Tennessee and "Vaughn's Stampede." Bought it through the link on your website as I do most books. Curt Thomasco

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    Replies
    1. Hi Curt,
      I have an interest in Cumberland Gap as well. Years ago, I asked Earl Hess (whose university is located very near the gap) if he'd heard any grapevine rumblings about someone doing a book about it. He said no, but noted that there was plenty of source material available to write a good one.

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