Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review - "The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga" by David Powell

[The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga by David A. Powell (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Hardcover, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,192/258. ISBN:978-0-8093-3801-6. $34.50]

Though a handful of introductory-level books and essay anthologies exist along with a popular Wiley Sword campaign history1, the most commonly cited book-length scholarly accounts of the 1863 Chattanooga Campaign remain the trio of classic titles authored by Peter Cozzens, James Lee McDonough, and Steven Woodworth2. A superior summary of events in its own right, David Powell's The Impulse of Victory: Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga really sets itself apart from previous full-length narrative accounts of the campaign through its overarching focus on command character and decision-making on both sides, but particularly on the Union side3.

Powell's study begins with U.S. Grant's elevation to western theater command in response to the Union disaster at Chickamauga. In addition to creating what many believe to have been a crisis point in the Army of the Cumberland's leadership, Chickamauga left Union strategic planning on both sides of the Mississippi in disarray for the balance of 18634, and Powell briefly discusses that lesser-appreciated aspect of Chickamauga's fallout as well. Given what transpired during the Iuka-Corinth Campaign of the previous year, Grant's relief of Rosecrans in favor of highly-regarded corps commander George Thomas was predictable; however, some observers later claimed that the Grant-Thomas relationship also got off to a rocky start. Judiciously sifting through conflicting reports, both contemporary and postwar, recounting Grant's arrival at Thomas's headquarters after a long journey in stormy weather, Powell pretty convincingly questions those accounts maintaining that Thomas and his staff gave Grant a disrespectful reception.

Though he had just led the Confederate Army of Tennessee to its only major victory, Grant's new opponent, General Braxton Bragg, yet again found himself the object of critical barbs from numerous sources. Bragg is often condemned by writers as militarily negligent for leaving the opposite side of Lookout Mountain mostly unguarded beyond a thin picket line, but Powell effectively reminds readers of the severe transportation problems Bragg's army had to deal with after Chickamauga. The Confederate army simply could not keep in supply even a division west of Lookout Mountain for any length of time, and the most usable and direct road for communication and wheeled traffic was in easy range of Union artillery safely ensconced across the Tennessee River in Moccasin Bend. This unsolvable dilemma is perhaps one of the war's best examples of logistical constraints limiting in critical fashion the tactical-level battlefield options and deployments of an army commander, and Powell frames it well.

On the Union side, the campaign provides another clear demonstration of the vast difference in how General Grant treated his subordinates when they failed to meet expectations. After General Sherman seriously upset Grant's campaign timetable by marching his divisions to Chattanooga over terrible roads encumbered by heavy trains placed within the columns, Grant merely took the blame upon himself and ordered his favorite subordinate to pass his wagons to the rear. Contrast that with his almost disdainful reaction to General Joseph Hooker's sweep over and around Lookout Mountain in the "Battle Above the Clouds" on November 24. Sherman's timid advance on the Union army's left on that same day (the consensus view of historians being that his movements were unquestionably overcautious) ended up far short of Grant's ordered goal. Powell is not only critical of that but of Sherman's failure to avail himself of the opportunity to gather geographical intelligence from units of his own command who had garrisoned the area previously5. Once again, given Grant's ill-humored jabs aimed toward the Army of the Cumberland's alleged immobility during the campaign, one can imagine the commanding general's reaction to the stalled state of affairs on the army's left if that sector was led by anyone else but Sherman.

As Powell notes in the book, Sherman's persistent claims then and long after that he was never repulsed and that he drew heavy enemy forces from the Confederate center that weakened it for Thomas's breakthrough, were patently absurd when it came to the former and a gross exaggeration when it came to the latter. On the other hand, Powell generously points out that Sherman's assumption of a defensive posture on Billy Goat Hill on the 24th can have some justification, as Sherman believed at the time that he occupied the northern end of Missionary Ridge and its former defenders would likely be preparing a strong counterattack to reoccupy that critical position. However, after Sherman saw his error the next morning his attacks there were still uncoordinated and hesitant, and he kept Grant poorly informed of his progress (or rather lack of progress). Utilizing only a small proportion of his large available force, Sherman launched a series of brigade-sized attacks on a narrow front, all of which were repulsed. Intended by Grant to be the army's main effort, Sherman's assault on the left accomplished pitifully little by the time it petered out by the early afternoon of the 25th, not to be renewed even after George Thomas's success in the center. In the final estimation, Powell fairly and persuasively adds his own voice to that of other historians and writers critical of Sherman's performance during the battle.

While Sherman was getting nowhere on the Union left, what passed between Grant, Thomas, and corps commander Gordon Granger on Orchard Knob has long been a source of conflicting reports and historical interpretations. Countering some of those views, Powell reminds readers that the Army of the Cumberland was far from inert during the first half of the day and was actually quite active throughout the morning and early afternoon, with its divisions shifting around not inconsiderable distances at both Thomas's and Grant's behest. With that in mind, it becomes clear that the timing of the launching of the Army of the Cumberland's afternoon attack (2:30p-3p) was not merely delayed by ponderous Thomasonian inertia and Granger's peculiar artillery antics until Sherman's failed assaults had completely lost their steam. Instead, the author argues convincingly that the unavailability of all four divisions to act in concert earlier in the day, and the time consumed in transmitting necessary orders to all of those subordinate commanders, meant that the attack could not have been carried out much before the time it historically did. In the end, Powell finds most convincing General Wood's account of the Orchard Knob interactions among the army high command. It is a relatively drama-free one that does not paint Thomas and Granger in the uncomplimentary light that some of the more tension-filled, and perhaps agenda-driven, reports offered.

In covering the action on the Union army's right flank during the battle's decisive day, Powell's narrative effectively draws attention toward the least recognized and least appreciated of the three major attacks, General Hooker's capture of Rossville and swing north into and behind the Confederate left flank. This three-division advance completely unhinged the enemy's weakly-held left, and one might well imagine that even if Thomas's frontal assault had failed that Hooker would have forced Bragg's withdrawal.

Few of Grant's great western campaigns had large-scale cavalry components, and Powell additionally points to another example of Grant putting his limited cavalry assets to good use. Just as he did with Grierson in Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign, at Chattanooga Grant sent Eli Long's small cavalry brigade to wreak havoc on enemy lines of communication (in this case the connection between Bragg and Longstreet). As the author shows in the book, Long accomplished this objective very well and at little cost to his command.

By a combination of factors (not least of which were good defensive terrain for the enemy to exploit—see Hooker vs. Cleburne at Ringgold Gap—and the need to immediately send a large relief force to Knoxville), Grant's pursuit of Bragg's army fizzled out quickly. Powell notes that two major figures in the Union high command, Hooker and Granger (neither a Grant-Sherman favorite), were casualties of the campaign. Granger was relieved outright, and Hooker's immodest blustering over his accomplishments (and his touchiness over matters of rank) made him a much disliked and distrusted figure in Sherman's Georgia campaign of the following spring. Indeed, Powell strongly argues that the greatest source of Grant's poor opinion of both men could only have been through personality clashes as both performed more than reasonably well during the battle. By contrast, General Sherman, who demonstrated poor march discipline during the movement to Chattanooga, showed misplaced caution and missed his objective on the 24th, was soundly repulsed the next day, and failed to renew his assaults when the enemy's left and center were attacked, received not a word of censure from Grant.

Even though gifted with Bragg's command blunders and an opposing army weakened by internal dissension and severely limited logistical capacity, by any measure Grant did well at Chattanooga, quickly melding together divisions from different armies and delivering in timely fashion the crushing victory that the U.S. needed in the wake of Chickamauga. In assessing Grant's strengths, Powell joins a long list of recent writers in praising the general's "doggedness in his maintenance of the overall objective, tactical flexibility, and perseverance in the face of setbacks" (pg. 190). The book shows that all of those qualities were exhibited by Grant at a number of different points in the Chattanooga Campaign. Added to that list of exceptional command traits were Grant's willingness to keep an open line of communication with Washington and his readiness to go about achieving the government's objectives in the timing and manner expected of him. In addition to effectively utilizing the Chattanooga Campaign as another example highlighting the many ways in which General Grant succeeded when other Union army commanders failed, David Powell's The Impulse of Victory also offers readers of all backgrounds arguably the finest summary history of the Chattanooga Campaign yet written.

1 - For brief introductory histories of merit see David Powell's Battle Above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain, October 16–November 24, 1863 (2017) and Steven Woodworth's This Grand Spectacle: The Battle of Chattanooga (1999). A pair of fairly recent essay collections, The Chattanooga Campaign (2012) edited by Woodworth & Grear and Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862–1863 (2014) edited by Jones & Sword [though it is much more heavily weighted toward Chickamauga and its preceding events], are both worthy of recommendation. For a popular-style narrative history of the campaign, see Wiley Sword's Mountains Touched with Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863 (1995).
2 - These are Peter Cozzens's The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga (1994) [the best single-volume treatment of the battle], James Lee McDonough's Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy (1984), and Steven Woodworth's Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (1998).
3 - Utilizing a unique analytical format, a Chattanooga Campaign volume was published in 2018 as part of University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series (see here). For those specifically interested in Grant's career, The Impulse of Victory is also the second volume in SIU Press's World of Ulysses S. Grant series to examine the general's decision-making during a specific campaign, the first being Timothy Smith's The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign (2018).
4 - see Donald Frazier's recent book Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864 for the best explanation of how Chickamauga affected the Union Army's Trans-Mississippi plans and operations.
5 - There is an interesting historical side note related in the book about a prominent Unionist whose land was in Sherman's path of advance and who was falsely arrested earlier as a Confederate spy. According to Powell, the incarcerated man's absence from his home robbed Union forces of a willing and useful source of information regarding the true location of the northern end of Missionary Ridge.


  1. Thank you, Drew, for another comprehensive and insightful review, including your informative footnotes. We are truly fortunate to have authors such as David Powell, Timothy Smith, Earl Hess, Eric Wittenberg, and others continually produce high quality Civil War studies.

    1. Yes, at this point he's published more than enough to be considered among the top CW campaign history authors. His writing keeps improving, as well.

    2. John: I agree. That is definitely an "A" list. And there are some "up and comers" on the way, as well. When icons such as Ed Bearss and William Glenn Robertson (not yet, in his case) move on, we wonder if the void will ever get filled. Tim Smith is doing that on the Vicksburg front and Dave is clearly stepping up on "Chick-Chatt".


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