Thursday, February 4, 2021

Review - "Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863" by Powell & Wittenberg

[Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863 by David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg (Savas Beatie, 2020). Hardcover, 16 maps, photos, footnotes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,356/406. ISBN:978-1-61121-504-5. $34.95]

It is unfortunate but not surprising that no full-length examination of the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign has been attempted before now. Profoundly overshadowed by momentous contemporaneous military events in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, the sweeping campaign of maneuver in Tennessee between the Union Army of the Cumberland under General William S. Rosecrans and General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee has always been overlooked even though it was fought between the two principal western armies and resulted in permanent Union reoccupation of Middle Tennessee. By the end of the campaign, Rosecrans's confident army was on the very doorstep of the Confederate heartland's gateway to the Deep South. Clearly, the Tullahoma Campaign's lack of a major culminating battle meant that it failed to garner much popular attention after news of the twin Union triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg reached the northern public in early July. Though surveyed in numerous book sections (often as part of a linked study), magazine articles, essays, and small monographs, standalone coverage of the campaign has been decidedly sparse in the published literature, with little available for general consumption beyond an introductory overview from historian Michael Bradley and a more recent volume (also authored by Bradley) released as part of University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series. However, this longstanding oversight has finally been fully remedied with the 2020 publication of David Powell and Eric Wittenberg's Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863.

In their extended opening remarks, Powell and Wittenberg accord a great deal of attention to army affairs that preceded the campaign by months (indeed, the book is well past the 100-page mark before the Tullahoma Campaign is launched). The campaign's aforementioned lack of big battles makes devoting precious space to detailed background information easier to afford, but it is also made clear that decisions and events of the winter and early spring had a major impact on how the Tullahoma Campaign was won and lost. In addition to Bragg being forced to detach much of his infantry to help the Confederacy's struggling armies in central Mississippi, the Army of the Cumberland's much too long delayed expansion, reorganization, and rearming of its cavalry arm (a project implemented by Rosecrans and his cavalry chief David Stanley) shaped the course of the Tullahoma Campaign in decisive fashion.

Both sides put the six-month interval between Stones River and Tullahoma to good use in strengthening and outfitting their respective armies, with Bragg in particular having great success in returning absent men to the ranks. The authors, more than many others, tend to give Rosecrans the benefit of the doubt on the matter of assessing/critiquing the scale of rebuild the army commander deemed necessary before the general advance that everyone in Washington was clamoring for could begin. However, it is also well appreciated by Powell and Wittenberg that Rosecrans alienated the War Department through his constant demands for nationally scarce items such as the most modern repeating arms for his expanding cavalry. The general also proved unwisely insensible to the political ramifications of his army's winter inactivity extending well into the spring.

In their lengthy discussion of the spring 1863 cavalry battles and skirmishes fought in Middle Tennessee, the authors conclude (and others have also observed this) that each side gained an edge over the other on opposite ends of the line. Confederate cavalry under generals Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest scored significant successes on Bragg's western flank (ex. at the Battle of Thompson's Station and at Brentwood) while on the eastern flank Rosecrans's newly invigorated mounted forces were able to find their own measure of success in smaller-scale actions against the forces of generals Joseph Wheeler and John Hunt Morgan. The authors persuasively argue that those Union inroads into Bragg's weakened cavalry screen, combined with Wheeler being away at Spring Hill preparing for a new raid and Morgan exceeding the limits of his orders by inopportunely launching a distant raid of his own, were profoundly consequential in that they left Bragg's center and right vulnerable to the sweeping left hook that Rosecrans's army was soon to launch from Murfreesboro. Timing is everything in war, and Bragg's dispositions at the moment Rosecrans started his main advance were highly unfavorable to conducting a successful defense. This prelude section also usefully highlights the persistent tension within the western Confederate leadership between advocates of long-range cavalry raiding and those wanting to keep the bulk of the available horse soldiers nearby for close tactical support. As Powell and Wittenberg clearly expose in their study of what happened during the early phase of the Tullahoma Campaign, adopting the former strategy (or even some combination of both) too often left the main army without adequate screening, flank protection, and reconnaissance capabilities at critical moments.

Whatever one might say about excessive delays in the launching of Rosecrans's campaign, when it finally got going in late June the headquarters staff work was flawless. All four infantry corps (George Thomas's Fourteenth, Alexander McCook's Twentieth, Thomas Crittenden's Twenty-First, and Gordon Granger's Reserve) and Stanley's cavalry advanced on wretched roads across a broad front south of Murfreesboro, and each component arrived at its designated point at the designated time. This was a rare achievement with large-scale, spatially distributed Civil War operational movements, even those conducted under the best conditions.

As the book demonstrates, Rosecrans very effectively disguised his army's primary thrust with skillfully conducted feinting operations. While Stanley and Granger drew Bragg's attention toward the Confederate left, Twentieth Corps's attack at Liberty Gap (June 24-25), another feint, further gathered enemy focus away from the main effort. At Liberty Gap, Johnson's Division pushed defending Arkansans south on the 24th and fended off a counterattack the next day. One interesting feature of the battle was brigade commander August Willich's successful debut of his "advance firing" innovation (a tactical attacking formation unique to his command and in which his entire brigade was thoroughly trained) that cleared the enemy from his front.

Meanwhile, at Hoover's Gap on the 24th Colonel John Wilder's large brigade of mounted infantry took advantage of Bragg and Hardee's inexcusable lapse in leaving only 200 cavalry (and no artillery) to guard the highly-defensible gap through which ran a direct road to Manchester. Sweeping aside that weak screen, Wilder easily captured the objective in its entirety. After occupying the high ground at Hoover Gap's southern end and ignoring orders to withdraw (his infantry support, Fourteenth Corps, was still far to the rear), Wilder's Spencer rifle-armed men repulsed with relative ease each Confederate infantry attack aimed at recovering the lost ground. By all accounts, Wilder's decisive leadership and refusal to withdraw saved hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties that would have been incurred in retaking the gap. Far from being punished for disobeying orders, he was recommended for promotion to brigadier general and his mounted infantry command would henceforth be known as Wilder's "Lightning Brigade." On the other side, in his being derelict in leaving the gap nearly undefended, Confederate corps commander William Hardee's actions provided yet more evidence that his "Old Reliable" sobriquet was little earned by actual consistent performance in the field. On some level, Powell and Wittenberg are willing to assign both unpropitious timing (the closest division to the gap was missing much of its strength due to detachments, and its leader, A.P. Stewart, was new to its command) and thinning of the front (as mentioned before, large detachments were ordered to Mississippi) as mitigating factors, but they still justly conclude that the gap's weak defenses on the 24th were principally the consequence of "serious error" committed by Bragg and Hardee. The effect of rapid-firing Spencers en masse has always been the defining feature of primary and secondary accounts of the Hoover's Gap battle, and this new rendering of the fighting there only confirms the physical and moral impact of the weapon's potential as a tactical difference maker. How close Wilder's men came to running out of ammunition (the most common objection at the time to the widespread use of repeating arms on the nineteenth-century battlefield) is not addressed, but the brigade managed to hold out until relieved by Thomas's corps, a junction that made the Union threat to Bragg's even more weakened center-right critically dangerous. The fighting at both Liberty Gap and Hoover's Gap, the latter the largest action fought during the campaign, are more than sufficiently detailed in the text, and the authors expertly explain how the events at the two gaps were instrumental to the success of Rosecrans's overall plan of campaign.

Approaching the fighting front east of Thomas, Crittenden's Twentieth Corps was to comprise the army's main thrust and was expected to quickly capture Manchester. However, the corps was critically delayed by roads turned by incessant rain into rivers of mud. However, as outlined in the text, Rosecrans's operational flexibility was at its best when he immediately redirected Thomas to take the lead in the advance, with McCook to follow. By the 28th, Thomas, who had shoved aside all opposition, had Manchester firmly in his grasp and McCook in support. Crittenden, much to his chagrin, arrived last. At this point much of the Army of the Cumberland was concentrated less than a dozen miles from Bragg's headquarters at Tullahoma.

But what of the Confederates during those critical days? The authors could find no evidence that Bragg formulated any plan of his own that was coordinated with his two corps commanders, generals Leonidas Polk and the aforementioned Hardee. Instead, Bragg seemed to have been content with merely responding on a moment by moment basis to Rosecrans's actions. With the loss of a quarter of his infantry strength (much of those absent units assigned pre-campaign to the army's center-right) and John Hunt Morgan's cavalry far away on the raid mentioned earlier, the defensive center of gravity shifted dramatically to Bragg's left. All of that aided Rosecrans immeasurably by making the Army of the Cumberland's grand left hook that much easier to implement. Upon the loss of Hoover's Gap, Bragg ordered a general withdrawal to Tullahoma, and his rear guard at Shelbyville was attacked by Stanley's cavalry (themselves followed by Granger's foot soldiers). Highlighting by the dramatic charge of Colonel Robert Minty's "Saber Brigade," the successful Union assault at Shelbyville prevented a junction between Wheeler and Forrest (a potentially dangerous combination). Unlike Hoover's Gap, Shelbyville has not been the subject of much popular attention, and the book's detailed treatment of the battle fully rectifies past neglect by elevating the Union victory at Shelbyville to its appropriate stature as one of the campaign's key milestones on the way to ultimate success.

While Bragg struggled to gather and reorient his army around Tullahoma's prepared defenses, Rosecrans sent Wilder's Brigade on a behind-the-lines mission to wreck the railroad supplying the Army of Tennessee. While the Lightning Brigade, like so many mounted raiders before and after them, achieved little beyond temporary damage to the tracks around Decherd and exhausted both men and horses in the process, the authors perceptively note that the raid did usefully redirect Bragg's attention toward the safety of his lines of communication during a time when the Confederate high command was already reeling from the forced abandonment of Shelbyville and the Highland Rim's other prepared defenses. At the time, Rosecrans's army was still struggling through epic rainfall and bottomless roads to concentrate its strength for the presumably climactic assault on Tullahoma, and any further command confusion that Wilder might have sown among Bragg, Polk, and Hardee only helped the Union cause. Rosecrans's marshaling of his army around Manchester was only achieved late on the 29th, the timing of which amounted essentially to a full day lost to the abysmal environmental conditions. Even though its material fruits were minimal, Wilder's raid threw Bragg, who clearly wanted to offer battle at Tullahoma, into further indecision, his state of mind not eased by Hardee's wavering and Polk's determined advice to retreat. According to the authors, the straw that broke the camel's back and finally forced Bragg's hand was a "reliable" spy's report on June 30 claiming that 10,000 Federals were directly threatening his rear. Geography also did not favor a successful defense of Tullahoma. With Bragg's railroad connection to Chattanooga running along a southeast axis, Rosecrans's army at Manchester was just as close as Bragg's army at Tullahoma was to the most vulnerable chokepoints in Confederate lines of communication and supply. The primary question in Bragg's increasingly despondent mind would have been how far he needed to retreat to protect those vital Elk River bridges and the railroad tunnel near Cowan.

The book details the determined fight over the Elk River crossings (though unfortunately doesn't provide a small-scale map of those engagements). These actions were eased on the federal side by the fords becoming more usable after decreased rains lowered water levels. Nevertheless, the still wet weather conditions and Bragg's head start to his retreat essentially provided the Confederate army with just enough space to escape with supply and ammunition trains intact. The authors are justifiably critical of Bragg's back and forth 'retreat or fight' indecision during this brief but weighty period, the incapacitating appearance of which prompted conspiratorial meetings and communications between Polk and Hardee that the authors declare dangerously close to mutiny. By July 2, Bragg's army had finally found at Cowan the defensible position it so desperately needed, with both flanks protected by mountains and safe roads leading to the rear, but Bragg was seemingly an already beaten man and again ordered a general retreat. According to Powell and Wittenberg, this final decision was not forced by the enemy and signaled conclusively that the fight for Middle Tennessee was over in Bragg's mind (at least for the rest of 1863). Finally stymied by the natural obstacles of geography and distance, Rosecrans settled into consolidating his gains and preparing his army for the next advance. Casualties for the entire campaign were remarkably light on the Union side (570 men) but an examination of Confederate strength returns reveals that Bragg, contrary to his later scoffing that his army's losses were trifling, lost upwards of 5,000 men (mostly in prisoners and deserters) over the course of the nine-day campaign. That figure is much larger than traditional estimates and paints the results of the campaign in an even more destructive light in terms of diminished manpower and morale on the Confederate side.

Though niggles with final editing hardly drag down an appreciation of the volume's innumerable strengths, it can be pointed out that the finished manuscript still retains far too many typos. It also possesses some awkward moments of narrative repetition that may or may not have stemmed from dual authorship. Otherwise, the writing partnership between Powell and Wittenberg is seamless, their exceptionally fine work founded on the pair's typical brand of exhaustive primary source research and broad mastery of the secondary literature. On the visual aid side of things, the book's solid set of operational and tactical-scale maps successfully assists the reader in obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the campaign's obscure little battles and complex movements.

According to Powell and Wittenberg, the Tullahoma Campaign crushed Bragg's health and further eroded his already shaky leadership stature in the army. The results so undermined Polk and Hardee's confidence in Bragg's leadership that the latter left the army soon after. This lack of faith would reap bitter fruit during the ensuing Chickamauga Campaign. The authors might also have added the possibility that the comparative ease with which Rosecrans drove Bragg out of Middle Tennessee without a major battle dangerously elevated the Union commander's comfort level for risk-taking during the weeks leading up to the Chickamauga disaster.

In their concluding section, Powell and Wittenberg also briefly address some of the opportunities for Confederate counterstrokes that have been previously raised in the published literature. In their critique of those authors, they convincingly argue that the unresponsive, risk-averse Army of Tennessee lacked the high command flexibility and harmony necessary to take advantage of those brief windows of opportunity for conducting daring offensive moves.

Even after taking into account the wide disparity in transport capability between the two armies that allowed Union forces to operate much further away, and for a much more extended period of time, from their operational base and railroad lifeline, the book's argument that cavalry had a decisive impact on the campaign holds high merit. Confederate cavalry generals, particularly raid-focused Wheeler and Morgan, performed poorly in screening the army's Highland Rim front and failed abysmally in keeping Bragg informed about enemy movements. On the other side, Rosecrans's rejuvenated and greatly expanded cavalry and mounted infantry forces performed brilliantly on the offensive at Hoover's Gap, Shelbyville, and other places. As Powell and Wittenberg note, Union cavalry dominance in the campaign marked a truly remarkable and sudden reversal. It is certainly worth noting the sharp divide between the first half of 1863, when the Confederacy's western heartland cavalry was broadly ascendant over its foes, and the second half of the year when Union improvement combined with a series of stumbling Confederate failures of leadership and command led to starting successes by the Army of the Cumberland's mounted arm during the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns.

Finally, the impact of weather on the outcome of the campaign is also gauged in compelling fashion in the book. Mud is an equal opportunity foe to rapid movement (and in assessing alternate history one can't simply look at a single variable), but the book's suggestion that weather effects most negatively limited Rosecrans's ceiling for success is persuasive. It was weather alone that increased the march time of Rosecrans's left hook (Crittenden's Twenty-First Corps) from a planned two days to a miserable five, and one might reasonably argue that it was this difference that had the most to do with Bragg's escape without more serious damage. Interestingly, a deeper dive on the part of the authors into the matter of weather effects notes that if Rosecrans had launched his campaign two weeks earlier or two weeks later, drier conditions would clearly have rendered his planned movements far more predictable.

In closely examining how General William S. Rosecrans's 1863 Middle Tennessee operation was conducted and what were its results and longer-term consequences, authors David Powell and Eric Wittenberg masterfully present those long-neglected series of events as a model Civil War campaign of maneuver. Their conclusion that Tullahoma was Rosecrans's finest hour as an army commander and that he conducted a "masterpiece of organization, logistics, deception, and maneuver" are judgments clearly borne out in this exceptionally fine history of the campaign. Orders of magnitude more informative and valuable than anything previously written on the topic, Tullahoma ranks among the best of modern Civil War campaign histories.


  1. Thank you for the kind words, Drew. Dave is as easy to work with as it gets, and I think that this worked out about as well as it possibly could have.

    1. I can only imagine all the ways things can go wrong.

  2. Thanks for the review, Drew. We have an entire driving campaign tour coming very soon as well.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.