Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign, by David A. Powell
Reviewed by John Mason, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table
In this book, Failure in the Saddle, author David Powell seeks to lay the blame for the CSA’s loss of the Chickamauga Campaign – and perhaps the entire American Civil War – squarely in the laps of the Confederacy’s famous cavalry leaders, Nathan B edford Forrest and “Fighting Joe” Wheeler.
An equestrian myself, I have ridden my horse at the Chickamauga Battlefield more than once. I have a hard time believing that armies can use horses in war, since horses are naturally prey animals and tend to run – fast – when things frighten them. And, being prey animals, almost anything frightens them – from a clap of thunder to a deer bounding from the forest to a shopping bag blowing across a field half a mile away. So I have a good deal of curiosity about the mounted warriors of the civil war.
Some 15 years ago I served as chaperone when a daughter’s 5th grade class visited Pond Spring, the plantation home of General Joseph Wheeler, located near Courtland, Alabama. The tour guide’s glowing reports of General Wheeler’s wartime exploits and government service career certainly made an impression. So when a book became available for review, featuring General Fighting Joe Wheeler, I thought I’d take the plunge to learn more.
Some historians picture the cavalry as being the mobile soldiers assigned to guarding the flanks, escorting wagons, and serving as rear guards, while some have pictured them as outlaws and bandits. Few show them as having an intricate and critical part in the outcome of a war. Powell singles out this description of the work of the cavalry, written by William Woods Averell, a Union Cavalry general who fought in the Civil War:
Reliable information on the enemy’s position or movements, which is absolutely necessary to the commander of an army to successfully conduct a campaign, must be largely furnished by the cavalry. The duty of the cavalry when an engagement is imminent is specially imperative – to keep in touch with the enemy and observe and carefully note, with time of day or night, every slightest indication and report it promptly . . . . On the march, cavalry forms in advance, flank, and rear guards, and supplies escorts, couriers and guides. Cavalry should extend well away from the main body on the march like antennae to mask its movements and discover any movement of the enemy. Without this kind of work, strategy is impossible.
Mr. Powell, who has authored at least one other book on the Chickamauga campaign, lays out some pretty damning evidence against the fabled CSA generals. He says that while Bragg historically gets the blame for the losses at Chattanooga and Chickamauga, a reexamination suggests that Wheeler and Forrest were at fault. Specifically he cites “mounted miscues, mistakes, and outright refusals to follow orders” which led directly to General Bragg’s loss of Chattanooga. Military politics and petty personality conflicts seem to play a part as well.
Powell’s chronology of the Chickamauga campaign was minutely detailed. Here’s where the author’s brief biographies of the generals and the division commanders, which appear at the beginning of the book, came in handy. Of course, the author was seeking to prove his point, so he used a great many items of documentation to illustrate the actions he interpreted as mistakes or dereliction of duties. The text is full of maps, footnotes, and eye-witness accounts of troop activities.
Powell states his case well and believably. He certainly tarnished my romantic impression of the brave, gallant, and chivalric Joe Wheeler.
One of the best parts of the book I discovered in the appendix: A driving tour of the cavalry actions from the Chickamauga Campaign. Complete with photographs, descriptions, and even GPS coordinates, the driving tour sounds like a fascinating way to further study the campaign.
Another interesting item in the appendix is Colonel Alfred Roman’s Inspection Report of Joe Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps, dated January of 1865, which comments on misconduct, discipline, incompetency, and weapons of the cavalry.
You may find this book interesting, as I did. Powell comments in his introduction:
My hope is that you come away from this work with a challenged—and even changed—perspective of the Chickamauga Campaign and the men who waged it and, perhaps, a few new questions of your own.
Review provided by Kathi Paul, formally Kathi Arnould the voice of the TVCWRT on Huntsville’s Public Radio. Station WLRH/89.2 FM Kathi has lived in north Alabama over 20 years and tells everyone she’s a born southerner even though she was born in the “south end” of Toledo, Ohio, the oldest girl in a family of eleven children. For the past nine years she has worked as the secretary/receptionist at Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind in Huntsville. But her “full-time job” is as volunteer director of Happy Trails Therapeutic Riding Center (A Spirit Horse Facility) at her farm in New Market. She cares for ten horses every morning and evening. And every weekend children and adults with disabilities troop to Happy Trails for a little fun with horses. Get in touch with Kathi if you have an interest in improving the lives of folks with disabilities through activities with horses.
Her interest in the Civil War was stimulated by her reading of Gone With the Wind as a teenager but she has gained a more realistic knowledge by attending the Round Table meetings and field trips.