Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign
WINNER, 2010, RICHARD HARWELL AWARD, GIVEN BY THE CIVIL WAR ROUND TABLE OF ATLANTA Confederate cavalry has a storied history in the Civil War. Tales of raids and daring exploits create a whiff of lingering romance about the horse soldiers of the Lost Cause. Sometimes, however, romance obscures history. In August 1863 William Rosecrans' Union Army of the Cumberland embarked on a campaign of maneuver to turn Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee out of Chattanooga,…
Historian-author, David Powell’s thesis is contained in the title of the book.  This excellent book leads the reader through the Tullahoma Campaign to the siege of Chattanooga.  It focuses on the actions of the Confederate cavalry of General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.  The events are meticulously covered and Powell’s attention-to-factual details is superb.  Powell is also the author of the “Maps of Chickamauga”, another incredibly detailed piece of work.  I have only been able to find two minor, largely inconsequential errors of facts in his books which is extremely impressive, especially with the hugeamount of information that he covers.

  Powell does a very credible job of establishing the context of the September 1863 Chickamauga campaign.  He ends the book with the siege of Chattanooga and surrounding cavalry operations to November 1863.  Beginning with Rosecrans’ movement out of central Tennessee in June 1863, Powell explains the problems with the cavalry under both Forrest and Wheeler. Wheeler’s total failure to follow explicit orders is baffling.  The failure of Bragg to relieve him under those circumstances was likely due to the high esteem which Bragg inexplicably held for him.  Forrest, a new corps commander, had problems as well but there are mitigating circumstances.  Both commanders suffered from serving in a dysfunctional command climate that produced unclear concepts and contradictory orders.

  I find absolutely no fault with the facts in the accounts of the units’ actions.  Outstanding citations and substantiation are a forté of Powell’s.  His extensive footnotes are detailed and the bibliographical sources are first-class. However, two former directors of the history department at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas penned outstanding documents regarding Chickamauga.  Unfortunately, neither are mentioned in the bibliography.  

  MAJ Jerry D. Morelock (now, U.S. Army colonel, Ph.D. retired) wrote an award-winning article published in Military Review magazine in 1984.  “Ride to the River of Death: Cavalry Operations in the Chickamauga Campaign” (the article won the prestigious Arter-Darby History Writing Award) is an excellent overview of the cavalry organization and leadership in both armies.  Morelock gives equal criticism to the cavalries of both armies which allowed the massive “movement to contact” to blindly occur for both sides.  Morelock’s analysis is that cavalry leaders failed to follow “the doctrine”.  I believe that Powell could have expanded on this issue much more completely.

  “Cavalry at Chickamauga:  What Went Wrong?” was missing from the bibliography.  MAJ Lawyn Edwards (now, U.S. Army colonel, retired) penned this thesis 30 years ago.  Edwards finds some of the same issues that Powell does with the Confederate cavalry.  But, he also considers issues not addressed by Powell.  Edwards’ conclusions are somewhat different and he gives much more weight to Bragg’s failings than Powell does.

  I discern a problem in Powell’s interpretations that indicate a confirmation bias.  Interpretation of historical events is always a consideration when reading or penning history accounts.  In the case of “Failure In The Saddle”, it is no different.  Interpretations of facts by commission versus the lack of interpretation of facts, by omission, fall within the realm of the author’s narrative.  In other words, only considering one set of possibilities to support one’s thesis is an interpretation by commission.  Historians, in order to be fair and impartial, as well as to follow the standards of critical thinking, should legitimately consider both sides of an issue.  In other words, only presenting the information that supports one’s interpretation of facts and ignoring the other side is biased.  While proving one’s thesis is the ultimate goal of the historian, it should comprehensively address conflicting interpretations to counter the natural arguments that may arise.

  This is where I part ways with Powell on a number of hisinterpretations, not with his supporting documentation and facts which are of the very highest quality. “Interpretations” of the facts are what historians do in an attempt to logically reason why events occurred.  However, I think that Powell demonstrates a bias in his interpretations of the facts by overlooking (intentionally, or not) alternative explanations to events.  Cross-referencing “Failure In the Saddle” with another superlative book covering one of the two Confederate cavalry corps commanders at Chickamauga, “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest: 1861-1865” (2017), BrigGen (ret) John Scales discusses logical alternative views to Powell’s.  Rather than address all the specific issues I have with Powell’s multiple analyses, I would highly commend Chapter 6 of BrigGen (ret) John Scales’ book as a counterpoise to Powell’s explanations.  I totally agree with Scales’ points addressed largely in his notes.  He writes his interpretations as an experienced military veteran and on facts not mentioned by Powell (acts of omission).

  Finally, Powell’s failure to use the doctrinal language adopted by the military in 1982 is a minor issue that, if addressed, makes the discussions much more clear.  The levels of war were enumerated in the Army’s Airland Battle doctrine and have since been retained.  They are:  tactical, operational, and strategic levels.   Powell leaps from the tactical to the strategic without consideration of the operational which binds the tactical to the strategic level.

  Overall, “Failure In The Saddle” is an outstanding book and tremendous reference, notwithstanding my disagreements with some of the author’s interpretations.  The five appendices are outstanding.  The fourth demonstrates intellectual rigordiscussing the Bragg-Forrest relationship.  I don’t fully agree with it but the logic is excellent.  The directions and descriptions of the campaign and battle sites around Chickamauga are superlative and very useful for visitors and scholars of the battle.  Powell is a first-class historian and this book provides another great resource on the campaign and battle of Chickamauga.  I highly recommend it for serious scholars of the campaign and battle.

LTC (ret) Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., taught in three departments over 19 years at the US Army Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth: history, tactics and command and leadership departments.  He has conducted staff rides to Vicksburg and Chickamauga for military units and business organizations to study the campaigns and battles for 25 years.