Search

Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation

Archives

Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863

This exceptionally well-researched and written book provides a tremendous view of the opening tactical actions of the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia 19-20 September 1863 from the Federal’s perspective.  The author, Eric Wittenburg writes a detailed account of the actions of two major units involved in the opening stages of the battle: Minty’s cavalry and Wilder’s mounted infantry brigades.   His bibliography is extensive and demonstrates the use of a wide breath of applicable resources.  

The basic premise of the book is that the two mounted brigades of Wilder and Minty “saved” the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863.  Although the army was defeated, it was not destroyed.  I think the author definitively proved his thesis in a clear, logical manner.  Much of the mounted forces’ actions happened in spite of the very confused, and almost panicked response by Major General Rosecrans to the discovery of General Bragg’s army in close proximity.  Rosecrans’s actions to consolidate his widely dispersed forces to meet Bragg’s imminent threat caused units to re-task organize on-the-move and conduct a withdrawal in contact, a less than desirable method of conducting operations.  

Colonel Robert Minty, a former British Army officer and extremely capable cavalry commander, led a cavalry brigade in Major General McCook’s XX Corps (cavalry).  Two of the three regiments were armed with carbines, the third was armed with Colt revolving rifles essentially making them “mounted infantry”.  Colonel Wilder, a former businessman, led a brigade of mounted infantry who were armed with the relatively new, breech-loading Spencer rifle.  While mounted infantry was not a new concept, it was first successfully employed in the Army of the Cumberland during the Tullahoma Campaign.  While Wittman claims Wilder “invented” the “concept” of mounted infantry, this is not exactly correct.  The Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, later becoming the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, was formed in 1846, pre-dating Wilder’s unit.  Arguably, the U.S. Dragoons (1833) pre-date both of those organizations.  The concept had been around for a number of years.  Wilder’s real claim-to-fame was the arming of his mounted units with the new, multi-shot, Spencer rifle.

Both brigades had a complement of field artillery.  Minty had a section from the Chicago Board of Trade battery and Wilder had Eli Lilly’s battery (18th Independent Battery, Indiana Light Artillery) which was attached to Wilder’s unit giving both units their own direct support artillery responding to their commanders’ needs.

In mid-September 1863, McCook’s XX Corps was operating on a widely separated avenue of approach as the right wing of the Army of the Cumberland.  All of Rosecrans’ corps’s were out of mutually supporting distance based on his misperception that the Confederates were withdrawing to Atlanta.  Minty’s brigade had been detached from XX Corps to provide cavalry support to XXI Corps (Crittenden) on the far-left wing of the army.  Wilder’s brigade was nominally part of Reynolds division of Granger’s Reserve Corps, but because of their unique capabilities, were operating, almost at the discretion of Major General Rosecrans, forward of the army.  This had the potential for impacting command and control except for the excellent cooperation exhibited by both Minty and Wilder with each other.  As the battle developed, so did potential problems as commanders “jumped the chains of command”.  Major General Rosecrans was not beyond by-passing corps and division commanders to order division commanders (two levels down) what to do, a significant faux pas in the military.

Both Minty and Wilder recognized the threat posed by Bragg’s army consolidation in north Georgia during mid-September 1863.  Both these brigades immediately deployed against Bragg’s consolidation and north-ward advance with the intent to slow the Confederates.  Minty’s superior, Crittenden, refused to acknowledge Bragg’s threat until it was literally on top of him.  Rosecrans recognized the threat to his line of communication and ability to withdraw to Chattanooga but time was not on his side.  It was then that the mounted forces of Wilder’s mounted infantry and Minty’s cavalry proved their real value to the Army of the Cumberland.

Wittenberg makes an excellent analogy to modern tactical doctrine.  The deployment of Minty and Wilder’s brigades against Bragg on 18 September was, as aptly pointed-out by Wittenberg, in what are now considered “traditional” cavalry roles.  They acted as a “covering force” in modern doctrinal parlance.  Additionally, while the definition of security tasks have not changed substantially since WWII, Wittenberg does reference an Army manual twenty years out-of-date. The tasks performed by Minty and Wilder were “covering forces” cited by Wittenberg because they operated away from the main force, were designed to “buy-time” for the main body to maneuver, and they accepted engagement in decisive combat.  This is a significant topic of discussion with Army units that I frequently take to Chickamauga.  The difference between a “cover” and “screen” (or “guard”) tasks differ in a number of ways to those in Army units that must conduct these.  Wittenberg correctly assesses what Minty and Wilder did and correctly ties it to our modern doctrinal tasks.  

Wittenberg does a great job of introducing the reader to the different commanders and key participants by the use of explanatory footnotes.  They add much to the book and add a great deal to the understanding of who these men were.  I give major kudos to his excellent notes.  The short biographies of these personnel makes for interesting reading and does much to add to the understanding of the people involved in this major battle.

The writing style is easy to read and Wittenberg’s organization is excellent.  The bane of editors are maps but I believe that there can never be too many.  A few more would have been excellent but the ones that are used are very good.  The period and modern images of commanders and locations are interesting although the modern photos are not the best printed quality.  I really like the driving instructions and the fact that GPS coordinates are listed for those not familiar with the battlefield.  They make the book infinitely more useable for those visiting the battlefield. The organization table showing the armaments of the different regiments is superlative.  However, photos and descriptions of the weapons would have been a nice addition for those who are not familiar with period weapons.

There are a few points that I disagree with, or, are minor editorial errors.  The claim that Bragg and President Jefferson Davis were life-long “friends” is not an interpretation that I agree with since Bragg left the US Army largely as a result of Davis’ treatment.  Infantry cartridge boxes carried 40 rather than 60 rounds, and Bragg’s offensive plans seemed to be more of a result of fragmentary orders than “carefully laid plan(s)”.

Wittenberg weaves the complex maneuver of both armies into a highly readable and logical story making this book a tremendous resource for the study of the campaign and battle of Chickamauga.  Overall, I rate this book as an A+ that does much to add to the understanding of the battle at Chickamauga and the war.  It is a “must read” for students of the battle.  

Reviewed by Ed Kennedy

“The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg — A History and Walking Tour

There were cavalrymen that historians and adventure writers have painted as icons of daring and adventure, Custer, Forrest, Morgan come to mind but competent leaders that didn’t capture the spirit of the horse because opportunity eluded them yet were respected and, in some cases, revered because they were competent. John Buford was successful and competent by all accounts yet researchers may be disappointed, Gettysburg enthusiast may feel more discussion was necessary with regard to his action on day 1 of the battle, but for most readers with limited knowledge of John Buford it will be satisfying and interesting. Once your study of the Civil War inches down from the principle leadership of legend to those that executed the hard parts, primary source information is sketchy at best. And, particularly if the subject died before the war ended. 

   The General, apparently, didn’t write much aside from dispatches and his contemporaries apparently, while recognizing his competence as a cavalry leader found nothing particularly noteworthy to applaud or complain about to their spouses or friends which leads one to believe he was a solder executing his mission with apparent success and not an opportunist, a noteworthy characteristic not always found in senior Civil War leaders. 

  Mr. Whittenburg produced a pretty clear, although sketchy, character study of the General, his decision-making process, and personal habits. And, he provides a sufficient analysis of Buford’s battlefield conduct to illustrate a bit of his command style. 

   Mr. Whittenburg is an attorney and attorneys are known for their research skills so the assumption is that the author found about as much as there is on John Buford today. It is a pretty quick and rewarding read, yet if you expect to learn of all the warts associated with his character, his failures and disappointments, more details must lie in some dusty archive awaiting discovery. 

 

Reviewed by Arley McCormick

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑