Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation


Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia

The travel to statehood for West Virginia is not a hot topic for most Civil War enthusiasts and particularly the boots and bayonet variety. But like every significant historical moment surrounding the Civil War, the impact upon the nation was significant if not fleeting. The authors comprehensively characterize the circumstances from an, economic, military, political, and legal perspective, and clearly illustrate the collective impact of the decisions of the West Virginia citizens.

The authors layout the Sectional differences that existed between the Virginia counties west of the Allegheny Mountains vs. east of the mountain range since before the American Revolution and that grew as the eastern counties political power supporting slavery isolated the western counties from economic opportunity.
The western counties economic activity was closely connected to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland and with railroads and the nation’s population expanding westward, access to the Ohio and the Mississippi River was significant. The B&O Railroad, having supported the western counties immensely since 1828, was derailed by eastern politicians when the authority to expand the B&O to the Ohio River failed. Consequently, in 1851 serious discussions centered upon separating from Virginia. The US Constitution included a provision for establishing a separate state and there was precedent. Yet the effort fell short until 1861.

Virginia’s Secession decision in April 1861 kicked off aggressive descent and this time the stakes reached beyond the few Virginia counties west of the Allegany Mountains. President Abraham Lincoln, desperately trying to keep border states in the Union, poled his cabinet. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio aggressively supported creating a new state and five years later was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when the legal issue was settled.

The authors highlight it all and even satisfy the boots and bayonet enthusiasts with details regarding the B&O Railroad’s significance as a military objective and target for both Union and Confederate cavalry raids till March of 1865. And while the authors draw conclusions based upon their study, the Appendix includes significant documents: the letters to the President from his Cabinet regarding the West Virginia question, the complaint from the State of Virginia to West Virginia that preceded court action, and the two Supreme Court decisions on the subject.
There were movements in many states to abandon the South after secession, but at the end of the day, West Virginia succeeded and was the first slave state to join the union.

Digesting this comprehensive effort, the road to West Virginia statehood will now rate more than a passing footnote to Border state discussions and secession.


Reviewed by Arley McCormick

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

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

There were thousands of battles in the Civil War, dozens of them categorized as major by any standard – number of combatants engaged, number of casualties, military or political significance, and so forth.  Of these, many consider the Battle of Gettysburg to be the capstone.  It certainly is the most studied of Civil War engagements.  It pitted against each other the best and the worst of leaders, leadership, tactics, and logistics.  At the tactical level, Brigadier General John Buford is emblematic of the best on either side.  His performance in command of the United States First Cavalry Division in the campaign leading into, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the battle provides classic examples of leadership, determination, and tactics that are studied by military professionals to this day.

Eric Wittenberg has captured this well.  Not only is his book superbly researched, documented, and written, it is a grand book – not in size, at a modest 245 pages, but certainly in subject, scope and sweep.  With an engaging style, it is fast-paced, easy to ready and comprehend, and covers not only the operational and tactical levels, but individual officers and soldiers involved – on both sides.

Now, I already knew about Buford and his gaining time to the west and north of Gettysburg as the Army of the Potomac closed in.  So, in addition to being a good read, what did I get out of the book?  What did I learn?

For one, Buford’s background, family and personal, and a detailed insight into his character.  A Kentuckian by birth, he was destined to be a soldier.  Coming from a family history of military service stretching back to the Revolution, he naturally vectored in that direction.  He developed superior horsemanship skills as a youth, which pushed him towards the cavalry.  Graduating from West Point in 1848 (16th out of a class of 42), he showed strong leadership qualities from the beginning of his career.  Eric discusses his various unit assignments from graduation through the beginning of the war.  He was in uniform the entire period.  Buford’s family split in their loyalties, with an older half-brother taking the Union side, briefly commanding a division under Ulysses S. Grant, and a first cousin that went South commanding a division of cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Buford struggled with his loyalty to Kentucky, but despite a personal plea from the South-leaning governor, his loyalty to the US Army and the US government it served won out.  He served primarily in staff positions in the first two years of the war, although he commanded a reserve cavalry brigade with distinction in the Second Battle of Bull Run (getting wounded in the process).  He got back into field command in February 1863, serving as a cavalry brigade commander under Major General George Stoneman before being selected for command of the First Cavalry Division in May 1863.  From there, the war led him to Gettysburg.

I also gained a deeper appreciation for the fighting quality of his division at all levels and, in particular, his brigade commanders.  His subordinate commands and commanders at Gettysburg are discussed in detail.  Eric makes extensive use of contemporary accounts (newspaper articles, official reports, journals and diaries, and personal letters).  He includes period photos and thumbnail bios of every commander of significance on both sides of the battle.

Most of all, I came away with a better understanding of the truly pivotal role Buford and his division played on July 1.  The skill and determination displayed not only by Buford but his brigade commanders*, Colonels William Gamble (First Brigade) and Thomas C. Devin (Second Brigade), along with several of the division’s subordinate leaders, such as Lt. John H. Calef, commanding Battery A, 2nd US Artillery, was exemplary.  What Buford and his division accomplished that day was amazing, and Eric captures it in detail from start to finish.  (* Colonel Wesley Merritt commanded the Reserve Brigade, which had been assigned to security duties in the army’s rear and was not present on battlefield on July 1.)

The book also includes several helpful appendices.  A detailed order of battle of course, plus discussions about the Spencer rifle, and analyses of crucial events on the battlefield.  These contribute to the insights Eric brings to the battle.

Oh, and then there is the walking and driving tour guidance.  Eric points you towards specific sites associated with Buford and the US First Cavalry Division’s actions.  The photos, period and current, particularly those looking west on Chambersburg Pike and Mummasburg Road, will help calibrate one’s view today.  The GPS coordinates will be of particular use finding some of the spots.  All in all, this is a good, comprehensive guide.

There were several notable episodes of superior leadership and skill on the Gettysburg battlefield over its three days, and Eric has described one of the most important.  Buford’s delaying action on Herr Ridge and Seminary Ridge on July 1 enabled the Union Army of the Potomac to secure good defensive ground.  Had he and the US First Cavalry Division not performed as they did, the Battle of Gettysburg may well have been a one-day affair, with the decisive battle being fought later at some other locale (the Pipe Creek Line in Maryland, for example), possibly with a different outcome.  As it was, he delayed the Army of Northern Virginia and thereby set up what would be one of the decisive battles of the war.

This book is a great read!  I recommend it highly.  Eric Wittenberg is an accomplished Civil War cavalry historian and author, and I look forward to reading as many of his other books as I can manage.


Review by Emil Posey

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