Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign
by David A. Powell, Savas Beatie, 2011, $34.95
THE HISTORY OF THE Confederate Army of Tennessee, the star-crossed unit charged with defending Southern interests in the Western Theater, is a tale of defeat and retreat. The army’s single major victory at Chickamauga in September 1863, won at heavy cost, fell short of the game-changer its commander, Braxton Bragg, had sought, and was nullified by the debacle at Chattanooga two months later. In his new book Failure in the Saddle, David A. Powell focuses on the underappreciated role of cavalry at Chickamauga. After all, Powell argues, it is the cavalry that “dictates how a campaign unfolds and plays out.”
Powell opens with a look at the major Confederate cavalry leaders, particularly Joseph Wheeler, senior cavalryman in the Army of Tennessee, and the growing legend Nathan Bedford Forrest, who joined Bragg’s army in the summer of 1862. Also provided is a telling overview of General William Rosecrans’ Tullahoma Campaign, in which Bragg was flanked out of Tennessee with little fighting. Part of Rosecrans’ success, Powell writes, was a lack of cooperation between Wheeler and Forrest, who had clashed previously over battlefield performance. Bragg had been left mostly in the dark about the Union turning maneuver during the Tullahoma Campaign, foreshadowing the cavalry’s performance at Chickamauga.
Powell’s research into the official and personal source material is prodigious, and his writing is generally clear and flowing. As might be expected from the author of The Maps of Chickamauga, Failure in the Saddle is generously supplied with detailed maps, allowing the reader to follow the course of action easily. He also provides an overview of the historiography of the campaign, and five appendices cover such topics as Confederate cavalry strength, an illustrated driving tour of Chickamauga and an analysis of the famous—and possibly mythical—Bragg– Forrest confrontation after the battle. Also included is an official inspection report of Wheeler’s cavalry conducted in January 1865, which clearly explains why Southern civilians feared Wheeler’s men as much as they did Sherman’s Bummers.
Failure in the Saddle contributes as well to the growing reappraisal of Braxton Bragg. Whatever his failures, Bragg was not paralyzed by the prospect of battle as was Joseph Johnston, nor was he anxious to hurl his men against superior numbers and near-impregnable defenses as was John Bell Hood. All too often he was poorly served by his corps and divisional commanders and his cavalry leaders. Powell brings strong evidence that the shortcomings of Bragg’s mounted arm played a major role in his failure to deliver a crushing blow against Rosecrans. Perhaps the most pertinent observation Powell cites regarding Confederate cavalry was delivered by a participant, R.F. Bunting of the 8th Texas Cavalry. “It is evident,” he wrote, “that we have too many commanders and not enough system.”
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.