Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign
by David A. Powell, Savas Beatie
Revisionist historians must constantly fight the temptation to interpret facts to support predetermined hypotheses. The reasons behind actions on the battlefield may have multiple, even seemingly contradictory, interpretations. In Failure in the Saddle, David Powell manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of revisionism. His thoroughly researched monograph offers a reasoned argument that Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s two illustrious cavalry commanders, Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest, “did not perform well from the outset.” Indeed, Powell charges that “stunning lapses in the saddle by experienced cavalrymen led directly to Bragg’s loss of Chattanooga.”
Powell bases his assessment on the traditional role of cavalry as defined by West Pointers: “to scout and screen, to probe and cover.” While he concedes that many of Bragg’s dubious decisions were his own fault, he concludes that Bragg might have acted differently had he received better and more timely information from a traditionally operating cavalry arm.
Powell makes a strong case against Wheeler, recognizing that “below the surface the swirling and troubled waters of personality clashes threatened to impinge on future operations.” Indeed, personality clashes throughout the Rebel chain of command hampered operations in the West throughout the war. But even more serious than his clashes with Bragg, Wheeler aroused the ferocious ire of Forrest.
Never one to work amicably with the patrician caste of West Point– trained Southern officers, Forrest was a different breed of horse soldier. A case of failure in the saddle is harder to make here. Powell’s main accusation against Forrest is that he did not do the things expected of an officer of his rank, and that’s true to some extent. But Forrest demonstrated an innate talent for organizing men into fighting units and an instinctual understanding of battlefield realities. That said, Failure in the Saddle is an indispensable resource that shines new light on an important campaign.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.