Blue Lightning: Wilder’s Brigade in the Battle of Chickamauga, by RichardA. Baumgartner, Blue Acorn Press, Huntington, W.Va., 1997, $30.
Among the many technological advances in weaponry that occured during the Civil War, one of the most noticeable and far-reaching was the Spencer repeating rifle. Called “the gun that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week” by the Confederates who faced its rapid, deadly fire, the Spencer gave a small unit the firepower to face an enemy several times its size.
In January 1863, Colonel John T. Wilder developed a novel plan involving his brigade of mostly Indiana and Illinois farmers. Frustrated at trying to chase Confederate raiders such as John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest on foot, Wilder proposed to mount his brigade. Given the ability to race quickly from point to point, the infantrymen could then dismount and fight using the tactics in which they were trained. To further their effectiveness, Wilder decided to arm his men with the revolutionary new Spencer repeating rifle.
Major General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, gave his blessing to the plan despite the misgivings of General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. In March 1863, Halleck grumbled, “Mounted infantry is neither good cavalry nor good infantry.”
Within a few short months, Wilder’s brigade would disprove Halleck’s criticism. Performing superbly during the Chattanooga campaign, Wilder’s hard-hitting troops gained further acclaim when they were instrumental in preventing the Army of the Cumberland’s defeat at Chickamauga from becoming a complete disaster. “The Lightning Brigade” had been born (see related feature article, P. 50). By war’s end, Wilder’s mounted infantry would win recognition as arguably the hardest-fighting Union brigade in the western theater.
In his new book Blue Lightning, Richard Baumgartner tells the story of this famous unit from the time they became mounted infantry through their instrumental involvement at Chickamauga. Using the formula that worked so well in his award-winning Echoes of Battle: The Atlanta Campaign, Baumgartner has combined photos, firsthand accounts and solid research to produce a splendid book. The author’s years as a newspaper and magazine journalist are evident in the crisp, well-written narrative. Baumgartner proves once again that it is not history that makes some history books boring, but boring writing. There is nothing boring about Blue Lightning–the narrative of this book crackles along with the implied speed of the title.
Blue Lightning: Wilder’s Brigade in the Battle of Chickamauga will undoubtedly emerge as one of the best Civil War books of 1997. For anyone interested in Chickamauga, the western theater or one of the premier fighting units of the war, Baumgartner’s latest book is an excellent addition to the Civil War bookshelf.
B. Keith Toney