An Interview with David A. Powell, author of Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign
The Confederate cavalry has a storied and generally favorable relationship with the history of the Civil War. Despite the brutal nature of the larger conflict, tales of raids and daring exploits all create a whiff of romance that lingers about the horse-soldiers of the Lost Cause. Sometimes, however, romance obscures history.
: SB: How long have you been interested in the Civil War?
DAP: Since I was a teenager. Like most people I read on Eastern Theater battles, especially Gettysburg and wrote a couple short articles on that battle. Later I started reading on the war in the West. The more I read I realized there was more in print for Gettysburg alone than the entire war in the West. The difference is really striking. Chickamauga grabbed my interest, but there wasn’t that much available on it. I realized there was opportunity here, and the more I researched, the more I became fascinated by this confusing battle.
: What was it about Chickamauga in general that drew your interest?
DAP: It was extremely complex and yet so little studied. Many Civil War battles have been written about extensively, and with different points of view. Joe Harsh’s take on Antietam, for example, differs significantly from Stephen Sears’. But only a couple books have been written on Chickamauga in the past forty years. There are only a couple worthwhile studies on the entire campaign.
: So you wanted to learn more about this battle /campaign?
DAP: Yes. The deeper I probed, the more I realized that understanding the battle would require going beyond anything that had been published thus far.
: Why do you think it was important to write Failure in the Saddle?
DAP: Because how cavalry impacts battles is not well understood. Increasingly, Civil War scholarship is examining and appreciating the role of cavalry in the campaign setting. Once battle is joined, cavalry plays at best a peripheral role on the great fields of the war—but while the armies are maneuvering, the cavalry’s role is preeminent. Generals win the laurels for victory and bear the blame for defeat, but they can only be as good as their information allows them to be. Braxton Bragg is not a Great Captain, but it is clear that he was ill-served by his mounted arm in September 1863.
: On paper, the Confederate cavalry should have run rings around their Federal opponents during the Chickamauga campaign. Do you agree?
DAP: I do agree. Bragg’s cavalry had both the numbers and, on the face of it, competent—even storied—leadership. And yet the Federals kept the upper hand for most of the campaign. Bragg was repeatedly given bad information or none at all, and had to make critical decisions based on this intelligence. And so his plans miscarried over and over. Of course, other problems existed within the Army of Tennessee that made things worse, but we might think of Bragg differently today had his cavalry been up to the tasks assigned to it.
: How competent was Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans as an army commander?
DAP: In my opinion Rosecrans could easily have been in the top tier of generals (and enjoyed a successful political career) except for one or two flaws. He was an excellent organizer, trainer, and disciplinarian. He was a complex strategic thinker. He drafted ambitious plans that embraced wide maneuver and envelopments, and proved that he could execute these plans—most notably at Tullahoma. His physical courage and concern for his men made him wildly popular among the rank and file. And he was not afraid to fight his army.
However, he had a deaf ear politically, and displayed disregard, and even scorn, for his superiors. His relationship with them went downhill after his victory at Stone’s River and much of that was his own fault. He was not good at making do with what he had. He meddled on the battlefield. He interfered with his chain of command and failed to let his corps commanders exercise their responsibilities. These flaws, more than any battlefield defeat, doomed him.
: What did Rosecrans do right in the battle?
DAP: Once he understood the Confederates were not retreating and were planning to spring a trap of their own, he reacted quickly. Between September he gathered his scattered army and avoided the worst of the danger. When the battle began on the 19th he aggressively supported General Thomas, whose morning attacks disrupted the Rebel battle plan. He grasped the relative positions of the armies more quickly than did Bragg, and he kept looking for ways to find and turn one of Bragg’s flanks—and he nearly did a couple times.
: What mistakes did Rosecrans make once the battle got underway?
DAP: As the battle progressed, he placed too much emphasis on Thomas’ sector. He fed so many troops to Thomas that his other two corps commanders became almost superfluous. McCook and Crittenden were not budding Napoleons, but they were reasonably competent. By the morning of the 20th Rosecrans had bypassed them in his chain of command and was managing individual divisions. He did so poorly and with fatal results when the infamous gap opened in his lines at the Brotherton house. This occurred because he was overwhelmed with tactical details, had lost sight of the bigger picture, and had slept little over the past few days and not at all the night before. This lack of sleep seriously impacted his judgment. Of this I have no doubt.
: How competent was Gen. Braxton Bragg as an army commander?
DAP: On paper Bragg was an ideal commander. Like Rosecrans, he was a good disciplinarian, administrator, trainer, and strategist. He lacked the personal touch, however, and was often at odds with his subordinates. He was incapable of forging a group of individual officers into an effective command team, which proved to be his downfall. His army was rife with suspicion and discontent, an atmosphere that influenced even recent arrivals. As a result, his generals tended to pessimism and defeatism.
: Something even John Bell Hood discovered when he arrived on September 18 . . .
DAP: Exactly. Hood was stunned by the pessimism displayed by the officers fighting under Bragg. When he remarked to General Breckinridge that “we [will] rout the enemy the next day,” Breckinridge demonstrated surprise and jumped up and said he was “delighted to hear so.” Hood was from Lee’s Virginia army and accustomed to battlefield success. Bragg’s officers had no such expectations. The failure to inspire confidence in his officers and men is one of Bragg’s greatest failings as a general.
: Chickamauga is an important campaign rife with colorful characters, controversy, hard fighting, and politics. It has one of the best preserved battlefields in the world and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year. Why has it received so little attention?
DAP: The short answer is complexity. The battle is hard to understand, let alone write about. The battlefield is heavily timbered, and most authors are interested in the Eastern Theater. Few are willing to tackle the tangle of stories that make up the Chickamauga campaign. More works are being written today about Western battles, and this is good news for the study of the Civil War.
: Civilian and academic historians pay it scant attention, but the military takes the battle very seriously, right?
DAP: Yes. Among military officers, Chickamauga is one of the most widely studied battles of the Civil War. In the 1980s, the Command and General Staff School of the US Army selected Chickamauga as the main focus for their professional development course. Chickamauga has been studied by generations of soldiers from all over the world. A large number of unpublished but readily available theses from this course focus on specific aspects of the campaign from the point of view of professional officers.
: What would you like to see done next for Chickamauga?
DAP: A new full length study on the entire campaign. The last appeared in 1992 and there is ample room for a new perspective. I think there is room for a volume on each day of the battle, much as we have seen for Gettysburg. There are thousands of untapped archival sources. I believe an entirely new portrait of the battle can be drawn from this wealth of underused resources.
: What about Tullahoma?
DAP: A scholarly work on the Tullahoma Campaign is also overdue. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland executed this operation at the end of June 1863, and it was the forerunner to Rosecrans’ more ambitious undertaking against Chattanooga that fall. But there was no large battle during this operation, so it has been all but ignored. Understanding Tullahoma, especially with regard to logistics, is necessary in order to understand Chickamauga.
: Dave, thank you for your time.
DAP: My pleasure. I hope your readers will enjoy Chickamauga as much as I do.