For three days in September, 1863 in northern Georgia two armies clashed in a brutal slugfest. The Battle of Chickamauga between William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland and Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee left in excess of 30,000 casualties, the bloodiest battle the Civil War’s Western Theater saw during the four-year conflict. It came as a shock to a North that had come accustomed to victory in 1863 at places like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma.
And yet, for all its drama, the Battle of Chickamauga has always seemed to get short-handed coverage, a surprising dearth of resources in lieu of the importance of the battle. That has changed with Dave Powell’s trilogy on the battle, which he continues with his second volume, The Chickamauga Campaign—Glory or the Grave: The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863 (2015).
Powell’s second volume picks up, quite literally, where his first volume ended. Starting with the midnight conferences of both commanders before the continuation of fighting on the last day of the battle, Powell then brings his reader through the hellacious combat, both analyzing the decisions made at the upper-tier of command and also swooping down into the firing lines that any fan of microtactical military history will love. For those who haven’t had a chance to read the first volume, Powell also includes a helpful prologue, quickly summarizing the campaign and the battle’s first two days to insure no one is left behind once he picks the narrative thread of the third day back up.
The fighting on September 20 was anything but orderly or neat, with the opposing armies seesawing through the confusing Georgian wilderness, but Powell’s narrative is one of the best out there to assist readers in understanding it all. Also very helpful are the book’s maps, copied from another of Powell’s projects, along with David Friedrichs, The Maps of Chickamauga (Savas Beatie, 2009); while reading Glory or the Grave I simultaneously had the corresponding pages of the Maps of Chickamauga open to further assist my understanding. Coming from a strictly Eastern Theater background, as I do, I found this a well-suited tactic.
Powell’s narrative of the third day of the battle includes plenty of coverage on the main controversy of the day, the moving of Federal Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood’s division out of line just before Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet launched his, arguably, best attack of the war. Powell also analyzes a factor of the battle that many not be aware of—when many people think of Maj. Gen. George Thomas, they think of him winning his nom de guerre—“The Rock of Chickamauga,” steadfastly holding the Federal left while the rest of the army crumbled away. But Powell’s coverage of Thomas’ actions on Sept. 20 shows a man perpetually worried about his own flank and who bombarded his superior William Rosecrans with requests for reinforcements, a move that subsequently stripped away the middle and right flank and which may have contributed as much to the Union line breaking as Wood moving out.
With the conclusion of his second volume, Powell’s remaining task is a third volume, one promising to tie-up the loose ends of the campaign and include a full bibliography, something left off of his previous volumes. By the time the project is finished, it is difficult to think of anyone else for generations coming up with a similar approach to the Chickamauga Campaign that comes even close to being as wholesome as Powell’s narrative. These volumes have, without a doubt, become the standard on the Battle of Chickamauga.
Dave A. Powell, The Chickamauga Campaign—Glory or the Grave: The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863
Savas Beatie, 2015.