Book Review: “Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23—July 4, 1863”

When one thinks about June-July 1863, inevitably Gettysburg and Vicksburg come to mind. Between the bloodiest battle of the war and Federal forces gaining control of the Mississippi River, that is understandable. But in the shadows of those two giant clashes was a third campaign that saw Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland thoroughly outmaneuver rebel forces out of Middle Tennessee and nearly out of the state entirely.

But the Tullahoma Campaign, as Rosecrans’s movements came to be known, has never really gotten the credit it deserved. If anything, it garnered just passing mention in most histories of the Civil War. But now, because of the work of David Powell and Eric Wittenberg, that has changed.

Tullahoma starts in the wake of the Federal victory at Stones River, and Powell & Wittenberg thoroughly set the scene for the campaign to come. Part of that background involves the discussion of the deteriorating relationship between Rosecrans and Sec. of War Edwin Stanton, who grew impatient with Rosecrans not moving from Murfreesboro as the winter became spring. But as Powell & Wittenberg make clear, the Army of the Cumberland was plagued with a shortage of reliable cavalry, forcing Rosecrans to adapt and improvise. Part of that meant experimenting with mounted infantry, including John T. Wilder’s brigade, which would play its own important role in the Tullahoma Campaign.

Just as the Army of the Cumberland had its problems, so too did Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which remained the same as they did throughout the war, starting with a fragile, backstabbing command structure. The acerbic Braxton Bragg was made all the more disagreeable because his wife was ill before the campaign began, and Joseph Johnston hesitated to remove the army commander. That fraught command structure boded ill for the army’s ability to react to Rosecrans.

Once the campaign got started in late June, the authors excel at the both micro and macro level of troop movements. The detail presented in the text is paired nicely by 16 maps, all very well done by David Friedrichs, the same map maker who collaborated with Powell on the Maps of Chickamauaga.

For a campaign more famous for its maneuver than grand sweeping battles, Tullahoma did have its fair share of engagements, and those actions are covered in detail. Whether it is the battle at Liberty Gap, or Wilder’s Lightning Brigade showing its mettle at Hoover’s Gap, or Robert Minty’s famed saber charge at Shelbyville, Powell and Wittenberg are in their element describing and analyzing these actions.

With the campaign’s conclusion, the two authors provide a denouement by examining its place in history, and how Tullahoma served as a jumping-off point for the battles around Chickamauaga and Chattanooga. They also look into how it was possible that Braxton Bragg was so thoroughly out-maneuvered by Rosecrans’s Federals. Most of that blame, as Powell and Wittenberg make clear, rests with the dysfunctional Confederate command, especially in the cavalry. Though the Confederate horsemen outnumbered their Federal counterpart, the leadership of people like John H. Morgan, Joseph Wheeler, and even Nathan B. Forrest proved sorely lacking. Morgan’s raid into Ohio, though it was done with dash and elan, proved to significantly weaken the Army of Tennessee’s ability to counter the Army of Cumberland. Joseph Wheeler, in the words of Powell & Wittenberg, “while brave, simply was not competent to command a large corps of cavalry” (353). Forrest’s personal dislike of Wheeler and refusal to work with him further plagued the army. As the campaign of movement got underway, Bragg was left all-but-blind and had to rely on civilian sources of information more than the traditional cavalry reconnaissance. Far from being the mythological best cavalry commander of the war, Forrest let his commander, army, and cause down.

So why did Rosecrans not accomplish more? In the face of near incompetence, why wasn’t Rosecrans able to squash the Confederate army? Once again, Powell and Wittenberg deploy their analytical skills to examine how the poor weather (mainly a near constant rain) mitigated the Federal army far more than their Confederate counterparts could. And yet even then, as the authors conclude, the Tullahoma Campaign “was a masterpiece of organization, logistics, deception, and maneuver, and it will stand as William Rosecrans’s most impressive military achievement” (356).

So while the Tullahoma Campaign has been left behind in the shadows for far too long, this book serves as a well-needed countermeasure to bring its movements to light. The book is well worth a read, and is a must for anyone seeking to research the Western Theatre.

David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg, Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23—July 4, 1863
Savas Beatie, 2020
395 pages. Footnotes, bibliography, index

5 Responses to Book Review: “Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23—July 4, 1863”

  1. Powell & Wittenberg’s Tullahoma Campaign book belongs on your bookshelf. Tullahoma was a true strategic victory. It was the logistic muscle that Rosecrans built up to traverse 100 miles of hostile territory that made the Chattanooga victory, Atlanta Campaign & the March to the Sea possible. It is no exaggeration to say that the Civil War as we know it could not have happened without that campaign.
    The Battle of Gettysburg took place 41 miles into Pennsylvania. The front held by the Armies of Tennessee & the Cumberland was 70 miles from flank to flank on 23rd of July when the Tullahoma Campaign began.In order to be in position Wilder’s Brigade had to leave the western flank near Franklin & ride 50 miles eastward. Unlike Lee, Rosecrans’ goal was conquest, not just a raid. To achieve that goal, the Army of the Cumberland’s list of innovations & how they were implemented was an integral part of the planning.
    Powell & Wittenberg show how the planning made the Cumberlander’s combat victories possible. On the other hand, they clearly demonstrate that the disfunction at the top of Army of Tennessee was even worse than I ever thought possible… which is saying something.
    Powell & Wittenberg’s depictions of the fighting at Shelbyville, Hoover’s Gap & Liberty Gap that broke Bragg’s control of Middle Tennessee are vivid. All three battlefields can be visited on a driving tour. The landscape is largely undisturbed & book in hand, you can easily understand how & why the unique landscape of the Highland Plateau played such a commanding part in the campaign.

    1. I enthusiastically second the recommendation. This book is authored by the Civil War equivalent of an all-star double-play combination.

  2. There is always a bad joke hidden in any story of Tullahoma:

    Q: Why didn’t Rosecrans destroy Bragg’s army?

    A: Because Bragg retreated too far and too fast.

    There is merit to the gibe, but—valid as it might be—it misses the point. Bragg *had* to retreat far because WSR’s moves put his entire army at risk. There was no place to make a stand. Bragg *had* to act to defend Chattanooga (amusing to see a CS general constricted by the necessity of defending a city, after so many AotP commanders failed trying to win in the field while defending Washington; but I digress). Rosecrans made his share of mistakes—all generals do—and some of his short-comings cost him his command and perhaps his reputation. But Tullahoma was a gem of a campaign.

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