Writing Battle above the Clouds
To date, I have written eleven books, co-authored one (Tullahoma) and contributed essays to two more. Most of that writing has been published by Savas Beatie, though I have also worked with Southern Illinois University Press, Louisiana University Press, and University of Tennessee Press. I’ve been very fortunate that, since Savas first took a chance of me in 2009 with The Maps of Chickamauga, there has been a steady stream of interest in my work. In the coming year, I should see at least one, and possibly two, more titles reach publication.
Every book has its own personality. The first five of my efforts all revolved around retelling the epic story of one battle—Chickamauga—that I felt lacked the attention it deserved. Since then, my writing has pursued other aspects of the war that especially interested me. My motivation requires a sense of bringing something new to the table: a different interpretation, a fresh perspective, or a new primary source. Lacking that sort of inspiration, writing becomes a chore, leaving me unlikely to finish. Of course, any author’s work is ultimately judged by the readers, not the writer; others will decide if I have succeeded, but I need at least that sense in order to keep moving on.
Moving on to describe the fighting for Chattanooga after the Federal defeat at Chickamauga was a logical progression. After all, by ending at Chickamauga, the story was only half-finished. The events that followed were equally dramatic, significant, and far-reaching. But there were already several other excellent single-volume narratives on Chattanooga, so at first, motivation flagged. What could I add?
However, my interest in telling rest of the story dovetailed nicely with the appearance of what is now the highly successful Emerging Civil War book series, combining readable, easily digestible narratives with the latest scholarship. Better yet, there had never been a volume focused solely on the Battle of Lookout Mountain—a lack long noted by the rangers and bookstore employees who work at the national military park, fielding near-daily questions from interested guests seeking that very thing. This lack struck me as the perfect motivational hook.
Additionally, I was fueled by Federal General Ulysses S. Grant’s trivializing attitude towards the battle—an engagement he dismissed as mere “poetry”—at the expense of the men in his army who achieved a very real and significant triumph. While Grant’s disdain was aimed at Union General Joseph Hooker—who often proved a difficult and bombastic subordinate—and not the men in the ranks, rivalries between commanders should not obscure the very real feats of the men who did the fighting and dying.
And, no matter what we might think of Joe Hooker, the capture of Lookout Mountain was a significant event. While the Confederates controlled its heights, the Union supply route into Chattanooga would never be wholly secure, nor could the rail line from Nashville be reopened. Thus, its capture could not be ignored, only postponed. Grant gambled that his attack against the northern end of Missionary Ridge, once it succeeded, would force the Confederates to abandon Lookout as a matter of course. Other Federal commanders, notably George Thomas, preferred not to take that chance. It is worth nothing that Grant’s original effort under William Sherman ultimately failed, (a fact often obscured by an even more dramatic and wholly serendipitous assault against the main part of Missionary Ridge) meaning that had matters rested there, Lookout might have remained in Rebel hands, requiring a direct assault in due course.
Researching Battle Above the Clouds was another attractive element: I could use much of the material I had already gathered for Chickamauga, nor did I need to delve as deeply into that material, since the series format called for shorter narratives, not deep dives. Here I learned an important lesson, one that writers re-learn every generation: succinct does not mean easier. Crafting Battle Above the Clouds required substantial editing and re-writing, all aimed at brevity without loss of content.
Perhaps the hardest single aspect of the book’s creation was not in the writing, however, but the images. I am by nature not an especially visual thinker. Identifying and selecting the images we intended to include in the book proved to be surprisingly difficult for me, especially since the series format relies heavily on integrating that imagery throughout the text. The fact is, I take lousy photos. The shadows are wrong, or I cut off part of the subject, or I somehow tilt the image—all things that drive editors to despair. Fortunately, I have friends who are not so inept, and who were more than willing to lend their expertise; the result was much more successful than if we had to rely solely on my skills.
Battle Above the Clouds was published four years ago, in 2017, though it hardly seems it. I thought it would be a fun project, as indeed it turned out to be; but it also taught me important lessons about the craft of writing, and how to do it well.
The Battle above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain
by David A. Powell
Savas Beatie, 2017
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.
Click here for the audiobook, read by Joseph A. Williams.