Book Review: Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory

Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory. By Stuart D. Brandes. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2023. Hardcover, 318 pp. $50.00.

Reviewed by Gregory A. Mertz

During the spring of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln planned for all four of his largest Federal armies in the field to apply pressure at the same time on four different points – Richmond, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, and Knoxville. The advance on Richmond was derailed when the army under Joseph Hooker was defeated at Chancellorsville and the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee countered by heading up to Gettysburg, beginning the move to Pennsylvania on June 3, 1863. That same day, another element of the grand campaign for the spring was sidelined. Ambrose Burnside, with his Army of the Ohio received orders on that date to send his IX Corps to Vicksburg, where Ulysses S. Grant’s army was already besieging Vicksburg.

Burnside’s army was the force which had been designated to advance upon Knoxville, but with half of his army being diverted to Vicksburg, he did not have the strength to launch a military operation which would also require significant numbers of troops to protect a long supply train of wagons passing through difficult terrain. Instead, Burnside directed 1,300 of his cavalrymen under Col. William R. Sanders to launch a raid into eastern Tennessee and the Knoxville region.

While three books have been written on the Knoxville Campaign, author of Yankee Commandos, Stuart Brandes, infers that only one has done justice to Sanders’ Raid. Brandes demonstrated that this operation indeed deserves a volume of its own.

While the raid had military objectives that would harm the Confederates, it was also meant to lift the spirits of the loyal Unionists of East Tennessee living under the oppression of an occupying Confederate force. About half of the Federal raiders had lived in the areas covered by the raid, and were forced to be either conscripted by the Confederates or leave their families in territory under Confederate control and make their way to Federal lines to join the Union army.

Those blue clad cavalrymen not familiar with the region received critical help from Unionist civilians, including a teenage woman. The civilian story is an indispensable part of the narrative and is effectively weaved in with the military descriptions all through the book.

Sanders and other colorful figures add to the appeal of the story. His father had been friends with future Confederate President Jefferson Davis since they were boys. When William Sanders attended the U.S. Military Academy, and Superintendent Robert E. Lee felt that Sanders’ grades in French warranted that he be expelled from the academy, the final decision rested with the Secretary of War. Davis had only recently been appointed to that post. Davis expressed his disappointment in Sanders’ grades and demerits, but gave him a second chance with a short leash.

The raid entailed several controversial actions. For example, the Confederate commanding the Knoxville sector was Simon B. Buckner, who ordered brigade commander John W. Frazer to send a particular regiment to a location which might have been a serious problem for Sanders. Frazer was court martialed for his inaction. However the verbal order was sent to him via a Confederate staff officer with a thick Polish accent that was hard to understand, and the specified regiment that Frazer was to send was not even part of his brigade.

Conflicting accounts are associated with some prominent incidents, such as the death of Confederate sympathizing citizen Harvey Baker, which is the topic of an entire chapter in the book. Brandes concluded that Baker, who brandished a gun while wearing civilian clothing as a military engagement took place around him, was killed by the Federal soldiers “not only for what he did, but also for who he was.” (114)

Yankee Commandos is a well written book. The organization is logical, ample context is provided, explanations are clear, and supporting maps are included. Brandes’ writing style keeps the reader actively involved by piquing interest, and sprinkling in some humor. He wrote that a Federal intelligence officer who had interrogated a spy “had no reason to doubt the loyalty of his clandestine agent, because she was his own mother.” (29)

While Federal and Confederate accounts contradict on their assessments of the amount of damage caused by Sander’s Raid and the impact it had on the Confederacy, other results of the raid are easier to gauge. Buckner was convinced that Sanders’ Raid was a decoy meant to detract his attention away from a significant invasion by Burnside, aiding in the ability of the Federal cavalry to escape. Most importantly this raid epitomizes the importance of the service rendered to the Federal cause by Southern Unionists—both those in and out of uniform.


Greg Mertz earned a bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Administration at the University of Missouri and a master’s in Public Administration from Shippensburg University. He recently retired from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where he worked for 36 years — 27 of them as the Supervisory Historian, managing the park’s visitor services and training hundreds of seasonal employees, interns, and volunteers in the art of interpretation. His interests in public history and preservation include service in several organizations outside of his 40-year career with the National Park Service. Greg is the founding president and a current board member of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table and is the vice president of the Brandy Station Foundation. In addition, Greg is the author of Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, published by Savas Beatie in 2019.

2 Responses to Book Review: Yankee Commandos: How William P. Sanders Led a Cavalry Squadron Deep into Confederate Territory

  1. I got my copy on release day and really enjoyed it. Sander’s Raid and the preceding Carter Raid as well as Eastern Tennessee in general get overlooked today. During the war both sides were absolutely not overlooking that critical region and the book does a great job explaining why. Viewing the raid in tandem with events in the Tullahoma Campaign and Vicksburg also helped me appreciate its importance. It was great getting a full book on a raid I had only ever read a sentence or two about in the context of Fort Sanders/Longstreet’s Eastern Tennessee campaign. I do own a very thin book on Carter’s Raid, which I read before starting the one on Sanders, but maybe the success of this book could inspire someone to revisit it?

  2. Nice and insightful review, Greg. I also read the book and, like Roy above, found it rewarding to read. As to Roy’s comment on why this raid had not received more notoriety, I think it ending two weeks before Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg that it gets crowded out of the picture.

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