Archive for August, 2009


August 29, 2009

August has been a busy month for me personally, on the Chickamauga front.

I was asked recently to lead a staff ride for an active duty army unit at the end of September. This is going to be a four-day affair, which is unusual for a military staff ride, but I am thrilled to have the time to cover Chickamauga in detail. A day of classroom, two days on the field, and a wash-up on the ride home.

Military staff rides are quite different than tours for Round Tables or other historical groups. The unit will be less knowlegable or interested in the who-shot-who aspect of things, and more interested in questions of changing doctrine, combat decisions, leadership issues and the like. Since those questions interest me as well, I feel like I am a good fit for this kind of study. And Chickamauga has some very interesting things to say in these areas, especially concerning tactical innovation and evolving doctrine.

Plus it’s a government subcontracting gig, so it pays far more than what I would charge a round table.:) Gotta get more of these government jobs.

Immediately after that, the next weekend I get to lead an “unseen Chickamauga” Tour for Dave Woodbury’s new venture:

That’s a one-day trip, with limited seating. We’ll spend most of our time off the actual battlefield, chasing more remote historical sites in north Georgia. Small groups are often the most fun, because we can fit more in, and everyone gets a chance to voice opinions or ask questions. We’ll chase some cavalry fights, hunt up a few lost markers, and visit some units that rarely get noticed in standard tours.

In between the army tour and Dave’s stuff, I will spend a day or so at the park, scoping out tours for next March’s battle walks. (March 12-13, 2010.) Every spring I set up a series of terrain walks that examine different aspects of the battle. They’ve been well received so far, and I get to drag Jim Ogden out on the field with me, so they are usually a highlight of my ‘campaign season.’ We have some topics in mind, but nothing is firmed up yet, so I don’t want to announce the details of next year’s walks. That will come in October.

From October 23 to 25, I plan on attending the West Coast Civil War Round Table Conference on (wait for it) The Campaign for Chattanooga. The lineup of speakers is a who’s who of Chickamauga knowledge.

Short of getting all these guys out on the battlefield at once to hash out stuff, this is the next best thing, and I look forward to hearing all of these folks present their ideas. Several are also friends, and I look forward to seeing them after hours.

The book might well be out by then, as well, so I expect to mix in a little business, but most of this trip will be pure relaxation.

Martin, Part II

August 27, 2009

William Martin in 1910
In November, 1863, Wheeler’s Cavalry needed time to recover after the October Raid. They would not get that respite. Instead, they were dispatched to join Confederate General James Longstreet in East Tennessee, tasked to support his attempt to recapture Knoxville from Union control.

The Cavalry Corps was in turmoil during this time. Nathan Bedford Forrest was gone, transferred to Mississippi. Most of Forrest’s men had accompanied Wheeler on the October Raid, ‘temporarily’ loaned to Wheeler for the purpose. Then Bragg made the subordination permanent, and Forrest, who heartily disliked Wheeler, was outraged. Forrest renewed an old request to return to his native region – West Tennessee and northern Mississippi – in order to raise a cavalry corps to operate semi-independently against Union troops there. (This incident also sparked the legendary – and probably apocryphal – confrontation between Forrest and Bragg where Forrest called the latter a coward.) Forrest’s distaste for Wheeler carried through to his subordinates. It is reported that Brigadier General Frank Armstrong reported sick rather than accompany Wheeler into Middle Tennessee.

November 1863 proved a trial for the Rebel horsemen. The Knoxville Campaign went badly. Wheeler was recalled halfway through to join Bragg just in time to take part in the rout of Chattanooga on November 25th, leaving Martin in command of a rump command, nominally a corps in size, but numbering only about 5,000 men.

All of the old evils were present. Discipline problems abounded, with desertion and absenteeism hitting record levels. Longstreet, frustrated with his own failure to capture Knoxville, lashed out at various subordinates, including Martin. Martin was too young an inexperienced to control his men, lamented Longstreet, who blamed him for problems at Bean’s Station and Dandridge, in December, and for a badly managed action near Pigeon River in January, 1864. Finally, Longstreet requested Richmond to send him Wade Hampton as a replacement for Martin, stating that the cavalry “only wants a good leader to render it very efficient.”

Of course, Longstreet had fallings out with many subordinates at this time, and they each had rebuttals to his charges. Martin blamed his misfortunes on the mess he inherited from Wheeler: ill-disciplined troopers, broken down animals, and lack of decent company and field officers. Worse yet, charged Martin, Wheeler deliberately withheld both wagons and replacements needed to restore his command’s efficiency. This latter charge should have resonated with Longstreet, who similarly blamed Bragg for deliberately withholding wagons needed for his campaign.

Martin and the remnant of his corps finally returned to the Army of Tennessee in February, now led by Joe Johnston and encamped at Dalton. He also returned to Wheeler’s command, a position that had to grate. He reverted to divisional command, and the cavalry were recruited back up to reasonable strength by May, 1864. He served throughout the Atlanta Campaign, commanding another refugee from Lee’s Army – Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, who came home to command a brigade of Georgia State Cavalry in the wake of a disastrous first day at Gettysburg.

Service outside Atlanta was arduous, and eventually problems between Martin and Wheeler saw Martin leave the army. That August, as Wheeler was attempting to operate against Sherman’s supply line, things broke down completely between the two men. Wheeler was attempting to capture Dalton, Georgia, and counted on Martin to reinforce him. In what Wheeler thought was deliberate disobedience of a direct order, Martin never arrived, and Wheeler relieved him of command.

Martin finished the war back home in Natchez, commanding the District of Northwest Mississippi – a backwater theater by this stage of the war – and Martin saw no more active service. The war in Mississippi ended in May, 1865, with more of a whimper than a bang, and Martin returned to civilian life.

His post-war career was illustrious enough. He was active politically, helping to re-write the state of Mississippi’s constitution twice. He advocated outward co-operation with the Federals, in order to hasten an end to reconstruction. Privately, both as a lawyer and railroad executive he restored his finances, and held a plethora of civic and government posts, including postmaster of Natchez. He died in 1910.

In retrospect Martin’s transfer to the west, which initially opened the door to greater opportunity and fame, proved detrimental in the long run. He demonstrated clear talent as a soldier, and in 1863 he showed himself – along with Frank Armstrong of Forrest’s command – to be among the better cavalrymen in Bragg’s army. Had he stayed east, he might well have been one of the ‘young Turks’ that rose to divisional command under Lee. But he could not single-handedly overcome all the problems endemic to the western mounted arm, most especially the ill-discipline that marred so many western mounted units. Further, Wheeler’s continued presence commanding the Rebel cavalry in the Army of Tennessee for the last two years of the war proved to be a huge negative influence, one that greatly hamstrung Confederate operations and ill-served army commanders Bragg, Johnston, and Hood.

A shooting star: Brigadier General William T. Martin

August 24, 2009

Major General Joseph WheelerWilliam T. MartinPerhaps no general of the Civil War had a more meteoric rise…and fall…than William T. Martin. In December, 1862, Martin was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding a battalion of Mississippi Cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart; by November 1863 he was a Major General commanding a cavalry corps. Within another 10 months, in September 1864 he was relegated to a backwater departmental command in southern Mississippi, relieved of field command by Major General Joseph Wheeler for disobeying an order. War has ever been an avenue to fast promotion, and the cavalry has always favored youth, but few careers have ever had such ups and downs.

Martin was used to precocious achievement. Born in Kentucky in 1823, Martin studied law in Mississippi – where his family also had property – and became district attorney for Natchez by the time he was 22. Natchez was one of the more lawless and infamous places in the United States in the 1840’s: a den of iniquity seething with bars, prostitution, gambling, and rough-cut river men who saw fighting as just another evening’s entertainment. Practicing criminal law in Natchez required as much physical prowess as legal acumen. On one occasion Martin had a finger bitten off by an opponent in a brawl and on another, caned a man on a public street. Despite – or maybe because of – these physical altercations, Martin thrived as a lawyer, teacher, and rising citizen of Natchez.

Despite his initial Unionist leanings, in 1860 he helped form a company of militia cavalry, and contributed greatly to equipping them for war. Upon secession, the “Adams Troop” joined the Confederate army, with Martin in command. They were headed for Virginia, where Martin’s company was combined with several others to form a battalion of Mississippi Cavalry. Martin was promoted to major to command the new unit. The next step up came in January, 1862, when troops from several states were combined with Martin’s battalion into the Jeff Davis Legion, and again Martin was promoted to Lt. Col., assuming command.

He led the Legion through 1862. He accompanied J.E.B. Stuart on the first famous “ride around McClellan” outside Richmond and fought in all of Lee’s campaigns of that year, earning notice and praise. In December, President Davis selected him for promotion to Brigadier General – jumping a grade – to go west and take command of a brigade of Mississippi Cavalry.

Transfer west included greater potential opportunities. It also meant he was leaving a successful theater for one where the miasma of defeat seemed to hang in the air. Confederate cavalry organization in the west was especially chaotic: Martin had barely assumed command of his brigade before he was bumped up to divisional command that February; then back again in the spring to brigade command, and finally, returned to divisional command in May with the creation of new formation in Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps. At first he served under Major General Earl Van Dorn, but with Van Dorn’s death at the hands of the jealous Dr. Peters, Martin found himself under Wheeler.

Martin’s and Wheeler’s relationship was not a good one, though for the first year or so things remained superficially cordial. Part of the problem was that Wheeler was simply unfit for high command. He was a notoriously poor disciplinarian, a bad administrator, and a poor tactician to boot. His commands suffered from excessive straggling and desertion, often ran to lawlessness and looting, and in general neglected mundane but important duties like picketing and patrolling in favor of raiding. Wheeler also showed marked favoritism towards Brigadier General John A. Wharton’s division over Martin’s men.

When the Tullahoma campaign opened in June, 1863, Wheeler was caught unprepared, which left Braxton Bragg largely in the dark about Federal intentions. In late June, Wheeler’s corps guarded Bragg’s center and right flank while Forrest’s corps protected the Army of Tennessee’s left. With Union forces stirring, on June 22nd Wheeler decided to strip Martin’s division from it’s position on the far right, pass the whole force behind the Rebel army to join Forrest at Spring Hill, and then launch a raid on Rosecrans’ rear, threatening Nashville. It was an idiotic scheme. Rosecrans’ supply lines were too well protected for Wheeler to have any real impact, and worse, Martin’s departure meant that Bragg was now blind to any Union movements from the east – which is exactly where Rosecrans intended to outflank the Rebels. The result was near-disaster for the Army of Tennessee. Martin had little role to play in the critical phase of the campaign, since Wheeler’s orders to move to Spring Hill took him ‘off the map’ for two days. Worse yet, once at Spring Hill Martin had to immediately reverse course and rush to Shelbyville, to join in a desperate rear-guard action there.

July and August saw the Army of Tennessee settle in around Chattanooga. Once again Bragg arrayed his cavalry on either flank. This time Forrest took the right, guarding the Tennessee River up towards Knoxville, while Wheeler was assigned the left, downstream, with instructions to patrol deep into Alabama.

Wheeler barely played lip service to this order. Instead of deploying both divisions to cover 100 miles of front, he left only two regiments. The rest of the corps fell back to Alexandria, Alabama and Rome, Georgia, where they spent a pleasurable month stealing horses, racing them, and “living high on peach pie.” Not surprisingly, Rosecrans was again able to achieve surprise, outflanking Bragg’s main force at Chattanooga, and once again Martin’s men had to race to get back into position.

Martin’s command was the smallest of the four cavalry divisions in Bragg’s army, numbering about 2,500 men, but they managed credible service in mid-September. Once tasked with a job, Martin demonstrated that he could successfully operate an effective cavalry screen – it was his accurate and timely intelligence that alerted Bragg to the opportunity in McLemore’s Cove on September 11th, when Union Major General James S. Negley’s division advanced into that mountainous cul-de-sac on their way to Lafayette, Georgia. Martin then watched the opportunity slip away as subordinate infantry commanders bumbled and stumbled their way fearfully into the Cove. After the war, in a rare comment on his wartime experiences, Martin wrote an article for the Southern Historical Society Papers which defended Bragg, and added a scathing indictment of several of the other generals involved.

Martin’s men saw extensive service at Chickamauga. Here, also, Wheeler displayed an overt favoritism towards Wharton’s command that must have rankled. Each evening during the battle, Wheeler left Martin’s division to picket the army’s flank while Wharton’s men retired several miles to the rear to a comfortable camp. This odd decision meant that Martin’s men basically had to pull continuous duty for several days while Wharton’s troops rested after each day’s fight. Worse yet, by the end of the battle, Wharton’s camps were so far to the rear that the men had to travel several hours to and from the front lines each evening and morning, which greatly curtailed their effectiveness.

After Chickamauga, Martin’s division accompanied Wheeler on yet another wild ride – the famous “October Raid” aimed at curtailing Rosecrans’ already crippled supply situation in Chattanooga. After an initial success – destroying approximately 800 wagons on the north bank of the Tennessee River – Wheeler pressed on into Middle Tennessee. The raid ended badly, with Wheeler’s columns being pursued by numerous Federal troopers, suffering heavy losses, and wearing out thousands of badly needed horses. Martin’s men limped back into Alabama towards the end of October, their effectiveness greatly reduced by losses and crippled livestock.

To be continued…

General Willich’s Picture

August 17, 2009

This is more of a test post, to make sure I can do this without screwing it up.:)


Brigadier General August Willich, USA

Brigadier General August Willich, USA

Brigadier General August Willich

August 16, 2009

One reason to start Blogging is so I can talk about some of the more interesting lesser-known officers of the war. I thought I would start with one of the most colorful characters in either army:


Brigadier General August Willich was arguably the best brigadier in the 20th Corps and among the best in the Union army in 1863. A dedicated Communist; the fifty-three year old former Prussian army Lieutenant had forsaken his first career to pursue political reform, supporting himself through carpentry. He returned to command troops again during the European upheavals in 1848, this time against the government forces, subsequently fleeing to England in 1851. Friedrich Engels, who served as Willich’s adjutant, viewed Willich as the best soldier among the revolutionaries: “brave, cold-blooded, skilful, and of quick and sound perception in battle.”

Engels and his mentor Karl Marx were less enamored with Willich’s political views. All were dedicated socialists, but Willich disdained Marx’s more theoretical approach, as well as his university pedigrees and his liking for the swirl of English society. By contrast, Willich shared the adversities of the poor and espoused direct action. He was a firebrand even among the communists, and was known as the “reddest of the red.”  Marx and Willich formed rival political factions, and at one point the enmity between them proved so deep that Willich challenged Marx to a duel. Marx avoided the confrontation, but one of his younger followers provoked the hotheaded Willich and was challenged in turn. Willich wounded the man, which seemed to settle the matter of honor, but failed to heal the political rift. By the early 1850s Willich arrived in America, and after a stint as a carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, settled in Cincinnati where he edited a socialist newspaper. When the war came, his military experience and ardent anti-slavery leanings propelled him back into uniform. Initially joining the 9th Ohio, he was elected adjutant, drilling them into a crack regiment. In the fall of 1861 he left the 9th to raise another all-German unit, the 32nd Indiana, and instill the same standards of drill and discipline there. After earning distinction at Shiloh, he was promoted to Brigadier General in July, 1862.

            Willich next fought at Stone’s River, though his service there was brief: he was captured in the first minutes of the Confederate surprise assault in the early morning of December 31, 1862, while attempting to return to his brigade from divisional headquarters. His horse was shot, and he was quickly surrounded by Rebels. He was exchanged and returned to his command in the late spring of 1863.

            Willich might be an egalitarian – he addressed his soldiers as ‘citizen’ outside of formal duties – but he was also a first-rate soldier. He was said to handle a brigade with the same effectiveness that most men commanded a regiment, and, as divisional commander Johnson noted, he “was always in the right place, and by his individual daring rendered the country great service.” He was also a tactical innovator. He wanted to mount his men in wagons in order to increase their mobility, an idea rejected as impractical due to the shortage of transport; and he also developed an alternative infantry formation he called “Advance Firing,” which he incorporated into his brigade’s drill over the summer of 1863. “One great advantage…of brigade drills under General Willich,” wrote Alexis Cope of the Fifteenth Ohio “was that every movement was explained beforehand and directed to some definite purpose and object. We were to attack the enemy in some assumed position, or we were to be attacked…in front, flank, or rear, and were moved in such a manner as to meet the attack. By this method the drills were made interesting and instructive to every man in the command.”

            ‘Advance Firing’ was very different than any variation on the standard U.S. Army drills then in use – Hardee’s, Casey’s, Scott’s, or the like. In “Advance Firing” a regiment would divide into four ranks, with enough space between the men in each rank so that another man could pass between them. The front rank would fire, and immediately reload. The second rank quickly advanced five paces, fired, and started to reload. The third and fourth ranks would repeat the process, leapfrogging ahead each time. The result was a moving wall of fire, with 25% of the regiment loaded or firing at any given time, and volleys being delivered at roughly fifteen second intervals. It had the potential to be devastating against a standard battleline.

The origins of “Advance Firing” are obscure. Willich told fellow soldiers that he developed the idea – along with the wagon-borne infantry concept – while in Libby Prison. It probably was not an entirely new concept to him. The movement is similar to a Prussian light infantry tactic (apparently used for village combat) employed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, so it seems likely that he first encountered something like it while in German uniform. Whatever its origin, Willich first tested the technique in combat at Liberty Gap, in June 1863 during the Tullahoma Campaign. “Advance Firing” was used again at Chickamauga, again successfully, and not just by Willich’s men. More on that later…

General Rosecrans encouraged new ideas and innovation. He was a technical man, an inventor himself, and welcomed fresh thinking. If he did not actively endorse “Advance Firing,” he also did not discourage tactical innovations like Willich’s drill or Wilder’s mounted infantry scheme. When George H. Thomas replaced Rosecrans as head of the Army of the Cumberland, however, the technique was shelved, and Willich was strongly encouraged to return to more orthodox U.S. Army drill methods. Thomas proved to be a great commander and inspiring figure in the Union pantheon, but he was also more conservative in some things than was Rosecrans.

A shoulder wound at Resaca ended Willich’s field career, and he finished the war commanding a garrison post in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. However, in 1870 at the age of 60, he returned home to Prussia to offer his services to his native country in the war against the French – which were politely declined. This was an interesting offer from a man who had once led armies against that same state, but he had apparently unbent from his strict sense of idealism by then. He spent some time in Europe, even attending lectures given by Karl Marx in Berlin, and presumably renewing old acquaintances among his socialist brethren. Then he returned to St. Mary’s, Ohio, where he died in 1878, and was buried in a local cemetery. He never married, but was a regular fixture in St. Mary’s, much celebrated on parade days and always popular with the residents.

August 14, 2009

Hello again. Rule One – don’t get distracted…

Sorry for the delay. I intend to post about twice a week. But it is easy to take one’s eye off the ball.I have fallen behind here, for a couple of reasons, but I’m back now.

By day, I run a courier company in Chicago. And these are tough times for the courier business, I can assure you. In addition to the difficult economy, I do a lot of work with the mortgage industry, and I suspect everyone has heard more than enough about how bad things are there – needless to say, that hits my business directly. So I’ve been doing fun things like downsizing, restructuring, and the like. Hopefully, things will even out from here.

In June and July, I also spent a lot of time editing the final draft of The Maps of Chickamauga, due out from Savas-Beatie Publishing this fall. Along the way, I learned that I still don’t know my left from my right. I’m left-handed, and sometimes that side of my brain insists on seeing things differently from the majority of the world’s population. Time for the old “hayfoot, strawfoot” routine.

Despite having now read the damn thing about 47 times in a row, I am still excited about this book – a detailed atlas of the battle of Chickamauga that I hope will help part some of the curtain of obscurity that cloaks this battle. By some measures it is the second largest battle of the war; only Gettysburg tops it in casualties. And yet, very little has ever been written about it. Only two modern monographs have covered it in detail: Glenn Tucker’s “Chickamauga” dating from the Centennial period, and Peter Cozzens’ “This Terrible Sound,” written in 1992. There are some other campaign histories and tour guides, but compared to most battles, Chickamauga is ignored. While I don’t expect interest to match Gettysburg (whole shelving units have collapsed under the weight of the dead tree pulp expended on that fight) I do find it surprising that more has been written about Shiloh, Murfreesboro, and a host of other battles than about Chickamauga.

I think this is partly because Chickamauga is very hard to figure out. Much of the fighting occurred in the woods. Units were repeatedly flanked, and battle lines shifted confusingly over the course of the two day fight. The troops had little grasp of what happened, and most battlefield trampers have had the same problem. It is not an easy battle to unravel and make clear. More than one reader has told me that he found Cozzens’ work – which I regard as a very good account of the event – too confusing to follow.

Hopefully, mapping it out in this fashion (for samples of Chickamauga and other map studies in the series, visit ) will help readers understand the battle action much more easily.

Now I intend to start adding material here, to further enhance understanding of the battle and campaign. It should be fun.