Archive for November, 2014

The First Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014

Missionary Ridge

On October 3rd, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “the last Thursday of November next” to be set aside as “a day of Thanksgiving.” Much has been said and written about Lincoln’s proclamation, no more need be said here.

That last Thursday of November – the 26th – proved especially memorable for the men of the Army of the Cumberland, at Chattanooga.

Since Chickamauga, the Cumberlanders had been trapped in Chattanooga, enduring almost constant rain, cold, and considerable hunger. Chattanooga was a sea of mud. Thousands of horses perished, rendering the army nearly immobile. Things improved somewhat in early November, when the Cracker Line opened and restored better rations to the troops, but for many soldiers that fall would remain their most miserable experience of army life.

All that changed in the days leading up to the first Thanksgiving. General Ulysses S. Grant, with all his forces now at hand, was at last ready to move against Braxton Bragg’s encircling Rebels.

On November 23rd, The Army of the Cumberland marched out onto the broad plain between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, some two miles distant. They were there to seize Orchard Knob and Indian Ridge, intermediate heights between the city and the ridge; lightly held as outposts by the Rebels. Facing 20,000 troops in full martial array, those 600 or so Confederates had little choice but to fall back, leaving the Knob in Union hands and fulfilling Grant’s expectations; mainly to provide a diversion for William T. Sherman’s crossing of the Tennessee River some 6 miles upstream, all with an eye towards striking Bragg’s right.

On the 24th, two days before the new holiday, the second part of the plan unfolded when Joseph T. Hooker’s men (newly arrived Easterners mainly, but with a good mix of Chickamauga veterans included) attacked and captured Lookout Mountain. This fight was short, successful, and dramatic enough for any theater critic. Most of the action was obscured by clouds, but at the last the Union flags floated above all, in full view of both armies.

November 25th dawned, clear and cold. The rains were gone. Sherman attacked the north end of Missionary Ridge, while Hooker moved off of Lookout towards the south end of the ridge. The bulk of the Army of the Cumberland, those same divisions who marched out to seize Orchard Knob, had no role in the coming fight. They were to watch, holding the center. Grant had no intention of sending 20,000 men to storm the main Rebel line on Missionary Ridge, which by all evidence looked impregnable. Better to let the flanking efforts lever Bragg into ruin and retreat.
Things did not go as planned. Sherman fumbled, Hooker took much longer than expected. In response, Grant ordered Thomas to make a “demonstration” against the foot of the ridge, merely to draw Bragg’s attention and keep the Rebels from reinforcing the fight against Sherman.

At 4:00 p.m., Four Union divisions advanced. They captured the first line of Confederate works at the foot of the ridge easily, for the Confederates were undermanned here. For weeks Bragg had been sending troops away from Chattanooga on other missions, decisions which now would come home to roost with a vengeance.

Holding on at the foot of the ridge, however, proved difficult. There was no cover. Rebels atop the ridge could fire right down into the new Union position. Besides, there were scores to settle.

Grant, Thomas, their staffs, and other Union commanders watched in amazement and no small amount of unease as those 20,000 Cumberlanders kept right on going. Flags and regiments were suddenly scrambling up the steep slopes. Orders sent to stop them went unheeded. Suddenly, the flags were at the crest, and the Confederates were breaking. It was victory. unplanned, but no less of one for all that. 40 cannon and more than 4,000 prisoners were taken. As far as the Army of the Cumberland was concerned, Chickamauga was redeemed.

November 26th, then, was a day of Thanksgiving indeed. The rest of the week was clear, the rains seemingly having been stopped on command. A 34 gun salute was fired from Orchard Knob, marking the day. Bragg’s army was in retreat, and being pursued. Even the losses had been comparatively light for such a signal success: 5,800 Federal casualties, of which 753 were killed, vastly better than the more than 16,000 who fell the previous September.

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In the bowels of the book factory…

November 18, 2014

Before you can read the books, the printer has to print the books. And, for some folks, I need to sign the books.

Here is a shot of my signing station:

Signing 2 (1)

For those of you who requested a signed copy, rest assured that all work here in the signing shop is lovingly hand-crafted in the old world tradition.

Let’s get the full ambiance, shall we?

Signing 2 (2)

Even as I type, the first books are already heading out across the country on their way to soon-to-be happy customers. I even have one book going to Norway! They must be Hans Heg fans…

Dave Powell

Opening shots

November 6, 2014

A couple of months ago, I was asked to read a book and provide a dustjacket comment. This is pretty common. Publishers (and authors) like to have other authorities endorse their work. It helps sell books, fills space on book jackets with supportive quotes, and add to the overall graphic appeal of the jacket. I’ve done a couple of these, and am always flattered to be asked.

The timing on this particular quote was tight, and I had to really cram to read the book. I feel honor-bound to read any book I review or endorse – that’s the right way to do it.

This one was a scramble, because it was going to press soon and they needed one more quote. I read each chapter, but my effort was more akin to speed reading than anything else. I liked the book, and I provided the needed quote.

Buford

That book is now available. It’s Eric Wittenberg’s new work on John Buford at Gettysburg, “The Devil’s To Pay,” by Savas-Beatie. Once I received a printed copy, I wanted to go back and read it again, this time for pleasure. I knew there was a great book there, and one I hadn’t fully had time to enjoy the first time around.

Now I am almost finished with it, and savoring every page.

“The Devil’s To Pay” is the culmination of decades of work on Wittenberg’s part. When I first met Eric years ago, it was at Gettysburg. He was studying John Buford and the Union cavalry in the Army of the Potomac. In the years since, he has become one of the leading chroniclers of that selfsame cavalry, recording their experiences across any number of Eastern Theater battlefields. But along the way, he always returned to Gettysburg.

This book is a joy to read, distilling all that work and knowledge into a fine tactical study. Since Buford’s stand on July 1 set the table for the entire battle to come, it deserves to be brought into the limelight. Eric Wittenberg has certainly accomplished that.

So why is this blog devoting attention to an obscure action fought outside a small, south-central Pennsylvania college town?

Simple. Because aside from “Devil” being an excellent read, any Chickamauga student will recognize the parallels between Buford’s fight on July 1, and that waged by Robert Minty and John T. Wilder on September 18, 1863.

The similarities to Minty’s fight are especially striking. Minty conducted a nearly perfect textbook example of what the modern military describes as a covering force action, and did so for many hours – from 11 am to 4 pm, a stand that was in fact longer and lonelier than Buford’s combat. In doing so, Minty and Wilder foiled Braxton Bragg’s offensive plans for September 18, and also alerted William Rosecrans to the need to change his own plans for the next day. Once again, a relatively limited action between small portions of two armies dictated the course of the main battle to come.

A few weeks past, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Eric and some other friends for a battlefield stomp – this time at Chickamauga. As you might have guessed, we focused on the cavalry. We explored Reed’s and Alexander’s Bridges, as well as places like Peavine Ridge and Peeler’s Mill. I got to show off my favorite park. We saw where the Civil War Trust has purchased important land at Reed’s Bridge, allowing for greatly expanded future interpretation of this fight in years to come.

4th US cavalry at Reed's Bridge

Over the course of that weekend, Eric mentioned the idea of writing a similar study on Minty and Wilder. I have long believed that the importance of the fighting on September 18 deserves such coverage, and also know that there is more than enough material to support such a work. While I cover Sept 18 in my own new book “A Mad Irregular Battle,” I simply couldn’t include all, or tell every story. There is more to mine here, and Eric is just the man to do it.

So here’s hoping that this project comes to fruition. One of my goals has always been to expand the Civil War community’s interest and understanding of Chickamauga. I suspect that an Eric Wittenberg study on September 18 would go a long way towards accomplishing those goals.

Books on the stoop!

November 5, 2014

Just a quick update, six cartons of books have hit my stoop. They are shipping from the printer. Larger orders (to places like Amazon fulfillment centers) start shipping tomorrow.