Civil War Book Review: The Rashness of That Hour by Robert Wynstra

by Fred Ray on January 9, 2011 · 1 comment

The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson
by Robert J. Wynstra


6×9, 360 pages, hardback, $32.95
32 photos, 6 maps
ISBN 9781932714883
Savas Beatie, December 2010

The “banners and bugles” regimental history has fallen out of favor lately in favor of a more socially oriented narrative emphasizing the origins of the unit. In The Rashness of That Hour Rob Wynstra takes a third perspective—that of the internal politics of a brigade of North Carolinians and how it affected their combat performance. Having been in several myself I can tell you that all armies are filled with ambitious, strong-willed men who desire recognition and promotion. The Confederate brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson was no exception. What distinguished good brigades from bad ones was how the leaders smoothed out the inevitable personal frictions with their own leadership. Some, like Joseph Kershaw and Robert Rodes, handled these problems well, led from the front, and were idolized by their men. Others, like Iverson, seemed to combine all the worst leadership traits. In his tenure as brigade commander Iverson managed not only to alienate most of the officers and men of his brigade but to display appallingly bad combat leadership as well, which led to the meaningless destruction of his brigade at Gettysburg.

Wynstra pieced together the politics of the brigade in large part by consulting the records of all its soldiers, a Herculean but ultimately rewarding task, since a huge amount of personal correspondence is scattered through the Compiled Service Records of various individuals. Officers were constantly sending missives to various army authorities complaining of poor treatment, personal slights, and the failure of their superiors to recognize their sterling qualities and recommend them for promotion. Most were not adverse to carrying their complaints to political authorities as well, who would then meddle in the army’s business. Some were more adept than others. One of the best stories is how Thomas M. Garrett, lawyer and a captain in the 5th North Carolina, deftly outmaneuvered both the Confederate War Department and his own acting regimental commander, Lieut. Col. Peter Sinclair, to take the colonelcy. Prewar politics played a part as well, with officers who had supported secession, such as Robert D. Johnston (Iverson’s eventual replacement) being favored over those like Garrett (killed at Spotsylvania still complaining about his failure to be promoted) who had not. While the fabled Army of Northern Virginia was portrayed after the war as being a selfless band of brothers it was anything but (as were all the armies of both sides), and it’s unfortunate that few historians have delved into this dysfunction in any depth.

As for Iverson, he was a Georgian who had “inherited” a Tarheel brigade based on his coastal service early in the war, and his out of state citizenship served to magnify any resentments against him. A former cavalry officer in the prewar army, Iverson was a strict disciplinarian who lacked the delicate touch needed for dealing with volunteers. His colonels, many of whom (like Garrett) wanted his job, were constantly intriguing behind his back for his replacement, and Iverson reciprocated by taking sides in regimental feuds. Even an unhappy brigade like this, however, might have pulled itself together in combat under competent leadership, but Iverson was unable to provide that either. He was wounded early in the war at Gaines’ Mill, which may have taken something out of him because he never again led from the front. His most egregious failure was at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, an event that Wynstra dissects in great detail. Iverson allowed his brigade to advance, without skirmishers, into a Federal deadfall that caused the death, wounding, or capture of 853 of his 1647 men. Some regiments, like the 20th and 23rd NC, were virtually wiped out. Iverson himself was well to the rear and made matters worse by accusing his men of surrendering without cause or even going over to the enemy. Even after much searching Wynstra was unable to determine exactly where Iverson was during the battle or what he was doing, although he does absolve him of charges of being drunk. Lee relieved the Georgian on July 10 but his political friends saved him from total disgrace, and he eventually ended up with a cavalry command in his native state. Although his command captured Gen. George Stoneman’s raiders, Iverson was missing again and the credit for the success went to Col. Charles Crews. His old brigade never forgave him. “Unwarned, unled as a brigade, went forward Iverson’s deserted band to its doom,” intoned the unit’s official history—a harsh judgement but one that Wynstra makes clear was fully justified.

While Wynstra’s an excellent writer non-specialists may find the first third of the book about brigade and regimental politics somewhat tedious. That said, he has in my opinion the best overall look at the missteps that hobbled Rodes’ division at Oak Hill on that July day and the positioning of its units. This will no doubt be expanded in his upcoming book on the operations of the entire division at Gettysburg. Wynstra makes good use of primary sources, cites a number of previously unpublished ones, and gets extra points for digging up photos of the young Iverson and many of his men. A bonus for researchers like myself is his precise breakdown of regimental strengths, including detailed units such as the sharpshooters and ambulance corps. The book itself is the high quality tome that we’ve come to expect from Savas Beatie.

Highly recommended for any student of Gettysburg, especially those who want to understand the events at Oak Hill on the first day of the battle.

Disclosure: I’ve never met Rob Wynstra but we’ve corresponded for some time about various Civil War topics, mainly sharpshooters. I did get a review copy gratis.


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