Review: He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning by Paul Taylor

He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning: The Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly) September 1, 1862. Paul Taylor. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books (2003). 179 pp. 8 maps.

This is a review and summary of Paul Taylor’s He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning: The Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly) September 1, 1862. In this book, Taylor describes the small but fierce Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly), which occurred only two days after the Second Battle of Manassas, and the results and consequences of the battle. Taylor’s book is one of three books that have covered the battle of Ox Hill in the past five years. The others include David Welker’s Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly and Charles V. Mauro’s The Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill: A Monumental Storm). At first I was a little hesitant about buying this one because White Mane Books published it. White Mane has been known in the past to publish books that used questionable or non-existent research. In any event, I decided to give this one a chance based on its own merits. Taylor describes the Second Manassas Campaign prior to Chantilly in an introductory chapter, and then moves on to cover August 30-September 2 in the rest of the book, with an emphasis on the actual tactical maneuvers during the Battle of Ox Hill on September 1. The book is rather short at only 179 pages. There are 8 maps, with a good mix of strategic and tactical maps. However, the maps do not go into the level of detail I usually prefer. All in all, this was a fairly standard account of the battle. I believe a more definitive account can probably be written.

In the early chapters, Taylor covers the events leading up to the start of the battle. He gives a brief overview of the Second Manassas Campaign through the close of the Battle of Second Manassas on August 30, 1862. Pope and his Union Army of Virginia then retreated to the formidable fortifications surrounding Centreville. Lee and Jackson, as they had done earlier in the Campaign, decided to flank Pope on his right. Jackson marched north from the battlefield, and then took the Little River Turnpike ESE in an attempt to cut off the Federal retreat route somewhere near Germantown and Fairfax CH. Jackson’s men, tired from marching and fighting, hungry from the lack of food, and contending with a steady rain, marched poorly (for them anyway). The Union Cavalry at this time was almost completely broken down, so Pope had to rely on infantry units to try to find the Confederates. Jackson stopped at Ox Hill, several miles west of Germantown. Taylor mentions that he could have either attacked Germantown or he could have moved south to try to cut the Warrenton Pike, Pope’s main retreat route. Instead, he did neither. Taylor believes that Jackson and Lee had probably planned this halt if Jackson saw evidence of a Yankee buildup. His 15,000 men didn’t want to end up fighting the whole Union Army alone. Late in the day on August 31, “Jeb” Stuart shelled a Union wagon train along Warrenton Pike. Taylor believes this was a major mistake in that it alerted the Federals to a Confederate presence along Little River Turnpike. Regardless, on September 1, Pope did finally start concentrating some men in the Germantown area, and he sent IX Corps and III Corps north toward Ox Hill. This latter action resulted in the Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly).

An oversized fourth chapter describes in tactical detail the Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly). Isaac Stevens, ever aggressive, saw Confederate skirmishers south of Ox Hill in late afternoon on September 1 and assumed they were part of a massive Confederate advance moving south against the Union retreat route along Warrenton Pike. He decided to immediately launch a spoiling attack of his own to the north. Stevens’ small IX Corps division was stacked three brigades deep, and around 5 P.M., they managed to force Hays’ Louisiana Brigade from their defensive position along “The Salient”, but Stevens died with a bullet through his temple at the height of the charge. Early’s Brigade, marching east behind the lines to reinforce the Confederate left, moved forward to check Stevens’ progress, and the prior status quo was restored as a massive thunderstorm broke over the area. Also during this time elements of Ferrero’s IX Corps Brigade moved up on Stevens’ right in some woods, but they made no progress. Stevens’ Division retreated towards the Unfinished Railroad to the south to regroup, and Birney’s large Brigade of Kearny’s III Corps Division arrived on the battlefield. They attacked into a large cornfield just west of Stevens’ attack and faced numerous Confederate Brigades (including Branch, Pender, and Brockenbrough) for around an hour and a half. The wet weather made many muskets misfire, so there was a larger amount of hand-to-hand fighting at Chantilly than in almost any other battle of the war. Late in this fight, Kearny became concerned about Birney’s right flank (where Stevens’ Division had been before falling back). Kearny wandered near the Confederate lines in the darkness and was killed by a volley. Darkness, fatigue, and the rain all conspired to halt the fighting after dark.

The remaining chapters in the book deal with the aftermath of Chantilly. Thousands of Union wounded remained behind on the Manassas and Ox Hill battlefields. The Confederates, who were moving on to invade Maryland, could not provide for their needs. The Union authorities were slow in responding as well, and many men died as a result of neglect. Both sides claimed victory at Ox Hill, but Taylor believes it was “ a somewhat hollow tactical Union victory” because 6,000 Federals had fought nearly 15,000 Confederates to a draw. The Union retreat continued as elements of the fresh Union II Corps of the Army of the Potomac held off the Confederate Cavalry. McClellan was placed in charge of the now-combined Army of the Potomac and Army of Virginia, and Lee decided to invade the North. That invasion resulted in the Battle of Antietam.

Taylor’s narrative was easy to follow and he used a succinct style. I had no trouble following his meanings and the book is definitely not dry. The words of the participants are used from time to time as well. Taylor believes there was no clear-cut victor in the battle. He says that Lee’s objective was to destroy Pope’s Army, while Pope’s objective was simply to save that Army and defend Washington, D.C. Taylor concludes that the troop build-up at Germantown as well as the Battle of Chantilly to a lesser extent saved Washington from being captured. I don’t believe for a second that Washington was ever in any real danger. For one, Civil War armies were rarely ever “destroyed”, so Taylor assigns Lee a pretty tall task! Secondly, Pope had 95,000 men PFD on September 2, 1862, and there were troops in the Washington defenses as well, positioned securely behind fortifications. In the end, Taylor believes that “the battle of Ox Hill played no role in the final tactical outcome of the just-concluded (Manassas) campaign, save for the deaths of two of the Union army’s finest field generals”. I agree completely with that part of his assessment. This was a black day for the Army of the Potomac’s Officer Corps.

The book contains quite a few extras. In the Epilogue, Taylor describes the sad story of the loss of the Chantilly Battlefield to development. Suburbs now mark the area where Stevens and Kearny charged and died over 140 years ago. There is a small 4.5-acre park that contains monuments to Stevens and Kearny (and the generally accepted spot where Stevens fell). Unfortunately, this is all that remains of the battlefield. One good result of this debacle is that the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Preservation Trust) was formed to prevent this wholesale destruction of history from happening again. He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning also contains four appendices. The first two are brief biographies of Stevens and Kearny. The third deals with the “Kearny Cross”, a medal awarded for meritorious service, and the “Kearny Patch”, a red patch the soldiers of Kearny’s Division wore on their caps for recognition purposes within the Division. This extended after Kearny’s death into the Corps patches the Union Army developed for esprit de corps and identification. The last appendix contains the order of battle. It is fairly typical as far as orders of battle go. There are no unit strengths or casualty figures, and no regimental commanders are listed. The text takes up the first 142 pages of the book. Notes are listed from pages 143-159. Unlike in some other White Mane books, primary sources were definitely used here and used well. The text and the bibliography, which appears on pages 160-175, demonstrate that fact. The index follows on pages 176-179. The index seemed pretty short, but keep in mind the fact that the book was short overall.

There isn’t too much for wargamers in this one. It is a fairly standard, succinct retelling of the battle. It would prove useful as a secondary reference when used in conjunction with other books on Chantilly. The eight maps are okay, but they could have been better and more numerous. There are no topographical lines, and the only elevation shown is Ox Hill, which is denoted using hachures. The maps are black and white, with different shades of gray representing Confederate and Union troop placements. The troop placements could have gone into greater detail as well, especially on the Confederate side. Strength reports, always critical for a wargamer, are few and far between. Look elsewhere for Chantilly regimental strengths.

This was a solid but not spectacular account of the Battle of Ox Hill. I would by no means call this the definitive study on Chantilly. The length of the book alone prevents that. However, the battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath are clearly described in an engaging way. I don’t agree with all of the author’s opinions, but his three years of research and his bibliography show that those opinions were based on a careful study of many available resources. Anyone interested in the Second Manassas Campaign or Phil Kearny & Isaac Stevens will enjoy this book. I recommend it, but this is not the final word on the battle.

179 pp., 8 maps.

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3 responses to “Review: He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning by Paul Taylor”

  1. Paul Taylor Avatar

    Dear Mr. Schulte,

    Thank you for taking the time to present a thoughtful critique of my book on
    the 1862 battle of Ox Hill, also known on the Union side as the battle of
    Chantilly. It was routinely overlooked for 140 years until a trio of books
    on the engagement, mine included, were published within a sixteen month span
    in 2002- 2003. I do not know either of the other authors, Mr. David Welker
    or Mr. Charles Mauro, though apparently we all lived within a relatively few
    miles of what’s left of the battlefield and were members of the same
    roundtable. I’d like to imagine that the old adage “great minds think alike”
    was at work when each of us realized that this somewhat “lost” battle had
    never been given a book-length treatment and were therefore working on our
    respective manuscripts simultaneously though independently of each other!

    I’ve gone through all three books in detail and have concluded that each
    volume presents something of importance and interest not found in the other
    two. Mr. Welker does an excellent job of providing background biography on
    Generals Stevens and Kearny, which then dovetails nicely into his
    comprehensive presentation of the battle. Back out this background material
    and I believe you’ll find that Mr. Welker’s narrative of the Aug 31 – Sept 2
    timeframe is of comparable length to my own. On the other hand, Mr. Mauro’s
    96-page work presents a much shorter narrative of the battle at Chantilly
    that serves essentially as a backdrop for his stunning collection of
    high-altitude images and modern photographs that he took of the remaining
    battlefield and surrounding environs.

    Serious students of the battle that I know own all three works, in part for
    the reasons mentioned above. However, with regards to the actual recounting
    of this very brief engagement (3 to 4 hrs), I am uncertain that a more detailed,
    thorough account can or even needs to be written. Noted Civil War historian
    Dr. James Robertson echoed this belief in a review of my work in which he
    wrote that I had produced “as complete a history of Chantilly as we are
    likely to get and to need.” Further, as Mr. Welker and myself both point
    out, primary source material on this engagement is relatively scarce, as a
    good number of the major players were killed either at Ox Hill or sometime
    over the next two and a half weeks during the Antietam campaign. Longer does
    not necessarily equal better, as most book editors will point out. Of
    course, if a trove of heretofore undiscovered primary source material
    appears in the future pertaining to this battle, then I would have to
    reassess my position. Even still, I may very well be wrong and if such a
    work is written, I for one will be first in line to buy it!

    With regards to White Mane, I have recently learned of the serious
    criticisms leveled at them. I can only share my experience. This Ox Hill/
    Chantilly book was my second overall but the first that could be considered
    to be of a scholarly nature. To be candid, I chose White Mane over others
    mainly because I felt they had a solid distribution network and were well
    known within the Civil War book-buying public. Being a novice, I assumed
    that thorough copy-editing and checking of sources was part of the game
    at any publisher. In addition and at the very outset, they supplied me with
    an author’s guide that stipulated in detail that the notes and bibliography
    were to be laid out per Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. The lack of
    organization and detail in the bibliographies of several recent
    WM offerings that I’ve examined is therefore confusing.

    With my first book, I know that the publisher sent the ms. to a
    professional historian who read the ms. over to ensure essential
    accuracies. I do not know whether WM did this or not. I do know that in
    numerous instances, I had to supply White Mane with the appropriate
    “permission to use” letter before they would proceed with the publishing
    process. Such was the case with quite a few photos as well as the jacket
    painting. The maps were created by a White Mane staffer from my original
    ideas. All in all, my experience was a good one.

    Paul Taylor

  2. Brett Schulte Avatar

    Mr. Taylor,

    Thank you for writing the book. Since I started my Civil War books web site, I’ve been amazed at the number of authors who have contacted me after reading my reviews of their books. I appreciate your candid response to some of the minor criticisms in my review. I’m currently in the middle of _Tempest at Ox Hill_, and I am starting to realize the scarcity of materials available on the battle of Chantilly. It appears from your maps and those of Mr. Welker’s that the positions of individual regiments is simply not known on the Confederate side. I agree that without the lengthy biographies of Kearny and Stevens that your books are pretty similar in length. I found that your book was definitely not the typical White Mane effort, being both well-researched and well-written. Again, thanks for response. I always enjoy hearing from authors, especially those whose books I liked! I found your response very interesting and I plan to post it in its own blog entry (with your permission).

    Brett S.

  3. Paul Avatar

    Brett, no problemo… thanks again. Paul

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