Review: Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles

Brent Nosworthy. Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles. New York: Basic Books (March 2008). 352 pages, notes, bibliography, index, 14 maps. ISBN: 978-1567923247 $27.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Some very good things can result when an author has extra material left over from a previous book.  Such is the case with Roll Call to Destiny, Brent Nosworthy’s worthy follow-up to his earlier work The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War.  In Roll Call, the author looks at varied and unconnected small unit actions from throughout the war from the soldiers’ perspective.  The ultimate goal is to give readers a “you are there” feel while also reinforcing Nosworthy’s conclusions from The Bloody Crucible of Courage.

Author Brent Nosworthy has a history of challenging conventional wisdom when it comes to the tactics used in Western armies from the time of Frederick the Great to the Civil War.  His “trilogy” on the subject consists of Anatomy of Victory: Battle Tactics, 1689-1763, With Musket, Cannon And Sword: Battle Tactics Of Napoleon And His Enemies, and the previously mentioned The Bloody Crucible of Courage.  In each book, Nosworthy finds some critics when he goes against what has been considered “fact” for decades and in some cases centuries.  While Roll Call to Destiny doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, it does build on the sometimes controversial findings from The Bloody Crucible of Courage.  One of these, the contention that the rifle musket did not have as large of an impact on tactics as previously thought, is echoed both by Earl Hess’ new book The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth and Paddy Griffith’s revolutionary (at the time it was released in the late 1980s) Battle Tactics of the Civil War.

The author covers quite a few small unit actions of varying types, each with lessons to be learned about Civil War era tactics.  He covers a variety of situations involving infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

Most of the chapters in the book dealt with infantry clashes.  Friendly fire and the confusion inherent in troops going into combat for the first time are two topics covered in the section on Burnside’s Brigade at First Bull Bun.  The Fifty-Seventh New York Infantry’s experience on the second day of the battle of Fair Oaks illustrates the difficulties encountered by large bodies of troops marching through the mud.  Nosworthy also contends that this was the first time Union infantry successfully stood toe to toe with their Confederate counterparts in the Eastern Theater.  The Siege of Knoxville in late 1863 and the ensuing disastrous assault on Fort Sanders showed the importance of accurate reconnaissance and digs into (no pun intended) the increasing phenomenon of the use of breastworks and other fortifications in even mobile campaigns.  Nosworthy believes the widespread use and effectiveness of wire entanglements and prepared defenses which started at Fort Sanders led directly its use in later campaigns such as Mine Run and Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.  Another interesting point was that the inaccuracy of Confederate shells at longer ranges was due to wobble from inferior manufacturing quality, a fact the Confederate leaders usually took into account while planning operations.  The last infantry versus infantry fight in Roll Call to Destiny involved the Second Minnesota Infantry and the famous Union assault on Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The spontaneous nature of the Union infantry assault after reaching the assigned objective of taking the Confederate advanced lines at the base of the ridge is looked at, as well as the poor position of the Confederate defenses.  One last point was that loose order formations advancing in a similar situation to closed order formations would typically take far fewer casualties.

In the first chapter dealing with the long arm, the author covered the experiences of the Washington Artillery on Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg.  The town itself could not be held for any considerable length of time by the Confederates due to the Union artillery on Stafford Heights.  Likewise, a Union assault against Marye’s Heights would likely be successful for the same reason, enemy artillery which covered the area in question.  The chapter on Arkansas Post dealt quite a bit with how the effectiveness of artillery fire from naval vessels against land-based artillery was extremely overrated.  In the end, says Nosworthy, Arkansas Post fell due to the extremely accurate fire of two Union 20lb Parrott rifles, while the Union gunboats were unable to find the range.  The main point from both of these chapters seems to be that with artillery fire, accuracy mattered far more than the volume of fire.

Two chapters in the book dealt manly with cavalry versus cavalry fights.  The first was at East Cavalry field on the third day of Gettysburg.  Nosworthy believes Custer’s Michigan Brigade received more credit than they deserved for the end result.  The main point to take away, however, is the author’s belief that cavalry charges during the war did not result in two opposing lines crashing into each other.  Most of the time one side or the other lost the will to fight and broke prior to contact.  The last chapter in the book covered the battle of Darbytown Road, an action during the latter stages of the Petersburg Campaign in which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attempted to recapture Fort Harrison and other fortifications lost in the autumn of 1864.  Colonel Alexander C. Haskell and his Seventh South Carolina Cavalry’s actions are covered in detail.  Haskell’s men successfully executed a sabre charge against Kautz’ Union cavalry brigade.  Sabre charges had been all but written off as obsolete at the beginning of the war, says Nosworthy, but the tactic continued to regain popularity until it became a key reason why Union cavalry gained tactical superiority over their Confederate counterparts by the end of the war.  Confederate cavalry tended to rely more on their firearms, and the relatively slow reloading times which resulted caused problems when those units were faced with a determined cavalry charge.

Scattered throughout the book were three brief sections entitled “tactical observations”.  These mini-chapters essentially reinforce Nosworthy’s conclusions from The Bloody Crucible of Courage.  His first contention is that actual ranges of firefights were quite a bit shorter than the theoretical ranges for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the need of soldiers to adjust a back sight on rifle muskets in order to accurately aim the weapons.  The second major observation dealt with the lack of actual casualties inflicted with the bayonet.  Bayonet charges, according to Nosworthy, usually ended when one side or the other lost the will to stand and subsequently fled without any actual hand to hand combat occurring.  The third and last tactical observation holds that the opinion of sabre charges and cavalry as a whole recovered nicely after initially being given short shrift as the Civil War began.

Nosworthy writes about the Civil War with a solid grasp of ALL Western tactics.  Too many authors write about the American Civil War in a vacuum, completely ignoring what was going on in the rest of the military world before, during, and after the Civil War.  It is refreshing, then, to read about European military minds and their effect on the tactics actually practiced during the Civil War.  Nosworthy’s mention of British Captain Lewis E. Nolan’s book on cavalry tactics and the value of the sabre is just one such example.  Roll Call to Destiny really works better when read after The Bloody Crucible of Courage.  The author even mentions these chapters were initially planned to be included in that volume but were cut due to space concerns.  Nosworthy’s desire to give a “you are there” feel succeeded quite well, although it could have been an even greater success if more attention had been paid by both the author and publisher to finding maps geared specifically to this text.  This is a minor though annoying defect of the book, as the reader will see later in this review in more detail.

I found Nosworthy’s conclusion to be the most revealing part of a pretty interesting book.  The author freely admits that no sweeping conclusion can be made from a book which deals with unconnected events.  Instead, he uses the conclusion as an opportunity to espouse his thoughts on Civil War historiography.  As was mentioned at the beginning of this review, Nosworthy is not one to sit on his hands and blindly accept conclusions drawn by historians who have gone before.  He believes too much of the “glorification” of the Civil War from the 1870s became accepted as fact, without any need for further study.  He cautions current historians to carefully evaluate even firsthand accounts, due to the nature of those who experienced an event to make their role larger and more important than it really was.  One statement in the conclusion made the author’s points nicely.  He writes, “The ease with which a patient researcher can come up with a new but justified interpretation of an already well-documented event, or be the first to plot what is still uncharted territory, is truly counterintuitive.”  Somewhere Dimitri Rotov is smiling.  Here we have an author who is never satisfied, who never stops digging for the truth, no matter how many “facts” are already known.  Sometimes first person accounts do not reconcile with each other or with the “facts” as they are already known.  The only small quibble I had here was Nosworthy’s mention of Gordon Rhea’s excellent series on the Overland Campaign.  The author refers to it here as a trilogy rather than a tetralogy and omits mention of Rhea’s work on Spotsylvania.  The bottom line is that despite the literally thousands of books which have already been written on the Civil War, the need for new interpretations of even well-known events can and will continue.

A book of this nature really needs decent, readable maps.  Unfortunately, poorly reproduced maps from the Library of Congress Online Map Collection were used instead.  A typical chapter in the book included a “campaign map” or two which gave a general overview at best and maybe the blueprints for a fortified position.  This is completely unacceptable for a book that focuses on specific small-unit actions.  The lack of even average maps substantially took away from my enjoyment of what was otherwise a good read.  Readers familiar with all of the engagements covered in Roll Call to Destiny should not have a problem following the text and visualizing what was happening.  Those who are not familiar with some actions may have trouble with those specific chapters.  The continuing trend in publishing is to save money on maps and illustrations, with few exceptions (Savas Beatie comes to mind).  Unfortunately it continues here.  A better solution, in this reviewer’s opinion, would have been to include the “campaign overview” maps as they appear, but to also scatter some more detailed maps, diagrams, and tables throughout the book in order to add value to the text.

The notes and sources in the book are naturally geared more towards first person accounts such as diaries and letters in order to give a “you are there” feel.  As always, the Official Records also form the backbone of the research done.

Roll Call to Destiny is a solid work marred only by the lack of even decent maps.  This effect causes the book to be a little less accessible to the reading public.    Nosworthy goes for a “you are there” approach and succeeds quite well with this in the text.  Readers will gain quite a bit more from Roll Call to Destiny after having read The Bloody Crucible of Courage.  In fact, I encourage readers to do so.  This book shows that cutting chapters due to size concerns is not always a great idea, as Nosworthy had quite a bit to add to his previous work with detailed, concrete examples on a small unit level.  Readers interested in detailed strategy and tactics and the evolution of warfare in the 19th Century will greatly enjoy Roll Call to Destiny.  Those new to the study of the Civil War may be better served with more background reading on the tactics and battles discussed here.

I would like to thank Paul Jackson and Elena Guzman at Basic Books.

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2 responses to “Review: Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles

  1. elektratig Avatar


    Just want you to know that I’m reading and enjoying the reviews. I read the Bloody Crucible a couple of years of ago, so it doesn’t surprise me that your review is positive. As always, keep up the good work, Dad!

  2. admin Avatar


    Thanks! I appreciate it. I get the feeling The Bloody Crucible of Courage is one of those books I’ll go back to every few years.


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