This week I was excited to get my hands on The Chattanooga Campaign, a collection of essays released by Southern Illinois University Press on August 27, 2012. Since writing back in May about Walker’s division at Chattanooga, I have wanted to blog some more about the fighting at the north end of Missionary Ridge. So I skipped right to Chapters 3 and 4, both of which cover the action around Tunnel Hill. I feel that there is much that has been problematic about existing literature on the Battle of Chattanooga and I hold out hope for some better analysis to come along. So far the book is a mixed bag.
Chapter 3, “The Very Ground Seemed Alive”: Sherman’ Assault on the North End of Missionary Ridge by Steven E. Woodworth, was well written. After describing the events of the battle, Woodworth provides a couple pages of analysis as to why the assault was unsuccessful. Finally a historian has set aside the superficial commentary of the past and really looked at the actions and the terrain, finding that the “myth of Sherman blundering about … has no basis in reality.” There were a few things I would have liked to see Woodworth develop further. Woodworth describes Union landing parties capturing pickets along the river the morning of November 24th as well as other “Confederate pickets who scampered off toward the ridge.” Under whose command were these pickets? Woodworth claims that Sherman’s advance “went unobserved by the Confederates.” Yet Bragg was notified. By whom? What of the clash between the brigades of Giles Smith and Marcus Wright on the afternoon of the 24th? In general I think there has been inadequate discussion by historians of the actions of any Confederates in the vicinity not named Cleburne.
Chapter 4, Baptizing the Hills and Valleys: Cleburne’s Defense of Tunnel Hill by John R Lundberg, was disappointing. The description of events covered a lot of the same material as in the previous chapter and while consistency is a good thing, it seemed like too much space was used in going over well trod ground and too little was devoted to discussion or analysis. I also thought the map was poor and it was jarring when he referred to “Major General Martin L. Stevenson” when Stevenson’s first name was Carter. More significantly, the role of several units was overlooked — nothing about Marcus Wright; no mention of Lewis’ brigade; though Brown and Maney of Stevenson’s division make an appearance, there is no mention of Pettus; and other than Cummings’ brigade he doesn’t describe Walker’s division as involved at all. Finally, I am bothered by the casual assertion that Sherman had an overwhelming (8:1) numerical advantage. How was this determined? Because I don’t see it. On the morning of November 25 Sherman had three divisions with which to attack — those commanded by J Smith, M Smith and Ewing. The Confederate defense also consisted of three divisions — commanded by Cleburne, Walker and Stevenson. By my count, the forces were closely matched.
Moving on brought me to Chapter 5, What Happened On Orchard Knob? by Brooks D. Simpson. The professor hits this one out of the park. Right away he introduces the core problem — there is enough variation in the accounts by those present that day that it is impossible to make them all support one cohesive narrative of events. He then reviews what each of the primary accounts said, providing context about the authors and when they appeared in print. He goes a step further to consider some of the recent books on the battle and how their authors handle the problem. He concludes by presenting his synthesis of the sources, emphasizing what is not in dispute and expressing views on what is. In his last paragraph Simpson writes “Many readers of Civil War literature want narrators to simply tell them what happened, as if that act in itself does not involve some sort of selection and interpretation.” His approach exposed the selection and interpretation process which gives the reader greater insight than simply telling a version of events.
I may get to the other chapters another time.