Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign
By David A. Powell
(April 2011 Civil War News)
Photos, maps, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index, 347 pp., 2010, Savas Beatie, www.savasbeatie.com, $34.95.
Gen. Braxton Bragg’s name often creates images of an eccentric, irascible and incompetent general who should never have commanded an army. Conversely, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler generate pictures of dashing, fearless, gallant cavalrymen.
Such simplistic generalizations lack careful analysis and are often spoken off hand without even attempting to explore their veracity.
David A. Powell has thoroughly stripped those stereotypical veneers off all three men and has objectively and fairly portrayed them, flaws and all, in this excellent book.
Bragg comes across as a complicated man who perhaps should not have commanded the Army of Tennessee. He tended to be short-sighted, not always capable of correctly assessing the strategic picture of a campaign as complicated as the Chickamauga Campaign. He did not improve his situation by elevating Forrest and Wheeler to corps command.
Forrest, an excellent raider fearless in combat, did not understand the role of a corps commander. He often needlessly exposed himself to danger and behaved as a divisional or brigade officer, the type of command to which he was better suited. A marauder at heart, he had no real grasp of the role of traditional cavalry operating with an army.
Wheeler, who had earned the sobriquet “Fightin’ Joe” on the frontier before the war, proved to be undisciplined and insubordinate. Bragg kept him in command because of Wheeler’s personal loyalty to him. As a general, he never grew beyond that of an undisciplined guerrilla.
Both men, besides providing Bragg with little intelligence about the movements of the Federal army, had to contend with less than stellar cavalry commands. The majority of their troopers were underfed, under-equipped, and very often as rowdy and insubordinate as their superior officers. Because of the lack of good leadership and discipline, they could not be used effectively against the better-equipped and better-officered Federal cavalry.
Besides thoroughly analyzing the Chickamauga Campaign, Powell’s book includes an excellent series of appendices. The first enumerates the Confederate cavalry’s strengths and losses. The second is an excellent driving tour of the campaign. The third is an official inspection report of Wheeler’s Corps that clearly demonstrates Wheeler’s lack of personal discipline had filtered down through the ranks.
Appendix four consists of a very careful analysis of a heated confrontation between Forrest and Bragg after the Chickamauga Campaign. It is an excellent example of how historians should approach many postwar recollections. The final appendix is an interview with the author.
Failure in the Saddle should be in every Civil War student’s library. A superb example of historical analysis that requires the reader to reassess popular beliefs about legendary officers and their campaigns, it belongs alongside works like Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered and Richard Sauers’ Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy.
Reviewer: John Michael Priest
John Michael Priest is a 30-year Civil War and U.S. history teacher in Washington County, Maryland, high schools. A member of Historical Miniature Wargaming Society, he is an avid 54mm wargamer--French and Indian War through the U. S. Civil War. He has written four Civil War books and has a manuscript under consideration at the University of Kentucky Press.