Dave Powell has been an acquaintance of mine for seven or eight years. I’ve had the pleasure to stomp the ground at Chickamauga, the Shenandoah Valley, and Shiloh with him and have enjoyed his company and expertise immensely. He’s what I call a “good guy”. He leads annual battle walks for the Chickamauga Study Group in conjunction with the NPS; hosts Chickamauga Blog; has authored numerous magazine articles on Gettysburg and Chickamauga; has designed award-winning board war games; and recently published The Maps of Chickamauga with Savas Beatie. His next book, Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign, is set for release on October 30, 2010. Dave took some time out from his very busy schedule to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.
DP: I run a courier company in the Chicago area, a family business with 30 or so employees. Outside of work, however, my main interest is military history – all kinds, but with a primary focus on the American Civil War. That interest was reinforced by attending that most Civil War of places, the Virginia Military Institute, from where I graduated with a BA in History in 1983. I have been a re-enactor, have designed more than a dozen boardgames on Civil War Battles, and read extensively on the subject. In addition to our Civil War, I am also interested in European Military history, including the 19th Century, WWI, and WWII. I have published articles in Gettysburg Magazine, North & South, and last year Savas Beatie published my first book, The Maps Of Chickamauga.
BR: You’re widely regarded as an expert on Chickamauga – what made you decide to make it a focus of your studies?
DP: I started on a familiar trajectory in civil war studies – the eastern theater, especially Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, for ten years or so, I attended (and sometimes led) annual tours and battle walks at Gettysburg. I started to write on the subject, but I soon realized that everyone else wanted to study and write about Gettysburg as well. In short, it was a crowded field, and I didn’t have much new to say on it. At the same time, I did a game on Chickamauga and noticed that almost no one was writing or studying that battle.
At first I explored the limited secondary literature on Chickamauga, but since there is so little of it, I soon worked through it all. I began to collect primary source accounts of the battle, especially unpublished material, and was soon making frequent research trips to various archives. Dr. William Glenn Robertson allowed me to tag along on one of his staff rides, and later opened his archival holdings for me; while James Ogden, the Historian at Chickamuaga-Chattanooga National Military Park allowed me equally free access to their holdings.
Within a few years, I had amassed a huge number of items. I had some 2000 different primary source accounts, both published and unpublished, with few of them getting much use. I wanted to put them to use, give them life again, as it were.
BR: The story of the performances of Forrest and Wheeler during the Chickamauga campaign is the subject of your new book, Failure in the Saddle. How did this study come about?
DP: Failure in the Saddle was really the first book I wrote, but not the first to be published. Cavalry historians have in recent years made a mark on the Civil War literary community, and I quickly saw how important the cavalry was to the success or failure of the Chickamauga campaign. As I worked on the maps project, I returned periodically to the cavalry project, adding new material or revising passages as needed. The pause improved the final product and helped me hone my focus on how to tell a difficult story.
BR: I agree with W. W. Averell (a First Bull Run vet you quote in the book) when he describes the principal roles of cavalry as scouting and screening, and I guess that’s why I’ve never been enamored of the popular image of “raiders” as successful cavalry commanders. Can you give us a brief explanation of how the failures of the Wizard and the War Child in these critical areas impacted the performance of the AoT in August and September, 1863 and beyond.
DP: Even during the war, spectacular raids grabbed the headlines and made stars out of successful raiders. This attention turned even the heads of many seasoned cavalrymen, but in reality few raids ever achieved significant results, more often they were more stunt than military strategy. The day-to-day work of scouting and screening, on the other hand, had a direct impact on many of the war’s battles, and cavalry operations should be viewed in that light. We tend to view commanders as either “winners” or “losers” often without understanding how information flow effected the decisions – good and bad – that determined outcomes.
Unfortunately for the Confederacy, and for Braxton Bragg, his two principal cavalry commanders during the Chickamauga Campaign failed to deliver critical information in a timely manner. Quite often, the information they provided was either wrong or fatally out of date. The poor quality of this information flow directly affected the quality of the decisions being made at headquarters. Bragg has received the lions’ share of the criticism, but some of that scrutiny really belongs at the level of his cavalry commanders.
BR: Given the traditionally positive light in which Forrest in particular has been viewed, what has been the early reaction to Failure in the Saddle? If it’s too soon to tell, from where do you anticipate incoming fire? Does Wheeler have similarly rabid supporters of his military record?
DP: So far, reaction has been positive, though I do expect that I will see complaints, especially from fans of Forrest. I think I strike a balanced view of the man, and I would like to point out that this period of the war saw Forrest rise very quickly from commanding a brigade of partisan raiders to corps command with conventional cavalry missions, something he had little previous experience in. It is not surprising that he or any general might need to gain experience in a new role.
Wheeler, with both conventional training and corps experience under his belt, has less excuse, but he also has fewer partisans – certainly nothing like the cadre of Forrest fans out there. I suspect any comment that comes my way will not be because I take Wheeler to task, though he receives the harshest assessment in Failure in the Saddle.
BR: Do you see in Failure in the Saddle an opportunity for Chickamauga micro-studies, similar to what we’ve seen over the years with Gettysburg?
DP: I certainly hope so. Steven Woodworth has just published an essay collection on Chickamauga, available through Southern Illinois Press, (I have a piece on Union Major General Negley) which explores aspects of the battle from several perspectives, and I know of another collection intended for publication in 2012. There’s another guy working on a history and tour of Snodgrass Hill/Horseshoe Ridge. The recent publication of the five-part series in Blue & Gray Magazine by Dr. Robertson only whets our appetite for a more complete study by him, and of course, I have other projects in mind.
BR: What’s next?
DP: I am working on four projects, with others waiting in the wings. First, I am doing a Maps of Chattanooga book, the natural follow-on to the first title that explores the October and November battles in similar detail. We hope to include Knoxville in that one, as well. Then, in lesser stages of completion, I want to do a book on Tullahoma, one of New Market (my VMI connection kicking in) and something on Tupelo, in 1864. Tullahoma and Tupelo have an obvious cavalry connection. The Tupelo work is part of a joint project with Eric Wittenberg to examine Nathan Bedford Forrest in more detail – Eric wants to look at Brice’s Crossroads, while I tackle the Tupelo battle a month later.
And of course, I cannot leave Chickamauga alone. I have been working on a very large study of the battle, not a map book but a fully detailed battle narrative. It has been nearly 20 years since a full-length study of the battle was published. I hope to present that work in two volumes, focusing on September 19th and 20th respectively, and use as many primary sources as I can. I have nearly 50% of that project done now, but no contract as of yet nor any projected completion date. It will take some time to finish, which is why I don’t count it as an “active” project listed above. It’s the labor of love I return to when I can.
Failure in the Saddle is set for publication this coming Saturday. I’m really looking forward to the ensuing debates!