Interview: Powell & Wittenberg, “Tullahoma”

5 11 2020

I’ve known David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg now for a depressingly long time. I won’t go into their numerous publications, but you can find them on Dave’s and Eric’s Amazon author pages. There are a lot of them.

Dave and Eric have teamed up for a new book from Savas-Beatie on the 1863 prelude to Chickamauga, The Tullahoma Campaign: the Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 – July 4, 1863. They took some time to answer a few questions (I’ve interviewed Dave a couple of times, so you can get even more info on him in his most recent interview here – see, I get more page views this way).

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BR: Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourselves? 

DP: Just an update: I still live and work in the Chicago suburbs. Since we last talked, I merged my company with another local messenger service, which means I am still doing the same thing: running a specialized delivery service, just with a different title — Vice president of Airsped, Inc. In the history field, I have been very busy: publishing a book a year for about the past ten years. I write primarily on the Western Theater of the American Civil War, with a focus on the campaigns in Tennessee and Georgia, though I have written one monograph covering Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley.

EW: Thanks for asking, Harry. I’m a native Pennsylvanian, born in the Philadelphia suburbs and raised in a suburb of Reading. I have a BA from Dickinson College, an MA in international affairs from Pitt, and a law degree from Pitt (it was a four-year, dual degree program). After graduating from Pitt in 1987, I settled in Columbus, Ohio—I had to go where the job was—and am still here more than 33 years later. Once I finished law school and got out into the real world, I decided to try my hand at writing history since I wanted to challenge myself—I haven’t had a formal history class since 10th grade and am entirely self-taught. I found that I really liked doing so, and I’ve continued with it since my first attempt at it in 1991. Today, I am a partner in my own law firm, Cook, Sladoje & Wittenberg Co., L.P.A., where I manage our litigation practice. My wife Susan and our three golden retrievers live in Columbus.

Today, I serve on the board of directors of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and the Little Big Horn Associates, and I likewise serve as the program coordinator for the Chambersburg Civil War Seminars. I am also a member of Emerging Civil War, although it’s been quite a while since I last contributed anything. Battlefield preservation is one of my primary focuses.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences? 

DP: My dad was interested in the war and had numerous books on the subject. He owned both the American Heritage Illustrated History of the Civil War, for example, and Bruce Catton’s works. He took me to Gettysburg when I was eight, and I was hooked. I have been reading ever since, which translated into designing boardgames through much of the 1980s and 1990s, and later, to writing about the war.

EW: For me, it was a third-grade trip to Gettysburg. I was hooked by the end of the day. When my uncle heard that, he bought me Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, and I was off to the races. Catton, for obvious reasons, was (and still is) a major influence on me.

BR: How long have you two known each other?

DP: I met Eric in the mid 1990s, and what would prove to be the first of many annual events, the Gettysburg Discussion Group’s Spring Muster. We were at an impromptu evening tour of “Iverson’s Pits.” At that time, I was involved in a wargame company, not doing much writing beyond a few articles, while Eric was deeply interested in the Gettysburg cavalry story. We became fast friends, and I have since been on many tours with Eric.

EW: Dave and I met in 1996 thanks to the magic of the Internet. We were both members of the late, great, lamented Gettysburg Discussion Group, and we struck up a friendship that remains strong nearly a quarter of a century later. I suspect that, if we didn’t live so far apart, we would hang out often. As it is, we get together when we can.

BR: You’ve written Tullahoma together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work? How do your earlier solo works inform this book? Were there any unexpected benefits or difficulties

DP: I had some elements of an unfinished manuscript on the subject, a couple of chapters, really; and Eric had some stuff on Wilder and the Union Cavalry action at Shelbyville — his interest in cavalry, again. I wanted to finish this project, but never could quite make the time, until Eric proposed merging our stuff into a full-length campaign study. I was excited by the offer and said yes immediately.

My own work on Chickamauga of course carries echoes of the earlier Tullahoma campaign all through it. It is the most masterful of Rosecrans’s three offensive campaigns — Stones River, Tullahoma, and Chickamauga — and as such, it is hard to discuss Chickamauga without referring to what came before. So much of my research material bled over directly into the Tullahoma project as well.

The dual writing process proved very smooth. I think it is fair to say that neither Eric nor I carried big egos into this project. We were willing to accept each other’s editing and comments without pause, and each of us went over every chapter for continuity and style. As a result, I feel it really is a blend; we each wrote half the book and edited the other half to match. There were times when we had to do a fair bit of re-writing on one chapter, not so much for style, but because we were covering a big, detailed, complex operation; and narrative flow was critical to making sense of things.

Speaking for myself, I inevitably find things I would change when re-reading my own work. But having another writer along for the ride, smoothing out my own language, was a very real benefit. I think Tullahoma benefited a great deal from this partnership.

EW: I happen to enjoy doing collaborations with my friends. I find it to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I had been looking for a project that Dave and I could do together. I had already written an essay on the seizure of Hoover’s Gap by the Lightning Brigade and had started one on the Battle of Shelbyville for a failed collection of essays. I had even toured the sites associated with the Tullahoma Campaign about ten years ago when I was working on those two essays. My interest in these actions was piqued by my Chickamauga studies. I knew from prior conversations that Dave wanted to tackle Tullahoma, so it seemed like a natural fit, and Dave readily agreed when I suggested it. We then divided up the primary drafting responsibilities, and we both got busy. We each served as the primary author of certain chapters, with lots of input from the other. We then smoothed it out once a complete draft was done so that differences in style were not jarring. I think we succeeded, because nobody has yet identified the chapters that we each wrote as primary author, other than that I gave away two of them here.

BR: Why the Tullahoma Campaign?

DP: Again, because Chickamauga led me there. And because it is one of the most interesting major campaigns of the war, but lacks any major study examining it. The Civil War field is largely driven by battle narratives, with actual operational histories few and far between. Tullahoma’s lack of a climactic battle has led to it being ignored.

EW: My interests have long been drawn by obscure actions—the more obscure, the better. Because of the lack of casualties and the lack of a marquee battle, Tullahoma has long been the red-headed stepchild vis-à-vis Gettysburg and Vicksburg. I wanted to correct that. Tullahoma was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategic planning and execution that drove the Army of Tennessee out of Tennessee without a full-scale battle and with minimal losses. The fact that the high command of the Army of Tennessee puts the fun in dysfunctional makes it an even more interesting study.

BR: How would you characterize the popular notions of the Tullahoma Campaign, and how does your book conflict with that notion? Is there any merit to Rosecrans’s fear that a lack of casualties would result in a lack of appreciation for the accomplishment? Do you think the administration at its far remove grasped the operational difficulties facing Rosecrans?

DP: I joke that Tullahoma is the campaign that everyone has heard about, but no one really knows much of anything about it. Rosecrans’s fear that the campaign would be overlooked has certainly been borne out. However, that same lack of knowledge is also a small blessing, since our book fills a blank slate. The late 19th and early 20th century mythology that sprang up around so many battles (Just think, for example, of stuff like the Barlow—Gordon incident at Gettysburg) does not exist for Tullahoma. We had little to unlearn or refute.

As for the Lincoln administration not grasping the operational difficulties, that is true for not just Tullahoma, but Chickamauga and Chattanooga as well. In October, 1863, when Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs finally came west to help in the relief of Chattanooga, he recorded that he simply would not have believed the difficulty of the terrain unless he saw it for himself — a clear sign that the Washington authorities were beset by similar terrain blindness.

EW: Traditional notions seem to be that Tullahoma was, to borrow a phrase, a sideshow to the big shows at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. I believe that it was every bit as important as those two major victories, and that the combination of the three were the death knell of the Confederacy. Certainly, the lack of casualties meant that the newspapers weren’t going to give it the same coverage as Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and Stanton really didn’t like Rosecrans, who carped and complained a lot. Because of that, the Union high command tended to ignore a lot of what he said.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

DP: For my part, some of the chapters were written as much as fifteen years ago, though they all had to be revised before integrating them into the current book. Once we agreed to write, however, I think it took us about ten months. Given the publisher’s schedule, we had the chance to do some polishing after that, but I knew we were essentially done in late 2018.

EW: Dave had independently started on the introductory chapters before we decided to do this, and I had written Hoover’s Gap and part of Shelbyville, so some of it was done before we ever agreed to collaborate. That significantly shortened the writing process. It took us about a year to get the thing to a state where we felt it was ready to go to the publisher.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

DP: My earlier research really drove a lot of the book, since I had so many overlapping sources from my Chickamauga work, and I had been adding material while also researching for Atlanta. Eric had some great information, especially on Shelbyville, and of course, our friend Greg Biggs helped us immensely by providing a huge amount of material that he had collected on the subject. The Stones River National Battlefield gave me access to their files, so I was able to find some particularly good accounts there as well. Finally, the newspapers and older regimental histories are now so readily accessible online that huge amounts of material can be found at the click of a mouse. I am a subscriber to Newspapers.com, to Fold3.com, and to Ancestry.com — each provides useful avenues when I am running down details.

EW: Fortunately, I had all the research done on Hoover’s Gap and Shelbyville. Dave had a lot of stuff that he has accumulated over the years that is in PDF form, so he shared all of it with me. A fair amount of the newspaper stuff came from various online databases such as the Library of Congress and Newspapers.com. I also have a fair number of applicable sources, such as the Official Records, in hard copy form in my personal library.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DP: Very well. The book is drawing positive reviews on Amazon and other places, and it is selling well. It is a book club selection, is doing brisk business in digital form, and we have even gone into a quick reprint. I originally worried that the subject’s lack of a big battle to hang the narrative on might hinder sales, but so far that has not been a concern. It won’t sell like a Gettysburg title, but what else does? It is holding its own. I am delighted.

EW: Very well. I’m tickled by the reception. There was (and is) interest in this topic out there, and we filled a gap in the historiography that had needed to be filled for a long time.

BR: What’s next for you?

DP: I have just published another book: The Impulse of Victory: Grant at Chattanooga, have just completed the manuscript for The Critical Decisions at Shiloh, which should be out in 2021, and am returning to a project I have been researching for a while: a full length campaign study of Atlanta. I am sure there will be other stuff along the way.

EW: I’ve got a couple of other individual projects that are finished and in the production queue, including a study of cavalry actions leading up to the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 and a monograph on the Johnson-Gilmor Raid of July 1864. My friend Jim Hessler and I are working on a complete battlefield guide to the Battle of the Rosebud and Little Big Horn together. Other projects down the road include a monograph on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania/the Battle of Moorfield that will be a collaboration with Dan Welch, and a monograph on the Battle of Battery Wagner.


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