Interview: Powell, “Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah”

12 02 2020

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I’ve interviewed long-time friend Dave Powell here before. His numerous books on the war in Tennessee and Georgia have been previewed on this site as well – search his name in the box in the right margin. Now, Powell has moved his pen to the Eastern theater of the war with Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, 1864, from Savas Beatie. Dave recently took some time to answer a few questions about his new work.


BR: Dave, you’ve done a Bull Runnings interview before, so our readers are familiar with you. Any updates you’d like to share? 

DAP: Just that I have been busy, extremely busy. I published two books in 2019, and I have two books coming out in 2020: a volume co-authored with Eric Wittenberg, on the Tullahoma Campaign; and a volume on Grant at Chattanooga for SIU Press’s The World of Ulysses S. Grant series. (). Both have been tremendous projects to work on, and I am excited that they are coming to fruition.

BR: You’ve made your bones in the Western Theater, especially the Chickamauga Campaign. Geographically at least, Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah is quite a departure for you, at least at this level. What prompted this shift? What are the overlaps?

DAP: I don’t see it as much of a departure, actually. Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah is a command study, and most of my other work fits that category. What drew me to the Shenandoah project – aside from the fact that I attended the Virginia Military Institute and hence, couldn’t really avoid New Market – is the lack of sober analysis on the Union side of the campaign and battle. There are good tactical studies of the battle, and considerable insight into Confederate thinking in May, 1864, but the Union role in the Valley has not really been subject to the same rigorous analysis.

BR: Can you describe Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah? 

DAP: Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah examines the 1864 Spring Valley Campaign from the Federal perspective. It sets the campaign in the framework of Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic concept, outlines both sides’ command problems and objectives, and examines the outcomes of various decisions up to and including the Battle of New Market, fought May 15, 1864. For a such small engagement (about 5,000 combatants on each side) New Market had an outsized impact on the subsequent campaign in Virginia.

BR: Union General Franz Sigel is central to the book, of course. Can you give us some background on him, his experience in Germany for example, and your ten cent assessment on his performance in the Valley?

DAP: Sigel is an interesting character. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I think most other descriptions of him reduce him to a cartoon; the bumbling, clueless European “political general” that is a stock character in Civil War literature. In fact, Sigel was a highly trained European soldier with both a professional education and real field experience, not only with German regular troops but also in leading raw revolutionary troops in 1848.

Certainly, however, he is a flawed character. His leadership and combat experiences in the American Civil War were uneven, to say the least; but he did perform competently at Pea Ridge and even Second Bull Run. He could be exceptionally stiff-necked in matters of what he viewed as his honor, but he also was willing to try and execute the orders he was issued to the best of his ability. I argue that this is what brought him to grief at New Market – he was doing his best to follow Grant’s intent, while other Union commanders didn’t execute their missions nearly as well. George Crook, for example, was supposed to capture Staunton. Instead, even after winning handily at Cloyd’s Mountain, Crook lost his nerve and retreated into West Virginia.
Sigel achieved most of what he was supposed to accomplish in the valley that spring. However, at New Market he let subordinates ignore his orders and draw him into a fight he neither wanted nor was prepared for: That was a blunder, and he paid the price.

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”?

DAP: This project was first intended for the History Press, with a publication date of 2014. The writing took most of 2013. In the end, they didn’t want it, so I offered it to Savas Beatie, who have published so many of my books. Theodore Savas liked it, and agreed to publish it. I took the first draft and revised it a bit, so it received considerable polish along the way, even prior to the official editorial process. As for knowing when it is “done,” I always know I am finished when, instead of making useful edits, I reach the stage of merely re-arranging words in sentences during re-write; whereupon I know it is time to let other folks get involved.
I knew I was going to write a book that challenged the conventional view of Franz Sigel. I did not expect to level much criticism at the Confederate commander, John C. Breckinridge, but I did in the end offer some critique of him, as well. I was also surprised at the amount of pro Sigel Federal sentiment in the ranks of his army. To date, he has been portrayed mainly by those critical of him, but even after the defeat at New Market, many of his soldiers were sorry to see him go. Some even thought he “saved” them from a worse disaster. That is not the traditional view of Sigel we gain from the extant literature.

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

DAP: I generally try for a very broad approach; I want to gather as many primary sources as possible, especially from the rank and file. And more and more, research is shifting to online access, as archives digitize large elements of their manuscript collections. I used several excellent online sources, including some very useful items from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America Newspaper site was very useful for ferreting out newspaper accounts. Still, most of the research was done the old-fashioned way, visiting archives and copying material. By far the single most useful repository was the Virginia Military Institute’s Preston Library, with its treasure trove of accounts on the battle, but the Western Reserve Historical Society, which holds a large collection of Sigel papers also proved invaluable. I copied nearly 100 pages from those papers, including some extremely useful day-to-day campaign commentary.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DAP: Very well. The book has received a number of very solid, very positive reviews; and I think it is selling decently for such a small topic. It’s always a struggle to find new ground on well-covered subjects, but I try and only tackle projects where I think I can do so, and I feel well satisfied with this one.

BR: What’s next for you?

DAP: I have begun writing on another very large project, a history of the Atlanta Campaign. I’ve been laying the research groundwork for this project for years, and frankly I probably now have more material than I can ever use. I expect the study to require multiple volumes – something like Gordon Rhea’s excellent Overland Campaign studies. While this might seem ambitious, I feel that Atlanta is very much a neglected subject, especially from the operational perspective, and I hope to be able to fill that void.

 





Previews: More from Savas Beatie

30 07 2019

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The good folks at Savas Beatie, prolific publishers of our peculiar predilection, have been busy this year. Over the past couple of months, they’ve cranked out a number of new books, and I think I’ve received most of them. Due to time restraints, I’ve provided titles, authors, and links for info and ordering.

 

 





Previews: Emerging Civil War

27 07 2019

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I apologize for the brevity of this, but I’m digging myself out of a hole and this seems to be the only practical way out. Over the past few months I’ve received five new entries in the Emerging Civil War series from Savas Beatie. Luckily, the titles are all self explanatory, so I’ll give you those, the authors, and links to ordering and other info. Not perfect, but my world is far from that.

“Let Us Die Like Men”: The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864, by William Lee White.

“All Hell Can’t Stop Them”: The Battles for Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge and Ringgold, November 24-27, 1863, by David A. Powell.

“Attack at Daylight and Whip Them”: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, by Gregory A. Mertz.

“The Most Desperate Acts of Gallantry”: George A. Custer in the Civil War, by Daniel T. Davis.

“Call Out the Cadets”: The Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864, by Sarah Kay Bierle

 





Preview: Powell, “Battle Above the Clouds”

3 07 2017

BattleClouds_LRGIf you’ve been reading Bull Runnings for a while, you know that I’ve previewed all of the titles in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War series. And you also know how these books work. Concise histories, lots of maps and illustrations, tough paperbacks, suitable for the field. The really interesting parts, to me anyway, are the appendices. So, for this newest publication, I’m going to give you the bare minimum, and flesh out those appendices for you.

Battle Above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain, October 16 – November 24, 1863, by David A. Powell

  • Foreword by William Lee White
  • Five page prelude
  • Narrative 107 pages
  • Six Hal Jespersen maps
  • Ten page driving tour 1 – Wheeler’s Raid and the Chattanooga Campaign, seven stops
  • Fourteen page driving tour 2 – Brown’s Ferry, Wauhatchie, and Lookout Mountain, nine stops
  • Appendix A: The Myth of the Cracker Line – Frank Varney
  • Appendix B: A Tale of Two Paintings – Powell
  • Appendix C: Civil War Tourism: Lookout Mountain – Powell
  • Orders of Battle
  • No footnotes, bibliography, or index in this volume

David A. Powell is a VMI graduate and author of numerous works and articles on the Chickamauga Campaign, most recently Barren Victory.

 





Preview: Powell, “The Chickamauga Campaign: Barren Victory”

24 09 2016

Layout 1The third and final volume of David A. Powell’s history of The Chickamauga Campaign – Barren Victory: The Retreat into Chattanooga, the Confederate Pursuit, and the Aftermath of Battle, September 21 to October 20, 1863, has been released by publisher Savas Beatie. (You can find my notes on the first two volumes here and here.)

This completes the most thorough history of the campaign to date. Volume III is a mixed bag, wrapping up the first two volumes and providing meat and potatoes statistics and research tidbits that all footnote readers will enjoy. The narrative portion of the book picks up on the morning of September 21, with both armies dealing with the immediate effects of defeat and victory. Three chapters follow both armies to the environs of Chattanooga. Two chapters discuss the costs and consequences of the campaign, and appendices deal with rear guard cavalry action in The Last Clash at Chickamauga and the relationship between William Rosecrans, James Garfield, and Charles Dana.

Then the fun begins. In a manner reminiscent of Joseph L. Harsh’s wonderful Sounding the Shallows, Powell offers the reader insight into both the numbers of the thing and the researching and writing process itself. Five appendices include: Union Order of Battle; Union Losses; Confederate Strength with Sources and Methodology (arranged in Order of Battle format); Confederate Losses (Powell provides the most detailed and complete look at Confederate numbers and losses to be found); and a Return for Polk’s Corps for October 22, 1863.

These are followed by a magnificent 85 page (!) bibliography. Powell’s extensive use of newspaper accounts from all points of the compass is impressively displayed. The different contemporary newspapers from which he drew number approximately 150!

The whole book is complimented with bottom of the page, detailed footnotes (with the exception of the Union OOB through Confederate Losses appendices which employ end-notes for purposes of style).

This is a great capstone to Powell’s take on the Chickamauga campaign (and let’s not forget his Campaign Atlas and his iconoclastic look at Confederate cavalry during this time, Failure in the Saddle). Don’t miss it.





Preview: Powell, “The Chickamauga Campaign: Glory or the Grave”

5 10 2015

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve at least heard about David A. Powell’s multi-volume study of the Chickamauga Campaign being published by Savas Beatie. In summary, this is what you want to do:

51mj2AQheYL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_A) Get Volume I (The Chickamauga Campaign – A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of the Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 – September 19, 1863, which has been out since last year.

B) Get The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863which has been out for, like, six years so you have no excuse.

C) Read them together, stopping in the map book when Volume I ends. I read the Atlas map section first, then the corresponding detailed narrative.

D) Then get the newly released The Chickamauga Campaign – Glory or the Grave: The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863.

E) Repeat C) above through to the end of Volume II.

F) Sit and wait for Volume III.

What is covered in Vol. II is apparent from the title. You get 708 (!) pages of narrative. Yes, just in Vol. II – Vol. I weighs in at 641 pp. Footnotes are at the bottom of each page. Plenty of maps (but you’ll still want to keep the Atlas nearby) and illustrations throughout. The OOB is in Vol. I. The bibliography will be in Vol. III. So, you see, you’ll need to buy all four books.

Are there problems? Some little, nitpicky ones that aren’t really worth mentioning and probably only bothersome to people like me who are more directionally challenged in their reading, and perhaps rely on maps a bit too much. And the weird misplaced word or punctuation that is omnipresent in publishing these days. Nothing to worry about – I think we just have to get used to that stuff.

This is the Chickamauga Campaign study. You need to read this. I’m finishing up Vol. I now (I had to take a break for some fiction – Andy Weir’s The Martian was fun, by the way – as my brain gets fried after 450 pages of anything.) I’ll be cracking Vol. II next, and I’m really looking forward to it.





CCNMP Study Group 2012 Seminar in the Woods

21 11 2011

I received the following from friend Dave Powell:

CCNMP Study Group 2012 Seminar in the Woods.

March 9-10, 2012

Friday: All Day, on bus: meet at 8:00 a.m. at the CCNMP visitor’s center

Friday Morning  – 21st Corps in the Chickamauga campaign.

By bus, we will explore the movements of the Union 21st Corps as it occupies Chattanooga and then advances on Ringgold between September 9th and 11th, 1863. Less studied than the more famous action in McLemore’s Cove, Major General Thomas L. Crittenden’s advance on Ringgold still posed a threat to Bragg’s rail connection, moving south along the Western and Atlantic while the main Rebel army was falling back to LaFayette. Actions at Graysville and Ringgold highlight this phase of the campaign.

Lunch: Since we will be close to the park for most of the day, we will arrange for lunch at a local restaurant, probably the Park Place, between Noon and 1 PM.

Friday Afternoon  – Retreating as fast as they can go? Thomas at Rossville, September 21, 1863.

By bus, we will explore the Union retreat from the battlefield on the night of September 20th, and examine the position Major General George Thomas adopted by dawn on September 21st. Far from fleeing in disorder, the Army of the Cumberland had largely re-organized and was ready for a fight on Monday morning. We will also discuss the various Confederate efforts at reconnaissance of this new Union position, and how successful those efforts were.

Saturday Morning, 8:30 a.m.: Horatio Van Cleve’s Division on September 19th, on foot.

Between about 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. on September 19th, two brigades of Van Cleve’s 3rd Division, 21st Corps, attempted to turn the Confederate flank in Brock field. After some initial success against Marcus Wright’s Tennessee Brigade (including Carnes’ Battery) however, Van Cleve’s men met with more Confederates under A.P. Stewart, producing a bloody slugfest in the woods. Eventually, the Federals themselves were outflanked by elements of Bushrod Johnson’s Rebels, resulting in a collapse of the Union line.

Car Caravan from the visitor’s Center.

Saturday Afternoon, 1:30 p.m.:  Thomas J. Wood and the Battle of Chickamauga, on foot.

No general is more controversial than Tom Wood. His actions on September 20th will be examined in detail, from his infamous movement out of Brotherton Field to his final position on Snodgrass Hill. Along the way we will discuss his culpability in creating the crisis of “the gap,” his relations with other officers in the army, and his contributions to the defense of Horseshoe Ridge.

Car Caravan from the visitor’s Center.

Optional: Sunday, March 18thAndersonville, with Frank Crawford – car caravan.

Frank has offered to take us down to the National Prisoner of War Museum and historic site at Andersonville. Andersonville lies about 2 hours drive southwest of Atlanta, or roughly four hours south of Chattanooga. While it is remote, that very isolation only adds to the impact of the park and cemetery. Those who wish to attend would drive down on Sunday morning, and spend midday at the park (plan on a couple of hours.) For the return, for those flying it would be best to fly into and out of Hartsfield, in Atlanta.

Cost: Beyond the fee for Friday’s Bus, there is no cost for tour participation. Meals lodging, transportation, and incidentals, however, are the individual’s responsibility.

Tour Departures: All tours will meet at the Chickamauga Visitor’s Center at the designated start time, and will depart from there after some brief overview discussion. We will board the bus or car caravan to the designated parking area, and from there, we will be on foot. We will be on foot for up to three hours, so dress and prepare accordingly. Tours will depart rain or shine. Participants are responsible for their own transportation, and should plan accordingly. All tours are designed to be self-contained, so participants who cannot attend the full schedule are still welcome to join us for any portion of the weekend.

Lodging and Meals: Everyone is responsible for their own lodging and meals. There are many hotels in the greater Chattanooga area, for any price range. The closest are in Fort Olgethorpe, Georgia, with the least expensive in Ringgold. Each tour is designed to leave at least 90 minutes for lunch, and there are several family and fast food restaurants within minutes of the battlefield. There are designated picnic areas near the Visitor’s Center, for those who wish to bring a lunch and eat on the field.

What to bring: Each tour will involve extensive walking. Proper clothing and especially footgear is essential. Dress in layers, wear sturdy, broken-in walking shoes or boots, and be prepared for some rain, as spring can be quite wet in North Georgia. We will be walking on dirt and gravel trails, uncut fields, and through stretches of woods. The ground will be wet and muddy in places. Bring your own water and snacks.

Reading up on the subject: Many people like to prepare in advance for these kinds of events. I suggest the following works might be of help.

Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound. University of Illinois, 1992. The best modern study of the battle.

Powell, David with Cartography by Dave Friedrichs, The Maps Of Chickamauga. Savas-Beatie, 2009.

Powell, David. Failure In The Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign. Savas-Beatie, 2010.

Woodworth, Stephen E. Six Armies In Tennessee: The Chickamauga And Chattanooga Campaigns. Lincoln, Nebraska. University of Nebraska Press, 1998. An excellent overview campaign study.

——————-, A Deep Steady Thunder: The Battle Of Chickamauga. Abilene, Texas. McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998. Concise but very useful account of the battle, designed as an introduction to the action. 100 pages, very readable.

Note: Friday’s Tours will be by Bus, as we move from site to site. While the tour itself is free, we do have to pay for the bus.

Pre-registration Fee: $35 Due by February 1st, 2011

Send to:

FRANK CRAWFORD

34664 ORANGE DRIVE

PINELLAS PARK, FLORIDA    33781

Frank will hold your payments. If you pay by check, note that Frank will not cash those checks until we have sufficient entries, so that if we have to refund, Frank will simply send your checks back to you.

Please also note that this fee is NON-REFUNDABLE after February 1st, 2011. Once we are committed to the bus, we will be charged the booking fee.

If you wish to attend the Sunday trip to Andersonville, please inform Frank at this time.

On-site Sign up Fee: $40

We MUST have 20 attendees registered and Paid by Feb 1st, or we cannot reserve the bus. Once we confirm the minimum, you will be able to join the tour the day we depart, for late add-ons. If we do not meet the minimum, we will car-caravan for Friday’s tours.

Final note: Last year we raised a sizable amount of money over and above the cost of the bus, and were able to contribute a number of new titles to the CCNMP research library, mostly regimental histories of recent vintage. The park currently does not have operating funds allocated for these kinds of acquisitions, and depends entirely on donations to fund library additions. I feel that this is an ideal use for any excess funds we raise, in keeping with the “study group” mission.