Pittman Jr. on Belcher, 'The Union Cavalry and the Chickamauga Campaign'

Dennis W. Belcher
Walter E. Pittman Jr.

Dennis W. Belcher. The Union Cavalry and the Chickamauga Campaign. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. Illustrations, tables, maps. 325 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7082-9.

Reviewed by Walter E. Pittman Jr. (Professor Emeritus, University of West Alabama) Published on H-CivWar (October, 2020) Commissioned by Susan N. Deily-Swearingen (University of New Hampshire)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53120

An area of relative neglect among the overly numerous Civil War studies has been the western theater and, in particular, Union cavalry operations there. Dennis W. Belcher undertook to correct this neglect in a series of books on the cavalry arm of the Army of the Cumberland: General David A. Stanley, USA: A Civil War Biography (2014), The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland (2016), The Cavalries at Stone’s River: An Analytical History (2017), and now The Union Cavalry and the Chickamauga Campaign (2018). Earlier general histories of the Chickamauga Campaign had treated the role of Union cavalry in the campaign superficially, as only incidental to the battle: Thomas L. Connelley, Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865 (1971), Glenn Tucker, Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West (1961), Stephen Woodworth, Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (1998), Peter Cozzens, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (1992), and others. Stephen S. Starr, in his monumental three-volume work, The Union Cavalry in the Civil War (1979, 1981, 1985) briefly sketches the Union cavalry employment at Chickamauga and its earlier evolution. The most influential study of the battle, including cavalry involvement, is the new three-volume work, The Chickamauga Campaign (2014-16), by David A. Powell.

Until 1863, Union cavalry forces were usually outnumbered and outfought by their Confederate opponents. In the western theater, the commanding general of the Army of the Cumberland, William S. Rosecrans, learned a hard lesson about cavalry during the Stone’s River Campaign. With his cavalry commander, David Stanley, Rosecrans set out in the first half of 1863 to build a cavalry force that could beat the rebel horsemen and make possible the invasion of the deeper South. By late June an enlarged and more effective cavalry wing of the Army of the Cumberland existed. The newly augmented force of horse soldiers were instrumental in Rosecrans’s successful and almost bloodless Tullahoma Campaign, which drove the Confederates out of Middle Tennessee. After a lengthy delay, which angered the Lincoln administration, Rosecrans had amassed supplies and strengthened his cavalry enough to feel confident to cross the Tennessee River and drive on to Chattanooga in September 1863.

General Braxton B. Bragg’s rebel Army of Tennessee was centered on Chattanooga. Rosecrans used his newly powerful cavalry to decoy Bragg into believing that the Army of the Cumberland intended to cross the Tennessee River northeast of the city and to attack the outnumbered Confederates from that direction. Instead, Rosecrans crossed the Tennessee southwest of Chattanooga. Here it was undefended due to serious command failure on the part of General Joe Wheeler commanding a division of Confederate cavalry responsible for that area. Attacking from the southwest, Rosecrans’s army threatened Bragg’s primary line of communication, the railroad to Atlanta. This forced Bragg to abandon Chattanooga when he belatedly discovered Rosecrans’s movements. Rosecrans hopefully pushed south and east hoping to trap a disheartened and outnumbered Confederate army before it could escape. Only Bragg was not beaten and he was not retreating. Instead, he was concentrating his forces around La Fayette and reinforcements were being rushed to him from all over the South. Most of an army corps was coming from Virginia (General James D. Longstreet’s First Corps) and troops were moving from Mississippi and elsewhere. Three lengthy mountain masses separated the Tennessee River from the valley through which the rebel railroad line ran. There were only a few narrow, widely separated, passes over the hills. Bragg was intending to assault the vulnerable individual Union corps with his massed army as they emerged from the passes of Sand and Lookout Mountains, too far apart to offer assistance to each other.

Rosecrans knew little of this, for his cavalry was not providing the necessary and customary reconnaissance for the army’s advance. He had been responsible for developing the Army of the Cumberland’s cavalry and it had fought effectively while operating independently in the Tullahoma Campaign. However, as the army approached Chattanooga, Rosecrans reverted to his earlier unsuccessful practices and parceled out cavalry units to individual infantry corps where they were more closely tied or else were assigned to secondary roles like guarding the army’s immense wagon trains, hospitals, headquarters, and supply dumps.

Confederate plans to concentrate attacks on individual Union army corps and crush them in turn failed because of the failure of Bragg’s subordinate commanders to follow his orders. Similarly, Rosecrans had plans to send most of his cavalry south on a raid toward Rome and cut the rebel railroad line and trap the retreating army. His plans failed because Stanley failed to follow his orders.

Gradually, as his infantry advanced, Rosecrans became aware of the Confederate threat and hurriedly massed his troops along the Chickamauga Creek, barely in time to avoid being crushed in detail. Bragg continued to try to attack and a bloody two-day (September 19-20) struggle ensued, resulting in thirty-six thousand casualties among the sixty-five thousand men of each side. On the second day of battle, a Union command error left a huge gap in Union lines through which Longstreet’s newly arrived veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia poured, collapsing the Army of the Cumberland. The defeated force fled to Chattanooga, their retreat covered by the heroics of General George Thomas’s Fourteenth Army Corps (the Rock of Chickamauga), which made a historic stand on Snodgrass Hill to allow the army to escape.

Union cavalry generally played an undistinguished but often useful role at Chickamauga. There were two remarkable exceptions. The First Brigade (Second Division) of Colonel Robert G. Minty played a key role in deceiving the Confederates into believing that the main Union thrust was coming from the northeast of Chattanooga by using truly imaginative techniques. Remaining on the northern edge of the battlefield, Minty’s men provided timely and accurate reconnaissance throughout the battle, which was ignored by higher command. It later helped to successfully cover the army’s retreat to Chattanooga. Colonel John T. Wilder’s Brigade of Mounted Infantry (not classified as cavalry until October) was a formidable force armed with repeating Spencer carbines. Wilder’s men also played a role in misleading the rebels to anticipate an advance northeast of Chattanooga. During the battle Wilder’s troops were used on several occasions as an emergency force to slow the Confederate advance or cover a retreat. But the most important role played by Union cavalry at Chickamauga was the defense of two bridges over the Chickamauga Creek, Reed’s and Alexander’s, by Wilder’s and Minty’s brigades in the face of the advancing Confederate army. Their heroic stands for nearly a day (September 18, 1863) bought the critical time needed by Rosecrans to concentrate his army ahead of the Confederate attacks.

Otherwise Union cavalry generally played a subsidiary role in the battle. General Stanley and his replacement, General Robert B. Mitchell, held the bulk of the cavalry corps inactive on the southern flank of the Union army. Many cavalry units were tied down elsewhere guarding unthreatened mountain passes, wagon trains, headquarters, supply bases, hospitals, and so on. Belcher considers this employment of Union cavalry to be a serious misuse of its combat power caused by Rosecrans’s ignorance of its proper usage. However, Belcher seems sympathetic to Stanley’s strong belief in the combat power of massed cavalry saber charges. It was not a widespread view among cavalrymen of either side then, or historians now, in the face of rifled weapons. Stanley’s men were successful in maintaining the security of the flanks and rear of the Union army in the face of General Joe Wheeler’s halfhearted forays. On the northern flank, General George Crook’s Second Division, including Minty’s brigade and usually Wilder’s, held their own against the redoubtable Confederate States army general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The Union Cavalry and the Chickamauga Campaign is an excellent contribution to the widespread literature of America’s greatest war. It is thoroughly researched, well written, tautly organized, and supplied with numerous applicable tables and photographs. One positive feature is the abundance of extremely well-made sequential maps of the campaign. It is basically an organizational history of the Union cavalry at Chickamauga. Short biographies of the leading Yankee cavalrymen are interlarded in the text where appropriate. As would be expected there is a great deal of repetition with Belcher’s other books on the cavalry. The primary influences on the author’s viewpoints are his knowledge of Stanley’s papers and Major John J. Londa’s MA thesis at the US Army Command and General Staff College.[1] A further influence is Powell’s Failure in the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign (2010), an analytical study of the Confederate cavalry and their commanders. Belcher uses the same approach as Powell and his conclusions are similar.

Belcher’s judgment is that the Union cavalry failed at Chickamauga in carrying out its basic functions of reconnaissance and battlefield employment. This is because, Belcher feels, Union commanders (particularly Rosecrans) did not understand cavalry operations and failed to employ cavalry units appropriately or to assign clear missions.


[1]. John J. Londa, “The Role of Union Cavalry during the Chickamauga Campaign” (MA thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1991).

Citation: Walter E. Pittman Jr. Review of Belcher, Dennis W., The Union Cavalry and the Chickamauga Campaign. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53120

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