Book Review Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga by Eric J. Wittenberg

Pat Young

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Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga by Eric J. Wittenberg published by Savas Beattie (2018) Hardcover $29.95 Kindle $9.99
This wonderful book tells the story of two commanders of mounted brigades and their men at the Battle of Chickamauga. One of the two is known to nearly everyone who will read this review and the other is much less famous than his deeds would dictate. Col. Robert H. G. Minty and Col. John T. Wilder made determined stands at the river crossings during the opening hours of the battle that helped to save the Army of the Cumberland from a possibly catastrophic defeat.

In a battle which included many instances on both sides of petty bickering between generals while their men were dying, Minty and Wilder, without anyone above them providing overall coordination, cooperated without hesitation with one another and managed to hold off much larger forces of Confederates while their commanders, at least at first, ignored the valuable intelligence of a rebel buildup that they sent rearward.

About half of the Civil War volumes I read each year are "battle books." I rarely review them here because, while they have value for understanding particular fights, they often are drearily written and unimaginative. Holding the Line breaks out of that mold and is engaging and insightful. It presents the two commanders and their men, the events of the specific battle, and a primer on the use of cavalry and mounted infantry in the Civil War, all within a highly readable and concise narrative. Where information or explanations would break up the narrative, Wittenberg provides mini-biographies, asides on cavalry tactics, and specifications on weaponry in well-written footnotes that deserve to be read.

This review will appear over several posts.
 
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Pat Young

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Part 2:

Many of you have read Wittenberg's study of the outstanding delaying action of Brig. Gen. John Buford's men on the first day at Gettysburg. Wittenberg calls the work of Minty and Wilder in the opening hours at Chickamauga "equally magnificent" and he goes on to prove that claim. The difference, according to the author, is that while Buford knew that two corps were on their way to reinforce him if he could hold on long enough, Minty and Wilder had not such assurance. In fact, Minty's intel was not being properly regarded by his corps commander. And the odds against the two Union officers were even longer than those against Buford.

One paragraph in the book succinctly sums up the achievements of Minty and Wilder:

With only 973 officers and men and 2 pieces of artillery, Minty delayed the advance of 8,000 Confederate infantry at Reed’s Bridge across West Chickamauga Creek while a regiment and a half of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade held Alexander’s Bridge, two and a half miles downstream, against a like number of enemy infantry. Minty’s soldiers opened the battle of Chickamauga that morning, and they held for more than six hours against vast odds until they were finally flanked out of their position at Reed’s Bridge by Confederate infantry fording the Chickamauga downstream. Wilder’s men held on for about two hours until their stout resistance compelled Maj. Gen. William H. T. Walker to abandon further direct assaults on Alexander’s Bridge and to instead find a ford to flank both Wilder and Minty out of their positions. In the process, they used up an entire day and forced an extremely frustrated Bragg to alter dramatically his well-laid plan for the coming battle. That delay also bought sufficient time for Rosecrans to recognize the exposed and dangerous position his army was in and to begin the process of completely realigning the Army of the Cumberland...

The struggle of these two brigades finds an excellent storyteller in Eric Wittenberg.
 

Pat Young

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Part 3:

Robert Horatio George Minty was a 29 year old immigrant born in Westport, County Mayo, Ireland, when the Civil War began. He was of mixed Scottish and Anglo Irish ancestry.

I first heard of Minty when I toured the Chickamauga Battlefield with my wife Cecilia and my children in 2005. I went to Reed's Bridge and saw an interpretive marker describing the stand by the immigrant colonel. Little did I realize that almost a decade later I would write about him for my series The Immigrants' Civil War. Even so, I was interested in him as soon as I learned about his role in the battle.

Minty was the son of a soldier and he himself served in the British army as an ensign for five years. When illness force his resignation, Minty immigrated to Canada. He started a family in Windsor, Ontario and a couple of years before the Civil War began he moved across the river to Detroit. When war broke out, he was commissioned a major in the cavalry.

Minty, like many immigrants of his day, was of mixed and peripatetic ancestry, and himself had lived in several different nations before coming to the United States. He brought his prior military experience to his new position and showed a mastery of the art of the saber charge that would become the trademark of his brigade.

Of the Chickamauga pair, Wilder was the innovator bringing new tactics and weaponry into battle and Minty was the master of the most ancient cavalry weapon, the sword.
 

Eric Wittenberg

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Pat, I REALLY appreciate the kind words about my work, and I look forward to reading the rest of your review. I'm really pleased to hear that you enjoyed it and found some merit in it.
 

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Part 4:

General James Wilson, his last commander, characterized Minty as:

“an educated soldier of great intelligence and enterprise … [who] had gained the esteem of all who had served with him. Long before the close of the war his regiment had justly come to be regarded as one of the very best in the army. Young, natty, fair-haired, and debonair, Minty was a dandy cavalryman, or many hard knocks and not a few vicissitudes. As a man of military instincts and professional aptitudes, he naturally had his own ideas, and it was not strange that they did not always receive the approval of his less enterprising and less experienced superiors...At all events, they gave him the reputation of being headstrong and bumptious, but from the time he
fell under my command till the end of the war, he was in every respect a modest and obedient officer, an excellent disciplinarian, and as good a soldier as Murat himself. He needed but the continuous chances of war to become famous as the best Irish soldier of his day.”


Wittenberg offers a fine portrait of Minty, filled with observations from those soldiers who knew him best.
 

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Part 5:

John Wilder, like Minty, was no West Pointer. He was a civilian-turned-soldier who took the job of winning the war very seriously. Mounting his infantry on horseback and equipping them with seven shot Spencer Repeating Rifles, he created the justly famous Lightning Brigade. If Minty's men were the Saber Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland, Wilder's regiments denied being cavalry at all and carried no swords.

Wilder owned an iron foundry and was part of America's Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this gave him a taste for innovation. His technological adaptations and his embrace of tactics to fit the new weapons of the 1860s prepared his place in American military history. Wilder was a strong advocate for the adoption of the Spencer to replace the old muzzle-loaders that were the standard infantry weapon. Wilder wrote:

“The Spencer magazine rifle … was a most formidable weapon. I believe them to be the best arm for army use that I have seen. No line of men, who came within fifty yards of another force armed with the Spencer Repeating Rifles, can either get away alive, or reach them with a charge."

Coupled to Wilder was the artillery battery of Eli Lilly, a chemist and future pharmaceutical king.
 
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Georgia Sixth

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Sounds like a great book, Pat. Good review, too. I happen to be descended from some guys who happened to draw the lot of dueling with both these commanders frequently in 1863 in north Georgia and east Tennessee. They were members of...wait a minute, I'll think of it...oh, yeah! The Georgia Sixth cavalry. And at Chickamauga, they held the positions these commanders abandoned and fended off the opening infantry attacks (I think it was Brannan's division) on the 19th until the confederate infantry could come up.
 

major bill

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You need to bring some when you do you talk at the Ann Arbor Round Table, I expect some members will want one. I drive to Jackson Michigan often and was wondering in Minty's house still stood. I will have to look into that.
 

major bill

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So Eric if you are a cavalry guy you must have heard of my ancestor's nephew, who had my same last name, who was a cavalry man during the Civil War. Eugene Asa Carr (The Black-Bearded Cossack), admittedly after he won a MOH he was often an infantry division commander (BG and brevet MG) but was also a cavalry division commander. But before they Civil War he was cavalry and after the War he a cavalry regimental commander who fought in several Indian War battles.
 

Eric Wittenberg

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So Eric if you are a cavalry guy you must have heard of my ancestor's nephew, who had my same last name, who was a cavalry man during the Civil War. Eugene Asa Carr (The Black-Bearded Cossack), admittedly after he won a MOH he was often an infantry division commander (BG and brevet MG) but was also a cavalry division commander. But before they Civil War he was cavalry and after the War he a cavalry regimental commander who fought in several Indian War battles.
You bet, Bill.
 

Pat Young

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Part 6:

Minty and Wilder were among the first to the fighting at Chickamauga. Minty quickly concluded that he was facing newly arrived men from Longstreet's Corps. He then had the incredibly frustrating experience of trying to get Gen. Crittenden, his commander, to listen.

As you would expect, it is once the full-scale fighting begins that Eric Wittenberg's well-deserved reputation as the dean of cavalry writers is most realized. I have read two of Wittenberg's previous books and this latest volume is no disappointment in detailing the way mounted men fight. The author provides mini-seminars on cavalry tactics, lots of telling primary source materials, and detailed information on the movements of regiments and squadrons of men.
 

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Part 7:

Minty wrote later that when he learned that his tiny command was to work with Wilder's men:

“This was cheering news, for if I was in a tight place I would rather have Wilder, with his splendid brigade of mounted infantry, supporting me, than any brigade in the army. We had worked and fought together, and the two brigades had full and perfect confidence in each other.” The battle phase of the book is a story of two hard-pressed brigades that magnified their power by working in closer coordination than their enemies.

Minty did excellent work. Wittenberg puts his accomplishment in context:

Minty designed a delaying action that greatly resembled that used by John Buford on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg. Minty, however, had roughly one-third the number of men available to him that Buford had, meaning Minty faced an even more stern task than did Buford....

In his conclusion, Wittenberg writes:

Buford, with 2,900 troopers and the 6-gun battery of Lt. John H. Calef, held off Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s 10,000-man Confederate infantry division of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps for several hours on the morning of July 1, 1863. In addition to holding against Heth, Buford’s two brigades then had to stand against the Confederate infantry of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s 2nd Corps until sufficient infantry from the 1st and 11th Corps arrived in time to relieve his hard-pressed troopers, who were on the verge of running out of ammunition...
Minty and Wilder did not have the luxury of knowing the Army of the Cumberland’s infantry was coming to relieve them. Their delaying action was not designed or intended to trade space for time in the traditional sense—no Union forces were expected to arrive. Minty’s stand is particularly notable. With a mere 973 officers and men and two pieces of artillery, the Saber Brigade held off about 6,000 veteran Confederate infantry for the better part of 12 hours that dry, dusty September day. By contrast, Buford had three times as many men available to him to hinder the advance of the grayclad infantry at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863...Similarly, Wilder’s men used the combination of the depth of Chickamauga Creek at Alexander’s Bridge and the steep, muddy banks to hold off Walker’s corps for two hours that afternoon.


Minty and Wilder "completely frustrated Bragg’s plans for September 18 while giving Rosecrans an opportunity to take the steps he did to shift his army into a position where Bragg was no longer an imminent threat."
 



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