- River of Death: The Chickamauga Campaign, Volume One: The Fall of Chattanooga by William Glenn Robertson
River of Death: The Chickamauga Campaign provides an exhaustive account of events preceding the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863), most notably the Union Army's capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee, on September 9, 1863. This is the first of two volumes that will analyze the Chickamauga Campaign. Volume Two will include a detailed examination of the Battle of Chickamauga. William Glenn Robertson has unearthed a mountain of archival and published source material, weaving an engaging story filled with biographical vignettes, strategic- and tactical-level explanations of command decisions, and descriptions of terrain, transportation, and weather. Civil War buffs will enjoy Robertson's narrative style that harkens back to traditional military history when battlefields were [End Page 83] the exclusive domain of generals. Civil War scholars, however, might be less enthusiastic about a battle narrative of more than 600 pages that devotes scant attention to themes—like a campaign's impact on civilian life—that are now commonplace features in contemporary military history. Popular audiences often criticize new military histories for placing the battle in a subordinate position to the larger societal items that influence a conflict's outcome and significance. Robertson's attempts to balance those competing analytical and narrative styles achieves mixed results.
Peter Cozzens's This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (Urbana, IL, 1992) remains the best single-volume history of this rare Confederate Army of Tennessee victory. Robertson devotes seventeen chapters to cover events that Cozzens summarizes in five. At times, popular and scholarly audiences might find Robertson's voluminous account rewarding. Robertson, for example, offers an excellent view of military operations in northeast Alabama that played a central part in determining the strategic options available to both armies. The author highlights the roles that Stevenson and Bridge-port, Alabama, served as transportation and supply centers. However, Robertson inexplicably ignores the campaign's impact on African Americans who found freedom in the Union camps established in northeast Alabama. Many of those freedpeople played instrumental roles in aiding the Union Army as scouts and guides helping federal troops navigate the area's mountain passes and network of poorly mapped roads. Likewise, Robertson missed opportunities to connect the campaign to the activities of northeast Alabama Unionists and guerrillas. Robertson's impressive archival research appears to be limited to records created by soldiers and armies. Without consulting the collections generated by the Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee state governments, especially executive department records, Robertson's analysis struggles to move beyond the limited perspectives of commanders and soldiers.
Like many traditional battlefield histories, Robertson devotes much of the book's argument and analysis evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign's various commanders. Assessing [End Page 84] the personality traits and behavioral flaws of historical agents is a mainstay of biographical narratives. Biographers often build their assessments on a relatively small and highly selective source base that, at its worst, is used to explain actions and behaviors using events or expressions of feelings handpicked from a character's prior experiences. At times, Robertson assumes the role of psychoanalyst, placing notable figures like Union General Thomas Crittenden and Confederate General Braxton Bragg on the couch. For example, Robertson explains Crittenden's indecisiveness and lackluster leadership skills as products stemming from a turbulent relationship with his father. A thin line connecting events that happened (or emotions felt) decades prior to 1863 is provided as evidence of the commander's wartime personality and decision-making capacity. The book's narrative style, albeit pleasing at times, contributes to these dubious links. In his quest to humanize military commanders and cast some characters as strong and others as weak, Robertson's efforts to produce entertaining prose leads to the adoption of literary tropes as explanatory evidence in the absence of primary source analysis. Unlike many traditional battlefield histories, however, Robertson does a better job of considering how a...