Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: Storming the Heights by Matt Spruill

Storming the Heights: A Guide to the Battle of Chattanooga
By Matt Spruill, Maps by Lowell Forbes

Visiting Civil War battlefields to try to gain a sense of what happened there can often be tricky. Reading the signage and monument inscriptions only gives you the most basic information. Or as in the case of Chattanooga only a small part (or parts) of the battlefield have been preserved and the rest is obfuscated by urban sprawl. A good guide book can make the difference when visiting a Civil War battlefield. Matt Spruill has written just such a book, “Storming the Heights: A Guide to the Battle of Chattanooga.”

When people think of Civil War battles they tend to think in terms of one army attacking another army in one geographic place and the battle is usually over in one day. That indeed is true for some Civil War battles, but not all, especially not for Chattanooga. There isn’t one engagement that I could pinpoint and say “That is the Battle of Chattanooga.” In reality, however, there were several battles that took place around Chattanooga which culminated in the Union Army’s ability to break the Confederate siege lines around the city and the to Confederate Army’s retreat from those lines.

Beginning with the opening of a Federal supply line at Brown’s Ferry & Wauhatchi, then to the Battle for Lookout Mountain and ending with the Battle for Missionary Ridge Mr. Spruill guides us through these engagements. He has also included side trips to the Lookout Valley, the site of Fort Wood, Orchard Knob, Rossville Gap and Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Mr. Spruil takes us to the site of these engagements with turn by turn directions. There are several tour stops for each engagement. At each stop Mr. Spruill has included topographical maps overlaid with the Union and Confederate troop positions. He lets the participants relay what happened there by relying heavily on official reports. Both Union and Confederate sides are covered for each engagement.

In my opinion Mr. Spruill has leaned too heavily on the official reports for the story telling. I would have liked to read quotes from letters, journals and diaries of the common soldier alongside the official reports of the Union and Confederate officers.

The maps included in the book, drawn by Lowell Forbes, are also a bit problematical. Certainly I wish there were more of them (one can never have too many maps when studying a Civil War battle). I also would have liked to have seen at least a few of them include modern roads, which would be especially helpful when trying to follow Mr. Spruill’s turn by turn directions. Also the maps aren’t generally oriented so that north is at the top of the page, and Mr. Forbes did not include a directional indicator on any of the maps in the book.

That being said, “Storming the Heights” is an indispensable book for one studying the engagements during the Battles for Chattanooga, and touring its battlefield sites.

ISBN 1-57233-237-9, University of Tennessee Press, © 2006 - Softcover - 341 Pages - $21 Photographs and Maps, Appendices, Index

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