Review by Ian Mitchell. The Forgotten Fury: The Battle of Piedmont by Scott Patchan (Sergeant Kirklands Museum 1996) 243 pages with maps
A newer and updated version of this book has since been published: The Battle of Piedmont and Hunter’s Raid on Staunton by Scott Patchan (The History Press, 2011) 190 pages with maps.
By writing Forgotten Fury in 1996, Scott Patchan has helped fill a significant gap in the historiography of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and also a serious gap in my knowledge. The original book is not easy to obtain but fortunately it has now been updated and republished with a new title shown above which is much easier and cheaper to acquire. This review however is of the original version published in 1996.
Scott Patchan is probably familiar to ACWRT (UK) members for his three other books including Shenandoah Summer, The Last Battle of Winchester and Second Manassas - Longstreet’s attack and the struggle for Chinn Ridge. He is a noted battlefield guide and also sits on the board of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Trust. I became a member of the trust some 9 years ago and I am pleased to say under the Board’s guidance the Trust led by the dynamic Kevan Walker has had astonishing success as a preservation body. But as always I digress.
Many accounts of the 1864 Valley Campaign have tended to focus on either Sigel’s defeat at Newmarket or Jubal Early’s campaign and his subsequent defeat at Cedar Creek. They have portrayed the Valley as the location of a series of almost unbroken Confederate victories. However, in early June 1864 Major General David Hunter would inflict an important tactical and strategic defeat on the Confederacy at Piedmont one that had important strategic consequences.
Patchan’s book begins by outlining the strategic and operational background to Hunter’s campaign and shows how Sigel’s defeat at the Battle of New Market led Major General Breckinridge to believe (complacently) that no further advance was likely and he could take his remaining forces to join Lee. This left an operational vacuum in the Valley which Hunter and a force of Union troops would quickly fill.
If you study the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley from the outset of military operations in early June 1861, one frustrating aspect is the continual failure of the Union high command to grasp the operational and logistical importance of the valley. As a consequence senior commanders failed to assign appropriately talented officers and the necessary resources and thus I would argue prolonged the war. Arguably, Grant also fell into this trap in 1864 when under political pressure he appointed Franz Sigel as Commanding General in the Valley, thus adding to the list of sub-par Union commanders whose many professional shortcomings more capable Confederate commanders would exploit. It is perhaps not surprising that when David Hunter was appointed to replace Sigel many Confederate officers came to the conclusion that Hunter would prove as incapable as his several predecessors. Moreover, Hunter’s limited combat experience and a long stint in Washington doing administrative tasks probably led the local Confederate commanders to assume he posed no real threat and could easily be defeated. By this period of the war in the Valley it is also arguable that officers such as Brigadier General Grumble Jones and John Imboden were suffering from an over inflated opinion of their own merits and those of their troops compared to Union forces.
One of the strengths of Scott Patchan’s book on Piedmont is that it provides excellent portraits of not only Imboden, Jones and Breckenridge - the Confederate commanders but also of their subordinates and the same on the Union side. Patchan begins his book by providing a good description of the challenges Hunter faced in taking over a recently defeated Union force and implementing Grant’s desire for a rapidly executed campaign to threaten key logistic centres and divert forces from the Army of the Potomac’s struggles. Because Hunter secured a very important battlefield victory Patchan has (in my view) too much of a tendency to grant (sorry about that pun) him the benefit of the doubt as a commander. It is therefore arguable that a more experienced and seasoned commander would have sensed the Confederate weakness in the Valley earlier and exploited it by moving fast to destroy Brigadier General Imboden’s small force and then any reinforcements. Moreover, Hunter had other opportunities to outflank the newly arrived Grumble Jones and force him to withdraw south of the logistic hub of Staunton thus exposing the latter to capture and still achieve his mission. Reading between the lines of Patchan’s book one can say that a good argument exists to say that it was actually Grumble Jones and Imboden’s complacency that lost the Battle of Piedmont rather than Hunter’s abilities that won a victory. However, it is true that Patchan clearly highlights the dysfunctional Confederate command set up at Piedmont and also how they consistently underestimated the fighting abilities of Union troops and their commanders. That stated Patchan’s description of both the opening skirmishes and the battle itself is excellent. He brings together new and past scholarship to provide what will be the definitive account of the battle for many years and combines this with a very readable and fluent style. One criticism one cannot make of Forgotten Fury is the lack of sufficient maps of the battle itself for if anything the book is over endowed with them. A list of maps at the outset would have been useful and a map describing the opening movements in the valley would also have been of value.
One limitation of the book is that although it covers Hunter’s opening moves, the battle itself and Hunter’s capture of Staunton very well, the work does not cover the final two weeks of Hunter’s operations where he arguably threw away the fruits of his victory and withdrew to West Virginia. For me one of the strengths of the book is the way it adds to one’s knowledge of officers such as Colonel Joseph Thoburn a brigade commander at Piedmont who played a critical role in leading the Union attack that broke the Confederate line.
My interest in Thoburn had been in part stimulated during a visit to Cedar Creek on a very rainy day last May when I was fortunate enough to have as my driver and guide our Honorary Vice President Joe Whitehorne. Joe stopped the car at the location of a SVBF sign to Thoburn’s redoubt and I learned of Thoburn’s death while trying to rally his division. In my opinion Thoburn stands out within the Union Army as an officer whose dedication to the Union cause, modesty, bravery and talent as an officer should be better recognised. Just to be clear I am certain that other officers leading brigades with the same character and ability also existed in the Confederate army but I am afraid I have a bias towards the Union cause. Fortunately, Thoburn impressed Scott Patchan so much that he has written a useful book on him called Worthy of Higher Rank which is now on my must-read list.
In conclusion, if you are interested in the Shenandoah Valley and especially the 1864 campaign, then I strongly recommend you read this book preferably the updated version.