Book Review: Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863


by Eric J. Wittenberg

El Dorado Canyon, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2018. Pp. xx, 268. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1611214300

How Union Mounted Troops Opened the Ball at Chickamauga

Among the most prolific of Civil War historians, Wittenberg, author of One Continuous Fight, Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly, The Battle of Brandy Station, and many other works, has the knack of getting readers right into the front lines, while at the same time familiarizing them with the “Big Picture” and the conduct of war. This is well displayed in this look at the remarkable holding action by two rather weak Union mounted brigades on the eve of the Battle of Chickamauga that certainly saved the Army of the Cumberland from a disaster far worse than that which befell it over the following two days.

Wittenberg begins by introducing us to Col. H.G. Minty’s ”Saber Brigade”, cavalrymen armed mostly with breech loaders, and Col. John T. Wilder’s “Lightening Brigade”, most mounted infantrymen armed with Spencer repeating rifles. He explains the circumstances that brought them to spend September 18, 1863, covering the front of the Army of the Cumberland as Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans desperately juggled his army corps to cope with an unanticipated Confederate offensive, and then plunges into a detailed account of their actions that day.

With a thorough knowledge of tactics, and excellent use of terrain, the two brigades, numbering hardly 2,000 men with a few pieces of artillery, held off far larger forces, in an action easily matching the more famous holding one by Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry on the first day at Gettysburg. At times Wittenberg gives us almost a minute by minute account of the events, drawing upon a large volume of personal accounts by men from both sides, while offering us a basic course in tactics; his description of vidette and outpost duty is the best summary this reviewer has seen.

Wittenberg covers the events of the 18th, and the role of the brigades during the Battle of Chickamauga through the Union retirement into Chattanooga, arguing that the battle, usually dated September 19-20 actually extended over a longer period. He follows with an overview of the careers of the two colonels and their troops through and beyond the end of the war, and then adds a mini-guidebook for anyone who wants to visit the scene.

This is an outstanding account of one of the most impressive, and very overlooked, feats of arms during the Civil War, and worth a read by anyone with an interested in the war or in mounted operations..


Note: Holding the Line on the River of Death is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close