Roll Call to Destiny by Brent Nosworthy

I just finished a book about the Civil War that takes a unique look at small unit tactics during the War.  Roll Call to Destiny by Brent Nosworthy is not another retread narrative of the Civil War.  The book is an enlightening examination of Union and Confederate tactics for infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  It is 290 pages divided into an introduction, conclusion, and ten chapters.  The chapters discuss actions from the perspective of a Union infantry brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run to the actions of a Confederate artillery unit at the Battle of Fredericksburg to the actions of a Union regiment in the assault on Missionary Ridge.


Based on his previous books, Nosworthy is very knowledgeable in the tactics and weaponry of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  He calls upon this knowledge to explain how and why the Civil War was fought the way it was.  For example, Civil War military leaders (Union and Confederate) drew from the writings of a conservative French military theorist Baron Antoine –Henri de Jomini for the plans of their tactics.


In addition to the insights that Nosworthy has on tactics, he brings in other information that many readers may not be aware of.  For instance, his discussion on the long-range effectiveness of the rifled muskets is fascinating.  I always thought it was suicide that the two sides would line up in a clear area and try to butcher each other.  However, as Nosworthy points out, the rifle muskets were not as accurate as I believed.  The muskets were extremely inaccurate at ranges of more than 110 yards (because of the low velocity of the minié balls) if the rifleman did not make certain calculations to counter the trajectory of the ball.  Knowing this information, I now have a better understanding of why battles were fought the way they were by the participants.


The eight chapters on the various battles (The Battle of Bull Run is covered in two chapters) are based upon diaries, letters, and after action reports of the participants.  Nosworthy turns these primary sources into stories of the men who fought and died for a cause they truly believed in.  Some men rose to the occasion against all odds and others faltered when a little more effort may have taken the day.


After three of the battle explanations, Nosworthy adds tactical observations or analysis of what the combatants did right or what they could have done to win the battle.  These observations are real gems.  For instance, in the observation about the Fifty-seventh New York Regiment at Fair Oaks, Nosworthy discusses how the bayonet was rarely used for fighting in contrast to popular belief about its use.  He further clarifies a big difference between bayonet fighting and bayonet charge – the former being the actual fighting with a bayonet and the latter being a charge that forces a defender to make an instant decision on whether to fight or flee.


I have only one note of criticism and that is Nosworthy’s use of maps – it is great that he uses historical battle maps, but these are frequently too small to show the troop dispositions and movements in detail.  Better maps would have provided a clearer picture of what was occurring on the battlefields.


Roll Call to Destiny would be a great read for any person wanting to have a better understanding of what small units went through during various battles in the Civil War.

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