September 9, 2012

The Civil War in the West--Part One

After many, many years of reading and studying about the American Civil War (1861-1865), I have found that I am generally much more interested in the politics associated with and the fighting that occurred in the western theater of the war.  Of the many tens of thousands of books that have been written about the Civil War, I'd wager that probably three-quarters of them, or more, cover events that occurred in the eastern theater, i.e., the region surrounding Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.  Frankly, I have sort of come to the conclusion that from the perspective of the Confederate states the war probably couldn't have been won in the west, but it surely could be lost out there.  I thought it might be interesting to look at why I believe this, and I'm going to do it in conjunction with a series of postings that review several books that I believe are particularly relevant to the Civil War in the west and my conclusion, stated above.

First though, I think it worthwhile define precisely what I mean when I say "the Civil War in the West".  As you probably know, eleven states seceded (starting with South Carolina in December 1860, concluding with Tennessee in June 1861) from the United States and became the Confederate States of America (CSA).  The eleven states that seceded included the following, in the order in which they left the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.  Two other states tried to secede, Missouri and Kentucky, but were retained in the Union by interests within each state.  Obviously, the border states between the Confederate states and those in the Union were bitterly contested during much of the war, especially in Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland.  The states in green on the map, above, are the eleven in the CSA.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the "western theater" of the war encompassed that region of the CSA west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  So, this generally included all of Tennessee, and significant portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the border state of Kentucky.  The regions west of the Mississippi (e.g., Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico Territory, and much of Louisiana) and where fighting between the two sides occurred was referred to as the "Trans-Mississippi", although these regions were certainly in what we would call the 'western' portion of the country today.

The western theater of the war was huge, particularly when compared to the eastern theater of operations in the area around Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.  For example, from Lexington, Kentucky, to Mobile, Alabama, as the crow flies was about 450 miles; and from Memphis, on the Mississippi River east to Knoxville, Tennessee was about 350 miles; or from Vicksburg, Mississippi east to Atlanta, Georgia was nearly 400 miles.  By way of comparison, it was little more than 100 miles from Richmond to Washington, D.C.  The map of the western theater, below, helps to place these great distances in context, especially when compared to the area of operations in the eastern theater.

The western region was also considered "The Heartland" of the Confederacy, and was chock full of natural resources and agricultural products that the CSA would require in order to effectively sustain itself, not to mention fight a war against the USA.  Obviously, the major transportation corridors included railroads, roads, and rivers, and were certainly some of the critical geographical points and infrastructure that was fought over by both sides.  Without the major rivers or railroads, the CSA would largely have been unable to efficiently shift foodstuffs and other material, including troops, from one theater to the other.  For example, because northern Virginia was occupied by Federal forces and was picked pretty clean, Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was hugely dependent upon the agricultural produce and other resources of the west to feed and arm itself, and trains loaded with flour, grains, beef, pork, gun-powder, fodder for horses, and so forth, regularly chugged into the large railroad junctions at Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia from 1861 through the end of the war in late-Spring 1865.

Geography played a big role in the conduct of the war in the west as well.  For example, the rivers in the western theater (e.g., the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers, etc.) are typically oriented in a north-south direction, in contrast to the rivers in the eastern theater that typically run east-west.  This meant that in the west, the Federal forces could use the rivers as transportation corridors to knife deep into the heart of Confederate territory; and in the east, the rivers were used by both sides as defensive barriers.

Like I said at the outset, whenever the Civil War is brought up in casual discussion, most folks think about the major battles between Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac at places like Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor.  And largely all of these big, and very bloody, battles were fought on or very near the same patch of ground in and around Washington, D.C. and Richmond.  The western theater had more than its fair share of major and horrendously bloody battles too, but these battles were scattered up and down and all across the entire theater.  Kentucky saw a bloody battle fought at Perryville.  Tennessee hosted many major and minor engagements, but battles at Shiloh, Stones River, Chattanooga, Nashville, and the ferocious Battle of Franklin stand out, and all rivaled any of the larger battles in the east.  In September 1863, Georgia had the distinction of being the location of the bloodiest battle in the west at Chickamauga; and the state was later savaged by Sherman's army with the fall of Atlanta and his "march to the sea" in late-1864.  Mississippi saw the tenacious campaign of U.S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee to capture Vicksburg, the "Gibraltar of the Mississippi".

Dealing with the geography of the region and the significant logistical challenges, not to mention the fighting out west, gave rise to the military careers of several prominent Union commanders like U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip H. Sheridan.  It also wrecked the careers of some Union generals, like Don Carlos Buell, William S. Rosecrans, Alexander McD. McCook, and Thomas L. Crittenden.  We'll talk about some of the Confederate commanders in the following sections of this post.

My intent with this series of postings about the Civil War in the west, of which this is the first, is to provide a review of the books that I am reading about the western theater, the commanders involved with the various armies, and the battles that were fought.  My goal is that by the time I have finished this series, I hope to have a much clearer understanding about the importance of the war in the west, and how it affected the political decisions made by Presidents Lincoln and Davis.  I want to see if it can be definitively shown that, from the Confederate perspective, the war couldn't be won in the west, but it could be lost out there.  Finally, while I will be periodically referring to battles and their outcomes, these postings generally won't be focusing on battlefield tactical situations, but will be looking at theater strategies and operations and the relationships between army commanders and their subordinates, as well as with the civilian governments in Richmond and Washington, D.C.

The book that I am reviewing in this first posting is the first volume in a two-volume series about the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and is entitled, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly (1938-1991).  Professor Connelly was teaching at Mississippi State University when the book was published in 1967.  As the title indicates, this is the story of the Army of Tennessee during the first two years of the Civil War.  Depending upon who's doing the classification, there were something like seventeen different Confederate armies that were constituted during the Civil War, but only two of them really mattered--the Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern theater, and the Army of Tennessee in the west.  I'd always understood that the Army of Tennessee was essentially the 'bastard child' of the Confederacy and never had the requisite supplies, lacked effective leadership, and was largely ignored by the political leaders in Richmond.  I always wondered why this was so, particularly given that the theater of operations was so important to the ultimate Confederate goal of achieving its independence.

First, I want to make it clear that while this book was written and published forty-five years ago, it is not stale or out-dated in any respect.  This is a quality piece of historical research that is written with style and lyricism.  It is extensively footnoted and contains a superb bibliography.  I actually found pristine hardcover editions of this two-volume set from a reprinting issued in the late-1980s and early-1990s by the Louisiana State University Press (I just love Amazon).  I am so glad to add both volumes to my library.

In the first volume, Professor Connelly tells the story of this much-maligned army in five parts, with each part being the story of the army commander that was in charge during the period of 1861 through the end of 1862.  Over a nearly two-year period there were essentially four different commanders of the Army of Tennessee, and even if they had all been incredibly competent commanders it still would have been difficult for the army to adapt to such frequent change at the highest level.  The Army of Tennessee, as its name implies, was an army of and from Tennessee.  It was originally raised as a state army shortly after Tennessee seceded from the Union, and then was later turned over to the Confederate government.  The first commander was Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, and while he tried hard to ready the army, it was an army in name only, and lacked training, weapons, and professional military leadership, and was largely ignored by Richmond.

The Army of Tennessee began to take shape as a professional military entity with the appointment of General Albert Sidney Johnston as its commander-in-chief in September 1861 (photograph at left).  Johnston had resigned his U.S. Army commission and had traveled all the way across the country to Richmond from his post in California, and was given the command of the Army of Tennessee by President Davis.  At that time, the Army of Tennessee was only about 27,000 strong, and was badly outnumbered by the numerous Federal armies adjacent to Tennessee in the region.  While Johnston was certainly a decent man, and fully committed to the Confederate cause, Connelly maintains that he was largely overwhelmed in the job of trying to weld the army into an effective fighting unit and, at the same time, develop and implement a strategy for defending the 'Heartland' from Federal incursion and conquest.  Greatly complicating the job, according to Connelly, was that Johnston was never able to corral and control his fractious subordinates, especially Lloyd Tilghman, Simon B. Buckner, Gideon Pillow, and the worst of the lot, Bishop General Leonidas Polk (Polk was also an Episcopal bishop).  In fact, because of this failure to effectively develop a coordinated command structure among the army's leadership, Connelly observes that--
"Unlike the Virginia army, which depended for its morale upon a few individuals such as Lee or "Stonewall" Jackson, the men of the Army of Tennessee never attained a real esprit at a corps level.  Instead, the peculiar western morale was usually most evident at the regimental or brigade level."
With the sudden and devastating losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, and because of the ineffective defensive strategy devised by Johnston, as well as the ineptitude exhibited by his subordinates, the army was largely maneuvered completely out of Tennessee and into northern Mississippi.  At this juncture, Pierre G. T, Beauregard came west and joined Johnston as his second-in-command, and began advocating for a concentration of Confederate forces and going on the offensive against Federal forces in Tennessee.  Connelly describes how Johnston essentially turned the army over to Beauregard, and then somewhat inexplicably sat back as Beauregard reorganized the army and developed the plan to attack U.S. Grant's Federal army at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee border.

On April 6-7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was fought as the Army of Tennessee attacked Grant's forces and by the end of the first day had pushed them back all the way to Pittsburg Landing by the Tennessee River.  Because of Beauregard's initially complicated attack plan, and that the Confederate forces' unit cohesion became completely and hopelessly disorganized during the ferocious combat, the army was largely fought out by the end of the day.  During the night, the Federals were able to tighten up and make a stand near the Landing and were also reinforced by elements of Buell's Army of the Ohio.  On the following morning (April 7th), the Federal forces counterattacked strongly and ultimately routed the Confederate army from the field and back to its starting point in Corinth, Mississippi.  Among the 23,000 total casualties in this bloody fight was the army commander of the Army of Tennessee--Albert Sidney Johnston--who was killed during the middle of the first day of fighting.  Beauregard was now the commander-in-chief of the Army of Tennessee.

 Beauregard didn't last long.  In fact, Connelly describes this period as "the Beauregard Interlude" in his book.  While a good organizer of the divisions and corps within the Army of Tennessee, Beauregard added to the overall malaise and issues of command performance within the army.  Additionally, Beauregard and President Davis didn't, and just couldn't, seem to get along and the Army's relationship with the Richmond government soured.  On June 28, 1862, Davis removed Beauregard as army commander and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg (photograph at right).

Upon assumption of command of the Army of Tennessee, Bragg inherited an army that was still fraught with significant command structure issues.  And while Bragg was a personal friend of President Davis, he was considered irascible and rigidly inflexible and stubborn by his peers and subordinates, and the personality clashes among the leadership within the Army of Tennessee were only exacerbated (again, Bishop Polk being one of the worst offenders).

The last section of the book tells the story of Bragg's conduct of the "Confederate Heartland Offensive", which was his campaign to invade Kentucky and see if it could be successfully brought into the CSA.  Here again, Bragg's issues with his own subordinates, as well as with the independent command of 9,000 troops under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, leads to the rebel forces meeting the vastly larger Federal forces in a series of sharp engagements, culminating in the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862.  While Perryville can be considered a tactical victory for Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, it was a strategic victory for the Union in that Bragg and his army had to retreat in face of the much larger Federal army, and that Kentucky stayed on the Union side of the ledger-book.  The Army of Tennessee inflicted almost 4,300 casualties on the Union Army of the Ohio's First Corps, but it also incurred about 3,400 casualties itself.  Bright spots for the Army of Tennessee that emerged from the forging fires of the army's fights at Shiloh and Perryville were that Confederate Generals Patrick Ronayne Cleburne and Alexander P. Stewart were well on their way to becoming superb combat commanders.

In the late-fall of 1862, following the Battle of Perryville, the 38,000-strong Army of Tennessee retreated out of Kentucky and towards a rendezvous with its own destiny at the end of the year with a Federal army at Murfreesboro on the Stones River in middle Tennessee.  This story will be told early on in Professor Connelly's second volume of his history of the Army of Tennessee, Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865.

In conclusion, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot about the reasons behind much of the early dysfunction in the Army of Tennessee, and that much of it stemmed from the general ineptitude or outright insubordination of general officers under the command of, first, Albert Sidney Johnston, and then Braxton Bragg.  Based upon my interpretation of the material presented by Professor Connelly in the book, it is clear that both Johnston and Bragg should have been more forceful in exerting their leadership qualities as commanders, but I genuinely think the largest share of the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of Bishop Polk.  Bluntly put, it is my opinion that the man was criminally negligent in just about all of his doings with the Army of Tennessee.  The Army of Tennessee deserved so much better than that.


Finally, for your information, the books that I will be reading and then reviewing over the next few postings include the following:

Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862
By Thomas Lawrence Connelly
Hardcover, 305 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1967 (1986 reprinting)

Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865
By Thomas Lawrence Connelly
Hardcover, 558 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 1971 (1994 reprinting)

Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History
By Richard M. McMurry
Hardcover, 204 pages
University of North Carolina Press, 1989

Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West
By Steven E. Woodworth
Hardcover, 400 pages
University Press of Kansas, 1990

The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
By Earl J. Hess
Hardcover, 392 pages
University of North Carolina Press, 2012

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