Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 1

Part one in a series.

Over the past few weeks I have made some great friends Europe. I was fortunate enough to participate in a tour of my great love in history, the sites of D-day. While I was across the pond, I quickly made friends with a number of British historians and Civil War buffs. For those of you that may not be aware, the British have a great interest in our Civil War, and for the most part are highly knowledgeable on the subject.

La Pointe du Hoc

Since the tour, I correspond with a number of the participants and even some of their friends. The topic of the Western Theater of the Civil War has come up in a number of e-mails. The overwhelming consensus among my new friends is that the war was won in the west. To this end I dug up an old paper from my grad schools days and have decided to edit the paper and break it into a number of posts. Keep in mind this paper was written in 2008 and there has been new ground broken in the field regarding the east vs. west argument. Also, I refer to new works/studies, keep in mind these were recent when I wrote the paper.  None the less, I thought this would be a welcome change to the heavy eastern approach to the war our site tends to take. So here is a series for my friends across the pond.

The American Civil War was and still is the bloodiest contest ever fought by the United States. Between 1861 and 1865 there were over 10,000 battles and engagements between the Federal and Confederate troops. The war resulted in over 620,000 deaths, making the American Civil War the costliest war ever undertaken by the United States. Still, the American Civil War is not entirely understood not only by those casually interested in the war, but even by some Civil War historians.

The historiography of the war has traditionally focused on the climatic action in the Eastern Theater of the war, often to the exclusion of the critical actions which occurred in the Western Theater of the war. This theater encompasses much of what is today the Mid-West, following the Mississippi River south to the Gulf of Mexico, and then turning east to the Carolinas. This massive theater of the Civil War was essentially where the war was won and lost. Yet the focus of many historians and Civil War enthusiasts traditionally has been on the east and on its battles, commanders and social impact. Click here for a map of the Western Theater.

The Eastern Theater of the war was primarily a stalemate; it could even be described as something of a cat and mouse game between General Robert E. Lee and a slew of Union commanders. The theater stretched from modern day West Virginia to the Atlantic Ocean, and then south from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to just south of Petersburg,Virginia. This is a relatively small swath of land to act as an arena for warfare, and though it did prove to be very important during the Civil War, historians have often placed too much influence on it to the exclusion of the Western Theater.

The mine entrance at Petersburg

It is my contention that the Western Theater was the key strategic and decisive arena of the Civil War, and that the Eastern Theater has taken precedent in the minds of Civil War veterans, modern scholars and Civil War enthusiasts alike for a myriad of reasons, including the proximity of eastern battlefields to major population centers, the disproportionate casualty figures among the major battles of both theaters, army politics coupled with news coverage of the time, and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause ideology in the post-war period of reconciliation. I will examine how the war in the west enabled the Union forces to become victorious in the Civil War, and how similarly the Confederate management of the Western Theater hurt their chances of gaining independence from the Union. I will then outline how contemporary wartime leaders helped foster a belief in the overall importance of the Eastern Theater and of its key figures, as well as how the press perpetuated this focus. I will also examine how post-war literature, personalities and battlefield preservation continued the trend which began during the war of emphasizing the Eastern Theater to the exclusion of the Western Theater.

The major corridor of Civil War in the Eastern Theater stretched from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania southward to the Petersburg, Virginia. Within this 250 mile corridor some of the most famous battles of the war were fought, including Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, some of the near legendary battles which instantly embody the war to many.

Many of the most famous commanders also fought in the eastern region of warfare at one time or another, including Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan for the North and Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet for the South. More than 200,000 men became casualties in the small area, yet in the end the east was a long and drawn out slugging match between two great armies, where little was actually accomplished. Over the four year duration of the war, small gains were made and lost in a back and forth seesaw in which neither side gained much territory or advantage. Southern forces tried to gain territory north of the Potomac on three separate occasions and all three times the Southern forces were forced to withdraw.

Little Phil Sheridan

In contrast, the theater of operations in the Western Theater was vast.  Edward A. Pollard, the wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, noted that the south occupied “more than 728,000 square miles, and most of this mileage fell in the western theater.” Also falling in this great expanse of land were the critical battles of Shiloh, Stone’s River, Chickamauga and the siege of Vicksburg. At these battles and others, famous generals Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman cut their teeth, preparing them for eventual victories in either the Eastern Theater or overall success in the war as a whole.

In the Western Theater, Grant and Sherman created the winning combination that the north needed to eventually win the war, learning how to move large armies and supply them, and at what vulnerable points to hit the enemy. The western commanders targeted key forts, supply bases, rail centers, and major road junctions. Keying in on specific targets allowed the Union forces in the west to slowly but steadily capture key objectives, amassing an ever increasing amount of land under their control. All of their accomplishments in the west were vital to the Union war effort.

The massive territory gained and the way in which the Union forces were able to use this territory to slowly constrict the Confederacy’s transportation and their ability to supply themselves was one of the biggest military factors leading to eventual Union victory. The war in the west broke the infrastructure of the Confederate war machine, inflicted greater psychological damage on the southern civilian and military population and became a breeding ground for quality officers for the Union cause. A short history of the war would be constructive to show how the Union forces were able to win the war in the west, while the Confederate forces, whose attention was often focused elsewhere, effectively lost the war in the west.

In July of 1861 the two sides clashed in the first major land battle of the Civil War in the Eastern Theater at Manassas, Virginia. The First Battle of Bull Run was a single day action and a southern victory, but it was also costlier and bloodier than anyone had anticipated. By the end of July 21st, 1861 the United States, the Southern Confederacy  and the world knew that the war would not be over anytime soon. Southern and northern forces grew as commanders realized the necessity of larger numbers, and both sides readied themselves for what was to come.

Henry House Hill, Manassas

As both sides built and reinforced armies during this early stage of the war, the focus of the country remained almost wholly in the east. The northern force in the east was the Army of the Potomac, at that time under the command of Major General George McClellan, who referred to his army as “the finest army on the planet.” McClellan organized and trained in and around Washington D.C., the US capital, and basked in the attention of the press and politicians as the “Young Napoleon” and as the “savior of the republic.” The Army of the Potomac sat in and around Washington D.C. from August 1861 to late March of 1862.

During this time 120,000 men were mustered into McClellan’s army. Other Union forces in modern day West Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia-both also considered part of the Eastern Theater-also grew to a combined force of over 60,000 Union soldiers. From the Washington D.C. area to the panhandle of modern day West Virginia the Union force was comprised of nearly 200,000 men, not including the Navy in and around the D.C. area. Though he had a staggering amount of men, McClellan’s army did very little until the spring of 1862, when he launched the Peninsula Campaign. This bold campaign was designed to take the Army of the Potomac by ship to Fort Monroe near Norfolk, Virginia. From there McClellan could launch an assault up the peninsula toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. It was bold, daring, and by virtue of its size it overshadowed many important events in the Western Theater of the war.

Lincoln supported George McClellan’s push towards Richmond in March and April of 1862. The bulk of men and material were shipped to Washington D.C., so that from there the supplies and men could quickly be deployed to McClellan or to one of the supporting armies. This focus on supplying the eastern armies kept the Union men in the west woefully under supplied at first. Surprisingly though, the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 did have unseen benefits to the western armies. While the spotlight of war was kept in the east, Northern politicians focused so heavily on the Army of the Potomac’s progress that they often also impeded it. With the Western Theater so far removed for the nation’s capital, politicians and journalists paid less attention to the west, allowing Northern leadership to act with more autonomy and less interference. This was one unintended benefit to the relative ignorance of Easterners to the western progress of the war.

In the Western Theater at the same time Major General Henry Halleck was piecing together three armies to cover an area of just over 600 miles; compare this to McClellan’s 200,000 men in the relatively small area around Virginia. Halleck barely mustered 100,000 men to cover this broad stretch of ground. Although Halleck had fewer men, the results Halleck achieved were far more important. With only 24,000 men in February of 1862, then Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant pushed south and captured Forts Henry and Fort Donelson. Fort Henry sat along the banks of the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson sat on the banks of the Cumberland River; the forts were in close proximity to one another.

“Old Brains” Henry W. Halleck

The goal of the campaign was to secure river routes along the Tennessee and Cumberland. Since Federal forces did not control the Mississippi River at that time, capturing these two smaller routes would allow Union supplies and reinforcements to float to and from their front along the river.

The campaign was a stunning success. Grant not only took the two forts, but he also captured the bulk of the Confederate forces in both. The campaign secured the river access as well as 600 square miles of Confederate territory that was never regained by the south. Securing access and control of the two rivers provided corridors of supply and support to future Federal endeavors in Tennessee and Mississippi, a contribution of vital significance to future Union efforts. Compare these gains with the lack of gains being made around that time in the Eastern Theater.

A few short months later, April 6-7, 1862 witnessed the first major western engagement between the North and the South. Southern forces attacked Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio along the banks of the Tennessee River at Shiloh. For two days the battle raged and at its conclusion there were just over 23,000 casualties. Grant was again victorious, but many northern newspaper editors derided him as a “butcher.” Heavy attention on this battle however did not endure long, as the nation soon shifted their attention to George McClellan’s lethargic approach to Richmond.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory, Western Theater and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 1

  1. I’ve always felt partial to those generals like Thomas and Curtis whom I felt never have gotten their full credit because their careers were spent in the ignored Western Theater myself.

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