Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 2

Part two in a series.

Major General John Pope

As we have already seen, McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was a failure, and following it Lincoln transferred Major General John Pope from the west to command in eastern forces, in an attempt to instill confidence in the eastern armies and bring home victories. Pope had been victorious at the Battle of Island Number 10 in early 1862. It was Lincoln’s hope that Pope could come east and bring home a victory on the same scale as those in the west. Pope did not endear himself to his newly formed Army of Virginia and its primarily eastern men, and he alienated fellow officers as well as the common soldier. Pope’s short run of command in the east was put to an end after he was soundly defeated by Lee at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run in August of 1862. These eastern defeats meant more press and public focus on failed Union war aims and the Eastern Theater as a whole.

On the Confederate side, one can clearly see from the contrast between their actions in the Western and Eastern Theaters during the first years of the war that the Confederate defensive strategy was a solid plan designed for a prolonged war, yet that it also was flawed. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and many of his advisors believed the Richmond area was the ideal place to harbor troops as well as to base the large Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Richmond was a tether and the army could only venture so far from home, in an effort by senior Confederate leadership to protect their capital and by virtue, themselves and their reputations. However, while this southern insular focus continued in Richmond, the Union army attempted even more gains out west. In December 1862 Major General William T. Sherman had attacked the Confederate Army of Vicksburg at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. Though a Union defeat, alarm bells should have sounded in Richmond, as Vicksburg had obviously become the next major objective in the west for the Union cause. In April-May 1863 the Vicksburg Campaign opened in the west. Vicksburg was a city on the Mississippi River and in spring of 1863 it was the last major link between the eastern and the far western Confederacy. Davis and the war department only placed a pittance of a force-approximately 25,000 men-in and around the city.

Davis and his military advisors were slow to act to help stabilize the situation at Vicksburg. They modestly reinforced Vicksburg with only 10,000 men from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Davis also ordered men from Lieutenant General Joseph Johnston’s army, who at the time were amassed around Jackson, Mississippi, to come to Vicksburg’s aid. Joseph Johnston and Davis’ relationship was tenuous at best to begin with, and Johnston refused to reinforce the city; ironically, Davis left Johnston in command although he blatantly defied orders. During the campaign a Confederate division under Major General William Wing Loring slipped away from Lieutenant General John Pemberton’s Army of Vicksburg and marched to Jackson, Mississippi to reinforce Johnston, but it was simply not enough to overcome the Union forces. Grant and his army besieged Vicksburg for 47 days and the Army of Vicksburg capitulated on July 4th, 1863.

John Pemberton

The Vicksburg Campaign is a shining example of the problems in the Western Theater of the war for the Confederacy. The lack of attention on the Western Theater, where I contend that the Confederacy lost the war, was an issue not only during the early stages of the conflict, but also at this midpoint in summer of 1863.  While the campaign and siege was taking place Davis signed junior officers promotions and dealt with angry politicians, while making suggestions to his best field commander General Robert E. Lee on where and when to shift troops in the Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Suffolk areas of Virginia. He and other top Confederate military strategists neglected to comprehend how imperative the war out west would be to their ultimate success or defeat.

After Grant and his combined armies secured Chattanooga-another western success in late 1863-Lincoln knew that he had a leader who could successfully manage the Union war effort. Grant had proven himself time and time again; he had overcome criticism, jealous subordinates and commanders, and he had also taken some of the hardest assignments of the war and excelled with them. When Grant assumed command of all the Union Armies in March of 1864 he was thrust into the spotlight, where he remained until the war’s conclusion. The focus of generals, politicians, and newspapers both north and south was on Grant, and on his movements toward Petersburg and Richmond. Though Grant had achieved both some fame and notoriety while acting as commander in the west, he truly became the focus of the nation when he began leading the eastern forces.

Grant’s plan was to make a concerted effort on all fronts and crush the Confederacy from all sides. This would be the third time that Union command had tried a simultaneous advance on the Confederacy. The first was during early 1862, with Grant’s push south in Tennessee, while McClellan moved toward Richmond. At that juncture though, the commanders did not communicate with each other and pressure was not placed on the Confederacy as needed. The second concerted push took place in November 1862 through January 1863. Two Union armies went toward Vicksburg, one went into Tennessee, and one went into Virginia, but three of the four Union armies failed in this winter campaign. Now Grant sent armies to all fronts, while he coordinated the movements of all armies. Still the focus remained on Grant, and where Grant went the press and attention likewise followed.

Braxton Bragg

Within the first three weeks of Grant’s eastern Overland Campaign the Confederate and Union eastern armies lost more than 60,000 men combined. The casualty list grew and the eyes of the country became fixed on Grant and the Army of the Potomac. In the west, while Grant’s Overland Campaign continued, Sherman moved his army towards Atlanta and took far fewer casualties than Grant’s forces. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign was one of maneuver. When Sherman found the enemy entrenched he simply altered his course and bypassed them, for the most part, avoiding the head-on assaults which Grant was favoring.

The Atlanta Campaign is an example of the difference in the two theaters of war. In the east the two armies were nearly always in close proximity, battling for room to maneuver. In the west commanders had more open field and could maneuver more freely, shortening the casualty list considerably. Casualties however were what caught the attention of newspapers and politicians. In the east, newspapers ran page after page of lists of names of the killed and wounded, and as casualties mounted in the east, these listings helped sell local and national papers alike.

By the end of March of 1865 the North was on the verge of victory. Union forces had besieged Petersburg and Richmond, while Atlanta and Savannah had fallen prey to Sherman, who had undertaken his famous “March to the Sea.” He and his army group had cut a 60 mile wide swath across Georgia, much of the time out of contact with Grant and Washington D.C.Thus, press coverage of the “March to the Sea” was sparse, but Philip Sheridan and his Army of Shenandoah gave the nation something to write and talk about as he cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Confederates once and for all.

The conclusion of the war finally came in spring of 1865, yet even during the ultimate victory the western Union armies were overshadowed. Grant forced Lee to capitulate on April 9th, 1865.  Only a few days later on April 15th, 1865 President Lincoln died of a gunshot wound to the head. The manhunt that followed for the assassins overshadowed all else for the following two weeks.

William T. Sherman


On April 26th, 1865 Sherman accepted the surrender of Joseph Johnston and what was left of his army, which in fact was the last large army in the field. Sherman however mystifyingly was vilified in the north, in what little coverage his actions were afforded during the John Wilkes Booth manhunt. He had done well in his final victory but the northern public was angry at the south for the war and for the assassination of Lincoln.  When Sherman’s feat did reach the attention of the press, the New York Times erroneously ran as their headline that Sherman had surrendered to Johnston.

Other papers vilified Sherman and his soldiers for allowing Johnston and the south to “get off too easily”. In their frustration following these reports, Sherman’s soldiers struck back and burned an entire cart load of newspapers. When asked by one officer what they were doing, one soldier replied “Tell General Slocum {Major General Henry Slocum} that the cart is loaded with New York Papers for sale to the soldiers…We have followed Sherman through a score of battles and nearly two thousand miles of the enemy’s country, and we don’t intend these slanders against him be circulated among his men.” Slocum approved and allowed the soldiers to continue.

About Kristopher D White

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

2 Responses to Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 2

  1. That’s the best use for a New York newspaper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s