Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 6

Part six in a series.

Dramatic battles and political events also kept the northern eyes of the press and thus the public focused eastward. The Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg for example were dreams for media personnel. The media covered these battles for months, drawing on the will of the eastern population for more stories of the battles fought so nearby. Antietam, in September of 1862, in particular drew the attention of the country and the world in the press and beyond. Although the Battle of Antietam was not a lopsided victory for the Union cause, it did give the Lincoln administration the victory it needed to announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The Proclamation was a public relations gold mine for the north. Whether Northerners detested or revered its mandate, everyone had an opinion on it, and it captured the interest of the public in both the North and the South. Papers from France and Great Britain covered the story, as did all the major papers in the north and south. The Proclamation, the Battle of Antietam and its 23,000 casualties, coupled with the mid-term elections helped keep the focus of the war in the east. This is a fact that truly would not change until the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee from late September 21st 1863- November 26th 1863. (Click here for a map.)

Another contemporary media factor that greatly impacted how the northern population viewed the eastern theater’s primacy was the importance of wartime photography. Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan traveled to many of the eastern battlefields as the battles were raging or had just been completed. These three men brought their work back to New York City and Washington D.C., displaying the horrors of war for all to see. Something to note though is the fact they were not covering the entire war. These men were limited by their equipment, which was hard to move since it was fragile and quite cumbersome. Because of this difficulty in travel, they did not venture far from their studios, but they still managed to capture some of the most famous photographs in American military history. Naturally though, because of their geographic limitations, the scenes of horror they brought back to the civilian population were almost solely of the eastern theater of fighting. Many horrific battles took place in the west, but relatively little photographic evidence exists of these battlefields until after the war, and almost none exists of western battles themselves.

Timothy O’Sullivan

Also fueling the eastern media focus was the beginning of the heavy use of telegraph lines within the eastern coast of the United States. Prior to the war the east had a much greater amount of telegraph lines. As the war progressed the mileage of lines was increased by the United States Signal Corps, while the Confederate telegraph lines dwindled as more territory was captured by the Union effort. These telegraph lines allowed both the newspapers and civilians to have a greater and more up-to-date understanding of the progress of the war in the east.

War time newspaper and periodical accounts were not the only literature dealing with ongoing conflict, as some individuals actually wrote histories of the war while it was still in progress. The first biography of Stonewall Jackson appeared in 1863, shortly after his death. The Army of the Cumberland and put their Provost Judge John Fitch to work as the siege of Chattanooga was taking place. Fitch wrote Annals of the Army of the Cumberland. The 726 page book covers the Army of the Cumberland from its conception to the Siege of Chattanooga. The book was meant to tell the army’s tale and raise money for a monument at Stones River and charitable donations in the future. The book highlights the best of times in the army and is essentially a public relations piece following the debacle at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Alexander Gardner

Another interesting wartime work came from an anonymous author. He called himself “An English Combatant, Lieutenant of Artillery of the Field Staff.” His book is entitled Battle-Fields of the South from Bull Run to Fredericksburg: With Sketches of Confederate Commanders, and Gossip of the Camp. The work itself only focuses on the Eastern Theater of the war and curiously is published in New York City in 1864. The work is centered on much of what was to come for the post-war literature of the war: Lee and Jackson and their daring maneuvers in Virginia.

Post-war literature was as influential as war time accounts at shaping the way Americans remember the Civil War. The writings of veterans following their protracted and often traumatic experiences at war began to mold the post-war national consciousness for many Americans. William Swinton became the early sounding board for the all things regarding the Army of the Potomac. Among Swinton’s most famous works is Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac for many in the north became a cottage industry. In 1867 Swinton published a book entitled The Twelve Decisive Battles of the War: A History of the Eastern and Western Campaigns, in Relation to the Actions That Decided Their Issue. Swinton was one of the first and only authors for a great length of time to examine both major theaters of the war. Swinton named the twelve following battles as being the most significant:

(As titled and ordered by Swinton)

  1. Bull Run
  2. Donelson
  3. Shiloh
  4. Antietam
  5. Murfreesboro
  6. The Monitor and the Merrimac
  7. Vicksburg
  8. Gettysburg
  9. Wilderness
  10. Atlanta
  11. Nashville
  12. Five Forks

The list includes six battles from the east and six from the west, and the selections are very astute. Swinton chose five of the bloodiest battles of the war: Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Murfreesboro. Many of the selections are of battles that helped change the tide of the war, including Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Nashville. Of Swinton’s major works this is by far the most balanced, since many of his other works focus entirely on the east and on the Army of the Potomac, to the exclusion of the Western Theater whose importance he cited in this work.

About Kristopher D White

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

6 Responses to Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 6

  1. It is rather ironic to have this series of posts about the neglect given to the West, given that this blog regularly has writers who post on contemporary photographs in the West, and who suffer from Lee-Jacksonitis in terms of reporting their deeds to the exclusion of other concerns. It’s nice to get some balance though. I wish we could have some updates on the Civil War in Florida, which is something that is nearly entirely ignored altogether.

    • Indeed, one of the things we’ve been trying to do is recruit some additional authors who can talk about topics related to the West. We recognize that it’s an area where we just don’t have a lot of personal expertise. Fortunately, we have some things in the works that will hopefully begin to address that.

      While a few of us do have a case of Lee-Jacksonitis–and I admit, I have it worse than anyone!–part of that just happens to be a function of our various areas of expertise. Since so many of us have been affiliated over the years with Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, those are the areas we know most intimately. I’m going to write about Jackson because that’s where much of my expertise is; I’m not going to do much in-depth writing about Gettysburg or Shiloh or such places (or Florida, for that matter) because I don’t have expertise in those subject areas and would not want to do them a disservice. (I hope you’ve also noted, though, that our Lee-Jacksonitis has a strong bias toward myth-busting rather than toward Lost Cause romanticism.)

      In any event, we’re trying our best to round things out as our site development continues. You’ve been a faithful reader, and we really appreciate your support–and the support all our readers have shown–since we got this site up and going. Thanks for sticking with us as we continue to grow.

      • You’re very welcome. You have to write what you know. I enjoy reading the blogs, and I’d be able to comment a bit more intelligently, but I’m in Thailand and there aren’t a great deal of books about the American Civil War here, as my library is elsewhere (in Florida). :)

  2. Meg Thompson says:

    I am home from the wars myself, and looking very much forward to putting all 6 blogs together and reading them as such. Maybe Mr. Bright could be coaxed into contributing something about Florida. One of the best things about this blog is its generous sharing of source materials, so even if a post just scratches the surface of a topic, there are plenty of places mentioned in which to delve further.

  3. Ed Sandtner says:

    I have very much enjoyed this series. I can’t help but find parallels with World War II where the war on the eastern front has received short shrift. Of the countless documentaries and books that have appeared on the war, very little is devoted to the sustained Soviet offensive and massive loss of life in their drive toward Berlin. Of course, those fighting in the east weren’t our boys and they were commies to boot so there has been a natural tendency to not acknowledge the important contribution they made to the defeat of Hitler. As in the Civil War, the attitudes of the press, public and politicians clearly played a role in this continuing lopsided view of the war. Keep writing, Kris.

    • Thanks for the kind words Ed. I am glad you are enjoying reading. To further your point, even if you focus on the American war effort in World War II the European Theater receives the bulk of the attention. The Pacific, just as important, has been much overlooked. The leaders in the Pacific had to fight to receive needed supplies and munitions that seemed to flow easily into the ETO (this is for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into).

      On the Soviet side, the losses were staggering. In one study I read, about four years ago, the Red Army lost on average just over 12,000 men killed in combat per day. Keep in mind they were at war longer than the Americans. I have seen two differing studies on average American men killed per day in combat. One placed the number around 960 the other around 980.

      The Soviet side of things is still fertile ground for historians, though there have been some good histories written on the soviet involvement since the fall of the Iron Curtain, hopefully more will follow, because as you have aptly stated their role is very much overlooked, especially since they were our allies.

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