Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 7

Part seven in a series.

Jefferson Davis and his first Cabinet.

In the post-war years many veterans wrote long and influential memoirs of the war. Some Western Theater veterans wrote of their experiences, but not to the extent that their eastern counterparts did.  Why were post-war accounts and writings also so heavily centered on the experiences of the eastern soldier? One reason could be that more troops fought in the east. The eastern armies were the largest, but they were also better educated, enabling them a greater ease in written communication than their western counterparts enjoyed. East coast citizens also maintained a higher literacy rate than those in the west, and had easier access to means of mass publishing.

Thus, in their post-war writings, most veterans focused on eastern generals and battles. For example, veterans presented papers to the Military Order of the Loyal Legions of the United States for publication. Today there are 64 volumes of these papers. Some names have appeared in all 64 volumes, namely Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Philip Sheridan appears in 62 of the volumes and William T. Sherman in 61. These mentions are either entire articles on the men and their campaigns or they are articles in which their name was simply mentioned. In regards to battles, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville are mentioned in 62 volumes, the most by far, while the Battle of Antietam is mentioned 46 times, the Battle of Shiloh is mentioned 45 times, and the Battle of Chattanooga is mentioned 28 times. Vicksburg is mention in 57 volumes, but 12 of the citations are cross referenced to Grant or Sherman and deal directly with those two men rather than the Siege of Vicksburg. Many of the veterans wrote more than one article in a volume on generals and battles, and Chancellorsville alone has 99 separate citations and articles about it.

Other diaries and writings that emerged after the war illustrated the eastern-centric point of view of civilians. John B. Jones is a perfect example of this; he worked in the Confederate War Department during the war, and was privy to up-to-date information on the war, personal conversations between officers and politicians, and sensitive documents. Jones reinforced the fact that the civilian population was enamored with the east. Since Jones was from Richmond his diary reflected the primacy of the Eastern Theater. In July of 1863 his focus was on Lee and Gettysburg. Jones depicts Richmond following one of the Confederacy’s greatest military defeats at Gettysburg, but makes only a brief mention statement in regards to the other great defeat at Vicksburg and the impact of its fall on the civilian psyche. “We have no particulars yet-no comments of the Southern generals under Pemberton. But the fall of the place {Vicksburg} has cast a gloom over everything.”

John Bell Hood

In 1864 the diary tells a different tale, focusing now on General John Bell Hood. Hood, the youngest full general in Confederate service, was a mainstay in Richmond following his wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. Hood essentially courted Davis and told him what he wanted to hear in regards to the war effort. Eventually Davis gave Hood the Army of Tennessee, and Hood thus went about destroying the last major offensive force the south had in the Deep South. While following Grant and Lee’s positions in and around Richmond, Jones took the time to write on Hood. This is one of the few times in a long diary in which Jones spends a great deal of time exploring the Western Theater and its impact on the war.

Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay-a counterpart to Jones as a Washington insider- also kept a journal of sorts. In the post-war years Nicolay wrote of his experiences in the White House and with Lincoln. Some of his writings are from the war-time period, while others are post-war commentaries on wartime issues. In his writings, Nicolay does not even mention the Battle of Shiloh while Vicksburg only appears on two nonconsecutive pages. Nicolay wrote little about the Western Theater, and what he did write about the west was normally referenced along with events in the east, something found in most post-war accounts. For example as Grant secured Chattanooga telegram came to the President, “Sherman had reached and joined Burnside at Knoxville.” The telegram read, “Longstreet was in full retreat up the valley into Va., that he Foster would obey orders vigorously follow-up the pursuit.” “Now” Lincoln said, “if the Army of the Potomac was good for anything-if officers had anything in them-if the army had any legs, they could move thirty thousand men down to Lynchburg and catch Longstreet.” Nicolay’s writings on the west were very scant for a presidential secretary, but Nicolay does go into some detail about Lincoln’s desire to bring Grant to the east, and the resistance to that decision which he encountered in the capital. Nicolay typified the response of easterners, and despite understanding the motivations behindLincoln’s desire to bring Grant to command of eastern forces, noted “I do not think it would do to bring Grant away from the West. I talked with Halleck this morning about the matter, and his opinion was the same.”

A particular set of post-war reminisces by prominent western commanders is also particularly instructive to examine. Publishing companies in the north had Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant to write about their wartime experience, yet even parts of these works illustrate the east-west dichotomy. General Philip Sheridan fought in the east from April of 1864 through April of 1865. Sheridan’s memoirs focus on the east more than on the west, even though that is where he built much of his reputation as a solid and successful leader. When he came east he stayed and built his post war career in that region of the nation, and so to a point it makes sense that he emphasized his experiences in the east, but his memoirs neglect his rich trove of experiences and accomplishments in the west. Two hundred and twenty pages of the three hundred and fifty-six pages of Sheridan’s memoir focus on the east. Sheridan is quite image conscious at times, and it could be that this tendency towards self-promotion is why he focused more heavily on the east, as he might have hoped that it would better his chances of personal success in the postwar east.

Little Phil Sheridan

When Sherman wrote his memoirs of the war, he created two separate editions. The first was only 150 pages, so his editors asked him to write a second edition with a co-author to bolster the story. Sherman at first was his own worst enemy in the post-war memory battle, however he did help his cause when he authored a book on his “March to the Sea” entitled The Capture of Atlanta and The March to the Sea. In 225 pages Sherman presented a brief overview of the campaign, publishing the title with historians in mind. Sherman felt that the Official Record’s of the War of the Rebellion would not be published in his lifetime, or in his soldiers’ lifetime. Therefore Sherman wanted his and his soldiers’ stories told. In the forward Sherman wrote, “What is now offered is not a designed as a history of the war, or even as a complete account of all the incidents in which the writer bore a part, but merely his recollections of events, corrected by a reference to his own memoranda, which may assist the future historian…”

In Grant’s memoirs, he treated his time in the east and west fairly equally. He devoted 36 chapters to the west. and 24 chapters to the east. Grant told a complete story of the war, his experience in it, and the commanders encountered from both sides and in both major theaters. Grant’s memoirs, unlike other Civil War officers’ memoirs, are very straightforward and do not attempt to justify his failures or those of his men.

About Kristopher D White

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

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