Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, In History and Memory…Part 8

Part eight in a series.

James Longstreet, CSA

Southern postwar writings were also particularly influential in how they helped to shape the nation’s collective understanding of the war and its meaning. In the south Confederate Veteran Magazine was very popular among historians and veterans. Many of the articles focused more on personalities in the south than on specific battles. Lee had 69 different articles, poems, or illustrations devoted to him in the period from 1893 to 1932, while Jackson had 58 devoted to him. Lieutenant General James Longstreet had 43 articles, poems, or illustrations, two more than Confederate cavalry commander James Ewell Brown Stuart. The Battle of Gettysburg had 52 written articles, poems, or illustrations while the Battle of Champion’s Hill, a western conflict, had 19. The Battle of Chancellorsville had 54 citations while the Battle of Shiloh had 38.

Southerners also produced some of the most influential post-war studies of the war, as they attempted to justify their “Second American Revolution.” Clement Evans of Georgia wrote “If we cannot justify the South in the act of secession, we will go down in history solely as a brave, impulsive but rash people who attempted in an illegal manner to overthrow the Union of our country.” As writers began to produce works they also began to modify and even recreate the origin and meaning of the conflict. Alexander Stephens, the former Confederate Vice President, wrote adamantly before and during the war that the conflict’s roots lay in the institution of slavery. After the war Stephens revised his earlier declarations and instead redirected attention to other causes of the war, including tariffs and representation, stating that the war “was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that Peculiar Institution (slavery).”

As former Confederates penned their wartime accounts, they shifted away from acknowledging slavery as central to the cause of the war which led to a greater focus on shared heroic experiences and leaders, and helped pave the way to the eventual reconciliation and “Lost Cause” ideas. Former Confederate General Jubal Early epitomized this tendency, as he sought to justify the legitimacy of the Confederacy, while downplaying the importance of slavery in the story of the war. Though following the war Early wrote extensively on the history of slavery, he focused on how slavery benefited the African-American race, but not on its centrality to either Confederate secession or Union war aims. The shift in perception and study of not just southerners but also many later historians of the war not only took away from the recognition of the importance of the battlefields of the west, its legacy has also skewed the way we view the war and its social, political, and economic impact to this day.

James Wilson, USA

Early did work tirelessly however to fix Robert E. Lee and other Confederate commanders as heroes in the minds of the public; the vast majority of these men on whom Early focused fought in the east. Others too began to place former Confederate leaders on a pedestal. Many former Confederates went out of their way to show that the Union war effort would have triumphed either way, as a way of almost excusing their defeat; they purported that though the southern soldier had fought the good fight, the sheer numbers of Union soldiers and the north’s industrial complex would have been too much for the southern economy to overcome, despite the outcome of individual battles. It was not that the south was out-fought or out-maneuvered; they had just picked a fight with a bully they could not contend with. Others made the Confederate lack of supplies the central reason that the South lost the war, yet today we know that the Confederacy was either very well supplied or had enough to make it by comfortably until mid-1864, and that the faulty southern supply system was actually to blame for the Confederate lack of supplies. None the less post-war authors focused on Confederate supply shortages and contrasted that with the abundance of food, material, and weapons which the North possessed. On July 6th, 1863 John Jones wrote of the supply situation for the troops around Richmond. “The War Department Guard have returned, my son among them, sun-burnt and covered with dust. They were out five days and four nights, sleeping on the ground, without tents or blankets, and with little or nothing to eat, although the Commissary-General had abundance, however as he marched through Georgia William T. Sherman commented on the abundance of supplies held by the south.” By focusing on supply, manpower and industrial shortages, these historians and commentators ensured that later readers viewed these factors as solely responsible for southern defeat, instead of also analyzing the conduct of the war as it occurred in the west as a major contributing factor to the southern loss.

On the military front many Confederate leaders focused their anger at the north and at other Confederate officers for the loss of major battles and the war itself. The majority of the writings of the Southern Historical Society revolve around the eastern theater. In the minds of many former Confederates there were two places to look for the loss of the war. First and foremost, the death of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson was and still is blamed by some for the southern loss of the American Civil War. Secondly, former Confederates pointed to the loss at Gettysburg as the other turning point of the war. The strategic southern losses of Vicksburg, control of the vitally important Mississippi River and other western turning points are overlooked.

John Brown Gordon, CSA

Many Confederates looked to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee as heroic figures, and focused on them to the exclusion of much else. For example, the writings of Douglas S. Freeman, Jubal Early, and John B. Gordon, all whom revered Lee and Jackson, paid little respect to the west or their western comrades or former foes. In his weekly radio show Freeman was known to downplay Grant and Sheridan, while showing the stellar qualities of Lee. Although Freeman was a 20th century author the roots of his writings tie back to Early and his compatriots, as well as their tendency to downplay the western theater. Early, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee were all former Confederate officers and the three were prominent players in the post war remembrance of the war. When Sherman wrote the first copy of his memoirs, Early and others repudiated his writings and downplayed his role in the war. They adopted the stance that it was not Sherman and his armies that defeated the south, but that it was the disproportionate northern advantage in men and material. Again, when Grant’s memoirs were published the same phenomena happened. Early and Gordon did not directly take on Sherman and Grant, yet they wrote prolifically and their works in Confederate Veteran Magazine and in the Southern Historical Society Papers strongly emphasized the dominance of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Southern veterans and authors also published papers and articles on the western army’s battles, but they mainly focused on the overwhelming number of Union troops and on the inept command structure of the Confederate high command in the west. Downplaying the strategic victories of western Union armies allowed the former Confederates to shift the focus of the war to the dramatic eastern Confederate victories, and away from their western losses. This also allowed the former Confederates to downplay the role of slavery and the superior commanders of the Union Western Theater.

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana

Early, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee also denied the west credit as a pivotal arena of battle by attacking other Confederate officers; for example, James Longstreet became the focus of a long and drawn out smear campaign. Longstreet was Lee’s second in command. He fought well throughout the war and like Jackson was wounded by his own men. Unlike Jackson however, Longstreet survived his wound. After the war Longstreet criticized the aggressive battle tactics employed by Lee and Jackson that, while often producing victories, cost more men than the South was capable of losing. Longstreet also pointed to Lee as the cause of southern defeat at Gettysburg. Longstreet said things that were often times true (sometimes not so true), but were also unpopular. Longstreet also emphasized that the west was the theater where the North won the war. He pointed out that on more than one occasion he had approached Lee and the war department requesting for his corps to be sent west. Longstreet was finally sent out west in late summer of 1863, and though his soldiers performed well at first, they were bogged down in army politics during the siege of Chattanooga and were ultimately unsuccessful. While Longstreet made great strides in recognizing the importance of the west, his writings were often seen as inflammatory because of their seeming disrespect of Lee’s accomplishments. Longstreet eventually became vilified though the counterattacks by Early, Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee, and unfortunately his sometimes astute points about the importance of the west were lost in the petty squabbling between the former generals.

Surprisingly, Grant also received a great deal of flack from veterans and politicians on both sides following the war. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took up his pen against Grant by falsifying army records and returns in publications. Stanton told of tens of thousands of soldiers that he sent to Grant while he battled Lee in 1864, and Stanton also told of horrendous losses during the campaign in an attempt to depict Grant as a commander who needlessly sacrificed men. William Swinton, an author on numerous books focused on the Army of the Potomac, blasted Grant and his strategy while also fabricating conversations between Grant and Meade. Grant was angered by the backlash against him, as were Major General James Wilson and Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, two of his staunchest supporters. Wilson and Dana wrote a biography completely disputing Swinton’s assertions. Amazingly, today Grant is still considered by many to be a butcher who was narrowed minded and dull-witted in the ways of war. Grant is also remembered for his head-on attacks against the outnumbered Confederates, however Grant and other western commanders’ sweeping flank attacks and victories in evenly matched battles are forgotten or simply overlooked.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battles, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory 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 8

  1. Dave says:

    Kristopher,
    I hope you have a few more articles on this subject to go, as so far there is not a mention of General George H. Thomas who did so much to attain victory in the western theater.

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