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

The conclusion of a series.

Please keep in mind that interviews for this piece were conducted in 2008. Some of  the interviewees may not hold the same job title or position today.

Written accounts provide invaluable resources which illuminate the war to modern historians, yet the battlefields themselves also help illuminate the history of the war, and for our purposes, help show again how our collective remembrance and understanding of the war is skewed eastward. Veterans had an enormous impact on which battles were perceived as important in the post-war years. After the war the south was economically devastated. Most southerners had the means to support themselves and little more. Northern veterans and leaders were in a better place economically and after the war they began to purchase battle lands.

Because of this, the purchase of lands normally revolved around Union victories. In the 1890’s five battlefields were either purchased or were donated to the War Department, and Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Chattanooga became the first five military parks in the United States. Four of the five battles are Federal victories, with Chickamauga being the only Confederate victory. The preservation of the battlefields was meant to memorialize the sacrifice of the Civil War soldiers, to protect the lands, and provide large classrooms for military staff rides and maneuvers.

From the late 1880’s until America’s involvement in World War II veterans held mass reunions on the battlefields. At these reunions numerous monuments were dedicated to the men who had fought and died in the war or at a particular battle. Perhaps the most famous of these reunions took place at Gettysburg. At the 50th anniversary of the battle President Woodrow Wilson came to Gettysburg along with more than 50,000 veterans, and in 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt came to Gettysburg and dedicated the “Peace Light Memorial” to “Peace eternal in a nation united.” The festive atmosphere drew an estimated 250,000 people to the small Pennsylvania town. These reunions are remembered by many today as a symbol of healing and postwar reconciliation between northerners and southerners alike. The ceremonies at Gettysburg were huge events and are very well-known by historians as symbolic of reconciliation, however the Gettysburg reunions overshadow another of the largest veteran reunions and battlefield dedications in the post-war period.

The dedication of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park had nearly 50,000 veterans and spectators who attended the dedication of the nation’s first military park, and while then-President Grover Cleveland did not attend, Vice-President Adlai Stevenson did come to the event. Today Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park is the largest military park in the world-a fact which many would find surprising-but the park is overshadowed in the mind of the public by Gettysburg and many of the well-known eastern battlefields. These eastern battlefields have more monuments (a combined total of 1,600 between Gettysburg, Antietam and Fredericksburg) and saw more casualties during the war, and they also are in closer proximity to the population base of the northeast. However, they also are undisputedly much better known than western battlefields, including Chickamauga & Chattanooga, which certainly is one of the main factors in their higher visitation rate. 

The preservation of Gettysburg in particular is a fascinating study of Civil War memory and on how strongly it emphasized the Eastern Theater. The meaning of the battlefield of Gettysburg has morphed over the years thanks to novels, movies, and the veterans themselves. The battle is perceived by many as the major turning point of the war. Unlike Antietam, Gettysburg was a decisive Union victory. The battlefield is located in a northern state and it is in close proximity to Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City. Immediately following the battle locals began purchasing land, both for the purpose of preservation as well as for financial profit.

Soon after, and unlike other major American battlefields, Congress paid a historian to create a history of the battle. John Badger Bachelder was paid $50,000 by Congress to put together a history of the battle. At the time, this was a huge sum of money, and an act such as this also helped to set the precedent that the east was more important than the west and that Gettysburg was more important than all other Civil War battlefields.

John B. Bachelder and his wife.

Bachelder followed the Union army and collected stories from commanders, common soldiers, and civilians alike. The amateur historian collected numerous accounts until he eventually has amassed three full volumes of letters and maps on the battle. Unfortunately Bachelder collected a wealth of information but at the same time created a wealth of misinformation. Bachelder fought with veterans over unit placement. One former Union general contested the spot where he was wounded, as Bachelder said one place while the general asserted it was another. Finally the general, Winfield Scott Hancock, told Bachelder that “I should know, I was actually there.”

Bachelder also keyed in on landmarks such as the now famous copse of trees. The small woodlot was only 6-8 feet high on July 3rd, 1863 when Pickett’s Charge was launched, and the copse of trees was the supposed aiming point. After the battle Bachelder paid a local farmer to not chop the woodlot down and even replanted some trees. The emphasis was placed on a landmark that the Confederates could barely if at all make out from just under a mile away. That same day in Vicksburg, Grant met with Confederate general John C. Pemberton under a tree in Vicksburg, Mississippi to accept the terms of Pemeberton’s surrender. Few know of Grant’s tree at Vicksburg while most who visit the battlefield at Gettysburg make a point to see the Copse of Trees made famous by a non-combatant.

Veterans also changed the physical landscape of the battlefield and Gettysburg’s place in national memory by placing some 1,400 monuments at Gettysburg. Some were even placed by units that never fought there. The oldest living Union veteran has a monument, yet he was a western war soldier named Albert Woolsen. He never fought at Gettysburg but by the time of his death, Gettysburg overshadowed all other Civil War battlefields and thus his monument was placed in the east, not the west.

Gettysburg also had Congressional help in the form of former Union general Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles was one of the men responsible for the preservation of Gettysburg. He was a veteran of the war and the battle. Through his efforts and his stature as a politician he helped publicize the battle in newspapers across the north. He pushed for more funding of the battlefield and he even donated government surplus fencing and other items to the battlefield.

There is little doubt that Gettysburg was an important battle and was one of the turning points in the war. The battlefield is pristine and the National Park Service has well over 1.7 million visitors per year. But because of the emphasis on Gettysburg, the enormous and nearly simultaneous Union victory at Vicksburg becomes somewhat lost in the shuffle. Many do not see Vicksburg as a turning point unless it is coupled with Gettysburg. Recently some historians have attempted to show that the two battles together were a great turning point. In James McPherson’s work The Battle Cry of Freedom, he tells both sides of the story in the east and in the west. His treatment of both theaters is very fair and balanced, but McPherson illustrates the importance of not just Gettysburg, but Vicksburg as well. Duane Schultz has also produced a recent book The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 1863. In the book Schultz illustrates the importance of both battles not just one.Vicksburg seems to always be coupled with Gettysburg because of the popular acceptance of Gettysburg as the critical turning point in the war.

Author Shelby Foote.

Modern historiography also falls in line with the historic tendency to view the Western Theater as less important than the Eastern Theater. Gettysburg is by far the most written on battle and topic of the war. A simple Amazon.com search reveals hundreds of works on Gettysburg. Eastern battles also far outnumber western in terms of publication output each year. A few recent works however have focused on the west. Steven Woodworth has produced several books on the western theater from mid July 1863 through early 1864. Woodworth has also produced recent works on some of the western armies as well. Happily, Woodworth fills in many of the gaps in scholarship left between some books that end at Vicksburg and start with Atlanta Campaign. Noah Andre Trudeau also has turned to the western theater, recently publishing a work on Sherman’s March to the Sea. This is a shift from his three previous books on Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign of 1864, and the retreat from Petersburg. Terrence Winschel has also worked recently on the west with his two-volume work on the Vicksburg Campaign.

Over the years though, the bulk of works on the Civil War have focused solely on the Eastern Theater. Prominent Civil War historians Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, and James Robertson almost wholly ignore the western war. Gallagher has focused much of his attention on the Army of Northern Virginia and the memory of the war. Krick is an expert on the eastern Confederate army and Stonewall Jackson. James Robertson has produced volume after volume on Stonewall Jackson and his men, but has produced little outside of said realm.

The famed historian Bruce Catton focused a great deal of attention on the Army of the Potomac. Both men have written volumes on the main army in the east. Catton wrote his classic series as a deep introduction on the war. Others have focused their work more exclusively on the south, including the aforementioned Douglas Southall Freeman and recently Joseph Glatthaar. The two have produced extensive works on the Army of Northern Virginia. Sadly over the decades the veterans and many major historians have relatively ignored the west due to its lack of public recognition. Dr. Peter Carmichael, acquisition editor for the University of Tennessee Press, states that editors know what sells, and that is Lee, Jackson, and the east. Carmichael had to change the title of one of his books because the editor wanted Lee’s name in the title, as that would ensure more copies would sell. Many historians want their books to sell and the west just won’t sell as well as the east.

Historian Bruce Catton.

David Roth, the editor of Blue & Gray Magazine states that “the war in the west is where it was won and lost. In the east it was two prize fighters locked in a phone booth beating the hell out of one another for 10 rounds. In the west it was an open field passing game. Huge gains were made that the south never got back.” Roth makes an interesting statement in that “Civil War buffs in the Trans-Mississippi know the war better than anyone east or west. They have to know the east because that is what is written and sells, but they live in an important Civil War region and want to know about the west as well.”

Civil War artwork, which has gained in popularity in recent years, also reflects the public’s focus on the eastern theater and more specifically on its personalities. Most of the southern art centers on Lee and Jackson. These works of art focus not only on military or battle scenes, but also depict primarily southern leaders in domestic or religious poses, reflecting how the public likes to envision and remember its heroes. One would be hard pressed however to find artwork depicting western battles or leaders. The romanticism that has become part of Civil War remembrance embraces the familiar eastern scenes and battles which resonate with the public and it is not likely that a painting ofVicksburgor George Thomas could go far in capturing the imagination of a public weaned on tales of Gettysburg and Robert E. Lee. This deficit in western art is not necessarily positive or negative, but it does reflect the interests of the vast majority of Civil War enthusiasts.

Documentary filmaker Ken Burns.

Television has certainly played an even bigger role than artwork in fixing the eastern theater as the one of importance in the public mind. In 1990, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns produced The Civil War, a ten part documentary that told the story of the Civil War in America. Burn’s documentary was a huge success and to this day many Civil War enthusiasts highly recommend the series. The general public received the film with open arms, but many Civil War historians took a different view. Dr. Gary Gallagher states that Burn’s greatest achievement was his “ability to fire the imagination of millions of Americans, sending them in large numbers to libraries and bookstores.” This is a great compliment to the film in that it opened the minds of many Americans to their history. Yet, Gallagher goes on to say that the treatment of the military dimensions of the war was “utterly conventional” and betrayed an “ignorance of modern scholarship.” Gallagher also maintained that Burn’s approach was old fashioned in its geographical imbalance between the eastern and western theaters of the war.

Gallagher felt that the film stressed Gettysburg at the expense of many other neglected turning points, while playing into the traditional view of Robert E. Lee as a military genius. Burns fed into the Lost Cause ideology as he showed the Confederacy as a “mantle of hopelessness, and he sacrificed too much complexity of the war and its aftermath to novelist Shelby Foote’s charm, over simplification and “fetching anecdotes” according to Gallagher. Burn’s film still has a large impact on the Civil War community and while it did spark the interest of an enormous number of Americans in the Civil War, its oversimplification of the war and disproportionate focus on the west left large gaps in the knowledge of a new generation of Civil War enthusiasts.

Historian Douglas Southall Freeman

It appears now that in the near future the primacy of the war in the east will continue in the minds of Civil War enthusiasts and historians alike. The eastern seaboard is still one of the major population centers in the United States. Around the Washington D. C. area many travelers still make their way to Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, and a litany of other Civil War Battlefields and sites. Far fewer visitors venture to places like Shiloh and Vicksburg. These battlefields sit far from major population centers, and far fewer visitors feel the need to walk where the western soldiers fought. Even a study of website use on major National Park Service battlefield sites reveals the majority of the site “hits” are on the websites of eastern battlefields.  Web use for some of the major battlefields shows that Gettysburg saw 4.7 million website hits for the fiscal year 2008. More than 1.1 million hits were recorded by Antietam National Battlefield’s website. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park had just over 634,000 hits. These are three of the largest and most well known battlefields in the east. Western battlefields witnessed significantly fewer hits. Vicksburg had 425,000, Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park had 335,000, and Shiloh had 482,000 website hits for the fiscal year 2008, numbers that pale in comparison to eastern battlefields.

Popular memory, while not always entirely historically accurate, is enormously influential in how we as nation view our collective history. The leadership of the Civil War was largely composed of individuals with eastern backgrounds or with ties to the east, and the contemporary sources documenting the war were also primarily located on the eastern portion of the United States. The decision of commanders during the war to focus on the epic, yet often unproductive, struggle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, coupled with the public and media’s greater interest in this arena, helped to solidify in the wartime national public the vast importance of the events in the east. Bias against western commanders and soldiers did little to change this focus. With the end of the war, the national public sought to memorialize their sacrifice as well as to make sense of their shared struggle, and in part this was accomplished by focusing literary output and preservation efforts on the well known stories of the eastern battles that had captivated the attention of the nation during the war and where so many had lost their lives.

The Western Theater of the war was critically important to the overall outcome of Union victory, but the national consciousness has been shaped so thoroughly by these factors to remember the tragic, romantic and heroic stories and figures from the eastern battlefields, which are so well known and loved by the public to this day.  In the end, the understanding of how the Western Theater of the war has taken a backseat to the events in the east provides a constructive example of how national memory is shaped and clarified, and how we as a nation have remembered and tried to make sense of such a divisive and tragic period. Hopefully one day the public will embrace the story of the Western Theater and its participants with as much fervor as it has embraced the story of the Eastern Theater and the enormous contributions of the Western Theater will be better remembered and understood.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Emerging Civil War, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. I liked this series. Growing up in Florida, I’ve always had an interest in the underdog regions of the war. It doesn’t hurt that my favorite Civil War generals are Samuel Curtis and George Thomas either, I suppose.

  2. Max Terman says:

    Online Colleges has listed the best books for studying the Civil War. It appears the eastern theatre is most represented (http://tinyurl.com/8254623).

  3. Dave says:

    Thank you for a very interesting series. That “many historians want their books to sell and the west just won’t sell as well as the east” is a sad commentary on some Civil War authors and explains why the full unvarnished history of the Civil War has not come out even after 150 years.

    As long as it is only ‘profitable’ to write about subjects like Gettysburg, Lee and Grant, it will be a long time before Civil War History overcomes Civil War Legend. But if that is what the general public wants, apparently that is what our historians will keep dishing it out.

    • I don’t know that it’s just the historians themselves so much as it’s a lot of publishers. If they can’t make money on a book, they aren’t going to publish it. Money, as a reflection of public interest, drive a lot of those decisions. There are a lot of dynamics involved there, unfortunately .Fortunately, some publishers do make it a point to cover the lesser-known areas of the war simply because the market is so crowded with books on already-well-known spots. It requires more marketing resources to do that, though, and an explicit mission to do so.

      LIkewise, a lot of historians write about a person or battle out of genuine interest, not just commercial appeal. I’ve been writing about Chancellorsville in various capacities for several years now, driven not by commercial motivation but a fascination with that particular engagement.

      I agree with you, though, that Civil War legend will keep trumping Civil War fact so long as audiences just want to keep reading about the things they already know. People need to branch out.

    • I am glad you enjoyed. To add to your comments and Chris’. I spoke to a roundtable last evening and one of the members actually brought up the topic of profitable publishing. They have been noticing it more and more with some of the topics i.e. Gettysburg, Lincoln, etc…. They said they see the same topics on shelves at bookstores and really hadn’t thought of it from the perspective of what sells and doesn’t.

      One person made the comment that to make being a Civil War Historian a career you really have to cut out a niche and write on that till your blue in the face.

      As Chris pointed out there are great publishers that are expanding the market place for lesser known bios, histories, etc…… Yet, I think, especially with the 150th cycle, we will see more and more Gettysburg books (needed or not), as well as Lincoln and other favorites.

      Hopefully new research will keep chipping away at the old norms and other personalities and actions will get their due.

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