Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost: Part Three

Part three in a series.

This series was put together from one of my extended graduate school research papers. The sources used were the current research between 2007-2008, obviously the historiography of the Civil War expands on a monthly basis, thus some of the “current research” in the paper is no longer exactly current.


Late War and Losses

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

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.

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, 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.

William T. Sherman
William T. Sherman

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. 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.

With the end of the war came demobilization and reconstruction of the country socially and politically. In victory, the western armies had put together a stellar fighting record, and they were the backbone of the overall Union war effort. From 1861-1865 the Union war effort in the west captured more major Confederate cities, rail centers, and ports than did the eastern armies. The western armies also took tens of thousands of acres of land away from the Confederate bread basket and helped break the will of the south as Sherman ravaged Georgia. The west also witnessed the rise of Grant, the most successful commander of the Civil War, and while in the west Grant captured two Confederate armies and helped secure the Mississippi River, Tennessee River, and Cumberland Rivers. Sherman and Grant together also formed the forerunners of our modern army group.

Johnston and Sherman meet to discuss the terms of Johnston's surrender.
Johnston and Sherman meet to discuss the terms of Johnston’s surrender.

In comparison with the west, it took eastern Union forces four years to take the single objective of Richmond. McClellan was within four miles of the city in June 1862, only to end up 175 miles away in September of that same year. The major Union war effort never made it back to the Richmond area until June 1864, and it still took a nine and a half month siege to finally capture the city. The Shenandoah Valley, the breadbasket of Virginia, was not secured until late October of 1864. The Army of the Potomac had its own tumultuous history, facing defeat after defeat, and though they were ultimately victorious, their path to victory was paved with far more set backs than soldiers in the Western Theater endured.

Casualty figures and the size of engagements-regardless of their overall strategic importance-certainly captured the attention of both contemporaries as well as later students of the war. A brief examination of losses in battle may also hold a key as to one reason why historians and the general public focus on the east so consistently. Of the top ten bloodiest battles of the war, six out of ten were located in the Eastern Theater:

1. Gettysburg
2. Chickamauga
3. The Seven Days Battles
4. Antietam
5. The Wilderness
6. Chancellorsville
7. Shiloh
8. Atlanta
9. Second Bull Run
10. Stones River

Losses on the brigade level may have had an impact as well. Of the top ten losses by Confederate brigades only 3 of the top 10 were from the west. Of the Union forces, the same study shows 3 of the top 10 Union brigade losses were also from the west. On the regimental level, out of the top ten Union infantry regiments with the greatest percentage lost in an engagement, all ten come from the east. One could argue that the greatest sacrifice of the war in blood came from the east. The bloodiest battle of the war-Gettysburg-was fought in the east. The Battle of Antietam, which was the bloodiest single day of the war, also took place in the east. Sacrifice in blood equates to fame for many of the battles as well as to importance in the minds of many. The great bloodletting in the east was in the forefront of the minds of veterans and in the writings of the “Lost Cause” during the post-war years.

Thomas Livermore compiled the losses of the war in a small and simple book naturally entitled Numbers & Losses in the Civil War 1861-1865. A comparison of the
losses between the east and the west is enlightening.

The East (Combined losses North and South):         The West:

Fair Oaks: 11,165                                                                           Shiloh: 22,856
The Seven Days Battles: 36,463                                                Perryville: 7,607
2nd Bull Run: 25,251                                                                   Chickamauga: 34,624
Antietam: 23,110                                                                          Chattanooga: 12,491
Gettysburg: 51,112                                                                        Atlanta Campaign: 50,805
The Overland Campaign, May 5th-June 15th 1864: 76,592

The bloody nature of the war has a huge impact on how we study the individual battles and the different theaters. Staggering casualty figures naturally captured the attention of a nation that lost so many individuals during the conflict. The higher rate of casualties on eastern battlefields helped ensure that greater number of loved ones, family and veterans would remember and seek to memorialize these places of sacrifice.

2 Responses to Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost: Part Three

  1. Your Atlanta campaign combined losses are off. I am not sure where Livermore’s 20,955,figure comes from, but it is radically in error. The campaign, from May through the fall of Atlanta in early September, cost a total of 69,460 combat casualties. The Federals lost 37,632, and the CSA, 31,828. measuring just from May to July, when Johnston was relieved, (comparable to the overland campaign) the losses were 21,925 Federal and 14,213 CSA – total of 36,138.

    I also find it interesting that Chattanooga was chosen as the first national Military Park, primarily because men from both the east and west fought there, allowing for the broadest possible base of political support for going forward with a land purchase.

    In general, i agree that the higher bloodletting totals tend to focus attention eastward. Of course, the armies were bigger in the east, as well – measured in percentage, the losses tend to look a lot more balanced.

    1. Dave,

      The Atlanta numbers is my mistake. Thanks for catching that. Livermore has it combined at 50,805. Still off, but not off by what I had it at. My mistake on that not his.

      I agree with you on Chattanooga, that is a fascinating study in post war memory. Not to mention a great campaign to study as well. One of my favorites.

      The bloodletting is a huge piece of the puzzle. In the years since I wrote this I have learned a ton more and uncovered (for a lack of a better term) much more in terms of the Civil War popularity contest as it were (east vs. west). I plan on reworking the piece in the not so distance future to incorporate what I have uncovered.

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