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

Part four 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.


Trying to Earn Respect

Albert S. Johnston

Albert S. Johnston

Having seen however the strategic importance of the Western Theater, it is somewhat surprising to analyze the tendency of the high leadership of the Union and the Confederacy to focus on the Eastern Theater during the American Civil War. Upper level leadership played a critical role in how each respective side viewed their war objectives. In the grand strategy of the war both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis looked to the eastern theater as decisive areas of conflict, at least in the early stages of the war. During the early years of the war, while successes were being gained out west Lincoln and Davis were mainly focused on the eastern front. Davis was a notorious micro-manager, often hindering operations as they awaited his approval. An example of how this tendency hindered Confederate western operations can be found in his interactions during this period with his talented and trusted Lieutenant General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was then commanding in Tennessee. Following the fall of Fort Henry, Johnston sent word to Davis about the tenuous situation that his men were in. Instead of ordering a withdrawal, Davis ordered Fort Donelson reinforced. This action went against the advice of his military advisers and commanders in the field and hindered Johnston’s ability to effectively act.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Davis remarked “Many, wise after the event, have shown their skill in telling what all they knew afterward, but nobody told {me} before.” Davis failed to grasp the full implications of the fall of the two forts, as he also failed to grasp the full implications of many events in the west. Davis’ lack of focus on the Western Theater, along with that of other top Confederate leaders, resulted in supplies that were not distributed, reinforcements that were not sent and the faulty and often misguided deployment of men.

Davis also made egregious blunders in regards to his generalship and how he utilized them geographically. The Confederate President at many times sent troops and generals which he and Robert E. Lee considered inferior to the Western Theater, where they would effectively be out of their hair. On more than one occasion this came back to haunt Davis. William Loring, for example, was a “cast away” from the east. Loring quarreled with Lee when Lee thought that Loring sent one of Lee’s nephew’s on a suicide mission, while also clashing with Major General Thomas J. Jackson. As a result Lee cast Loring to the west. Brigadier General Alfred Iverson was also sent west following the Battle of Gettysburg, due to allegations of being drunk while in command on July 1st. Major General Daniel Harvey Hill was sent west after allegations he lost his copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 during the Antietam Campaign. None were particularly successful in the west.

William Wing Loring

William Wing Loring

It is patently obvious that the west did not have the best generalship for the Confederacy. Even those who hadn’t previously proved disappointing in the east were unsuccessful; western commanders Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk and Braxton Bragg were both friends of Jefferson Davis and they retained command time and again failure after failure. One Northern observer stated “He {Davis} always seemed to delight in thwarting the wished of others; and with a most mischievous obstinacy he followed the dictates of his own will, passions and caprice, rather than the councils of judicious advisers. This disposition was conspicuous in his appointment to important offices of his incapable personal and political friends; and the best Confederate army officers declare that by his interference in details, he was a marplot in the way of military affairs…At the beginning he appointed an incompetent and vicious companion-in-arms…This was done in the face of earnest protest.”

As the war dragged on the situation only became worse. The west became a dumping ground for inept troops and commanders, and for this the Confederates paid dearly. One major reason that both academic and popular historians today study the east more earnestly than the west is the general lack of respect many Civil War enthusiasts and historians have for the commanders in the Western Theater. The tendency of Davis and his top Confederate military advisers to view the western theater as a secondary arena of operations eventually would cost them the war. To illustrate this, Lee even proposed at one point to strip the Deep South of soldiers and attach them to Jackson, who would follow the Shenandoah Valley into the North. Lee then planned to also receive reinforcements and head north in a simultaneous assault with Jackson. This strategy was never undertaken, but it shows that Lee’s focus was firmly on the eastern theater in which he was operating. Before Vicksburg, Davis relented his eastern focused and proposed sending the bulk of Lee’s army west to Vicksburg to relieve the siege; Lee refused and then countered with the strategy that became the Gettysburg Campaign. Lee erroneously this maneuver could draw Union forces from Vicksburg to defend Washington. Lee focused on the east at the cost of the west, yet in contrast his subordinate James Longstreet actually advocated sending men west whenever possible. He was denied this until August and September of 1863, when he and his 1st Corps were shipped west to aid Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee.

President Lincoln

President Lincoln

Davis’ counterpart-Abraham Lincoln- also at times had a skewed sense of the importance (or lack thereof) of the west. The Northern approach to war was offensive in nature, with the major objective for the north being the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The city boasted the seat of the Confederate Government and sat just 105 miles south of Washington, D.C. The city was a major rail and industrial center for the south. It made perfect sense at the outset of the war for the North to focus on taking Richmond, but the North then focused on that objective in the early stage of the war to the exclusion of much else. Northern leaders believed if the nearby Confederate capital fell, then the entire Confederacy would soon follow suit.

The battle of Shiloh however began to convince Lincoln that the west could also be a very valuable theater of war. Northern sentiment following Shiloh was that Grant had earned too costly a victory, but Shiloh coupled with Forts Henry and Donelson, and the Fall of Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River caught the attention of Lincoln. Unlike Davis, Lincoln began to realize that there were substantial gains to be made in the west and that the war effort indeed may hinge on the west. Lincoln also realized that he lacked effective leadership in the east and that the west could become a training ground for many Union generals who could be successful in the east. The newspapers in the east ran stories detailing Grant’s drunkenness and butchery, and the citizens did not understand how Lincoln could support such a man. Lincoln could and did because he saw through the politics and the in-fighting and he looked for military success in his generals, in the hope of finding the talent who would end a war that was careening out of control. Unlike Davis, Lincoln began to rely on the west for victories, and they began to come in quick succession, with Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and the capture of Corinth, Mississippi, all occurring in 1862. Meanwhile, during this same time period McClellan and his Army of the Potomac still floundered four miles short of Richmond and in the Shenandoah Valley Major General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson humiliated three inept Northern politicians-turned-generals in the 1862 Valley Campaign. To Lincoln at least, it became patently obvious that the war could truly be won in the west, despite Union setbacks and reverses in the east.

Lincoln had transferred western general John Pope in mid-1862 to the Eastern Theater, and although Pope was a failure, with his transfer Lincoln had set a precedent to which he did not mind returning. Lincoln looked to the west to promote and transfer more western generals to the east where the nation’s focus still lay. Eventually Lincoln transferred Grant, Major General Philip Sheridan, and Major General George Crook to the eastern theater in March and April 1864. Lincoln even transferred an entire Army Corps (the Army of the Gulf) to the east. Unlike Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was willing to take gambles on western leaders in the east. In contrast to Davis, Lincoln’s recognition of the talent of western leadership and the necessity of having good leaders in both theaters paid the ultimate dividends; his comprehension of the importance of the west was enormously important to the final outcome of the war. Despite the fact that Lincoln did see the value in western men and leaders, like Davis he also sometimes used the west as a dumping ground for poor performing officers and men. Following his loss at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln shipped Pope west to Minnesota. Lincoln shipped Major General Joseph Hooker to the Chattanooga Tennessee region following his defeat in May 1863 at Chancellorsville, and the Army of the Potomac transferred the 11th and 12th Army Corps west two months after the Battle of Gettysburg. He did not practice this banishment of sorts to the west however to the extent that Davis did.

Alpheus S. Williams

Alpheus S. Williams

Public and high command biases existed during the war not just against commanders who fought out west, but also against commanders and units who were native to the western United States. The 11th and 12th Corps were made up of many western units. During the Civil War, western units were usually composed of men from Ohio and points westward. The Army of the Potomac was made up of almost entirely eastern units and eastern generals. Three out of the four main commanders of the army were from the east. McClellan was a Pennsylvanian as was Major General George Gordon Meade, and Joseph Hooker was a Massachusetts man. Short lived Army of the Potomac commander Major General Ambrose Burnside was the only commander of the army from a western state, as he was a native of Indiana. The bulk of the fighting men in the army were from New York and Pennsylvania. In the western armies the majority of the fighting men came from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Amongst the northern soldiers, a regional rift even formed. This rift would eventually play a small role in how prolific eastern post-war writers remembered their western colleagues. The eastern armies were viewed as “soft” by many of the western troops. Western units had advanced across thousands of miles of Confederate territory. They had secured numerous rail lines, factories, and key southern cities, and had bagged three armies along the way, yet they could not comprehend how their eastern counterparts could not defeat Lee’s undersized army. On the other side eastern troops looked down their noses at many of the western troops. In appearance, western troops did not have the same spit and polish as the eastern armies. Eastern armies also believed that western armies didn’t have to contend with the same quality of southern leadership as could be found in Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson.

General Ambrose Burnside

General Ambrose Burnside

A western commander whose failures seemed to epitomize western leadership to the public was Ambrose Burnside, remembered by many as the worst general the Army of the Potomac ever had. Burnside was a failure in life both prior to and during the war, and had avoided army politics as much as he possibly could. He was offered command of the Army of the Potomac three times. He turned it down twice. When he did take command of the army in late November 1862, he moved them to the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia and on December 13th Burnside attacked at two points on Lee’s line. His army was repulsed with heavy losses. More than 12,500 men of the Army of the Potomac became casualties of the disastrous battle. His actions at this battle became fixed in the minds of northern citizens, which did not endear them to western commanders. On January 26th, 1863 a little over a month after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside was relieved of command. Ambrose Burnside is just one example of a western leader that failed in the east and who set a precedent in the minds of many easterners regarding the nature of western command. Burnside is also an example of how eastern newspapers either vilified or overlooked western commanders.

Western commanders not only had to contend with a lack of trust from the public, but also from their superiors. By December 1862 Henry Halleck was the General-in-Chief of the armies and carried greater power than ever. Time and again he went out of his way to block Sherman, Grant, and Sheridan as they moved up the chain of command. Halleck was a New Yorker that did not relish fighting in the west at the beginning of the war. He also did not relish the fact that Grant became his superior later in the war. One of Grant’s biographers noted regarding Halleck’s promotion to General-in-Chief that though Halleck was “Unable to command successfully one army, he was ordered to Washington to command all the armies.” Above all, Halleck’s disdain and disregard for western commanders and strategy mirrored the feelings of much of the North.

Thomas Ruger

Thomas Ruger

An aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg is illustrative of the uphill battle which native western commanders and units or those fighting in the west faced in trying to gain recognition from top commanders. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the 11th and 12th Corps were shipped west to the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. At approximately the same time they were moving to the west, Meade’s battle report for Gettysburg was hitting the newspapers around the country. The 12th Corps played a very prominent role in the battle but contemporaries and even modern historians largely overlook their contributions. The Corps consisted of just 9,816 men at the battle. Nearly one third of these men were from Ohio. The corps fought in the Culp’s Hill sector of the battlefield on the right end of the Union line. The Corps, with the help of the 1st and 11th Corps, repulsed numerous Confederate assaults on the evening of July 2nd and on the morning of July 3rd, yet the corps lost just 4% of the men engaged. The men of the 12th Corps secured the Baltimore Pike, which was a major Union supply route, and one of only two roads which the Union Army actually controlled into Gettysburg. Confederate units came to within 400 yards of taking the Baltimore Pike but they were beaten back by the corps. After the battle Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, who was the acting 12th Corps commander, read Meade’s report in one of the eastern newspapers. Williams wrote home to Detroit Michigan in November 1863, “We are all now terribly disgusted after reading Meade’s report. He not only ignores me as a corps commander, but don’t even elude to the 1st Division, which lost more men on the morning of July 3rd than the 2nd Division to which he gives the whole credit of the contest on that part of the field.” Williams went on to say, “I have read botched reports, but I think Meade’s beats all in blunders and partiality…To make matters worse, another Pennsylvanian, Gen. Geary {Brigadier general John White Geary}, gets all the credit of the operations on the right during the morning of July 3rd, and myself, who spent a sleepless night in planning the attack, and my old division commanded by Gen. Ruger {Brigadier General Thomas Ruger}, which drove the Rebs. from their double line of entrenchments, are not alluded to.”

Politicians, the press and commanders overlooked Williams and many other western generals in the Army of the Potomac. When higher-ups did not overlook these men, they were often turned into scapegoats. Major General Carl Schurz is one of these unfortunate scapegoats. He immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s and settled in Wisconsin. At the Battle of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg he was one of many German/western officers who were blamed for the rout of the Union’s 11th Army Corps. Brigadier General Nathaniel McLean was another. An Ohio native, he had the fingers of many eastern officers pointed at him for the debacle on May 2nd at Chancellorsville. Schurz and McLean were both shipped west almost as a former of punishment.

As we can see there was a large rift between eastern and western officers in the Union army. This rift carried over into the post-war days. Most of the glory for the victory at Gettysburg, for example, was given to eastern commanders and eastern troops. Western units that did fight well are often overlooked, with the exception of the famous Iron Brigade. This brigade consisted of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan. The Iron Brigade put together a stellar fighting record, but their commanders used them as cannon fodder at many battles, placing them in the toughest spots where they sustained some of the highest casualties. These men were the exception to the rule in the east.

Western commanders and troops may have had a more difficult time gaining the respect of their superiors, but they also were greatly affected by the media’s perception of their contributions to the war. Media coverage of the war played an enormous role in shaping the public’s perception of the areas and figures of importance in the war. The majority of the population of the United States during the war was spatially located on the eastern coast of the nation, and thus naturally the major newspapers were located in the east and primarily focused on the east, as well as on the ramifications of political action in their respective capitals. . At the beginning of the war, newspapers on both sides focused on the political aspects of the war while also publishing camp gossip and relaying news sent home by officers and men from the front. Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, newspapers in the north and south took the story of the two forts and did focus prominently on it, in what would be a departure from the vast majority of the eastern coverage of the war. This however would prove to be the exception to the rule, as eastern battles and commanders subsequently grabbed headline after headline of the major periodicals and papers.

William T. Sherman

William T. Sherman

Even when western leaders requested coverage by the press, they found it difficult for their stories to be told. Shortly after the loss at Fredericksburg, Southern forces soundly defeated William T. Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou, while Sherman was leading a force towards Vicksburg. Sherman and his brother John Sherman wanted William’s battle report published in the eastern newspapers. The brothers wanted the true story and circumstances of the battle to be known, but this was not to be. Politicians, generals, and the media focused so heavily at the time on Lincoln and Burnside in the east that they had little notice of Sherman’s attack, which took a back seat to the news of the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed into law on January 1st, 1863. Ironically, while in victory at Shiloh the western armies received bad press, now in defeat they could receive little coverage at all.

John Sherman wrote his brother, “I asked Gen. Halleck to allow me to publish it. {report on Chickasaw Bayou} He declined, unless the Secretary of War consented, and said he would submit my application to the Secretary. Afterwards I saw the Secretary, and he told me he had directed a copy of the report to be furnished for publication. I again called at Halleck’s and saw Gen. Cullum, who objected to the publication on various grounds…This morning I received a note from Halleck stating that…he did not deem it advisable to publish the report at present.”

About Kristopher D. White

Civil War author and historian.
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