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

Part five 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.


The War According to the Literature

Senator John Sherman
Senator John Sherman

If western commanders could not get their words or actions into the press because of the dominance of the media’s focus on the events and people in the east, they could not blame reporters only, but also themselves. Many of the western commanders did not endear themselves to newspapermen, and contemporary newspaper coverage reflected this. Wartime newspaper coverage, often heavily utilized by modern historians, reflects as well as helps perpetuate this eastern bias. Sherman wrote to his brother John that he thought “newspaper correspondents regard me as the enemy of their class. I announced that all such accompanying {toward Vicksburg} were and should be treated as spies. They are spies because their publications reach the enemy, give them direct and minute information of the composition of our forces, and while invariably they puff up their patrons, they pull down all others.” Sherman had a very good point, as officers on both sides read the paper for information. Another great point he had was in regards to “pulling down all others.” Newspapermen were known to create stories that slandered generals and politicians alike, and that often contained only a kernel of truth.

U.S. Grant is one western commander who found that his story was actually told in eastern news outlets, though he might have preferred that it had not been. Though one of the most talented of Union commanders, Grant encountered a great deal of early popular criticism and resistance to his leadership while acting as a western commander; this criticism came from not only other commanders but also from the press, which in turn affected the attitudes of the northern people. As a western general in the early stages of the war he did not capture the public’s attention or heart like dashing George McClellan, and despite his victories his personal habits were called into question by the public and he was also derided as a “butcher” in the press. Army politics even downplayed the importance of Grant’s early accomplishments. Henry Halleck and Don Carlos Buell wrote to the War Department, politicians, and newspapers following the battle of Shiloh in an effort to downplay Grant’s role and spread the idea that Grant was a drunkard. New York Herald reporter Frank Chapman wrote that Grant was so drunk at Fort Donelson that he fell from his horse. Grant was an accomplished horseman and the story is most likely untrue. In retrospect this all seems petty and not worthy of notice, but there is an importance to the controversy. While Western commanders were bickering, and they projected an image that, once it made it into print, did not encourage citizens at home to respect them or their actions. The generals’ battle of words in the newspapers following the fall of Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh showed that Western command was divided at best, and that the press’ reporting of this division affected how many northern citizens viewed the western conduct of the war.

John Pemberton
John Pemberton

After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant and Sherman took some of the headlines from the eastern forces, though this mostly occurred in the papers located in Ohio and other western areas. John Sherman wrote to his brother William “How completely the tone of the press has changed in regard to you. Even the “Gazette,” {Cincinnati Gazette} which has been malignant to the last degree, published quite a number of letters in which your share of the movements about Vicksburg was highly praised.” Sherman and Grant were well represented in the western newspapers following Vicksburg, yet the eastern seaboard still remained focused on the east, since the Battle of Gettysburg had just ended a day before Southern commander Pemberton had surrendered his army at Vicksburg.

Shortly after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, John Sherman stated that “Popular opinion is so changeable that it is worthless.” . “Meade has had a foretaste of this. His drawn battle at Gettysburg relieved the country from a great danger, and he was at once a hero; he was the coming man. He has allowed Lee to escape him, and all his popular honors are lost. McClellan has succeeded in establishing the position of a party leader, and now enjoys the bad honor of being cheered by a New York mob of thieves and scoundrels, while poor Hooker is dropped by all just when he thought he had Lee in his power.” John Sherman illustrates perfectly the thought process of wartime Americans. His brother was just in one of the most successful Campaigns of the war and had played a very prominent role in the campaign, but John focused on matters in the east. Militarily and politically, John Sherman shifted the focus from his brother’s triumph to the Eastern Theater with a few short sentences.

Dramatic battles and political events also kept the northern eyes of the press and thus the public focused eastward. The Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg for example were dreams for media personnel. The media covered these battles for months, drawing on the will of the eastern population for more stories of the battles fought so nearby. Antietam, in September of 1862, in particular drew the attention of the country and the world in the press and beyond. Although the Battle of Antietam was not a lopsided victory for the Union cause, it did give the Lincoln administration the victory it needed to announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was a public relations gold mine for the north. Whether Northerners detested or revered its mandate, everyone had an opinion on it, and it captured the interest of the public in both the North and the South. Papers from France and Great Britain covered the story, as did all the major papers in the north and south. The Proclamation, the Battle of Antietam and its 23,000 casualties, coupled with the mid-term elections helped keep the focus of the war in the east. This is a fact that truly would not change until the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee from late September 21st 1863- November 26th 1863.

Matthew Brady
Matthew Brady

Another contemporary media factor that greatly impacted how the northern population viewed the eastern theater’s primacy was the importance of wartime photography. Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan traveled to many of the eastern battlefields as the battles were raging or had just been completed. These three men brought their work back to New York City and Washington D.C., displaying the horrors of war for all to see. Something to note though is the fact they were not covering the entire war. These men were limited by their equipment, which was hard to move since it was fragile and quite cumbersome. Because of this difficulty in travel, they did not venture far from their studios, but they still managed to capture some of the most famous photographs in American military history. Naturally though, because of their geographic limitations, the scenes of horror they brought back to the civilian population were almost solely of the eastern theater of fighting. Many horrific battles took place in the west, but relatively little photographic evidence exists of these battlefields until after the war, and almost none exists of western battles themselves.

Also fueling the eastern media focus was the beginning of the heavy use of telegraph lines within the eastern coast of the United States. Prior to the war the east had a much greater amount of telegraph lines. As the war progressed the mileage of lines was increased by the United States Signal Corps, while the Confederate telegraph lines dwindled as more territory was captured by the Union effort. These telegraph lines allowed both the newspapers and civilians to have a greater and more up-to-date understanding of the progress of the war in the east.

War time newspaper and periodical accounts were not the only literature dealing with ongoing conflict, as some individuals actually wrote histories of the war while it was still in progress. The first biography of Stonewall Jackson appeared in 1863, shortly after his death. The Army of the Cumberland put their Provost Judge John Fitch to work as the siege of Chattanooga was taking place. Fitch wrote Annals of the Army of the Cumberland. The 726 page book covers the Army of the Cumberland from its conception to the Siege of Chattanooga. The book was meant to tell the army’s tale and raise money for a monument at Stones River and charitable donations in the future. The book highlights the best of times in the army and is essentially a public relations piece following the debacle at the Battle of Chickamauga.

George Thomas
George Thomas

Another interesting wartime work came from an anonymous author. He called himself “An English Combatant, Lieutenant of Artillery of the Field Staff.” His book is entitled Battle-Fields of the South from Bull Run to Fredericksburg: With Sketches of Confederate Commanders, and Gossip of the Camp. The work itself only focuses on the Eastern Theater of the war and curiously is published in New York City in 1864. The work is centered on much of what was to come for the post-war literature of the war: Lee and Jackson and their daring maneuvers in Virginia.

Post-war literature was as influential as war time accounts at shaping the way Americans remember the Civil War. The writings of veterans following their protracted and often traumatic experiences at war began to mold the post-war national consciousness for many Americans. William Swinton became the early sounding board for the all things regarding the Army of the Potomac. Among Swinton’s most famous works is Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac for many in the north became a cottage industry. In 1867 Swinton published a book entitled The Twelve Decisive Battles of the War: A History of the Eastern and Western Campaigns, in Relation to the Actions That Decided Their Issue. Swinton was one of the first and only authors for a great length of time to examine both major theaters of the war. Swinton named the twelve following battles as being the most significant:

(As titled and ordered by Swinton)
1. Bull Run
2. Donelson
3. Shiloh
4. Antietam
5. Murfreesboro
6. The Monitor and the Merrimac
7. Vicksburg
8. Gettysburg
9. Wilderness
10. Atlanta
11. Nashville
12. Five Forks

The list includes six battles from the east and six from the west, and the selections are very astute. Swinton chose five of the bloodiest battles of the war: Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Murfreesboro. Many of the selections are of battles that helped change the tide of the war, including Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Nashville. Of Swinton’s major works this is by far the most balanced, since many of his other works focus entirely on the east and on the Army of the Potomac, to the exclusion of the Western Theater whose importance he cited in this work.

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.

Little Phil Sheridan
Little Phil Sheridan

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 mention 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
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 a 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 behind Lincoln’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.

Sherman and his generals
Sherman and his generals

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[sic], which may assist the future historian…”

Grant MemoirsIn 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.

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.

Jubal Early later in life.
Jubal Early later in life.

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, the Mississippi River and other western turning points are overlooked.

General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee

Many Confederates looked to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee as hero 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.

James Longstreet, CSA
James Longstreet, CSA

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, 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 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 evenly matched battles are forgotten.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!