Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
In his keynote address, Russell Weigley discussed how and why the Civil War in the West was different from the war in the East. This essay will focus on how Confederate leaders in the West responded to those different conditions and circumstances. For the purposes of this discussion, "the West" refers specifically to the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River: that is, the area containing Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and much of northern Georgia. This theater received less public attention at the time than events in Virginia, and until recently, historians, too, have often given it second place in their narratives. Public scrutiny, both contemporary and historical, focused on the great battles in the East. But a good argument can be made that the West is where the war was won--and where it was lost.
As Russell Weigley noted, perhaps the most important difference between the Eastern and Western theaters was simply the size of each theater: the Western Theater was much larger. Most of the headline-grabbing battles between 1861 and 1864 took place in a relatively small area of the Virginia Piedmont. It was bounded by the Appalachians on the west and the Chesapeake Bay on the east; Gettysburg marked its northernmost limit, and Petersburg its southernmost. Though it seemed big enough to the soldiers who had to march from place to place, it was a relatively small area: roughly the size of Connecticut. By contrast, the war in the West ebbed and flowed in an area nearly twenty times as large. Given these dimensions, railroads were critical. Braxton Bragg moved his army over a thousand miles by rail to outflank a Federal army in 1862; Longstreet took two divisions by rail across five states to reinforce the Confederate army on the eve of the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863; and Joe Johnston and Billy Sherman fought an entire campaign over the control of the Western & Atlantic Railroad in what may have been the decisive campaign of the war. In short, there was a dramatic difference of scale between the East and the West: the eastern theater was relatively confined, the western theater relatively vast.
Second, it is important to pay attention to the flow of the rivers in the two theaters. In the East, the rivers run mostly west to east, flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Their west-east axis meant that they acted as barriers to invading armies. The Potomac, the Rapidan, the Rappahanock, the North and South Anna, the Chickahominy, even the James River each acted as a potential defensive barrier for a defending army. Indeed, for much of the war in the East, the line of Rapidan-Rappahannock was the de facto military boundary between the two sides. Historian Dan Sutherland has referred to this river line, appropriately enough, as the "dare mark" of the Confederacy.1
But in the western theater, there were no such "dare marks." Most of the rivers there run north-south. This not only made them less useful for a defending army, but it also made them highways for an invader with superior sea power. One of the several advantages that the Union forces had in this war was their superior Navyon fresh water as well as salt water. The iron industry and the manufacturing capability of the northern states meant the Union could produce shallow-draft, ironclad warships that were specially designed to operate on the western rivers, and the South could do little to contest their mastery of the major rivers.
The most important river, of course, was the southward-flowing Mississippi, but other opportunities existed in the northward-flowing Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which also provided the northern states with ready-made avenues for invasion. The Confederates could, and did, build forts along these rivers to try to halt the gunboats, but one of the many things the Civil War demonstrated was that the advent of steam, iron armor, and explosive shells had tipped the balance of power from stationary forts to warships, and the campaign in the West would prove that passive defense against an active invader is a losing game. Like railroads, gunboats were far more important in the western theater than in the East.2
A third difference concerned the role of the press. In the East, the opposing armies fought mostly in the one hundred mile corridor between the two capitals. Field commanders nearly always had reporters wandering about their camps, interviewing officers and men alike, and sending stories back home. The close proximity of the armies in Virginia to the great cities of the eastern seaboard meant that the bright light of media scrutiny kept the eastern theater on the front pages. This scrutiny may well have contributed to the regular turn-over of Union commanders in the Army of the Potomac as well. McDowell, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker each commanded the army in only one major battle before getting the hook.
Perhaps because of this, army commanders came to distrust and dislike the reporters. But they knew there was little they could do about them. Interestingly, this affected the South less than it did the North. For one thing, southern newspapers had a greater tendency to be cheerleaders than critics, and when they did become critical it was generally to attack Jefferson Davis rather than any army commander. And this was especially true in the East where Robert E. Lee's tremendous prestige kept him exempt from public criticism.
On both sides, however, the West got less media scrutiny simply because it was further away from the big metropolitan dailies. It was as if the press shined a big spotlight on the stage of history: the eastern theater was the area inside the bright ring of that spotlight, while events in the western theater took place in the uncertain gloom on the wings of the stage.
This is not to say that newspapers did not report news from the West. But news from the interior less often grabbed the front page, and it was more often possible for army commanders in the West to limit the amount of access reporters had to military information. As John Marszalek has shown, Sherman, who despised reporters, banned them from his army, and on occasion even had them arrested. It would have been much harder for him to adopt such high-handed behavior in the eastern theater.3
And finally, there is a fourth important difference: the influence of politics. You cannot get away from politics in war. There is a tendency for Americans to think that politicians should have little to say about how wars are foughtthat it is all well and good for them to pass laws and make treaties, but when diplomacy fails and the nation turns to its armed forces, the politicians should then get out of the way and let the professional warriors do their work. In fact, or course, it has never really worked this waynor should it. As the German theorist Karl von Clausewitz warned us more than a century ago, war is simply the exercise of politics by violent means. You cannot separate war from politics any more than you can separate leadership from decision making.
But for the Union in particular, politicsthat is, the amount of active oversight of military affairs by the civil governmentplayed a much more active roll in the eastern theater than in the West. Lincoln actively involved himself in strategic decision making. ("Meddled" is the word the generals used.) And he did so mainly in the East where public and media attentionboth domestic and internationalwas focused. Union generals in the West were under somewhat less pressure to demonstrate immediate results. Unsuccessful generals could still be fired, or course: Lincoln fired William S. Rosecrans in 1863 when he seemed to have lost his sense of purpose. But on other occasions, Union generals in the West got a pass. Both Grant and Sherman allowed themselves to be surprised at Shiloh in 1862 and were nearly overrun. Their management of the field at Shiloh was not significantly better than McDowell's at Bull Run or Hooker's at Chancellorsvillethough both had more nerve than Hooker. But they survived the experience, learned from it, and went on to become the command team that won the war. It is likely that a similar performance under the bright light of the Virginia theater might have led to an early exit from the historical stage.4
On the Confederate side, Davis more or less gave Lee a free hand in the East. Lee was not only successful, but he was also very deferential to Davisso much so that reading his obsequious letters today leads one to think that he was laying it on a bit thick. For both his actions and his attitude, Davis was willing to let his general in the East pretty much have his way. But Davis had a harder time finding the right man to command in the West. In fact, the turnover of Confederate generals in the West nearly matched the turnover of Union generals in the East, as we will see.5
These four pre-conditionsgeographical size, the axis of the different river systems, press attention, and politicsinfluenced, and in some cases, defined what Confederate leaders could and could not do in the western theater. But they had to play the hand that was dealt them, and how they played that hand is the subject of this essay. It will focus on seven men, each of whom was not only a decision-maker in the West but each of whom also represented an important aspect of the Confederate strategic dilemma in that theater of war. Each individual's experience highlights some of the important differences in how the Confederacy managed, or at least attempted to manage, the war in the West, and how that effort differed from the war in the East.
The best place to start is with Albert Sidney Johnston whose brief tenure as Confederate commander in chief in the West illustrated all four of these key differences.
Sidney Johnston was 56 years old when the war began. Jefferson Davis and many others in the Confederacy believed that he was the most promising officer in the army. He certainly had all the credentials. He was a West Point graduate, the First Captain, the top cadet in the corps. He had graduated in 1826, two years ahead of Jefferson Davis. It is quite possible that the future Confederate president had been somewhat in awe of Johnston when they had both been at West Point, and perhaps some legacy of that awe carried over to the war years. In any case, Davis believed that Sidney Johnston was the best general the South had, and he assigned him the most important job he had: commander in chief of Confederate armies in the West.6
It certainly was the most challenging job in the Confederacy. Johnston'assignment was to defend a border nearly a thousand miles long end to end from the Mississippi River to the Cumberland Gap. And it was a border with no natural geographical barriers. It would have been invaluable to Johnston if he could have used the line of the Ohio River, a useful "dare mark," but in the early months of the war, Kentucky (the birthplace of both Lincoln and Davis) declared itself neutral. Fearful of offending a potential ally, both sides declined to send troops into the state.
A second problem was the sheer size of Johnston's command theater. Once Kentucky's neutrality collapsed, Union invaders were able to pick their targets and concentrate on particular sites, but Johnston had to be prepared to defend everywhere, especially along the axis of the three major rivers that Union forces were likely to use as avenues of invasion.
Johnston dealt with these circumstances by stringing out his forces in a long line west to east more or less approximating the Kentucky-Tennessee border. From west to east, a small army of about 17,000 under the command of the so-called "fighting bishop" Leonidas Polk defended the Mississippi River at Columbus, Kentucky; then moving eastward, twin forts with strong garrisons guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers (Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland); Johnston himself commanded a field army of about 22,000 at Bowling Green, Kentucky, more or less in the center of the line, and another small army of 4,000 or so guarded the Cumberland Gap. It was a not unreasonable distribution, but fatally flawed: these sixty thousand men were spread out too thin for any one of them to be sure of success, and too far apart to be mutually supporting. As might have been predicted, the Union invaders picked them off one by one.
The lynchpin of the whole line was on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers where the two forts stood guard. And that is precisely where the Union blow fell. Four ironclad gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew Foote assaulted Fort Henry from the river while an army under Brigadier General U.S. Grant marched against the fort from the landward side. In fact, the fort surrendered to the naval gunfire before Grant even got there. Score one for the Navy. Soon afterward, Fort Donelson fell to Grant. One for the Army.7
But the strategic consequences of this campaign went far beyond the capture of a few forts. The railroad connecting Johnston's army in Bowling Green with Polk's army in Columbus crossed the Tennessee River just upstreamthat is, south ofFort Henry. Once that fort fell, Foote's gunboats could steam past it to destroy that bridge which cut the communications link between Johnston and Polk. As a result, both forces had to fall back out of Kentucky to avoid being isolated. Soon afterward, Union gunboats advanced up the Cumberland River as well, forcing a Confederate evacuation of Nashville, and eventually all of Tennessee. With the seizure of two forts, the Union gained effective control of two states. It was the railroad net and the rivers that dictated these events. Such strategic leaps were simply not possible in the East.
What Johnston learned from this experience was that he could not spread his forces out to cover a lengthy defense line. Therefore, his next gambit was to concentrate his far-flung forces and drive back Grant's army, which by now was advancing southward along the Tennessee River down to an encampment near Pittsburg Landing and a little church called Shiloh.
On April 6 Johnston's combined forces assailed Grant's army at Shiloh and drove it back to the banks of the river, but in the process, Sidney Johnston received a wound thatbecause he declined medical treatmenteventually caused him to bleed to death. Worse, from the Confederate point of view, Grant counterattacked the next morning and re-gained all that he had lost the day before. Shiloh was technically a drawn battle, but it was a chance for the South to regain the initiative in the war in the West, and it failed.8
Johnston did not live up to the high expectations that Davis had of him in part at least because he was utterly unprepared for the kind of war this one proved to be. The vast size of his command theater, the key role of the railroads, the importance of the rivers carrying armored gunboats, and perhaps his own out-dated sense of chivalry (best evidenced by his presence near the front lines at Shiloh where he was mortally wounded) all doomed him to disappointment. For all his glittering pre-war reputation, the burden of theater command was simply beyond him.
When Johnston fell on April 6, his second in command was the man with perhaps the most flamboyant name in the war: Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard. Beauregard already had an important victory under his belt, for he had commanded the field during the Confederacy's first victory of the war at Manassas or Bull Run. That battle had made him an instant hero in the Southbut not to Jefferson Davis. In fact, in the aftermath of the victory at Manassas, Davis and Beauregard had participated in a curious and unproductive little spat about who really deserved credit for it. In the end, Davis grew weary of Beauregard and his pretensions and shipped him off to the Western theater, not as a promotion, but to get him out of the way. Davis assumed that as Sidney Johnston's second in command, Beauregard could do little harm.
Then Sidney Johnson was killed.
Beauregard's principal characteristic as a commander was not only a personal flamboyance but also a tendency to view the strategic landscape through astonishingly rose-colored glasses. He was always coming up with one or another completely implausible scheme for immediate and total victory. Most of these went something like this: He would write to Davis and suggest that Lee bring his whole army west to join Beauregard's, that they then annihilate the enemy on their front, march across the Ohio River, then turn east to descend on Washington from the north, and dictate a peace in Lincoln's White House! (All of Beauregard's strategic proposals ended with the South dictating peace in the White House.) But he never offered specific details about how to accomplish any of this. He did not suggest, for example, what might happen in Virginia if Confederate troops evacuated the state to come West and help Beauregard win his victory. He merely asserted that it could be done and that Davis should see to it.9
No wonder Davis sent him away. But look where he sent him: to the Western theater. In some sense, Davis packed him off to the junior varsity. It was a practice that Lee employed as well. When Robert E. Lee took over the command of the Army in Virginia at about this same time, he measured his subordinate commanders by a simple standard: success. When a particular officer proved himself in combat, Lee promoted him; when he did not, Lee did not demote him (that was too confrontational, and Lee disliked personal confrontation), instead he contrived to have him sent to another theater, generally to the West. Without saying so, Lee used the Westor actually any theater outside Virginiaas a dumping ground for officers he did not want around him any more.
On this occasion, however, that strategy backfired. Davis believed he had sent the popular but mercurial Beauregard to a job where he could do little harm. Now Sidney Johnston's death made Beauregard the theater commander.
Beauregard did not handle the assignment well. After Shiloh, he fell back with the army to the railroad nexus at Corinth, in the far northern part of Mississippi, and tried to defend it from the combined armies of Grant, Pope, and Buell, each operating now under the supervision of Henry Wager Halleck. It was probably Beauregard's good fortune that it was Halleck in command rather than Grant, for Halleck's cautious, even plodding, advance gave the southern army something of a respite after Shiloh. In the end, Beauregard had to evacuate Corinth anyway, mainly because the water supply there would not sustain an army of some 40,000 men. He fell back southward twenty miles to Tupelo.
Davis had been skeptical of Beauregard to begin with. The retreat to Tupelo did not help. And then Beauregard did something that Davis could not overlook. The general declared himself ill, and without waiting for official permission, he granted himself leave to go home. That was just fine with Davis. He declared that Beauregard had abandoned his assignment, and issued a new order placing Braxton Bragg in command of the army.10
Braxton Bragg had the reputation of being the ugliest general in the Confederate army. It is not particularly evident in the most famous wartime photograph of him which instead suggests a certain ruggedness. But contemporaries noted that Bragg had a tuft of hair that grew between his eyebrows right above the bridge of his nose, so that there was an unbroken ridge of furry hair across his forehead that some apparently found repellant. Or it may be that the contemporaries who passed unflattering judgments about Bragg's looks did so because they were somehow seeing the inner man.
Bragg has few defenders among Civil War historians -- Steven Woodworth is the most prominent of them. He makes a good case that Bragg had sound strategic ideas and that he managed his army well. But for all that, Bragg found ways to annoy and irritate nearly every one of his subordinates. And eventually, he would resign in disgrace.11
But all that was in the future when Bragg took over the army from Beauregard in the late summer of 1862. He was in a tight spot: a new commander, untested, with the army already back on its heels after the bloodletting at Shiloh, and with a Federal armyif not in hot pursuit, then at least tepid pursuit. What to do? Bragg came up with a positively inspired solutiona solution that could only have worked in the western theater.
Bragg assumed command of the Confederate army at Tupelo, about 20 miles south of Corinth on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Buell's much larger army held Corinth and began moving eastward toward Decatur and Chattanooga. To outflank him, Bragg resorted to a movement that highlights both the vast size of the western theater and the central role of railroads. He put his army on a series of trainscramming the boxcars full to overflowing, and loading his men onto flatcarsand sent them rolling to Mobile. There they de-trained, crossed town, ferried across the Alabama River, picked up another set of trains on the newly-built railroad to Montgomery; transferred to another train to Atlanta; then to another that carried them from Atlanta to Chattanooga where they managed to arrive across Buell's line of advance before Buell had moved much beyond Decatur.
Bragg's use of the railroads, not only for logistic support, but for dramatic and unexpected troop movement, re-gained the initiative for the South in the western theater. He used that initiative to march northward into Tennessee, and then into Kentucky, at about the same time that Lee was crossing the Potomac into Maryland on the Antietam campaign.
Bragg's campaign nearly reached the Ohio River. It ended at the Battle of Perryville in October, where Bragg was forced to retreat back into Middle Tennessee at Murfreesboro. Still, it is evident that this dramatic and unprecedented use of the railroad to move an army across four states had changed the pattern of the war in the West.12
The rest of Bragg's tenure as army commander proved less flattering to him. He began to behave as if he had lost his confidence. He betrayed a curious combination of indecision and closed-mindedness. And at the same time his health began to deteriorate, perhaps as a result of the pressures of command and resulting tension. And Bragg's circumstance was also complicated by a new command structure in the western theater that pleased almost no one.
In November of 1862, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (who was no relation to Albert Sidney Johnston) reported himself fit for duty after recovering from the wound he had sustained outside Richmond the previous spring. Davis really had no job for him. One thing Davis was sure of: he was not going to take the Army of Northen Virginia away from Lee and give it back to Johnston. So what Davis did was create a new job for Johnston in the West: Johnston would become commander-in-chief of the Western Theater with supervisory authority over both Bragg's army of Tennessee and John C. Pemberton's Army of Mississippi.
Johnston did not like the assignment. In fact, he did not really understand it. Joe Johnston was part of a generation that saw the command of an army as the ultimate fulfillment of a soldier's career. He believed that the army commander was the man best positioned to make command decisions; he did not want to make a career of second guessing them. Besides, he believed that Bragg's force in Tennessee and Pemberton's in Mississippi were too far apart for effective cooperation anyway.
Davis disagreed. And as if to show him how it could work, Davis traveled out to Tennessee to meet with Johnston, and with Bragg. Davis thought Bragg's army in Tennessee was secure enough for the moment, so he ordered Johnston to detach 10,000 men from Bragg's army and send them to Pemberton in Mississippi. It was noteworthy that soon after the 10,000 men left Tennessee, the Federals there attacked Bragg's weakened army at Murfreesboro. And what was worse, the 10,000 men detached from Bragg arrived too late to help Pemberton in Mississippi.13
Johnston did not tell Davis "I told you so," but he was probably tempted. In fact, this incident marked an acceleration of an emerging distrust, even hostility, between Davis and Johnston. Davis eventually grew tired of Johnston's complaints and ordered him to go personally to Mississippi and help Pemberton defend Vicksburg from Grant. By the time Johnston arrived, Grant had already interposed his army between the two Confederate forces. Soon Pemberton was pinned inside the city. Johnston ordered Pemberton to fight his way out; Pemberton declined, and called for Johnston to fight his way in. In the end, neither happened, and Pemberton, after withstanding a 47-day siege, surrendered both Vicksburg and his army in early July, on the same day as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
Pemberton blamed his capitulation on Johnston who, he said, had never seriously tried to relieve him or to drive off Grant's army. In a poignant moment, Johnston was sitting outside his command tent near Morton, Mississippi, in late July when he saw a tall, lean officer striding up the hill toward him. He recognized Pemberton and leaped to his feet extending his hand. "Well, Jack old boy," he called out, "I am certainly glad to see you." Pemberton ignored the offered hand and instead saluted. Johnston slowly lowered his hand and Pemberton recited his prepared remark: "According to the terms of parole prescribed by General Grant, I was directed to report to you, sir." Then he saluted again, executed an about face, and strode back down the hill. They never spoke again.14
Pemberton was not alone in blaming Johnston. Davis, too, held Johnston responsible. When an aide in Richmond suggested to Davis that Vicksburg had fallen for want of supplies, Davis spat back: "Yes, for want of provisions inside, and a general outside who would not fight."15
Davis stripped Johnston of his supervisory authority in the West and reduced him to the command of a tiny force in Mississippi. With Pemberton gone and Johnston demoted, Bragg was again on his own, but he was about to receive substantial reinforcements from the East.
Prior to the Gettysburg campaign, Lee's Old War Horse, James Longstreet, had suggested that instead of going north into Pennsylvania, the army in Virginia should send some portion of its force to the West where things seemed to need bolstering. He even offered to go personally. Longstreet's critics argue that his suggestion was less the product of a careful calculation of the Confederacy's strategic needs than it was a careful calculation of his own chances to obtain an army command. Longstreet knew, these critics insist, that he would never get command in Virginia, but out West, among the junior varsity, he just might get his chance.16
Lee had overruled him in the spring, and the army had instead gone north. But in the aftermath of the Gettysburg campaign, Lee withdrew his objections and in the early fall, Longstreet took two divisionsthose of John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLawson another round-about railroad journey from Richmond south to Wilmington and Charleston, then west to Atlanta, and north to Chattanooga. By now the Confederate rail system was pretty shaky replacement rails were hard to come by, and large portions of the South's rail net was made up of what was known as "strap and stringer": the train ran on wooden rails with a quarter inch strip of metal affixed to the top. Trains had to keep to a slow speed, stops were frequent, and there was at least one spectacular train wreck en route.17
Despite these difficulties, Longstreet's men arrived in the West in time to help win the battle of Chickamauga in late September, though almost immediately afterward, the disarray in the Confederate command began to manifest itself afresh. Civil War scholars still argue over whether this disarray was because Bragg had slipped into a distrustful funk, or because Longstreet deliberately undermined his authority by encouraging what amounted to mutiny among the officers in Bragg's army. The answer here, as in most such issues, is both.18
The feud between Bragg and Longstreet undermined morale and readiness to such an extent that Davis had to make another trip out West to adjudicate. His solutiona disastrous onewas to separate the two squabbling children: he sent Longstreet off to besiege Knoxville thus giving him the independent command he had long coveted, and he left Bragg in sole command of the army in Chattanooga, but with only about 35,000 men now to "besiege" a Federal army in the city that had grown to well over 50,000.
Predictably, the result was disaster. Longstreet's attack on Knoxville came to nothing, and in December, the Federals burst out of Chattanooga and drove Bragg's demoralized army off Missionary Ridge.
At last, too late, Bragg submitted his resignation. But who would replace him? Not, Longstreet, he went back to Virginia to assume command once again of the First Corps in Lee's army. Not Pemberton, he was utterly discredited after Vicksburg and Davis fearedcorrectlythat the army would simply refuse to serve under him. Even if Davis could tolerate Beauregard (which was unlikely) that officer was now commanding the defense of Charleston where he seemed to be doing a good job. Davis was so desperate, he even asked Lee if he would take the job. No, Lee said, no thank you.
Who did Davis have left to appoint to command the Western theater? That man was Joe Johnston. Davis was not happy about it, but in the end he had no real alternative. So he swallowed hard and hoped for the best.
In 1864, Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Army of Tennessee in its duel with Sherman's forces in what has become known as the Atlanta campaign. It began in north Georgia, near Dalton, and lasted for three months as Sherman feinted, flanked, and maneuvered his opponent southward. Russ Weigley suggested that Sherman was too obsessed with Atlanta itself to go straight after Johnston's army, but his goal was to keep Johnston fully occupied. And at least some credit has to go to Johnston's adept defense.
Scholars still argue about whether Johnston's defense tactics were appropriate to the situation, or simply reflected an unwillingness on Johnston's part to come to grips with the enemy. Whatever the answer, his constant retrograde movements did not play well in Richmond. Lee, too, was giving up ground in Virginia, at the same time, but at least he was making Grant pay for it; the casualties in the eastern theater were appalling. Not so in the West. Each side lost about ten thousand men in this three-month campaign. (As an aside, it is worth noting that the American Civil War is the sole conflict where one could use the word "only" to describe twenty thousand casualties.)19
By the time Johnston had backed himself up to the outskirts of Atlanta, Davis had decided he could wait no longer for him to show some evidence of an offensive disposition. He sent Braxton Bragg out to find out what Johnston planned to do next, and recommend whether Johnston should stay in command or be replaced.
Bragg behaved badly in this role. He misled Johnston about the purpose of his visit, and he sent coded messages back to Richmond urging that Johnston be dismissed at once and replaced by the younger, more aggressively-minded, John Bell Hood.20
Hood was only 34 when he took command of the Army of Tennessee in July of 1864. But he looked at least a decade older. Only a year earlier on the eve of Gettysburg, Hood had seemed to some of his soldiers an almost God-like creature: "a gigantic old Saxon chieftain come to life," one wrote of him.21 Tall, broad-shouldered, with gold-blond hair that streamed out behind him, he was the very personification of war. But since then he had lost an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamaugathe price of his aggressive tendency. He had become a sad-eyed warrior.
Hood had lobbied hard for command of the army, sending Jefferson Davis secret telegrams behind Johnston's back, all of which suggested that the army was missing opportunities to delivery a counter-attack. If you like and admire Hood, you conclude that he did this because he cared so much about the outcome of the campaign; if you do not like him, you conclude that he was trying to get promotion for himself and stabbing his superior officer in the back.
In any case, once Hood gained command, he knew what Davis expected him to do with it. He attacked, three times. The results were the battle of Peachtree Creek, the battle of Atlanta, and the battle of Ezra Church, all Confederate defeats, though Hood described them in his reports as at least partial victories. The fact of the matter was that the Confederacy in general, and the Army of Tennessee in particular, simply did not have the manpower to fight the kind of battles that Hood envisioned. Not only did these battles fail to drive off Sherman, but they also cost the Confederacy more of its younger men then it could afford.
By September, Hood had shot his bolt. The army he had inherited had been reduced to no more than 30,000 effectives. He had to evacuate the city, and with its fall, the hopes of the Confederacy dimmed significantly.22 One problem was manpower. The war had become a numbers game, and this was a game the South could not win. Regardless of strategy or leadership, the South could not win without more men in the ranks. Where were they to come from?
One man thought he knew. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was a native of Ireland and had emigrated to the United States in 1849 settling in Helena, Arkansas, where he became first a pharmacist and then a lawyer. When the war broke out, he sided with his friends and neighbors and joined the Confederate army. He was elected colonel of his regiment, promoted to brigade command, and by 1864 he commanded a division in the Army of Tennessee. In that time, he had complied a reputation as the army's finest fighting general.23
In the winter of 1864-65 in Dalton, prior to the Atlanta campaign, he asked for a meeting of the army's high command at which he presented a carefully reasoned 25-page document in which he argued that the South could win the war and obtain its independence by freeing the slaves and inviting them to join the rebel army. He suggested that the South could obtain as many as half a million fresh soldiers by this means.
This statement was, needless to say, a bombshell. All but a few of the officers present were outraged. At least one insisted that Cleburne be arrested for treason. Cleburne was shocked. He had assumed that winning independence was the Confederacy's most important goal and that other issuessuch as slaverywere negotiable. He found out that for most of the officers of the army, and for the administration as well, this was not the case. Reluctantly, he agreed to shelve his plan.
Cleburne was still in command of his division, however, when Hood evacuated Atlanta and cast about for a strategy that would re-gain the initiative for the South. His solutionas brash and unrealistic as anything that Beauregard had ever conceived was to let Sherman have Atlanta, and Georgia, and invade the north. He would move west, into Mississippi, then strike north toward Nashville. Perhaps Sherman would feel compelled to follow him and thereby abandon the deep South.
But the North had sufficient resources to do both things. Sherman left the defense of Tennessee to George H. Thomasthe Rock of Chickamaugaand struck out for Savannah across an undefended Georgia, matches in hand.
Hood marched in the opposite direction: northward, to Franklin, Tennessee, where he launched his army in a giant frontal assault against prepared defenses, in an attack that all but destroyed his army. No fewer than six Confederate generals were killed in this wasteful assault, including Pat Cleburne. Then, for lack of anything better to do, Hood continued onward to Nashville where George Thomas waited for him. In mid-December, when Thomas sortied out of the city to attack, Hood's army was virtually annihilated.24
Hood's defeat at Nashville marked the collapse of Confederate military fortunes in the West. Fewer than 18,000 men made their way back out of the state to report at the army's final muster in Tupelo. Some of those men made their way east to make a last stand with Joe Johnston who was once again back in command at the Battle of Bentonville in March of 1865. But the war in the West was over.
In part, of course, the Confederate failure in the West (as elsewhere) was the result of a dearth of resources. The traditional southern explanation of the Confederacy's defeat is that it was simply overwhelmed after a good fight by superior numbersnot just manpower, but in material resources as well: in its inability to build and maintain railroads and rolling stock, and its inability to contest the rivers with modern riverine craft. All that is certainly true. But in the West, at least, Confederate defeat was also the result of a series of failures in command leadership:
- Sidney Johnston deployed his forces injudiciously, spreading them out too thinly to be effective, and then failing to recoup the situation when he finally concentrated his forces at Shiloh;
- Braxton Bragg started out well with a dramatic use of the railroads to regain the strategic initiative, but he alienated his own subordinates with his obnoxious personality, and he became almost completely dependent on support from Jefferson Davis who sustained him to the point where he had become a detriment to Confederate fortunes;
- Joe Johnston, by contrast, was much liked and admired by his soldiers and officers, but he could not get along with the administration, and his retrograde movements in Georgia against Sherman convinced Davis that he would simply never seize the moment;
- John Bell Hood was a victim of his own plotting and especially of an out-dated version of the way the Confederacy believed it ought to fight its war. His offensive tactics had worked in Richmond in 1862, but they were wholly inappropriate to strategic realities of 1864.
- Patrick Cleburne underestimated the Confederacy's dependence on, and commitment to, the institution of black slavery.
And finally, the Confederacy was undone in the West by one other factor. When, many years after the war, George Pickett was asked for his explanation of why the South had lost, he replied "I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."
1. Daniel Sutherland, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: The Dare Mark Campaign (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
2. A good general history of the role that navies played on the western rivers is H. Allen Gosnell, Guns on the Western Waters: The Story of the River Gunboats in the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949). A particularly insightful account of the role played by one Union officer is Jay Slagle (ed.), Ironclad Captain: Seth Ledyard Phelps and the U.S. Navy, 1841-1864 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1986).
3. See John F. Marszalek, Sherman's Other War: The General and the Civil War Press, rev. ed. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999). Also valuable are J. Cutler Andrews's two books: The North Reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1955) and The South Reports the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
4. The best biography of the Union president is David Donald's Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). Lincoln's relations with his generals, both east and west, is thoughtfully treated in T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Knopf, 1952), who concludes that Lincoln was a natural genius of military management.
5. Good discussions of Davis's management of the war are in William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) and in William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Knopf, 2000). The subject is treated more specifically in two books by Steven E. Woodworth: Jefferson Davis and His Generals (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990) and Davis & Lee at War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).
6. Charles P. Roland, Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).
7. Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987). An excellent discussion of the overall Con-federate command problem in the West is provided by Thomas Connelly in two books: Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-62 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967) and Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-65 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971).
8. Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April (New York: Murrow, 1974); James Lee McDonough, Shiloh: In Hell Before Night (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977).
9. Alfred Roman, Military Operations of General Beauregard, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1884), and T. Harry Williams, Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955).
10. Connelly, Army of the Heartland; Woodworth, Davis and His Generals, 116-124. Connelly is very critical of Bragg; Woodworth is more sympathetic.
11. Grady McWhiney and Judith Lee Hallock, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1969 and 1991). The two books cited here were written more than 20 years apart by different authors, but were issued as a two volume set in 1991. Both authors are critical of Bragg.
12. James Lee McDonough, War in Kentucky: From Shiloh to Perryville (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994). See also Woodworth, Davis and His Generals, 125-161.
13. Craig L. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (New York: Norton, 1992).
14. Frank Vandiver (ed.), The Civil War Diary of Josiah Gorgas (University: University of Alabama Press, 1947), 50.
15. John C. Pemberton, Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), 241.
16. Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier (New York: Simon Schuster, 1993); William Garrett Piston, Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997). Especially pertinent to the subject of this essay is Judith Lee Hallock, General James Longstreet in the West: A Monumental Failure (Fort Worth, Texas: McWhiney Foundation, 1995).
17. A good short description of the Confederacy's railroad problems is in Scott Reynolds Nelson, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). A visual portrayal is in George B. Abdell, Civil War Railroads: A Pictorial Story of the War Between the States (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press,1961, 1989).
18. Wiley Sword, Mountains Touched With Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863 (New York: Harper Collins, 1995). See also Connelly, Autumn of Glory, especially chapters four through ten.
19. For a critical assessment of Johnston's north Georgia campaign, see Richard M. McMurry, Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); for a more positive assessment, see Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston, chapters eighteen through twenty-one.
20. For a summary of Bragg's activities, see Hallock, Bragg and Confederate Defeat, and Connelly, Autumn of Glory, chapter fourteen.
21. The best biography of Hood is Richard McMurry, John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1982). The quotation is from Frank S. Roberts, "In Winter Quarters at Dalton, 1863-64," Confederate Veteran (1918), vol. 26, p. 274.
22. See McMurry, Atlanta 1864, and Connelly, Autumn of Glory. The best detailed history oft he Atlanta campaign, including the fall of Atlanta, is Albert Castel, Decision in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992).
23. Craig L. Symonds, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).
24.Wiley Sword, Embrace an Angry Wind: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville (New York: Harper Collins, 1992). (Published in paperback as The Confederacy's Last Hurrah).