The Confederate Military Effort in the West
by Craig L. Symonds
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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."
- 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
- Patrick Cleburne underestimated the Confederacy's dependence on, and commitment to, the
institution of black slavery.
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
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
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
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).