The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. By Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp xv, 392. $40.00 cloth)

Debate over when and where the Civil War was won and lost will always be a part of Civil War historiography, but thankfully the Civil War in the western theater has received more serious attention from [End Page 589] historians in the last couple of decades. This adjustment in favor of the West, slowly shifting attention away from Gettysburg and the long-dominant eastern theater, can be noted in such seminal works as historian James M. McPherson's epic and total history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988). He remarked flatly that, "The Union ultimately won the war mainly by victories in the West" (p. 638).

Despite the emergence of the importance of the western theater in Civil War historiography, there have been few attempts to fully give the West its due besides army histories and Steven E. Woodworth's recent synthesis volume, Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West (2008). Now, Earl J. Hess of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, has provided the deepest overall account of the war in the West to date. Hess is well positioned to write such a history, bringing a wealth of publications on both the eastern and western theaters on his resume; this breadth allows for objectivity in his study. Unlike some other histories, Hess defines the western theater as the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

Hess's thesis is simply that the western Union armies won the Civil War; essentially, the eastern theater was a stalemate, and western armies, having basically conquered the heartland of the South, were moving to aid the effort in the eastern theater when Robert E. Lee surrendered. But Hess argues that even Lee's downfall was a direct result of the bottom being torn out of the Confederacy in the West.

Hess's account of the western theater is much more complicated than pure military history, however. Indeed, the author spends fully as much time on political, racial, and even economic attributes of the fighting as he does on the battles and front lines. Of much importance is the amount of time spent on behind-the-lines activities such as guerrilla warfare, logistics, occupation, and contraband management.

The result is a major advance in our knowledge of the Civil War in the western theater, not so much in new ideas or information but rather in the comprehensive scope of bringing the essence and importance of the western theater to one major volume. Indeed, [End Page 590] the minor quibbles with the book are more interpretive than factual, including the rapid nature of the story and a lack of human-interest accounts in a pretty straightforward narrative. Both issues, however, probably have more to do with publisher-originated size restrictions than anything else. In the end, The Civil War in the West is a notable volume that admirably succeeds in providing readers a detailed, if fast-paced, narrative of the war in the West and its significance.

Timothy B. Smith

Timothy B. Smith teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Martin, Tennessee. He is the author of Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation (2012), and is currently working on a new volume on Shiloh for the University Press of Kansas.

...