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The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory by Brooks D. Simpson (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 102-104 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0003

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Brooks D. Simpson has written a capable and concise interpretation of military operations in the eastern theater during the American Civil War. It serves as a judicious and balanced treatment of a long-standing historiographical controversy over the relative importance of the western and eastern theaters for the war’s outcome. Simpson argues that both northern and southern public opinion focused on the eastern theater, making it politically vital and of superior importance, even though the war’s actual military outcome came to fruition in the west due to the persistent inability of either the Union or Confederate armies to obtain a decisive military outcome in Virginia.

As the leading biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, who had an outsized effect in both the eastern and western theaters, Simpson holds an ideal vantage point from which to examine the relative importance of each theater to the outcome of the war. While he recognizes the political importance of the east due to its place in the mind’s eye of Union, Confederate, and international public opinion, he emphasizes the actual indecisiveness of military operations in the eastern theater, which “is more about what could have been and what almost was than about what actually happened” (133). In the end, Grant could not obtain a decisive military outcome in Virginia, but he could tie down Confederate forces in the Old Dominion and “in 1864 his brand of waging war in the East made it possible for Sherman to claim the victor’s laurels in the West” (137). Simpson, as in his earlier work on Grant, confirms the current literature’s positive assessment of Grant’s generalship, but he also writes approvingly of Robert E. Lee’s generalship for the most part. Like Grant’s great adversary, Simpson believes Virginia was “the theater of war in which the Confederacy was most likely to claim victory, and where it was most likely by force of arms to prevail” (133).

Simpson’s focus on the close links between public opinion and military events represents something of a consensus view in the current historiography. The current dean of the field, James M. McPherson, has argued that at specific turning points during the war Confederate victory seemed within reach because of the influence of battlefield events on both sections’ civilian morale, although Simpson rejects McPherson’s specific classification of Gettysburg as part of a turning point (88). Gary Gallagher has also written extensively on the connections between battlefield events and both Union and Confederate forms of nationalism. This literature inhabits a middle ground between historians who downplay the importance of military phenomena, generally in favor of structural factors rooted in society and culture, and the “battles and leaders” tradition, which focuses almost exclusively on battle studies and biographies of generals.

However, Simpson’s emphasis remains focused on the strategic actions of military and political elites, unlike those of other recent military history works, such as Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Defeat (2008), which combines exhaustive social history with high-level command history, or both the reviewer’s and Earl Hess’s recent contributions to the long-standing controversy over the importance of the rifle musket to Civil War tactics. Simpson also does not comment on the recent surge of interest in guerilla war, best seen in Daniel E. Sutherland’s prizewinning A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009). Such comments remain expository rather than critical, however, because Simpson’s focus is explicit, and the great strength of the book lies in its tightly argued nature.

Simpson also reflects the larger field’s relative maturity and the relative demise of the iconoclastic disputes that once drove so much of Civil War military history, whether eastern versus western theater primacy, disputes over Lee’s worth as a commander (especially in relation to Grant), or partisans for and against George B. McClellan. On all these issues, Simpson inhabits a judicious middle ground. He praises Grant’s strategic vision without declaring him infallible and questions the hagiography that once surrounded Lee but still recognizes the Confederate general’s abilities, and his treatment of McClellan criticizes the much-maligned Federal commander...



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