Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 199-200
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The Fourth Battle of Winchester: Toward a New Civil War Paradigm. By Richard M. McMurry. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002. Pp. xvii, 150. Paper $9.95.)
This is an unusual book, an exercise in counterfactual writing which makes a serious point. Richard McMurry—freelance historian, writer, and lecturer—has offered an argument that he (and others) has been making for some time in a variety of lectures and publications. McMurry argues that the American Civil War was a stalemate in the East (in the Virginia theater), and was decided in the western theater (in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River). Robert E. Lee and Virginia have received the most historical ink, but McMurry says it was in the West where the decision was really made.
The author begins his book with a breathtaking description of "what might have been." In McMurry's account, there is a "Fourth Battle of Winchester" which the Confederates win, and this victory opens the way to Lee defeating Grant in Virginia and Lincoln losing to McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. Yet, in the West, Thomas and Sherman decimate the Confederates, approach the victorious Lee from the South, and force him to surrender. Despite Lee's victory in Virginia, therefore, the western theater armies win the war anyway and preserve the Union.
Continuing in this iconoclastic vein, McMurry, as he has frequently done in the past, argues that Gettysburg was no decisive battle because even had Lee won there, he would still have been forced to pull back into Virginia. To McMurry, the decisive battle of the war took place on Champion Hill during the Vicksburg Campaign. [End Page 199] Once Grant won there, his capture of Vicksburg became inevitable, and this victory split the Confederacy and opened the way to Union victory in the West and thus in the entire war. In fact, McMurry points out, Union forces won victory upon victory in the West, while the East was a stalemate from beginning to end.
Because of this argument for what he calls the "western paradigm," it would seem that McMurry would join those historians who castigate Robert E. Lee for ignoring the West and concentrating exclusively on the Virginia stalemate. Not so. McMurry argues that, based on hints here and there in Lee's writings (which McMurry does not show clearly), Lee understood that the Confederacy would lose the Civil War (in the West) unless he won a quick victory in the East first. Surprisingly therefore, McMurry has room in his "western paradigm" for justifying one of the architects of the eastern stalemate.
This is a book that Civil War historians will want to read and ponder. It will stimulate academic discussion, and, in the ranks of amateur historians, it will provide no small measure of outrage. McMurry's reputation as the most forthright exponent of the primacy of the western theater is secure. If this book stimulates a more serious view of the entire Civil War and counteracts the overwhelming emphasis on the Virginia battles, McMurry will have achieved a major breakthrough in Civil War historiography. This reviewer, for one, hopes this is precisely what happens.
John F. Marszalek
Mississippi State University