- The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
The prolific Earl Hess, author of numerous books, including a detailed trilogy on field fortifications in the eastern theater, delivers once again. This time, Hess casts his gaze upon the western theater of the war, which he recognizes as the decisive arena of the conflict. With a lucid writing style and colorful vignettes, this work of synthesis contributes to the scholarship arguing that events in the West determined the outcome of the Civil War.
In Army of the Heartland (1967), Thomas Lawrence Connelly, the dean of this historiographical school, shifted historians’ focus from the pageantry of the eastern theater to the more decisive western theater. Since then, a small group of historians have attempted to build upon Connelly’s “heartland thesis” and argue for the significance of the war in the West. Most notable among this group is Steven E. Woodworth, whose ground-breaking studies such as Jefferson Davis and His Generals (1990), Nothing but Victory (2005), and Decision in the Heartland (2008) take Connelly’s original observation about western dominance to the next level. While Hess has spent the majority of his career examining the eastern theater, The Civil War in the West marks his entry into this cabal of western theater historians.
In this ambitious book, Hess sets forth several arguments. According to Hess, the geography of the western theater posed unique obstacles for [End Page 612] the Union. Nevertheless, the Federals conquered this vast expanse of the American heartland after efficiently harnessing and implementing their superior resources. In addition, Hess argues that a unique, operational-level, “Western way of war” developed throughout the course of the conflict (xiv). This new style of war, emphasizing mobility and logistical mastery, won the war in the West and secured total Union victory.
Hess’s chronological and thematically organized book begins with the outbreak of war in 1861. Although the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter united the northern populace against the secessionists, in the West different motives acted as an adhesive. According to Hess, in addition to preserving the Union, many western troops fought to protect the Mississippi River. While the actual economic significance of the river had declined since the days of the early republic, the perception that the Father of Waters ferried the commercial lifeblood of the country up and down its banks remained engrained in those inhabiting the Old Northwest. From here, Hess charts a path through the major events of the Civil War in the West. He describes how the Confederacy bungled Kentucky neutrality and further reinforces the time-tested belief that Grant’s victory at Forts Henry and Donelson exposed the Confederate heartland to Union penetration. Hess’s synopsis of the Battle of Shiloh provides an excellent example of his ability to combine primary source anecdotes with the most recent secondary sources. Drawing heavily on Larry J. Daniel’s Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War (1997), Hess explains how the Army of the Tennessee, though initially taken by surprise, dressed its line and confusion eventually “gave way to organized resistance” (46). He provides similar synopses of the remaining campaigns and battles that erupted in the West, including Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Franklin-Nashville, and the Carolinas expedition. Throughout the book, Hess reminds the reader of the parallel events occurring in the stagnant and indecisive eastern theater. By the end of the war in 1865, Sherman had planted western veterans in the eastern theater, pushing through the Carolinas and thereby transporting both the western theater and its unique way of war to the East.
Ultimately, Hess provides a multipart conclusion that ties the book’s various themes together. After establishing that the Civil War was decided in the West, Hess states that Union victory in that arena came as a result of several factors. The Federal ability to harness and effectively use the region’s resources and implement new technologies was one...