- The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat From the Appalachians to the Mississippi by Earl J. Hess
For decades Civil War historians have championed the eastern theater as the decisive front of the war. Certainly much of the scholarship centered on General Robert E. Lee and the fighting in Virginia. Recently, however, a cadre of historians including Steven Woodworth, Larry Daniels, James Lee McDonough, Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Kenneth Noe, and Peter Cozzens have emphasized the importance of the western theater, particularly in explaining Union victory and Confederate defeat. In The Civil War in the West, distinguished Civil War scholar Earl Hess explores Federal operations in the western theater from the campaigns of 1861 through General William T. Sherman's [End Page 80] March to the Sea. In doing so, Hess argues that the Union mastery of operations and logistics was a fundamental reason for Federal victory.
Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, geography defined operations and logistics for both the Union and Confederate forces. For example, the Army of Tennessee, the Confederacy's principle army in this theater, operated in a front of 225,600 square miles. By comparison, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia operated in an area one-tenth the size, a front of approximately 125 miles, often with an average of twenty thousand more troops (309). Hess disputes the widely held assumption that battles in the east resulted in higher casualties. Considering the ratio of troops engaged to those lost, Hess finds the ratio of losses in the west slightly higher than those in the east. At the battle of Gettysburg, for example, Federal losses amounted to 24 percent; Federal losses at the battle of Allatoona on October 5, 1864 resulted in 34 percent of Federal casualties (314).
Hess attributes the Federal success in the west to several factors. Most obvious, Federal troops defeated Confederates in nearly every engagement. Military success, however, brought a myriad of complications including subduing the southern civilian population, coping with guerrillas, securing logistic and communication lines, and transporting and supplying troops deep within Confederate territory. One of the neglected areas of Civil War scholarship is the importance of supplies and logistics. Hess explores the logistical complications that faced both armies and concludes that a principal factor in Union success was an ability to transport thousands of soldiers and supply them. Both General Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman understood the necessity of stable, reliable logistic networks. As Sherman's forces penetrated Georgia, Confederate raiders cut his telegraph lines, burned bridges, and harassed rail lines. Sherman addressed these logistic complications by establishing supply depots at Allatoona and Marietta, limiting civilian travel on the rails, and prioritizing shipping items. Noting the importance of logistics Sherman declared, "The task of feeding his vast hosts is a more difficult one than to fight" (219).
Confederate forces, on the other hand, failed to capitalize on advantages offered by the western theater. Their ineffective railroad systems prevented any significant cooperation between armies in the western and eastern theaters. In contrast to the Federal soldiers in the eastern theater, Hess also notes that Union forces achieved "morale superiority" over the Confederates as a result of the regular string of battlefield victories and their mastery of logistics. Though the reopening of the Mississippi River in July 1863 did not completely isolate one sector of the Confederacy from other, Union control of the river limited the Confederacy's ability to transport supplies and men. [End Page 81] Moreover, Confederate leadership never afforded the western theater the primacy that it deserved.
Moving beyond events on the battlefields, Hess explores the implications of Union forces in enemy territory, particularly on the civilian population. Grant advocated living off the land as a means to lessen the dependence and stress on his logistical system as the Federal army penetrated the Deep South. In contrast to conclusions offered by Mark Grimsley in Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, Hess concludes...