Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi
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The secession crisis inspired confused reactions among people across the Northern states that lay west of the Appalachian Highlands. Promises of a peaceful separation of the seven Deep South states had lulled many Northerners into the idea that breaking up the country might be inevitable, or even helpful in settling controversies concerning the spread of slavery in the Western territories. Others were more reluctant to countenance the destruction of the political unity that had been maintained through a system of compromise on that issue for eighty-five years. Most Northerners, however, simply did not know what to make of the newly created Southern government in Montgomery, Alabama, its pretensions to independence, or its future. Secession created a malaise among many in the free states, unresolved by the tempering stance of the outgoing James Buchanan administration and the incoming Abraham Lincoln regime.
But the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12–14, 1861, altered everything. As John Sherman of Ohio put it, Sumter touched “an electric chord in every family in the northern states” and changed “the whole current of feeling.” Sherman admitted that he was shocked by feelings of “surprise, awe and grief ” by the act of violence, but later thought: “It brings a feeling of relief; the suspense is over.” Benjamin Scribner of Indiana felt “animated with patriotism, for “the flag of the Union was to me a sacred object.” For many across the North, the key issue lay in a respect for law and order, which the new Confederate government had demonstrated it did not possess. Federal authorities could not afford to look the other way at this forcible seizure of a U.S. government installation. “There would be no end to it,” thought Walter Q. Gresham of Indiana, “and in a short time we would be without any law or order. We must now teach the Secessionists a lesson.” For Gresham, it was “all bosh and nonsense to talk about the North making war on the South. The South rebelled against the laws and makes war on the government.”
Newspaper editors of all political leanings beat the tocsin of war by interpreting the firing on Sumter as an unpardonable act of violence to settle an issue that should have been handled through negotiation. It was both a threat and an insult to the government. “On one side stands rebellion, treason, anarchy,” declared the Chatfield (Minn.) Republican, while “on the other the government, patriotism, law and order.”
From THE CIVIL WAR IN THE WEST: VICTORY AND DEFEAT FROM THE APPALACHIANS TO THE MISSISSIPPI by Earl J. Hess. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Review by William C. Davis
For more than half a century the debate has endured between those who maintain that the Civil War was decided east of the Appalachians versus those who argue for the West, that is, the region between the mountains and the Mississippi River. This can hardly be new to even the casual reader of the Civil War. Great—indeed seminal—works like Thomas L. Connelly’s two-volume Army of the Heartland, the numerous fine books by Richard M. McMurry and Grady C. McWhiney, and others, have all reinforced the western side of the argument forcefully and backed by deep research.
The consensus that seems to have emerged after all of this, one shared even by many who spend their efforts studying the war in the East, is that the war could have been decided either side of the Appalachians, but in the end the Confederacy was losing it constantly in the West while until the summer of 1864 it was holding its own in Virginia. As McMurry argues, by the spring of 1865 the Union and Confederate armies that were traditionally identified with the West were facing each other east of the mountains in North Carolina, and if Lee had held out a week or two beyond Appomattox, they might all have been in Virginia. Essentially, the West would have come East, an eloquent demonstration of just how pre-eminent the West had become.
Still, we have not had a discrete, full length and deeply researched general narrative of that Western war for many years, and there has never been one as detailed and nuanced as Earl J. Hess' fine new contribution, The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. Hess will be well known to experienced students of the war for his many fine tactical studies, and he does not disappoint here.
This was a war of comparably vast spaces and demanding travel and use of resources. While the armies in Virginia fought over the same few hundred square miles of Virginia for four years, whole states changed hands in the inexorable march of the Union armies that successively took Tennessee, north Alabama and north Mississippi, central and north Georgia, and eventually portions of South and North Carolina. In the offing, those armies marched hundreds of miles in a season, and thanks to better weather than in Virginia, often carried on campaigning through the winters. Not surprisingly, it was in the West that the great Union commanders arose, men like Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and Thomas, while their Confederate counterparts scarcely compared in ability or achievements. That was the exact opposite of Virginia, where Lee eclipsed every opponent sent against him until Grant came east, in a way making the Army of the Potomac a “western” army, too.
As Hess ably shows, if the war had been confined to Virginia, the Confederacy was winning it steadily until 1865 simply by not losing and staying in the field. The Civil War in the West makes it inarguably clear, however, that in that other war that Easterners then and later so easily ignored, the Union was on the glory road to victory almost from the day the war began.
Hardcover Book : 416 pages
Publisher: Univ. Of North Carolina Press ( March 12, 2012 )
Item #: 13-514361
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.04inches
Product Weight: 22.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)