Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth and Stones River, by Earl J. Hess, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, $32.
The year 1862 proved critical for Confederate fortunes in the Western theater. It began with a series of disasters, as Union forces penetrated the Confederacy’s defensive network by capturing the river strongholds of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Island Number 10, and seized Nashville, Tenn., the first capital city in the South to fall. These victories were followed closely by the bloody Battle of Shiloh–another Union victory–and the forced evacuation of Corinth, Miss., a vital Southern railroad nexus. By early summer the Confederate forces in the Western theater were reeling from the combined effects of these disasters.
But all was not lost. The Federals were forced to disperse their victorious armies to consolidate their gains. In the lull that followed the Union onslaught, the Confederates were able to regroup and mount a counteroffensive. The Southerners launched three offensive campaigns east of the Appalachians during the late summer and fall of 1862. The outcome of these operations established the tone for the war in the West and arguably doomed the western Confederacy. The three campaigns, Perryville, Corinth and Stones River, though initiated by the South, ended with solidified Union control of Tennessee and Kentucky, the Confederate heartland.
Earl J. Hess has synthesized these campaigns in Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth and Stones River (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, $32). The volume is relatively short (288 pages), considering that it describes three important, complicated operations. Yet it does not lack punch, and one comes away with a basic understanding of what happened during these campaigns without feeling cheated by a lack of details. Banners to the Breeze is a very capable introduction to the complexities of these frequently ignored Western theater campaigns.
Hess presents the three autumn offensives in the context of the war as a whole, never losing sight of the importance of events elsewhere. The reader is thus presented with a greater understanding of the scope of the conflict in the West and the many tactical and strategic factors that predicated the moves and thinking of the commanding generals. By keeping the reader aware of the outside factors shaping strategy, Hess provides a valuable insight into the complicated nature of command.
The author concentrates on the geographical and political factors that determined the military conduct of the three campaigns. The rugged, forbidding terrain of Kentucky and middle Tennessee influenced the thinking of Generals Don Carlos Buell, Braxton Bragg and William S. Rosecrans. Buell, in particular, suffered from the political side effects of attempting to campaign through the treacherous mountains of eastern Tennessee while trying to maintain a supply line. Unable to keep pace with the expectations of his political superiors, Buell’s military conduct came under close scrutiny and was ultimately found wanting.
Somewhat surprisingly, Braxton Bragg is dealt a fair hand in Banners. Hess describes Bragg’s many difficulties in dealing with rival General Edmund Kirby Smith, lackluster Kentucky support for the Confederacy and the turmoil within his own command system. Yet Bragg was able to maintain a presence in Kentucky, draw the Federals out of Tennessee and, according to Hess, lost nothing by not holding Kentucky. The seeds of discontent that would grow like a cancer in the Army of Tennessee were planted at Perryville, however, and Bragg spent the rest of his tenure locked in bitter feuding with his subordinates. Never again would he strike out so boldly or be in command of an army that respected him.
Rosecrans, the victor at Corinth and Stones River, is also given fair play. Inheriting the Army of the Cumberland from Buell, Rosecrans also inherited the pressures stemming from Washington’s impatience. Rosecrans infused the army with his vitality and offered hope there would be aggressive action. Under his direct supervision, furious Confederate attacks at Corinth and Stones River were repulsed.
The Corinth campaign, occurring simultaneously with the invasion of Kentucky, was geared toward recapturing that vital Mississippi railroad junction. Confederate Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price failed to coordinate their movements to support Bragg, however, and instead turned their full attention upon Corinth. Hess ably describes the important fighting at Iuka, Corinth and Davis Bridge. The aftermath of the Confederate defeat dealt a severe blow to Confederate morale and greatly diminished the reputations of both Van Dorn and Price.
The Murfreesboro campaign sealed the fate of middle Tennessee. That battle was especially important for the Union, as political opposition to the war effort was growing in the North. A Federal disaster, especially the loss of Tennessee, would greatly enhance the Copperhead sentiment that was thriving in parts of the North.
The subsequent Battle of Stones River was perhaps the bloodiest fight of the war for the size of the forces engaged. Bragg’s early-morning assault shattered the Union right flank, and his men came within yards of cutting off Rosecrans’ lines of communication. Only stubborn resistance in nearly impenetrable terrain enabled the Federals to stop the Confederate attack. Bragg’s attacks bogged down, and ultimately his poor tactics came up short. After the battle, the recriminations against him in the upper command echelons of his army were louder than ever.
Rosecrans received Abraham Lincoln’s gratitude for the “victory,” but both armies were so worn out by the battle that they would not fight again for half a year. Banners to the Breeze serves as a fine primer for anyone interested in the critical 1862 campaigners in the Western theater.