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Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West

by Steven E. Woodworth, Greenwood/Praeger, 2008, $39.95

Steven E. Woodworth has authored, co-authored or edited more than 20 books on a variety of Civil War issues and personalities. Most of these exhibit scrupulous research, penetrating analysis and lively writing. Unfortunately, Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West cannot be added to Woodworth’s impressive list of distinguished scholarship.

The fault probably lies not with the author, an esteemed professor at Texas Christian University, but rather the constraints under which he was asked to pen this contribution to Praeger’s “Reflections on the Civil War Era” series. Woodworth has “campaigned” extensively in the Civil War heartland and knows the geography and the principal personalities well. But a teaser on the book’s dust jacket heralding it as a “fast-paced over view” hints at the problem he faced. Indeed, telling the story of the Civil War’s Western theater between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River in only 138 pages is not just fast, it’s supersonic.

The book predictably opens by yet again knocking down one of the Civil War’s most familiar straw men, namely that the war in the East continues to receive a disproportionate amount of public and scholarly attention. In my view, that dog just won’t hunt anymore. Even casual students of the war are aware that the real action took place in the expansive territory of the West. But tourists will continue to be drawn to Virginia like a lodestone because you can see so many lovely battlefields there in a weekend. And Gettysburg will always trump Vicksburg for the general populace because Abraham Lincoln never gave a speech in Mississippi that every child studies in school.

The book’s best chapter covers the 1864 battles for Atlanta. It has a rhythm that gives the reader a real sense of the classic red-dirt minuet danced by Sherman and Joe Johnston, as they sidestepped their two large armies from Dalton, Ga., to Atlanta. But Woodworth seems not to much like Union General George Thomas. The determined defense Thomas organized at Chickamauga gets short shrift, and the dramatic arrival of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s Reserve Corps, which surely kept Thomas and his “rocks” from disintegrating, is not mentioned at all. The Battle of Nashville, considered by many as Thomas’ most significant offensive victory, gets five paragraphs. And more space is allocated to the petulant infighting between Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his subordinate officers than to the Battle of Stones River.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War.