Share This Article

I was convinced by the age of 12 that military events in the Eastern Theater far exceeded in importance anything that happened west of the Appalachian Mountains. I based this conclusion on Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants and R.E. Lee, Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, and biographies and memoirs devoted to generals in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. However interesting the sad records of defeat forged by the Army of Tennessee and other Rebel forces in the West, or the series of triumphs crafted by Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George H. Thomas and other Union commanders, they seemed less decisive than the bloody succession of Eastern battles that included the Seven Days’, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign. Forty years of additional reading and research have brought me to a more considered, but not a different conclusion on this much-disputed topic: In terms of political impact, effect on morale behind the lines in the United States and the Confederacy, perceptions in London and Paris and many other ways, the Eastern Theater predominated.

My assessment goes against much historical writing of the past 35 years, a good deal of which criticizes the degree to which Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, the Battle of Gettysburg, the surrender at Appomattox and other elements of the war in the East have shaped American understanding of the war. Thomas L. Connelly, whose two volumes on the Army of Tennessee remain the standard treatment, complained of what he called a “Virginia Pattern” of interpretation. Begun by Lost Cause writers such as Jubal A. Early in the 1870s and continued in the 20th century by Freeman, that “pattern,” Connelly asserted, helps explain “why the history of the Civil War is for many Americans synonymous with the battlefields of Virginia.”

Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones reminded readers in their 1983 book How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War that Henry W. Halleck, who presided over the first period of Union success in the Western Theater and later served as general-in-chief and chief of staff, wielded great influence on the course of the war. “Not only a western outlook but Halleck’s western generals,” they wrote, “dominated the Lincoln-Halleck strategy of the war. When the war concluded, Halleck generals commanded everywhere east of the Mississippi. Only [George G.] Meade, in the shadow of both Grant and [Philip H.] Sheridan, did not belong to Halleck’s original command.”

Among the most effective advocates of the West’s importance, Richard M. McMurry admired Lee’s generalship but insisted the war was lost in the West between 1861 and 1863. By the time Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, Union armies had dealt their opponents “a series of serious—arguably mortal—blows along the western rivers. Over the next twelve months Rebel fortunes in the West continued to slide downhill, and it became less and less likely that the Confederates could avoid defeat ‘by not losing’ since they were, in fact, losing.”

I believe the war was far from decided by the summer of 1862—or the summers of 1863 or 1864. The key for the Confederacy lay in convincing a majority of citizens in the United States that subduing the rebellion would be too costly in lives and material resources. Three times Confederate arms came close to doing so, largely because of what Lee accomplished in the Eastern Theater—in the late summer and early autumn of 1862, following Southern victories in the Seven Days’ and Second Manassas campaigns and the invasion of Maryland; the late spring and early summer of 1863, after Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Lee’s second invasion of the North; and, most important of all, the summer of 1864, when the unprecedented casualties of the Overland Campaign and Grant’s inability to capture Richmond, together with other Union failures, sent civilian morale in the North spiraling downward.

Evidence abounds on how people on both sides thought about the Eastern Theater. Confederates focused on Lee and his army because they supplied almost all good news from the battlefield. Such was Lee’s stature that Appomattox effectively marked the end of the war. “I have looked on Genl. Lee as the rallying point for the Army of the South,” wrote a Virginia woman on April 13, 1865; “I have really lived on hope for four years & now I am utterly bewildered.” A Georgian agreed: “‘It is useless to struggle longer,’ seems to be the common cry,” she noted sadly, “and the poor wounded men go hobbling about the streets with despair on their faces.”

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper conveyed a similar attitude in its coverage of the Grand Review of Union forces in May 1865. It accorded a full measure of praise to Sherman’s Western forces but insisted that the Army of the Potomac, because it confronted Lee’s famous command, had shouldered the greatest military burden: “Against them the power of the rebellion was mainly concentrated and consumed. Whether attacking or defending, it was the Army of the Potomac, with its mighty sledge, that battered the traitor fabric into the dust.” And Lincoln famously complained in August 1862 that a splendid record of success in the West extending from Forts Henry and Donelson through Shiloh and the fall of New Orleans had been offset by McClellan’s retreat after the Seven Days’. “[I]t seems unreasonable,” the president complained to a French diplomat, “that a series of successes, extending through half-a-year, and clearing more than a hundred thousand square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt us so much.”

I mean none of this to suggest that Western battles and generals were unimportant—Vicksburg, for example, loomed far larger in 1863 than did Gettysburg. But whatever we may think, people at the time most often gazed eastward to gauge how the war progressed. Their perception was crucial, and we should take it seriously.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here