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Eastern theater battles grabbed the headlines, but Western theater campaigns decided the war.

The Civil War was an enormous struggle that raged in Glorieta Pass in the New  Mexico Territory to Norfolk,Virginia, a span of nearly 2,000 miles,west to east. Gettysburg,Pennsylvania, lies more than 800 miles north of the battlefield at Olustee,Florida.The war on the high seas reached across the Atlantic Ocean to within sight of the shores of France and around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope to touch the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Hundreds of events led to the Confederate surrenders at Appomattox,Va., Durham Station,N.C.,and Citronella,Texas,but the most decisive events played out in the area known as the Western theater.

A comparison of the war’s three major theaters proves the action in the Western Theater decided the outcome of the war. The rugged,huge territory extended roughly 400 miles east to west,from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, and 600 miles north to south from the Ohio River to the Gulf Coast.Early and continued Federal victories west of the mountains cost the Confederacy vast expanses of territory that produced food, much of it earmarked for Lee’s hungry troops in Virginia.The victories denied the South badly needed horses and mules.They also cost the Confederacy the commercial and population center of New Orleans,the South’s largest city,and the manufacturing capacity of Nashville.Northern victories disrupted Confederate administration of government by the capture of two state capitals—Nashville and Baton Rouge—in 1862, another—Jackson—the following year, yet another— Milledgeville—in 1864, and three more—Columbia, Raleigh and Montgomery—in the final, partial year of the war.

The trans-Mississippi theater, basically Missouri,Arkansas, Indian Territory,Texas and Louisiana,did not have enough population to give it the possibility of decisive leverage in the war. No victory in the trans-Mississippi could give either side a significant advantage. Fighting there had an impact on the larger course of the war chiefly by causing one side or the other to waste troops or resources that could have been used to better advantage east of the Father of Waters.

The Eastern theater of the war, between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, including the subtheater of the Shenandoah Valley,has certainly received more attention,stemming from several causes.The Eastern theater lay closer to the most densely populated areas of the country, closer to the opposing capitals and closer to the nation’s largest media market,New York City. The New York Tribune was the most widely read newspaper in the nation,and its stories were frequently reprinted in other papers across the country.

The troops who fought in the Eastern theater mostly hailed from the populous states of the East Coast, where local newspapers naturally tended to focus on the operations of the hometown boys. Finally, General Robert E. Lee’s dramatic victories helped restore Confederate morale after it had been nearly destroyed by the Union victories in the West during the spring of 1862.Therefore,a disproportionate amount of attention was devoted to a theater of the war in which relatively little was decided.

It may seem strange that the Eastern theater should be indecisive despite the proximity of the rival capitals and of a large portion of the nation’s population,but it was—for reasons of geography,politics and personalities.The geog- raphy favored whichever side was on the defensive in the East.The narrowness of the theater,hemmed in by the Alleghenies on the west and by deep,broad,unbridgeable estuaries on the east, varied in width from roughly 100 to 150 miles, and usually a much narrower band of territory was available for the maneuvering of the armies.With dry roads,a fortnight’s easy marching could take troops from one side of the theater to the other.That was an obvious advantage to the defending army.

The attacker had limited opportunity to execute broad turning maneuvers, and such narrow attempts as he might make could be relatively easily countered by an alert defender.An advance in the Eastern theater meant a head-on drive down a narrow corridor that was sure to be strongly defended.Decisive results were hardly to be expected.

A further advantage for the defender was the Eastern theater’s grid of rivers, which impeded north-south offensive operations. The narrow piedmont and tidewater between the mountains and the sea gave no room for the development of broad,navigable rivers.The region’s rivers were relatively short, and usually too shallow or obstructed by shoals to admit the use of naval power.Yet they were just wide and deep enough, and their banks steep enough, to ensure that artillery and wagons could cross only at a limited number of fords and bridges.

Because the rivers generally flowed from west to east, they provided a series of useful defensive barriers for Confederate armies trying to impede the southward advance of their Union counterparts. Of course, when the Confederates attempted an invasion of the North, they faced the same problem. In Lee’s 1863 Pennsylvania campaign,the timely destruction of bridges prevented any of his forces from penetrating northeast of the Susquehanna River.

The geography of the Shenandoah Valley also favored the defender.Confined between the Blue Ridge on the east and the Allegheny Plateau on the west,the valley slanted from southwest to northeast.An army could cross the Blue Ridge only at a limited number of gaps,which cavalry could hold against opposing horsemen and thus relatively easily screen the movements of their own forces behind the Blue Ridge.That enabled Confederate armies on several occasions to slide northward around the flank of the Union Army of the Potomac in turning movements.

For the Federals, however, the valley offered no corresponding advantage.Because it slanted to the southwest,a Union army marching up it (i.e.,upstream relative to the Shenandoah River and thus southwest) would end up in strategically insignificant southwest Virginia, while a Confederate army that marched down the valley would emerge at Harpers Ferry and could then cross the Potomac River to threaten Washington, Baltimore or points north. By aiding the weaker side and the side that was usually on the strategic defensive, the Shenandoah Valley made a decisive outcome less likely in the Eastern theater.

A knotty combination of geography and politics caused problems in the East,particularly the proximity of the rival national capitals.This fact at once made decisive victory seem very close in the East and at the same time all but guaranteed that each side would make an effort there at least sufficient to secure a stalemate.While each side would have liked to capture its opponent’s capital, each was equally anxious to prevent the fall of its own.

That was especially true for the Union,which stood to lose much more should Washington fall than the Confederacy could suffer by the loss of Richmond.Union authorities in Washington—and sometimes generals in the field—were therefore more cautious than they would otherwise have been.On several occasions Lee and Lt. Gen.Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson played skillfully on the Union sensitivity to Washington’s safety.That factor,for example, ultimately doomed Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s attempt to evade the disadvantages of Virginia’s rivers by advancing down the Chesapeake Bay in his Peninsula campaign.

Finally,the individuals who commanded events in the Eastern campaigns—particularly the Union generals—were weak and indecisive. In the East the Confederacy had generals good enough to secure a deadlock.The Union,until the final stage of the war,had no general good enough to achieve decisive results.

McClellan certainly had a chance to achieve much more than he did,say what one will about the difficulties he faced in politics and logistics and the disadvantage of taking command of the nation’s premier army before it was seasoned by hard campaigning.The fact remains that McClellan waged war haltingly, always more afraid of what his enemy might do to him than confident in what he planned to do to his enemy.

McClellan, along with the Union generals who in dismal succession followed him to high command in the Eastern theater, have become almost bywords for inadequacy.True, they faced a difficult foe in front and had a difficult political situation to their rear, bearing the great responsibility of protecting the national capital.They may have had excuses for their inadequate performance. But again and again they failed to anticipate their opponent’s actions, or else credited their opponent with well nigh supernatural abilities that fostered exaggerated caution on their part.Yet even if the Northern generals had been outstanding commanders, it is still questionable whether they could have overcome all of the other factors that tended toward stalemate in the East.

One of those factors involved the Confederate leadership in the Eastern theater.The fame of Lee and Stonewall requires little elaboration.It simply happened that the Confederacy’s two finest generals—and two of the finest in American history—were natives of Virginia and quickly reached positions of high command of the Confederate forces in that state.Their skill combined to foil every Union offensive launched during the time of their collaboration, and after Jackson’s death Lee continued to hold his ground with tenacity and skill.

Had an inferior commander attempted to hold Virginia for the Confederacy, perhaps even the flawed eastern Union generals might have succeeded in striking a deathblow to the slaveholders’ republic. General Joseph E. Johnston seemed well on his way to handing success to the excessively methodical McClellan until a Union bullet and shell fragment wounded him and made way for Lee.Against lesser opposition than Lee, Lt. Gen.Ulysses S.Grant would almost certainly have scored a relatively quick victory in much the same manner that he victimized every other Confederate general he faced.

Once we understand all the factors that made decision in the East unlikely, it does not take long to sketch the course of the indecisive operations there,nor is it difficult to understand why they failed to determine the outcome of the war.The Union’s first foray ended in the famous disaster of First Bull Run, and the victorious Confederates were too disorganized and exhausted by the victory to follow it up.

McClellan’s Peninsula campaign the following spring was an attempt to make an end run around Virginia’s contrary grid of rivers and get to Richmond the easy way. It turned out to be less easy than McClellan had anticipated, with muddy roads under foot and wheel,and the Chickahominy Swamp athwart the path to the Rebel capital.Then Lee and Jackson combined to use the Shenandoah Valley and played on the political factors in the East by threatening Washington and drawing off some of the force McClellan had been expecting to use.Finally they defeated McClellan in the Seven Days’ Battles.

Major General John Pope next tried his hand,but Lee nearly trapped him in the tricky grid of rivers.Jackson outmaneuvered him to the point of bewilderment, and the two combined to trounce him at Second Bull Run. The next campaign was Lee’s own opportunity to demonstrate how difficult it was even for a great general to score a great victory in the enemy’s country.The resulting Battle of Antietam turned out to be an opportunity not for Lee but for the recently reinstated McClellan to win a crushing victory— but McClellan’s opportunity went begging.McClellan’s replacement, Maj. Gen.Ambrose Burnside, proved three months later at Fredericksburg that an intelligent man could indeed be an atrocious general and made himself exhibit A for the argument that Union generals in the East were inferior.

The following year,1863,brought Maj.Gen.Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac, but though Hooker boasted that he would have no mercy on Lee,when the day of battle came, the Union general turned in a truly pitiable performance, wilting in the face of Lee’s and Jackson’s aggressiveness. Significantly,Virginia’s west-to-east grid of rivers again played an important part in this campaign,along with the state’s bad roads and locally dense underbrush.

Lee again took the offensive, and the result was by far the war’s most famous battle, a battle that many Americans with only a nodding acquaintance with the Civil War believe was the single decisive clash of the conflict.Gettysburg, however,was no “high-water mark,”nor was it a turning point,even within the Eastern theater.It was just one more in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles between Lee and a series of outclassed opposing generals. One side or the other might claim the honors of victory—or partisans of each side might dispute those honors in print, so unclear was the “winner’s” advantage—yet the balance between the two sides remained practically unaltered.

Gettysburg, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, was “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Perhaps never before or since in the course of human history have so much granite and marble, so much paper and ink, so many tourist dollars, been lavished on the memory of a battle that accomplished so little.

The victor of Gettysburg, Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, was the best of the Union Eastern generals up to that point,but he proved unable to overcome the various factors that made it all but impossible for the Union to gain decisive leverage east of the Appalachians.By the fall of 1863,Lincoln clearly had ceased to expect much from Meade other than maintenance of the ongoing Virginia stalemate.

He did expect more from Grant, and that expectation was partially justified. Grant was the best general of the war. He had led the Union’s Western armies to victory,and he became the engineer of ultimate Union success.In effect,Grant wore two hats during the final year of the war—one as commander of all the Union armies and the other as de facto commander of the Army of the Potomac despite the continued presence of Meade as actual commander of that army.

In a campaign of unprecedented ferocity,Grant battered Lee back to the outskirts of Richmond and its sister city,Petersburg, and besieged him there. Ultimately Grant defeated Lee and compelled his famous surrender at Appomattox.

By explaining the nature of the Eastern theater,the ways in which the Western theater was more important become quite apparent.Geographically,while Virginia’s rivers were obstacles to invaders,the Western rivers were broad and relatively deep,and their courses meandered far into the Confederate heartland.For the Western Federals these rivers were as often avenues of advance that carried powerful ironclad gunboats that the Confederacy could never hope to build in comparable numbers. Joint army-navy cooperation became one of the most important elements of Union victory west of the mountains.Western rivers also provided the advancing Union armies with supply lines that were almost unbreakable.

While the Union campaigns along the axis from Nashville to Atlanta did have to overcome rivers that acted as barriers like they did in Virginia, the presence of usable rivers such as the Mississippi,Tennessee and Cumberland was overall a major advantage to the Union forces in the West.

The Confederacy found it impossible to defend the sheer size of the Western theater. While the presence of all that real estate between the mountains and the Mississippi theoretically offered equal opportunity for both combatants to carry out broad turning maneuvers,the advantage lay with the Union.The Confederacy carried out a few such operations, but it was the Federal forces, with their greater numbers and their need to advance and take control of territory,that benefited far more.The West’s broad expanse gave the Union space to turn its superiority in numbers into a real military advantage.

Finally,while the Confederacy happened to have its best generals in Virginia,the Union’s best commanders,through no deliberate plan, started out in the Western theater. Grant,William T.Sherman,Philip Sheridan,George Thomas and even William S.Rosecrans proved superior to their opponents in every major Western campaign. Even without the other factors that made the West decisive, a mismatch such as that between Grant and Confederate General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg would likely have yielded decisive success for the Union.

A quick review of the course of Union victory in the West demonstrates all these factors at work.The first major Union victory came with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson by joint Union Army and Navy forces under the command of Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote in February 1862. This Confederate disaster opened the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to Union advance, shifting the fighting front hundreds of miles south and placing tens of thousands of square miles of territory under Union control, including the city of Nashville,capital of Tennessee and one of the South’s most important industrial cities.

Further Union victories through joint operations over the next six months opened the Mississippi River from the southern tip of Illinois all the way down to Vicksburg, well into the Deep South,while Union naval forces fought their way up the Mississippi from its mouth to make a brief connection with the Union’s southward-advancing river-borne forces.Thus half a year after the beginning of major combat in the West,the Confederacy had lost its largest city,New Orleans,as well as Nashville and Memphis, all of Kentucky, half of Tennessee and parts of Mississippi,and it retained at best only a tenuous hold on a section of the Mississippi River.

Late that summer and during the early fall, Confederate forces attempted to regain what they had lost in the disastrous first half of 1862 but failed to do more than bring a pause to the progress of Union arms in the West.The rhythm of Federal advance resumed the following spring. Grant’s stunning campaign against Vicksburg incorporated many of the factors that enabled the Union to decide the Civil War between the Appalachians and the Mississippi—superior Union leadership embodied in Grant;inferior Confederate leadership in the person of Pemberton; the use of a navigable river, the Mississippi; and the cooperation of a powerful fleet of gunboats ably commanded by Rear Adm.David D.Porter.As the Vicksburg campaign was approaching its close, Rosecrans finally got his Army of the Cumberland into motion and, in a parallel to what had happened in Mississippi a few weeks before, outmaneuvered the opposing Confederate army under the command of General Braxton Bragg and his highly dubious set of subordinates.

In 1864 the drumbeat of Union victory in the West continued in Sherman’s inexorable advance toward and final capture of Atlanta.Sherman did not have the aid of navigable rivers and naval cooperation, but he did clearly exhibit superiority to his Confederate opponents, and he enjoyed the momentum built up by the preceding two years of Union success.With his March to the Sea in the late fall of 1864, Sherman led his victorious forces out of the Western theater and into the East. He left behind a Confederate army that had practically no hope of achieving any meaningful success against the vastly superior numbers and generalship of George Thomas.

Meanwhile,on the Atlantic slope Sherman’s Western armies advanced without meaningful resistance—the fight at Bentonville notwithstanding—and were clearly well on their way to mopping up remaining Rebel resistance east of the Appalachians when Lee’s Petersburg lines finally collapsed,and Grant ran the Army of Northern Virginia to earth at Appomattox.

Some have asserted that because the war ended not long after the surrender in the McLean parlor at Appomattox, the Eastern theater must have been the decisive one.What this claim overlooks is that the outcome had already been decided in the West.In the East the deadlock broke only when the conflict was all but over in the rest of the country. Even if Lee could have evaded Grant for a few more weeks, both he and Grant knew that Union forces would overrun Virginia and its remaining defenders before midsummer.The Union’s Eastern armies captured the Rebel capital, Richmond, on April 2, 1865, a few weeks, at most, ahead of the arrival of Sherman’s Westerners.

The floodtide of Union victory overspreading the Confederate heartland sapped the will of white Southerners to carry on what was obviously a losing struggle,encouraging desertion and other actions that weakened the Confederate war effort.Simultaneously, those victories were the tonic that kept Northern morale afloat despite bad news in the East.The victory at Atlanta was the final boost that lifted Union morale to help ensure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 as a decision by the Northern people to press on to final victory.The territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi proved to be the decisive theater of the Civil War.


Steven E.Woodworth teaches at Texas Christian University and is the author of numerous books, including Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. (He’s even written a book about Gettysburg.)

Originally published in the November 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.