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The Confederacy’s Western Theater fighters get little attention compared to their eastern counterparts

The army of Tennessee has always lived in the shadow of the Army of Northern Virginia. During the war, it labored under a succession of flawed commanders, lost battles that claimed a huge toll in casualties, and watched the fruits of a great tactical triumph at Chickamauga (its single undisputed success) slip away through mismanagement by its leaders. Because their principal Western army almost never presented them with victories, the people of the Confederacy increasingly looked to Robert E. Lee and his soldiers for good news from the battlefield. Blessed with gifted subordinates such as “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, and J.E.B. Stuart—and fortunate to face a group of modestly talented opponents in 1862-63—Lee won celebrated victories beginning with the Seven Days and extending through Chancellorsville.

Those achievements helped make the Army of Northern Virginia synonymous with the Confederacy in the minds of many white Southerners and much of the loyal citizenry of the United States. In contrast, the Army of Tennessee seemed a force capable of stalwart service that nonetheless gave up huge chunks of territory to advancing Union armies in Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Western Banner: “Full moon” regimental battle flags like this one were unique to the Army of Tennessee. (American Civil War Museum)

A survey of military literature on the Confederacy reinforces the image of the Army of Tennessee as a junior partner to the Army of Northern Virginia. Far more authors have written about Lee, his lieutenants, and their campaigns in the Eastern Theater than about Confederate operations in the West. In the decades after the war, Jubal A. Early and other Lost Cause writers used a variety of forums, most notably the pages of the Southern Historical Society’s Papers, to portray Lee and his army as the backbone of Confederate resistance. Apart from the efforts of men such as Early, the exploits of Lee and Jackson understandably generated more interest among 19th-century Southern white readers than the failures of Albert Sidney Johnston, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, and others who led the Army of Tennessee.

Former Confederates took solace in the impressive achievements of the Army of Northern Virginia. The writings of Douglas Southall Freeman, easily the most influential 20th-century historian of Confederate military affairs, solidified the reputation of Lee and his army as one of the most impressive field forces in history. In R.E. Lee: A Biography (1934-35) and Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (1942-44), Freeman supplied portraits of Lee and his principal subordinates that shaped the thinking of generations of readers.

A year before the appearance of the initial volume of Lee’s Lieutenants, the Bobbs-Merrill Company published Stanley F. Horn’s The Army of Tennessee. Horn brought writing skills, as well as a Tennessean’s frank admiration for the Confederacy’s Western soldiers, to the first modern treatment of the subject. Contrary to popular perceptions, Horn insisted in phrasing that betrayed his Southern perspective, “all of the War Between the States was not fought in Virginia.” The Army of Tennessee “had carried the fortunes of the Confederacy on its bayonets no less valiantly than its more famous sister army in Virginia. With stubborn bravery it faced the armies of stout leaders like Grant, Sherman, and Thomas, and it matched them blow for blow.”

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]How Many Americans Know Something About Durham Statton?[/quote]

Horn sketched a resilient army that suffered chronic failures of command “stretching from Shiloh’s bloody field to the final furling of its ragged flags at Durham Station in North Carolina.” He presented Albert Sidney Johnston as a general who disappointed early Southern expectations, emphasized Braxton Bragg’s shortcomings as a field commander and military politician, and dismissed the notion that Joseph E. Johnston could have saved Atlanta if left in charge of the army after mid-July 1864. Not surprisingly, John Bell Hood received some of Horn’s sharpest criticism. At Franklin, the author noted bitterly, “Hood was consumed with a burning impetuosity. He could not wait even long enough to make proper preparations.” Horn marveled that even Franklin and Nashville failed to break the spirit of the army, the remnants of which traveled east to fight on in North Carolina. When the end came at Durham Station, Horn concluded, the survivors knew they “had fought a good fight, they had finished their course, they had kept the faith.”

Much excellent work on the Army of Tennessee has appeared since Horn wrote his narrative. This literature includes Thomas L. Connelly’s Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 and Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865 (1967, 1971) and Richard M. McMurry’s Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History (1989), as well as campaign histories, biographies, and soldier studies by, among many others, Albert Castel, Peter Cozzens, Larry J. Daniel, Earl J. Hess, Grady McWhiney, Charles P. Roland, Craig L. Symonds, and Steven Woodworth. Horn’s research fell considerably short of the standard attained by these later historians, and his emotional attachment to the Army of Tennessee too often colored his analysis. Still, his pioneering book remains a good introduction to the army that protected the vast midsection of the Confederacy.

Even the steady accretion of solid books on the leaders, soldiers, and campaigns of the Army of Tennessee has failed to change popular perceptions. Braxton Bragg and Joe Johnston have received their share of excellent scholarly attention of late, yet they remain—and likely always will—a tough sell compared to Lee. How many Americans know at least something about Appomattox? And how many at least something about Durham Station? No novel on the Western army rivals The Killer Angels, The Red Badge of Courage, or Lone Star Preacher, and no film does for the Army of Tennessee what Gettysburg and Gods and Generals do for its more celebrated Eastern counterpart. Similarly, viewers introduced to the conflict by Ken Burns’ widely praised The Civil War, which after more than a quarter-century still plays endlessly during PBS fundraising weeks, find in that documentary far more detailed coverage of Lee’s army than of Braxton Bragg’s. In these and other ways, the Army of Tennessee remains the steady character actor overshadowed by the Army of Northern Virginia, which continues in the glamorous leading role. ✯