The Western Theater, 1861-1863: A Discussion, Part One

Most accounts of the Civil War concentrate on events in the Eastern Theater.  Yet a case could be made (and some historians have made it) that the Civil War was won (and lost) in the West (no, not the trans-Mississippi West … that’s a topic for another time).  So over the next few days I’m going to pose some questions for discussion by all of you.  I’m going to limit this discussion to the years 1861-63; we’ll talk about 1864-65 later.

Today’s question: what was the most decision made/not made in the theater and why?



15 thoughts on “The Western Theater, 1861-1863: A Discussion, Part One

  1. Ray O'Hara September 28, 2011 / 10:41 am

    Probably the most decisive decision was by the CSA to defend as far forward as possible, even moving into Ky, and not defending on a line they could reasonably hope to hold.

    Davis didn’t seem to grasp the idea that any ground lost in battle would be able to be regained at the negotiating table.

    as the old maxim holds, “he who defends everywhere defends nowhere”.

  2. Carl Schenker September 28, 2011 / 10:53 am

    Brooks —
    It seems to me that it would be Grant’s decision to move south of Vicksburg. Because that led so directly to such an important positive outcome. (I am sure your other readers will soon persuade me otherwise.)
    In a light hearted spirit, I cite Sherman’s view that the most important decision of the period was Grant’s to stay with Halleck’s army at Corinth, coached by Sherman. (I know from your essay “After Shiloh” that you downplay the significance of Sherman’s coaching.)
    Carl Schenker

  3. Lyle Smith September 28, 2011 / 11:16 am

    Polk’s move into Kentucky against the wishes of Jefferson Davis. Kentucky might could have been a buffer between the Ohio river and Tennessee, but for this action. The Confederates could have then concentrated more soldiers in the East and/or focused more on defending the Mississippi river.

    • Lyle Smith September 28, 2011 / 12:14 pm

      The important Federal decision/s made was for Halleck to not go after Beauregard’s army at Corinth fast enough and then to let him rest and reorganize at Tupelo. This allowed for Bragg to eventually move that army to Chattanooga and then to Kentucky, and kept the fall of Vicksburg from happening for another year at least.

  4. Jeff Davis September 28, 2011 / 12:39 pm

    For what it is worth, I tink it was a series of decisions to keep elevating Grant. Every tme he got promoted [read: given more responsibility] he rose to the occasion, grasped almost immediately what was needed and set about making it happen.

    His combined arms operations were masterpieces that apparently the Confederates never anticipated or understood. When you compare his operations to those done on the coast of the Carolinas, his successes shine even more brightly.

    He seized on the omprtance of the rivers and used them to roll the Rebel lines back through Tennessee. It was a remartkable campaign.

  5. Tony Gunter September 28, 2011 / 1:32 pm

    I have to agree with Carl. I think Grant was the only top commander with the humility to navigate the snake pit that was the Union high command. As per a certain historian, Lincoln not only never said “I can not spare this man, he fights,” he also was about to spare the hell out of Grant if he had dropped the ball at Vicksburg. Grant’s ballsy decision to operate against the railroad, with or without McClernand’s Corps in tow, was the decision that sealed Grant’s rise to power and the Union victory.

  6. TF Smith September 28, 2011 / 7:08 pm

    Lincoln approving Grant getting the theater command after Halleck was ordered east; “nothing but victory,” indeed.

    Grant was the most sucessful combat commander of the war.

    • Tony Gunter September 28, 2011 / 9:04 pm

      Brooks can tell you a lot more about Halleck / Lincoln’s choice for command than I can … but I can tell you that Grant wasn’t in command of a whole helluva lot when Halleck was ordered east. As per Grant, he barely had enough troops to hold what he had.

      Meanwhile, Lincoln was scheming to send an independent force through Grant’s department under McClernand.

      I think the only bold decision Lincoln made in all of this was to admit that he had been wrong and Grant right.

      • TF Smith September 29, 2011 / 7:07 pm

        Was Lincoln scheming to send an indepedent force through Grant’s department, or was he scheming to keep McClernand occupied and “Little Egypt” motivated?

        • Ned Baldwin September 30, 2011 / 6:45 am

          When the scheme to give McClernand an independent command was hatched in October 1862 by Lincoln and Stanton, Grant’s department did not cover the conceived of area of operations. Push back from Halleck resulted in McClernand’s assignment being folded into Grant’s authority.

  7. chris September 28, 2011 / 7:32 pm

    Confused, isn’t Grant’s Vicksburg campaign considered a Trans-Mississippi campaign and hence no what we were to discuss? And if it is, I want my money back from that Trans-Mississippi Civil Class I took in grad school….

    But I would also agree with Carl, Grant’s move south of Vicksburg and to run the guns atop the Vicksburg heights, and essentially cut lose from his lines of supply once driving east, were all bold and aggressive moves.


    • Tony Gunter September 28, 2011 / 8:59 pm

      According to Wilson, Grant really didn’t want to cut loose from his supply line … hm, let’s see … who was the author of *that* bold and aggressive move. No, it couldn’t be James McPherson. He was too timid and cautious.


  8. James F. Epperson September 29, 2011 / 4:31 am

    Brooks, I’m going to assume the word “important” was omitted in your question.

    I’m going to go with Grant’s decision to counterattack in response to the breakout attempt at Fort Donelson. The result began his ascendancy, and taught him a lesson about the value of pressing the enemy.

  9. John Foskett September 30, 2011 / 7:17 am

    The one “not made” – from the Union side, I concur on Corinth, May, 1862. Halleck, apparently emulating McClellan, assembled overwhelming odds and then ended up with possession of a railroad station after spending a full month conducting a seminar on 15 different ways to utilize picks, shovels, and hoes. .For the sake of argument, I think people underestimate Farragut’s capture of New Orleans.

  10. Terry Walbert September 30, 2011 / 10:29 am

    Apart from East Tennessee, I don’t believe that the rest of the western theatre was defensible by the South considering their resources. Perhaps Joe Johnston could have done better than Braxton Bragg. If that’s true, the most decisive decision was made by Jefferson Davis in placing and retaining Bragg in command.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s