It is a common public perception that the most important theater of the Civil War was in the East, in particular, Virginia. For many readers, the only campaigns that matter are those that pitted Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against the Union Army of the Potomac under a long series of commanders. But for some time now, a consensus has emerged among serious Civil War historians that the decisive theater was in fact “the West”—the area between the Mississippi River and the Appalachians. Thomas Connelly, the eminent historian of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, has called this region the Confederate Heartland. But as Steven Woodworth observes in his important new book, Decision in the Heartland, it was really the heartland of the entire United States in 1860, able to turn an election or a civil war.
Woodworth quotes William Tecumseh Sherman, who in 1864 wrote of the strategic importance of that part of the continent drained by the Mississippi. “The Atlantic slope and Pacific shores will follow,” Sherman predicted, “…[the] destiny [of the Mississippi] as sure as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk! Here lies the seat of the coming empire, and from the West, when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston and Richmond, and the impoverished coast of the Atlantic.”
This is indeed what happened. The deep penetration of Union armies into western Tennessee and northern Mississippi in early 1862 opened the way to both Vicksburg and Chattanooga. The capture of the former, in conjunction with the capture of New Orleans, gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi, rendering the trans-Mississippi strategically irrelevant. The capture of the latter meant the penetration of the Appalachian barrier and the opening of the way to Atlanta. Once accomplished, it was indeed, as Sherman said, short work to end the rebellion.
1861 constituted a “phony war” in the West. Although neither Missouri nor Kentucky had seceded, both were slave states with substantial pro-secession minorities. Indeed, representatives from both states were seated in the Confederate Congress. Kentucky had proclaimed its “neutrality” in the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy and both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis chose to respect it, at least for the time being. Lincoln stressed the importance of Kentucky in a letter to Orville Browning written in September: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” So the Union forces remained north of the Ohio and the Confederates remained in Tennessee.
Before Union forces could descend into the Confederate heartland, it was necessary to end the Confederate military threat in Missouri. The Confederates achieved initial battlefield successes in the state, notably at Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield in August. But logistical problems prevented the Rebels from consolidating their successes, and by the end of the year, Federal forces controlled most of Missouri. Although the threat posed by major Rebel armies was gone, vicious irregular warfare continued for the rest of the conflict.
But Union control of the state was threatened at the end of August when the Union commander of the Missouri department, John C. Fremont—who had been the Republican candidate for president in 1856—issued an order confiscating Rebel property in the state and freeing the slaves. Lincoln reversed the order, much to the chagrin of abolitionists and radical Republicans. But Lincoln argued that Fremont had no authority to issue such a broad edict and he understood that the effect of such an act would make it impossible to keep the border states in the Union.
The Fremont debacle was, however, offset by an even more egregious blunder on the part of the Confederates. Without notifying Davis, the senior Confederate general in western Tennessee, Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk—an ordained Episcopal bishop—dispatched troops to occupy the high bluffs above the Mississippi River near Columbus, Kentucky. Polk claimed that the action was a military necessity—by fortifying the bluffs at this point, the Confederates could conceivably interdicted traffic on the Mississippi—but by violating Kentucky’s neutrality, he effectively drove the state into the arms of the Union. He compounded his political blunder by a military one: not pushing on to Paducah, at the point where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio. Since the Tennessee flows parallel to the Mississippi for nearly 150 miles, this oversight provided an avenue of advance that would enable Union forces to outflank Polk’s new position on the Mississippi.
Despite the efforts of Kentucky’s pro-secessionist governor, the state legislature passed a resolution ordering the Confederates out of the state and inviting Union troops in to help drive them out. Taking advantage of the situation, a newly-invested brigadier general, Ulysses S. Grant, quickly occupied Paducah, giving the Union control of the lower Tennessee River.
There followed command shake-ups on both sides. Lincoln replaced Fremont with Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck and gave command of the Department of the Ohio to Don Carlos Buell. Meanwhile, Davis gave overall command of the Confederate West to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston faced a difficult problem because without the buffer provided by Kentucky’s neutrality, he had too few troops to defend such a vast area. Forced to adopt a cordon defense, he was in the position described by the best known military theorist of the time, Antoine-Henri, baron Jomini: “He who awaits the attack is everywhere anticipated.” Johnston’s cordon, anchored in the west at Columbus and in the east at Bowling Green, was subject to a penetration that would outflank both positions.
The only Confederate forces between Columbus and Bowling Green were small detachments that occupied Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donaldson on the Cumberland, where the rivers ran close together. Johnston ordered Polk to improve the two forts but Polk, as was his wont, ignored him. This dereliction of duty would soon prove costly to the Confederate cause.
Halleck had long recognized that the Tennessee River constituted the “main line of operation” in the West and in late January of 1862, he acceded to Grant’s request to launch an offensive up the river. In conjunction with the gunboats of Flag Officer Andrew Foote, Grant’s force of 17,000 troops captured Fort Henry on February 6. Most of the garrison escaped to Fort Donaldson, but now the Tennessee was open to Union naval power all the way to Florence, Alabama. Johnston’s positions at Columbus and Bowling Green were also in danger of being turned. By exploiting the Tennessee, Union forces would also be in position to seize the important rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, interdicting the region’s only continuous east-west rail line, the Memphis & Charleston railroad.
The capture of Fort Henry forced Johnston to abandon middle Kentucky and fall back on Nashville. He also sent reinforcements to shore up Fort Donaldson. A stronger position and a larger garrison made Donaldson a tougher nut to crack than Henry. The Confederates repulsed several attacks and then launched a surprise attack against the Federals that opened an escape route. But the Confederate leadership in the fort was abysmal and any opportunity for escape was lost as the victorious troops were ordered back to Donaldson. Grant quickly counterattacked and invested the fort. On February 16, Grant accepted the “unconditional surrender” of Fort Donaldson. Most of the garrison of 15,000 was lost, but some escaped, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most remarkable cavalry leader of the war, and his troopers. This was to have a great impact on future Federal operations in the West, as Forrest was a constant thorn in the side of the Yankees.
With the capture of Forts Henry and Donaldson, Halleck turned his attention to the seizure of Corinth. He ordered Grant to proceed up the Tennessee River, debark at Pittsburg Landing, and link up with Buell’s Army of the Ohio before proceeding overland to Corinth. Meanwhile Johnston abandoned Nashville and Columbus and concentrated his force at Corinth with the goal of attacking and destroying Grant’s force before Buell arrived.
On the morning of April 6, Johnston attacked, achieving almost complete surprise. Johnston intended to cut Grant off from his base on the Tennessee and drive his army west into the swamps of Owl Creek. But Shiloh illustrates the effect of what Clausewitz called friction, “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” As he observed,
everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.…The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should keep in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals,…the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong.…This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduce to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.
At Shiloh, unnoticeably small causes were amplified until they produced unanticipated macro-effects.
Johnston’s plan was fundamentally sound and his initial attacks were successful, as the Confederates overran a Union division. But resistance stiffened, leading to a terrible slaughter on the Union right near Shiloh Church. The Union left, meanwhile, anchored by a stout defense of one division in a dense thicket that came to be known as the “hornets’ nest,” held for seven hours. Acting like a battalion commander rather than an army commander, Johnston was mortally wounded while leading one of the assaults on the hornets’ nest. The Union line bent but did not break.
Johnston was succeeded by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero of Charleston (Fort Sumter) and First Manassas. The next morning he had to rally his disorganized and now outnumbered force as Grant, reinforced during the night by Buell, launched an aggressive counterattack. The intensity of the second day’s fighting was equal to that of the first. Although Beauregard was initially able to slow the Union advance, the weight of numbers eventually prevailed and by nightfall, the Confederates abandoned the bloody battlefield, retreating to Corinth. Shiloh’s staggering toll—nearly 24,000 dead, wounded, or missing—disabused Grant of his earlier view that the Confederacy was a shell that would easily crack with a little pressure.
Halleck, who had assumed field command of the forces after Shiloh, moved on Corinth. Eschewing the kind of pitched battle that had taken place earlier, Halleck proceeded cautiously, moving slowly and entrenching as he went. On May 30, Union troops entered Corinth.
Meanwhile, Federal troops on the Mississippi also moved south. Maj. Gen. John Pope in conjunction with Foote’s gunboats captured New Madrid, Missouri and Island Number 10 in the Mississippi, and Fort Pillow, opening the way to Memphis, which fell to the Union on June 7. The Upper Mississippi Valley had now been reclaimed by the Union. The fall of New Orleans in April meant that the Union forces also controlled the Lower Valley. Only the stretch of the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson remained in Confederate hands.
Once Corinth had fallen, Halleck directed Buell to move west along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad line toward Chattanooga. But through much of the summer, Buell’s army was immobilized by slashing Confederate cavalry raids led by John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky and Forrest in Tennessee that threatened his lines of communications and supply. The movement on Chattanooga stalled as Union troops were forced to protect the critical rail lines.
Then in late August, Braxton Bragg, who had succeeded Beauregard in command of what was then called the Army of the Mississippi (later the Army of Tennessee) embarked on an invasion of Kentucky in cooperation with a small force under Gen. Kirby Smith. Smith cleared the Cumberland Gap and headed west. Bragg headed north from Chattanooga. The operation in Kentucky was hampered by the Confederate departmental system, which made it difficult, if not impossible, for forces from two different departments to work in concert.
Nonetheless, Buell had to abandon his move toward Chattanooga and head north, first to Nashville, then to Bowling Green, and finally to Louisville. Maneuvering south of Louisville, the two armies stumbled into a battle near Perryville. Only a portion of both forces were engaged. Buell did not realize a major battle was underway because of a meteorological condition known as “acoustic shadow,” an area where topological obstructions or the like prevent the propagation of sound waves. At the end of the day on October 8, the Confederates had gotten the better of the fight, but with the rest of Buell’s army coming up, Bragg decided to disengage and retreat.
Meanwhile in northern Mississippi, Confederate General Sterling Price occupied Iuka in mid-September, planning to move toward the Tennessee in an attempt to prevent Grant from reinforcing Buell in Kentucky. Grant meanwhile sought to trap Price between his force and a column under Brig. Gen. William Rosecrans. Price handled Rosecrans roughly, but withdrew when it became apparent that he was between Grant and Rosecrans.
Later that month, the commander of the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, Gen. Earl Van Dorn, combined his force with that of Price to attack Corinth, gambling that a victory here would force Grant to abandon western Tennessee. On October 3, Van Dorn and Price launched a vicious attack against Rosecrans’s defenders, forcing them back two miles to the city’s inner defense line. Van Dorn renewed the assault the next day, achieving breakthroughs at several points, but was eventually repulsed after suffering heavy losses. Union forces nearly trapped the retreating Confederates by seizing Davis’ Bridge over the Hatchie River, but the latter were able to escape by fording upstream.
Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky and the battles of Iuka and Corinth represented the end of Confederate offensive capability in the West. Yes, Forrest, the “wizard of the saddle” would confound Union forces for the rest of the war and Bragg would achieve a sterile victory at Chickamauga in September of 1863. But Grant would take Vicksburg and later Chattanooga, opening the way to Atlanta. Subsequent events would prove that the Confederate heartland was the key to Union victory. What began at Fort Henry would conclude at Durham Station three years later.
Mackubin T. Owens is Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and editor of the quarterly journal Orbis. He has published widely on U.S. civil-military relations, Lincoln as a war president, and the policy and strategy of the Civil War. He is the author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.