The authors of the two new Civil War narratives under review are not shy about stating their central theses. The Union Army of the Tennessee, writes Steven Woodworth, was “the most effective fighting force on the continent” by 1864. It “won the decisive battles in the decisive theater of the war” while other Union armies were losing battles or barely holding their own. Charles Bracelen Flood agrees. The personal rapport and professional partnership between Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who successively commanded the Army of the Tennessee from 1861 to 1864, was “the friendship that won the Civil War.”
Like most Union armies, the Army of the Tennessee was named after the river that flowed through its area of initial operations. It grew from a core of several brigades commanded by Grant that occupied the vital strategic region where four navigable rivers came together along the Illinois– Kentucky border: the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers. This army increased to its maximum size of about 60,000 men during the Vicksburg campaign in 1863. Soldiers in the Army of the Tennessee came almost entirely from the states of what we now call the Midwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. The midwesterners Grant and Sherman created this army in their own image, according to Woodworth: “It partook both of [Grant’s] matter-of-fact steadiness and his hard-driving aggressiveness” as well as of Sherman’s genius for strategic mobility.
Grant was one of the few commanders on either side in the Civil War (Robert E. Lee was another) who “understood the importance of momentum and maintaining the initiative,” as Woodworth points out:
There might be many things that the enemy could do to him, but Grant seemed to realize that the enemy would not be able to do these things if he acted first, keeping his opponent off balance.
When the Confederates at Fort Donelson attacked and threatened to break his line on February 15, 1862, Grant recognized that
some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks first now will be victorious and the enemy will have to be in a hurry if he gets ahead of me.
Grant calmly directed a counterattack that penned up the Confederates in their fort and compelled the surrender of 14,000 of them the next day.
Seven weeks later at the Battle of Shiloh in southwest Tennessee, after his army had been roughly handled and driven back two miles on April 6, one of Grant’s staff officers asked about preparations for retreat. Surprised, Grant replied: “Retreat? No! I propose to attack at daylight, and whip them.” And he did. Two years later when Grant went east as general in chief of all Union armies and made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac for its titanic campaign against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia …