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, Union troops suffered a similar setback in Grant’s initial confrontation with Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness. A distraught brigadier rode up to Grant and blurted out a panicked warning that Lee would get in the Union rear and cut them off from their retreat route over the Rappahannock River. Grant fixed him with a glare and declared:
Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always think he is about to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.
Grant suited action to words, and maintained the initiative to the end at Appomattox eleven months later.
But Grant’s effort to instill into the Army of the Potomac the aggressive, can-do attitude that he had brought east enjoyed only limited success. He was never able to turn that army into the supple, quick-striking instrument of his will that he had done with the smaller Army of the Tennessee. Woodworth implies a geographical explanation for this contrast. Most soldiers in the Army of the Potomac came from the longer-settled and more urban states of the Northeast, while “Grant’s qualities tended to be those of that up-and-coming region” of the Midwest that furnished the soldiers in the Army of the Tennessee. They “were quick to adopt Grant’s approach to war, because it was the way their own fathers had approached the challenges of carving farms out of the wilderness.” This interpretation may have some validity, but a more likely explanation for the Army of the Potomac’s relative inertia is the legacy of General George B. McClellan, who created that army and stamped it with his trademark defensive-mindedness and lack of initiative.
And perhaps the Army of the Tennessee was not quite so all-conquering as Woodworth and Flood claim. Woodworth takes his title from a letter by Captain Jacob Ritner of the 25th Iowa Infantry to his wife just before the attack against Confederate defenses on Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee, in November 1863. “We all expect a hot fight before long,” wrote Ritner, “but we expect nothing but victory.” On this occasion, however, the three divisions of the Army of the Tennessee (commanded by Sherman) failed to carry their objective while troops from the Army of the Cumberland and Army of the Potomac, in the first battle in which parts of all three principal Union armies fought together, attacked successfully and won the battle.
Nor were all the other actions fought by the Army of the Tennessee victorious. In his first battle, at Belmont, Missouri, in November 1861, Grant narrowly averted disaster when his men had to fight their way through a surrounding ring of enemy troops in order to reembark and escape on their steamboat transports. A year later an attack by four divisions of the Army of the Tennessee against a strong Confederate position at Chickasaw Bluffs just north of Vicksburg in Mississippi was repulsed with heavy Union losses. And at the culmination of a successful campaign to drive Vicksburg’s defenders back into their trenches in May 1863, the Army of the Tennessee’s first two assaults against these formidable works suffered bloody setbacks.
Nevertheless, it is quite true that this army penetrated farther into Confederate territory, destroyed more enemy resources, and experienced more consistent success than any other Union army. Its capture of two Confederate strongholds in Tennessee, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson (with the help of river gunboats), in February 1862 enabled Union forces to drive deeply into the enemy heartland by way of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Two months later Grant’s snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh paved the way for the capture of Memphis and the breaking of the Confederacy’s major east–west railroad. Despite the defeat of the first two assaults at Vicksburg, the Army of the Tennessee won five other battles leading up to these attacks and eventually captured this Confederate bastion along with its 30,000 defenders. Then having cut the Confederacy in twain at Vicksburg, the Army of the Tennessee constituted the “maneuvering and striking force” of Sherman’s army group in the campaign that captured Atlanta in September 1864, and half of his army as it marched from Atlanta to the sea and from Savannah to Raleigh by the war’s end.
From its initial base at Cairo, Illinois, the Army of the Tennessee fought its way through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Woodworth and Flood maintain that the path of destruction this army carved through the South was the main factor in Union victory. Most Civil War historians would agree. In the popular understanding of the war, however, the campaigns and battles fought by the Army of the Tennessee are less familiar than those fought by the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia. For every book about Vicksburg there are ten books about Gettysburg. Battles such as Antietam, First and Second Bull Run, and Chancellorsville have greater name recognition and tourist visitation than Shiloh or Kennesaw Mountain or Jonesboro. And while Grant and Sherman are certainly the most written-about Union commanders, many who know who Robert E. Lee was would be puzzled to name the commanders of Confederate armies that Grant and Sherman fought against in the western theater of the war: Albert Sidney Johnston, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, and John Bell Hood. These books, therefore, deserve a large readership to help redress the balance between the eastern and western theaters in popular knowledge of the Civil War.
Many soldiers in the Army of the Tennessee shared Woodworth’s high opinion of their fighting qualities, especially in comparison with the Army of the Potomac. “The war would never end were it left to the fighting of the band box army in the east,” wrote an Indiana private in 1863. “They have been in but one Confederate state [Virginia] while we have been through five.” An Illinois soldier thought that “the Potomac Army is only good to draw greenbacks and occupy winter quarters.” For their part, eastern Union soldiers sometimes derided the less-disciplined westerners as “nothing but an armed mob, and [their adversaries] not anything near so hard to whip as Lee’s well disciplined soldiers.”1
When soldiers from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Potomac first came together, as did parts of both of these armies in October 1863 to reinforce the hard-pressed Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga after its defeat in the battle of Chickamauga, they traded insults and sometimes blows. “The eastern men have always been defeated while the western men have been victorious,” wrote an Iowa soldier, “yet these yankees [i.e., northeasterners] pretend to look down on the western men & officers with contempt…. It will cause a rumpus yet & get some of these yankees an all fired thrashing.”
The experience of fighting together against a common Confederate enemy diminished this enmity during Sherman’s 1864 Georgia campaign, when transfers from the Army of the Potomac made up a significant part of his army. But the westerners still considered themselves superior to the “Yankees” back in Virginia. And it is certainly true that while the Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought each other to a bloody stalemate across a narrow front of two hundred miles for almost four years, Union armies in the West—especially the Army of the Tennessee—marched victoriously through 1,200 miles of enemy territory. The Southern resources and railroads and other infrastructure they destroyed did much to bring about ultimate Union victory. Yet that victory could not be achieved until Confederate armies were eliminated, especially Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. So long as that army existed, so did the Confederate nation. And it was the much-maligned Army of the Potomac that finally defeated Lee’s army at Appomattox.
The war was won only by hard fighting, and the Army of the Potomac did most of that fighting. Of the ten largest battles in the war (each with combined Union and Confederate casualties of 23,000 or more), seven were fought between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. Of the fifty Union regiments with the largest percentage of battle casualties, forty-one fought in the eastern theater. Of course in the grim calculus of war, sustaining casualties is less important than inflicting them—and there too the Army of the Potomac did far more than other Union armies. Of the fifty Confederate regiments with the highest percentage of battle casualties, forty were in the Army of Northern Virginia.2 In terms of fighting prowess, therefore, the “band box” soldiers in the Army of the Potomac more than held their own.
In other respects also the western soldiers were perhaps not quite so tough as they—and some historians—have portrayed them. In all wars before the twentieth century, microbes were much more lethal than bullets. Nearly twice as many soldiers died from disease as from combat in the Civil War. Recruits from rural areas were more vulnerable to microbes than those from cities and towns who had previously been exposed to diseases like measles and mumps that farm boys had not encountered while growing up. Virtual epidemics of these childhood diseases swept the camps of midwestern soldiers, weakening their resistance to the killer diseases of the Civil War: dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and malaria. Soldiers from midwestern states in Union armies suffered a disease mortality rate 43 percent higher than those from the more urban states of the Northeast—while the latter had a combat mortality rate 23 percent greater than midwesterners.3
Woodworth touches on the issue of the effects of disease and the deaths from it, especially in the Army of the Tennessee’s flooded camps along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg during the winter of 1862–1863. But perhaps this matter deserved more attention than he has given it. As Woodworth notes in his introduction, he has not written a “headquarters history” but “a narrative of the army with attention to all levels, from that of commanding general all the way down to the newest recruit.” One of the most salient aspects of the common soldiers’ experience was illness, but Woodworth says little about it. His book also passes lightly over several other facets of what is sometimes called “the new military history”: an analysis of the class and ethnic composition of armies, of the soldiers’ relationship to their home communities and to the society from which they came, as well as the psychological impact of their military experiences.
Woodworth has written a very good but traditional narrative of campaigns and battles with an emphasis on the combat experiences of men in the ranks. He has described with clarity and vigor the tactical actions in such battles as Shiloh, Champion’s Hill, and Atlanta and the strategic operations in the Vicksburg campaign and in Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas. But many readers will be frustrated by the absence of campaign and battle maps, except for a single general theater map at the beginning of the book. Words alone, no matter how lucid, are insufficient to convey an understanding of the fine-grained details of geography, terrain, strategy, and tactics that Woodworth describes; without maps to enhance visual comprehension of the words, these details can become a jumble.
Charles Bracelen Flood provides a few maps at the beginning of his book—not very good ones—but they are less important to his main concern: the personalities, partnership, and leadership qualities of Grant and Sherman. Both men were West Point graduates (Sherman in 1840 and Grant in 1843) who had good records in the antebellum army—especially Grant’s combat performance as a lieutenant in the Mexican War (1846–1848). Both experienced indifferent success at best in civilian careers after resigning from the army—Sherman in 1853 and Grant, under a cloud for probable drunkenness, in 1854. Both reentered the army as colonels when the Civil War began in 1861. Grant pulled himself together and started a step by step rise to higher rank and greater responsibility to become general in chief in March 1864. After a rocky start that included a nervous breakdown while commanding Union forces in Kentucky during the fall of 1861, Sherman became a strong division commander under Grant at Shiloh in April 1862. This experience bonded them as personal friends and as the most effective command team on either side in the Civil War.
Their friendship illustrated the truth that opposites attract. Grant was reserved in manner, taciturn in speech, rumpled in appearance, undemonstrative in behavior, pragmatic rather than theoretical, cool under pressure, clear and concise in written orders. Sherman was nervous, talkative, effusive, volatile in personality, well read especially in military theory and history. An officer who knew both of them well wrote that
Sherman was tall, angular, and spare, as if his superabundant energy had consumed his flesh. His words were distinct, his ideas clear and rapid, coming, indeed, almost too fast for utterance, in brilliant, dramatic form…. Grant was calmer in manner a hundred-fold. The habitual expression on his face was so quiet as to be almost incomprehensible. In utterance he was slow and sometimes embarrassed, but his words were well-chosen, never leaving the remotest doubt of what he intended to convey.
Grant was a pipe smoker. During the fighting at Fort Donelson, however, he mislaid his pipe and borrowed a cigar from the gunboat commander. Newspaper stories describing Grant galloping over the battlefield with an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth appealed to the Northern imagination. Admirers sent Grant hundreds of cigars, so he gave up his pipe and became a heavy cigar smoker—causing the throat cancer that killed him twenty-three years later at the age of sixty-three.
Rumors of drunkenness also plagued Grant during the war, most if not all of them false. He was taken by surprise by the Confederate attack at Shiloh because he was drunk, some whispered. Others insisted that the false starts and failed efforts in the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign were a consequence of Grant’s incompetence and drunkenness. Although the story that Lincoln asked what brand of whiskey Grant drank so he could send some to his other generals is apocryphal, it is true that Lincoln dismissed the rumors of drinking and resisted pressure to remove Grant from command. Flood seems ambivalent about the question of Grant’s drinking during the war, accepting as accurate some dubious evidence that Grant’s most thorough biographer has persuasively discredited.4 Flood also accepts at face value a statement Sherman made about Grant that was intended as ironic satire: “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by piece each other always.”
In contrast to the truly impressive research and meticulous accuracy of Woodworth’s account, Flood’s narrative is marred by numerous petty errors—and some not so petty, including a garbled chronology of the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign and the claim that Robert E. Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee was a US Army corps commander who fought at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War (he never got closer to the fighting in Cuba than Jacksonville, Florida).
Still, these books complement each other in their accounts of the campaigns that Grant and Sherman fought together, with Grant as the army commander and Sherman leading a division, then a corps, and finally the Army of the Tennessee at Chattanooga in the fall of 1863 after Grant became commander of the entire theater between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. When Grant went to Washington and then to Virginia in the spring of 1864, Sherman succeeded him as western theater commander. Although they did not see each other for nearly a year, they remained in frequent telegraphic connection through the War Department telegraph office in Washington. Together they continued to carry out the strategic plans that brought down the Confederacy.
That strategy had changed considerably since their first teamwork at Shiloh. Until the summer of 1862 both generals, as well as the Lincoln administration, pursued what has been termed a “policy of conciliation” toward the Southern white population: defeat the armed insurrection but seek to win the sympathies of civilians back to the Union. Such a policy required respect for Southern property rights, including property in slaves. But in the second year of the war, soldiers and officers alike became convinced that “we cannot change the hearts of the people of the South,” in Sherman’s words, “but we can make war so terrible” that they will give up and sue for peace. Men in the ranks began to grumble that the policy of protecting property owned by traitors was “played out.” To confiscate or destroy every kind of Southern property that could be defined as contributing to the Confederate economy and war effort—railroads, factories, slaves, livestock, cotton, grain and other foodstuffs—became Union policy by 1863.
The Army of the Tennessee, which penetrated more deeply into the Confederate heartland than other Union armies, had more opportunities than any other to carry out this “hard war” policy. Only a minority of these soldiers were antislavery by conviction, but most of them became pragmatic abolitionists as a means to undermine the Southern economy and win the war. And on their epic marches through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864– 1865, well chronicled in both books, they had ample opportunity to carry out the liberation and destruction of a large region previously untouched by the war. Although Woodworth correctly points out that Southern folklore about the wholesale plundering by “Sherman’s vandals” is greatly exaggerated, the reality was bad enough, especially in South Carolina. Sherman’s soldiers had it in for the Palmetto State, which they blamed for plunging the nation into war.
By the fall of 1864 Grant and Sherman had forged a winning strategy that combined the relentless hammering by the Army of the Potomac to cripple and eventually destroy the Army of Northern Virginia with the march through the deep South by Sherman’s army, spearheaded by the Army of the Tennessee, to wreck the Southern infrastructure. Neither part of this strategy would have alone won the war; in combination they proved triumphant. It was not pretty, but it was effective. As Sherman famously expressed it in a speech fifteen years later to an audience too young to have fought in the war but already beginning to romanticize it, war is not a glorious adventure; when “you come down to the practical realities, boys, war is all hell.”
December 15, 2005
Irvin Wiley Bell, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), pp. 321– 323. ↩
These data were compiled from Thomas L. Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War (John Kallmann, 1996, reprint edition) and William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (Brandow, 1898). ↩
Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War; Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War. ↩
Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822–1865 (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), pp. 207–208. ↩