Monday, November 28, 2011

The Civil War in the West

Most publishers request that reviews be held until release time [this one is scheduled for March, but I would bet it comes out a couple months early] so until then I thought I would post a little preview of Earl Hess's The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (UNC Press, 2012).

At its heart, The Civil War in the West is a theater level operational summary. Although Hess doesn't strictly define the boundaries of the "West" and generally leaves out East Gulf and South Atlantic coastal areas, his coverage of the campaigns and battles is suitably comprehensive. Readers with a high interest level in the irregular war will be gratified by the depth offered. While Hess disagrees with the recent theses of Mountcastle and Sutherland pertaining to the implications of the guerrilla conflict on the war's overall level of destructiveness, he certainly appreciates its physical scale and significance.

Beyond the military campaigns, the Union army's constant struggle to maintain control over the civilian population in occupied areas, and at the same time foster viable trade practices that would not inordinately benefit the Confederacy, is another major theme of the book. The evolution of army policies and attitudes dealing with slavery and black enlistment is also broadly considered.

Of the three levels of warfare -- strategic, operational, and tactical -- only the first two apply to studies of this type, and Hess's work is weakest on the first.  With much of the military narrative comprising straightforward operational history, such high level matters are largely squeezed out.  Even so, I think even those readers that generally devour everything western theater related might benefit from a refresher course integrating the conventional war with the pervasive guerrilla and civil relations conflicts.  Generally speaking, though, the audiences best served by The Civil War in the West will probably be subject novices and those well read eastern theater enthusiasts looking to expand their area of study.

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