Friday, February 24, 2012

Hess: "THE CIVIL WAR IN THE WEST: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi"

[ The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).  Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:334/407. ISBN:978-0-8078-3542-5  $40 ]

 The question of which major Civil War theater of operations -- East or West -- was more important to the conflict's outcome remains a controversial one. However, there can be little argument over which region witnessed each side's greatest array of battlefield successes and failures.  Earl Hess's The Civil War in the West is less a thesis driven work about why the Union smashingly won and the Confederacy dismally failed in the West and more of a narrative recounting of military events. With tactical considerations beyond the scope of the work and larger strategic analysis dealt with only briefly (and at far less detail than even the moderate complexity of Donald Stoker's recent book), Hess's focus is operational. Minus a few quibbles here and there about numbers and interpretation, a wonderful job is done by the author summarizing western army and inland naval operations. With coverage of battles small, medium, and large in size, the work is satisfyingly comprehensive.

Even so, The Civil War in the West is concerned with far more than campaigns and battles. Hess skillfully and consistently integrates several parallel narratives into his overarching military one.  Perhaps the most significant one revolves around the myriad of challenges faced by the Union army as occupier and administrator of vast swaths of southern territory.  Such issues addressed, and how they changed over the course of the war in terms of character and severity, include property confiscation, prize taking, trading rights, retaliation, and banishment. How the army dealt with slavery and the enlistment of black troops in conquered territories (along with the evolution of attitudes towards their military service) is also frequently discussed.  Hess does a good job throughout the book in presenting the reader with a proper idea of the scale of the guerrilla war in the West and the level of disruption it caused enemy operations and communications.  He also emphasizes the often overlooked point that Union joint operations seizures of key coastal points (which are often criticized as violations of the principle of concentration) were prerequisites to the successful conduct of full scale inland invasions of the Deep South.

While the irregular conflict is accorded a proper level of significance by Hess, it is curious how abruptly the author discounts recent scholarship positing a central role for guerrilla warfare in fostering the war's increasing level of destructiveness.  Given how convincing many readers and scholars have found the recent work of Daniel Sutherland and Clay Mountcastle, one wishes Hess had developed his counterarguments in more depth.  A more defined concept of which areas comprised the "West" in terms of Civil War operations might also have been offered. Given the book's general neglect of Florida and the South Carolina front prior to Sherman's March, it might be assumed that the author does not consider these regions part of the western theater.  This is not without precedent (some military historians consider the Gulf and South Atlantic fronts "theaters" of their own), but a transparent declaration on the subject would have been helpful.  One might also have wished for a wider look at more nuts and bolts strategic issues (e.g. the comparative strategic importance of the Mississippi Valley vs. the central heartland -- Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta -- axis, the strengths and weaknesses of each side's departmental systems, and the advisability of the Confederacy's decision to allow such a huge ratio of cavalry to infantry in the West).

While readers steeped in the literature will find in The Civil War in the West a very familiar narrative rundown of campaigns and battles, as a comprehensive summary of the war in this critical theater, Hess's work shines brightly.  New students and those whose prior experience with the military side of the war is largely confined to the eastern theater will be best positioned to appreciate the value of Hess's volume.  While the idea that the western theater is vastly understudied compared to the east is no longer valid, this excellent and suitably broad summary work should serve as a valuable introduction to the western war for a wide reading audience. With The Civil War in the West, it's safe to say we have in our hands the subject's new standard single volume history.

More CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina
* West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

1 comment:

  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. Sounds like a good starting point, but not what the more well read person is looking for. However, I wouldn't have expected that with this book being in the series it is.

    I'm looking forward to the author's next project.

    Don Hallstrom


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