Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of Hewitt & Schott, eds. - "CONFEDERATE GENERALS IN THE WESTERN THEATER, Volume 4: Essays on America's Civil War"

[Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 4: Essays on America's Civil War edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt & Thomas E. Schott (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). Cloth, 31 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. 391 pages. ISBN:978-1-62190-290-4. $45.95]

Operating under the auspices of University of Tennessee Press since 2010, the Confederate Generals in the Western Theater series is the brainchild of historians Lawrence Lee Hewitt and the late Arthur Bergeron. After Bergeron's passing, Thomas Schott was brought on board to assist with a pair of related Trans-Missisippi volumes as well as this, the fourth and final installment of the western theater series*. Selecting for study a mixture of both familiar and lesser-known figures of varying degrees of command competence, the series volumes have consistently managed to have something interesting to say, even when addressing the careers of already well-documented general officers.

C. David Dalton begins the Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Volume 4 proceedings with a fine overview of Felix Zollicoffer's role in establishing and defending the far right flank of Albert Sidney Johnston's extended western theater line of defense. In regard to criticism of Zollicoffer's occupation of both banks of the Cumberland River and his alleged disobeying of orders to recross the more vulnerable detachment, Dalton could find no evidence of the existence of a written copy of the order and reserves ultimate judgment on that count. He also well reminds readers that while Zollicoffer's name is most popularly and persistently attached to the Mill Springs defeat, the battle was really senior commander George Crittenden's to win or lose. Also, Dalton is persuasive in arguing that Zollicoffer's death had less to do with his famously impaired vision and more to do with the poor general visibility of the battlefield, with the combination of heavily misty atmospheric conditions and antiquated weaponry having more to do with the Confederate defeat than Zollicoffer's ill-timed demise.

Robert E. Lee's plan for the defense of the South Atlantic seaboard, one that integrated rail mobility with prepared earthworks located just beyond the range of enemy naval guns, is well appreciated in the literature. The consensus among historians is that it was a highly efficient system that made the best of the region's limited military assets. Proof of its effectiveness lies in the fact that the system operated successfully for over three years without major modification by Lee's successors, succumbing only to overwhelming assault from the direction of the Confederacy's gutted interior very late in the war. Roger Durham's essay agrees with this assessment and offers a solid overview of the four-month period Lee spent in command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Stuart Sanders's chapter summarizes the life and Civil War career of Benjamin Hardin Helm, who was widely admired by officers and men alike. The essay has added significance when one takes into account the absence of a Helm biography in the literature. Due to limited sample size when it comes to the general's battlefield exploits (wounds and illness caused him to miss battles, and he was killed at the head of his brigade at Chickamauga), Sanders judiciously recognizes the difficulty in globally rating Helm's capabilities.

The next three chapters are also broadly biographical in nature. Michael Bradley recounts the checkered life and military service of Bushrod Rust Johnson, arguing that the general's career pinnacle occurred during the months spanning the 1863 Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns. Brian Steel Wills does the same for Abraham Buford, noting that the burly, hard-drinking Kentuckian did well leading both infantry and cavalry, doing much to save Pemberton's army from complete rout at Champion Hill and developing into Nathan Bedford Forrest's chief and most trusted subordinate during the 1864-65 period. The late Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes's well-rounded treatment of Gideon Pillow takes the deepest dive of the three. The principal biographer of Pillow, Hughes is nevertheless not the only historian to assign to Gideon Pillow a great deal of credit for recruiting and organizing the Tennessee regiments that would later form the heart of the Army of Tennessee. As a discredited field commander, Pillow also demonstrated considerable energy and success heading the conscription bureau in the West. Perhaps the most interesting sections of Hughes's essay are those recounting Pillow's most obscure field service. As a cavalry division commander in 1864, the general twice demonstrated further ineptitude for high command. He led a poorly-coordinated June 24 attack on the federal garrison at LaFayette, Georgia (a little-known battle that is very well described in the essay, with the exception that Union Colonel John T. Croxton's name is given as Crofton) that ended up in a Confederate rout and also failed to do much of anything to oppose Rousseau's Raid in July of that year.

James Prichard's article is a thorough account of John Hunt Morgan's final raid, an ill-advised operation that further tarnished the faded reputation of the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy." The summation provides a good explanation of what the defeat meant to declining southern military fortunes in the West.

The infamously disputatious William H.T. Walker is the subject of Stewart Bennett's essay. In it, Bennett traces the general's ill-fortune when facing enemy bullets (he was seriously wounded in three different major wars), his difficult personality and the effect it had on his career, and the possible consequences Walker's chronic poor health and many serious wounds had on both body and psyche. The chapter centers on the circumstances surrounding Walker's death on July 22, 1864, and Bennett makes a notable contribution to the Atlanta Campaign historiography by weighing all of the competing accounts, which differ widely in timing, location, and context. He makes a persuasive case that the most commonly cited interpretation (enduringly popularized by local avocational historian Wilbur Kurtz) is probably the one least likely to be true.

The second to last chapter is Keith Bohannon's summary and assessment of Edward C. Walthall's Civil War career. A prewar lawyer with some military school education in his youth, the quick study Walthall clearly benefited from starting at the bottom, learning the military trade from company level all the way up through command of a division. As Bohannon's article demonstrates, Walthall's leadership was well recognized throughout the Army of Tennessee by late 1864. Even though there were many other more senior officers to choose from, Nathan Bedford Forrest explicitly asked for Walthall to lead the infantry contingent of the rear guard during the retreat following the army's disastrous defeat at Nashville. The essay makes a convincing case that Walthall was one of the most promising young officers in the Confederacy's western armies and likely would have made corps command if the conflict had been significantly extended.

Chris Fonvielle's final essay effectively summarizes the three major late-war land and sea expeditions aimed at capturing Fort Fisher and closing the port of Wilmington, from the failed powder ship expedition to Ft. Fisher near the end of 1864 to the final evacuation of Wilmington in the face of an overwhelming Union assault in February 1865. The article centers on the impact of Braxton Bragg being brought in to oversee the department defenses. Fonvielle agrees with contemporary Bragg critics like W.H.C. Whiting and William Lamb that the unpopular general did little to support the defense of Fort Fisher and did nothing to inspire the Wilmington defenders. One struggles to come up with any great options Bragg might have had at that point, but the author's damning of the much-maligned general for apparently not even trying (or even appreciating the critical national importance of the Wilmington port and its defenses) is a point well taken.

Volume 4 contains the same informative collection of diverse essays, several somewhat revisionist in nature, that characterize the series as a whole. The book's map set is impressive in number but usefulness frequently suffers due to nearly all of them being borrowed from other publications, the result being that the desired benefit of having the cartography directly tied to the text is largely absent. It's a relatively minor complaint with what is an excellent capstone to the Confederate Generals in the Western Theater series, which will be greatly missed.

* - CWBA reviews of the other titles in the series (including the associated T-M series):
Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War

Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Vol. 1: Essays on America's Civil War
Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, Vol. 2: Essays on America's Civil War


  1. Hi Drew
    Thanks for the review. I wanted to see if you had any additional information on this series from Univ. Tenn. Press. I believe they have published 7 books in this series? The one non-essay title is a biography of Hood. Last time I checked the website for this series wasn't working. Originally I expected more non-essay titles to be published for the series? I'm not even sure who is doing the editing on the series. I think originally it was Gary Joiner?
    Like you I'm sorry to see the essay collections end. I thought they were all very worthwhile.


    1. That's all I know about UT Press's The Western Theater in the Civil War series, too.

      There was also some new center for study of the CW in the western theater (I think LaFantasie was placed in charge) at some university, and I don't recall anything at all coming out of that.


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