Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review - "Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed" by Larry Daniel

[Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed by Larry J. Daniel (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Hardcover, 5 maps, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,329/453. ISBN:978-1-4696-4950-4. $35]

As every Civil War student knows, the Army of Northern Virginia's impressive resume of eastern theater battlefield victories was not at all matched by the Confederacy's principal field army out west, the star-crossed Army of Tennessee. The reason or reasons behind this grand disparity between eastern successes and western failures has long been a topic of scholarly and popular debate. While both armies possessed the same highly motivated and resilient rank-and-file fighting material, and through much of its history the Army of Tennessee confronted far less daunting numerical odds than Robert E. Lee's army most often faced, many internal and external factors conspired to hamstring the Confederacy's defense of its western heartland. In various forms, the literature has devoted no little amount of coverage to these factors. The two classic book studies are Stanley F. Horn's The Army of Tennessee (1941) and a two-volume history (Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 and Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865) authored decades later by Thomas L. Connelly. The more influential writer of the two, Connelly still serves as one of the leading proponents of the idea that the Army of Tennessee's consistent military failure was chiefly the product of extreme levels of high command dysfunction. Of course many other human, organizational, material, political, and geographical explanations have also been raised over the decades, and almost fifty years on from Autumn of Glory we are well overdue for an updated grand synthesis of the topic. Just such an attempt is prolific western theater expert Larry Daniel's latest work Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed. Though their courses are frequently interrupted, two main investigative threads flow through Conquered from beginning to end. The first is a chronologically-arranged general overview of the army's campaigns and battles. Interwoven into that is a large collection of theme-based standalone chapters that reexamine why the Army of Tennessee experienced such a remarkable lack of success.

Daniel's 1861-65 campaign narrative is an excellent updated overview skillfully pieced together using a massive volume and variety of primary and secondary sources. Embedded within it is the author's fine analytical recounting of the army's consistent record of high command dissension and ineptitude. In addition to stating his own views, Daniel judiciously weighs the relative merits of the published findings of generations of modern historians who have written major works on the Army of Tennessee's campaigns, battles, and leaders. While the great multitude of topics raised will likely be already familiar to many, if not most, of Daniel's audience (and thus need not be listed in total here), there is clear value gained through a fresh aggregation of them by a learned source. Further enhancement is achieved through the author's own thoughtful commentaries, which consistently impress the reader as being products of mature reflection distilled from decades of research and writing.

As expected, the book's comprehensive campaign coverage reassesses the merits of all the major army commanders (Albert Sidney Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, and John Bell Hood), largely framing the discussion around how and why these leaders could not create and maintain an effective command culture. Some opinions, like Daniel's insistence that Davis erred frequently in not bringing Beauregard back to lead the army, will likely inspire a wide range of reader reactions. Other conclusions (among them the author's determination that Bragg's defining leadership flaw was his having both the ability to envision opportunity and plan well for seizing it but no ability to carry those arrangements to fruition) will have few objectors. Also implicit in title and text is the awarding of due credit to the enemy for the army's ultimate demise. The narrative overall clearly benefits from the author's plumbing the depths of manuscript archives located all across the country as well as his keen absorption of the relevant published literature. In many ways, the book serves as a capstone to Daniel's long and accomplished Civil War writing career.

As good as the rest of the book is, it is probably the collection of themed chapters and sections referenced earlier that will interest experienced readers most. One of these explores the flawed genesis of the Army of Tennessee. While the U.S. government's existing military bureaucracy gave it a clear leg up on their Confederate counterparts at the beginning of the conflict, it is nevertheless the case that both sides had to build their citizen armies from scratch, and Daniel well recognizes that some of the recurring problems within the Army of Tennessee stretched all the way back to its inception. The Tennessee state army formed the core of the later-christened Army of Tennessee and top leadership positions were initially filled by the governor's cronies and other state political leaders who supported the war effort. Of course, political appointees populated the officer ranks of both Union and Confederate military forces, but there were also significant qualitative imbalances between Confederate field armies. Richard McMurry's classic study Two Great Rebel Armies clearly demonstrated that the distribution of professionals among the two main Confederate armies was vastly disproportionate, with the western army lacking anything like the core of professional soldiers (officers and NCOs alike) that formed the backbone of Lee's army in the East. As all Civil War armies would be forced to do, the Confederacy's western soldiers would learn on the job, but time was of the essence and the steeper hill to climb in the west had very real consequences. While the citizen-officers and volunteers were slowly but surely growing into their new roles over the first twelve months of fighting, over that same period the western Confederacy suffered grievous, permanent losses in territory and precious manpower. Though it could also be argued that creating an officer corps through field experience rather than established seniority had its own advantages, Daniel is undoubtedly correct in his observation that high battlefield losses among the most promising meant that the army as a whole could never really achieve and maintain the pool of talent and experience necessary to run the western army efficiently.

Daniel's study also notes the existence of cultural and political divides within the three major subregions of the Confederate West, with citizens of the Lower South mistrusting the commitment of the late-seceding Upper South (and both of those regions together having little faith in the patriotism of the Upland neighbors in their midst). The author correctly cautions against exaggerating the scale of these internal problems, but any source of division was costly and officer factions clearly did form that had a negative effect on army unity. It might also seem reasonable to suggest that enough state rivalries existed among the men in the ranks to inhibit solidarity to some degree. All Civil War armies possessed these problems on some level, but they do seem to have been more pronounced in the Army of Tennessee, which unlike their Union foes had no margin for such distractions.

Though the vast geographical size of the Confederacy's western theater is frequently cited as a reason for its failed defense, Daniel agrees with those that see the strategic conundrum presented by the river system within it as the chief concern. Everyone at the time recognized that the major western rivers were daggers aimed at the Confederacy's vitals, but directly defending them meant manning fixed garrisons highly vulnerable to capture by the enemy's unmatchable combined operations resources while the other option, that of offering only token resistance on the riverbanks (where many major cities were situated) to free armies to maneuver, was politically inconceivable. The Davis administration's inability to find a winning strategic balance between mobile warfare and manning fixed fortifications, one that would also serve the political and economic needs and demands of the people, was an important factor in defeat. However, in Davis's defense, the author also raises the distinct possibility that a military policy that could meet all of those requirements was impossible to achieve.

The Army of Tennessee also frequently found itself caught up in another strategic dilemma. Though abandoning one or the other would have been political suicide, the Confederate high command never developed a consistent priority system for military resource allocation between the widely-separated Mississippi River and Middle Tennessee fronts (or, if it did, it never clearly communicated it to the department and army commanders). Perhaps the best-known example of the negative impact this policy indecision had on the Army of the Tennessee was the transfer of Carter Stevenson's large division to Mississippi in December 1862, a directive from above that left Bragg's army without the services of a major asset during the Stones River battle fought later that month.

Army of Tennessee cavalry commander Joseph Wheeler's military reputation continues to progress on a mostly downward trajectory in the literature, and Daniel likewise sees the deterioration of the western cavalry under the "War Child" as another major contribution to the Army of Tennessee's downfall. Others have argued that the army's mounted forces formed too high a proportion of its total strength, and Daniel agrees that this was a misuse of scarce manpower, a problem further magnified by the fact that Wheeler's poor leadership and administration skills translated into bad discipline and huge numbers of troopers consistently absent from the ranks.

Acute shortages of manpower existed everywhere in the Confederacy, but it was made worse in the Army of Tennessee by high levels of desertion stemming from both opposition to conscription and demoralization produced by constant battlefield defeats and long retreats. Many attempts were made at mitigating the crisis, from draft age adjustments and harsh punishments to more positive measures such as granting more furloughs, but nothing worked. Desertion was a systemic, intractable issue that contributed a great deal to the army's ultimate demise.

Curiously for a book concerned with the many factors that went into defeat, Conquered also discusses in several places those things that unified the rank and file of the Army of Tennessee. Of arguably the greatest impact were the wave of religious revivals that swept through the army during 1863-64. These had the effect of renewing within the common soldiers the sense of purpose and confidence among many in ultimate victory (although the extent of this might be exaggerated). But the effect of this spiritual renewal could also plausibly be turned on its head, as one might suppose that continued defeats well into the late-war period might have led many to believe that divine providence was perhaps not on their side after all. While straying from the book's main theme, these sections do offer readers informative insights into why an army with so many serious problems nevertheless took many long years of bloody conflict to defeat.

Daniel also documents those incremental improvements in medical care and logistics support that, while impressive considering the depths from which they started, nevertheless let the army down at key moments. Examples of the latter include the severe food shortages that followed the conclusions of the 1862 Kentucky and 1863 Chickamauga campaigns and contributed to the high desertion rates that occurred during those periods. The theater's rapidly deteriorating transportation system was partially responsible for food not reaching the men and also for several critical delays in troop transfers. Though it is often said that no Confederate army lost a battle primarily due to shortages in arms and ammunition, it is nevertheless the case that the farther west one traveled across the Confederacy the more one tended to encounter critical deficiencies in both. Daniel's own excellent study Cannoneers in Gray correctly noted that the modernization of the long arm of the Army of Tennessee trailed significantly behind that of the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the conflict. The author, also the modern historian of the Union's Army of the Cumberland, additionally notes that that army was able to fully equip itself with modern small arms a full year before its foes in the Army of Tennessee mostly did. It is effectively argued in the book that this endless game of catch-up contributed materially to the Army of Tennessee's lack of success.

Conquered also addresses connections between the home and military fronts that are generally supportive of the well-established argument that military defeat, immense territorial losses, and general privation led to collapsing home front morale that in turn sparked desertion and demoralization in the armies. Over time, this negative feedback loop developed into a death spiral that hastened Confederate defeat.

There's even more in the book, but these examples are sufficient enough to show that Daniel studiously avoids simplicity when discussing why the Army of Tennessee failed. He doesn't assign overarching primacy to one factor over any other, nor does he attempt to rank their significance. Instead the more reasonable impression is given that a perfect storm of elements were involved in determining how a highly motivated army that fought so well on the small-unit level (along the way conducting some of the war's most impressive battlefield assaults) ultimately succumbed to disastrous defeat and surrender. None of Daniel's explanations of the many components that lay behind the Army of Tennessee's failure are new candidates for readers to consider, but the fact that they are all gathered together in one place, freshly rearticulated, and skillfully integrated into a masterfully-written critical narrative makes the book highly valuable. While Conquered will still primarily appeal to western theater students, all Civil War readers will benefit from its many insights, many of which might be applied to all Confederate armies and the Confederate war effort as a whole. Highly recommended.


  1. Wow. What a thorough and detailed (I want to avoid the possible pejorative interpretation of saying "lengthy"!) review. Well done, Drew. Worth waiting for.

  2. Hello Drew

    This was a book I was anxiously awaiting. Thanks for the in-depth review. Sounds like it will be a fantastic read. I've enjoyed all the authors other material I've read. I'm also buoyed that there continues to be more western theater material being published.

    Don H.

  3. Thanks for your excellent review of Daniels book of the Army I am most consistently fascinated by. You do an excellent job of breaking it all down.

    I am trying to write a novel down at the foot soldier and General level of the Army of Tennessee and as I like all of Daniels books I know this is a must read.



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