Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Review - "Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville" by Christopher Thrasher

[Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville by Christopher Thrasher (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Cloth, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,266/403. ISBN:9781621906322. $39.95]

Influenced by the broadened thematic coverage and interdisciplinary approach of the so-called New Military History movement that blossomed over the latter decades of the twentieth century, Civil War military history studies had by the 1990s adopted a consensus model of campaign and battle history that successfully blended detailed description and analysis of military decision-making, strategy, and tactics with compelling combinations of army rank and file perspectives along with civilian observations and experiences. The best practitioners of this writing, both avocational and professional, achieved that balance through their use of a wide range of primary sources. The most innovative aspect of that process in source enrichment was a newly dedicated focus on archival research into unpublished soldier and civilian letters, memoirs, diaries, and journal accounts. That said, there will always be room for purposeful work at either end of the wide spectrum encompassing both top-down and bottom-up approaches to Civil War military history. A winning example of this is Christopher Thrasher's Suffering in the Army of Tennessee: A Social History of the Confederate Army of the Heartland from the Battles for Atlanta to the Retreat from Nashville. In it, Thrasher has compiled and organized a massive collection of firsthand accounts (mostly from the junior officers and enlisted personnel of the Army of Tennessee) that primarily serve the volume's creative exploration of one overarching theme, that of 'suffering.'

The ragged, near-starved, ill-equipped, and poorly armed Confederate soldier remains an enduring popular image, but that portrait has been meaningfully challenged in the literature. However, much of the popularized reframing of the myth arguably does not adequately take into account the episodic nature of Confederate Army privation, and its common focus on Lee's army near Richmond often fails to appreciate the vast differences in logistical capabilities and priorities across theaters. Thrasher's examination of suffering both within the Army of Tennessee and alongside its path during the army's final operation as a cohesive formation effectively conveys the many hardships the Confederate rank and file were forced to endure under a brutal mixture of seasonal weather and collapsing logistical support.

Large compilations of firsthand soldier accounts can vividly communicate to today's readers the horror, chaos, and confusion of historical combat on an individual level, but, depending on the skill and intentions of the author, they often fail to convey to those same readers a comprehensible sense of the overall course of a given battle or any kind of sophisticated understanding of the influence of higher command decisions on how and where that fighting unfolded. Thrasher avoids that common pitfall found in military-themed social history by providing solid, well-researched historical background and bridging narratives that together impart strategic, operational, and tactical context in ways that enhance the clarity and meaning of the volume's large collection of quoted primary source documents. In doing so, Thrasher manages to fully achieve his primary goal, that of presenting a "social history" of the Army of Tennessee's 1864 campaign spanning the fighting around Atlanta through the retreat from Nashville, and he does it in a manner that also keeps the reader from losing sight of the larger picture. There's no shortage of books and articles that address in great detail the many controversies traditionally associated with the battles of Decatur, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. It is not Thrasher's purpose to wade anew into the modern debates related to those decisions and events, nor does he routinely attempt to definitively take sides in them, but he does provide sufficient background discussion of competing interpretations when it is appropriate and necessary to serve the narrative.

As suggested by the title, the theme of "suffering" runs through the entire text. Confederate soldiers and their white and black Union foes all suffered battlefield horrors, but Army of the Tennessee veterans consistently wrote about the exceptional physical and psychological suffering they experienced during this winter campaign. Army of Tennessee morale, with all its peaks and valleys, is a common source of debate among writers, and Thrasher finds in the words of Army of Tennessee soldiers clear evidence that, for all the concern regarding their reluctance to assault breastworks, offensive action boosted morale even in a clearly declining Army of Tennessee while retreating and static trench warfare, for a variety of reasons, caused it to plummet. Suffering was not limited to soldiers in the field, either. Also noted in the book are the civilians in the path of Hood's army who, regardless of allegiance, suffered greatly at the hands of ravenous soldiers through their having to assume supply burdens imposed upon them by the Confederate military's logistical deficiencies.

In response to the question of why these men were willing to suffer to this extent in service to a sharply declining cause, the simplest and most convincing answer conveyed in their writings was the apparently sincere conviction among the majority that the campaign could achieve important results and the war might still be won. On the other hand, thousands of others less convinced of that voted with their feet, and Thrasher's narrative points readers toward those periods between Atlanta and Nashville when tides of desertion shifted in significant numbers.

Found in the appendix, Thrasher's analysis of the army's September 1864 inspection report finds a high degree of consistency between the army's objectively measured supply shortcomings and the words of the men as written in their letters, journals, and memoirs. Though some objectors arguably overstate their case, the myth of the poorly-armed Confederate has nevertheless been effectively challenged on several fronts, and the inspection report examined by Thrasher confirms that Hood's army was well-armed, at least decently accoutered, and supplied with good quality ammunition when it launched its final campaign as a potent force. On the other hand, those reports, by confirming severe shortages in footwear, clothing, camp equipment, and personal items such as blankets (all of which were needed for any mobile campaign, let alone a winter operation), amplify soldier claims of exceptional suffering that accompanied army service during this particular late-war interval. The classic picture of the 1864 version of the Army of Tennessee as well armed and disciplined yet dirty, ragged, hungry, and ill-equipped is most likely a very accurate one. Some might hope to draw comparisons between Thrasher's book and Joseph Glatthaar's social history of Lee's army, but they really are very different types of studies. There is revealing quantitative data in the appendix that supports the main narrative, but the 'moment in time' quality of this study overseeing the fall-winter 1864 disintegration of the Confederacy's principal western army renders any comparisons to Glatthaar's much more expansive and comprehensive two-volume social history of the Army of Northern Virginia only superficial in nature.

In presenting the voices of a great multitude of individuals rather than a single correspondence collection, journal, or memoir, this volume is an atypical yet still very appropriate addition to University of Tennessee Press's long-running Voices of the Civil War series. An insightful study to be gainfully consulted alongside broader army social history works such as Larry Daniel's Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army, Suffering in the Army of Tennessee is equally useful as a companion volume to the expanding book-length literature of the Atlanta and Tennessee Campaigns of 1864. Highly recommended.

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