Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River

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Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865 by Thomas W. Cutrer is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  It was awarded the Douglas Southall Freeman Award, Military Order of the Stars and Bars.  Dr. Curtrer is professor emeritus of history at Arizona State University.  He has previously authored a number of books, including Ben McCullough and the Frontier Miliary Tradition, Parnasus on the Mississippi: The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community 1935-1942 (which is a book I thoroughly loved when I read it years ago), and most recently, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Two preliminary thoughts about Theater of a Separate War (TSW):

First, I hope Dr. Cutrer doesn’t count off much for late assignments.  I began reading this book back in January, but it got brushed aside by a torrent of school readings, other review books, and other matters.  I picked it back up a few weeks ago and read to the end.

Second, I found myself feeling ashamed while reading this book.  After years of reading and teaching history, I have no idea how a mere mortal undertakes to write an account like this.

Now, on to the vast expanse of land west of the Mississippi, commonly called the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

Image result for the trans-mississippi theater

Each time I teach on “the War,” also known as the War Between the States, the Civil War, the War of the Rebellion, the War for Southern Independence, or what southerners often just called “the Wawh,” I try to explain the three theaters–or major areas of operation–in the war.  The map above is perfect, and it will show up in future classes.  For many students–at all levels–the War took place in those places in Virginia and a few points north where such men as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and James Longstreet duked it out with wave upon wave of Northern invaders who finally wore down the beleagured Confederacy.

Besides being the subject of most of the books, studies, national park battlefields, and colorful leaders, the eastern theater was the location of both capitals.  Many defining books, such as Brace Catton’s many works, Kenneth Stamp’s Lincoln Finds a General, and the historical/fictional trilogy by Michael and Jeff Shaara, are focused on events in the east.

For me, personally, it was around 1991, on my honeymoon vacation no less, when I was able to visit battlefields at Shiloh, Stones’ River, Chickamagua, and other western battlegrounds that I began seeing beyond just the battle of Vicksburg (which we toured around 1994).  It was Andrew Nelson Lytle’s fun biography Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company that made me a student of that phase of the war.

Only when I began teaching Arkansas history and also participated in a re-enactment group for a short time did I begin giving any attention to the Trans-Mississippi.  In the 1960’s, a small press in Little Rock, called Pioneer Press, published a number of books about the war in Arkansas with some dealing with adjacent areas.  Those books are largely out-of-print and high priced in the used book world.  (Lots of them were given to public school libraries throughout the state.)  I think I paid about $60 for a copy of Rebels Valiant: Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles (Dismounted) by Wesley Thurman Leeper.  I have a couple of ancestors who were in that unit, hence my willingness to pay such a hefty price back some 20 plus years ago.

Rebels Valiant Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles (Dismounted): Leeper, Wesley Thurman

Over the years, I have managed to acquire (to no one’s surprise) quite a few books about the War in Arkansas, a few more about Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri, and a biography of the Cherokee Indian and Confederate General Stand Watie.  I am still, however, struggling through first or second grade in terms of having a good grasp of the Trans-Mississippi part of the War.

This new book, Theater of a Separate War, is and will be continue to be the defining work on this part of the war.  This part of the war was a separate (in some senses) war from what was happening in the nearby western theater and from the eastern theater.  In some ways, the Trans-Mississippi was a series of separate wars.  There were battles for control of the western territories of New Mexico and Colorado.  Control of the coast of Texas was another phase of the war.  The civil wars within the Civil War as found in Missouri and which spilled over into Kansas and northern Arkansas was another series of events.  Louisiana, the richest state in the Confederacy, had battles ranging from New Orleans in the south to the outskirts of Shreveport in the north, and being on the west side of Vicksburg, it played a small, but indecisive role in that pivotal battle.  If all that isn’t enough, the various tribes of Native Americans, located mainly in the Indian Territory or present day Oklahoma, fought largely for the south, with some exceptions.

As Dr. Cutrer points out in the conclusion, if there had been no war in the rest of the United States, the events in this wide theater would still be a fascinating and important study in military history.  “What difference does it make now?” to use the question posed by some politician of the past.  The war was neither won nor lost in the Trans-Mississippi.  It was, to quote Albert Castel as Cutrer did, “the garbage dump of the Confederate army.” It was, often enough, a distraction and side show to the Union generals and leadership.

In the fun category of “What If” history, or Alternative History, made famous by the scholarly works of such men as Robert Cowley or fictional works by such men as Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South) or McKinley Cantor (If the South Had Won the Civil War), one can speculate a Southern strategy that would have captured Missouri (particularly St. Louis) for the South and carried the war to the North with an invasion sweeping across Illinois.

A more likely scenario, at least it seemed more likely at the time, would have been for the Confederacy to have sealed an alliance with France through the Trans-Mississippi connection.  Remember that at this time, France had bypassed the Monroe Doctrine to set up a puppet government in Mexico under the ill-fated Maximillian.  (I thought “ill-fated” seemed a bit cliched, but just had to be in that sentence.  Getting shot by a firing squad doesn’t conjure up words like “lucky.”)

Another aspect of this war that contributes to its lack of notice is the casualty figures.  I must admit that after years of teaching the war, I find myself more and more queasy and disturbed by the numbers of men killed and maimed in battle after battle in Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, and Georgia.  The novel The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks reminded me of what I had read about and watched in movies too many times:  Even those soldiers who survived the wounds of war endured some horrible hospital experiences.

In contrast to the thousands and tens of thousands killed, maimed, or captured, many of the battles in the Trans-Mississippi resulted in anywhere from a few hundred to “only” a few thousand casualties.  The numbers of what constituted battles in the Trans-Mississippi pales in comparison to the huge numbers in other parts of the war.  But part of the greater purpose of this book is to get our attention off the glory/horrors images of the other campaigns and to focus on this part of the war.

Now for two criticisms of the book:

  1.   The first one falls under this title “blame the reader.”  I often found myself lost or confused as to who was who and who was on what side in this book.  It doesn’t help that there was a General Frederick Steele who fought for the Union and a General William Steele who fought for the Confederacy.  I think I need some device that color codes the text so that Confederates’ names appear in gray and Union names in blue.              At the same time, this reminded me of why so many of my students would give lame-brain answers on my tests.  “What kind of idiot would think that Stonewall Jackson led the Army of the Potomac?” I would think.  The same kind that would think that William Steele was a Union officer, I now realize.
  2.  The second criticism will go the publisher.  That being said, I have and love many books published by the University of North Carolina Press.  But why is there only one map in this book?  The one map is useful and is a two page spread showing the theater in its entirety.  But I was constantly lost and confused because I didn’t know where particular rivers, towns, and battlefields were located in the western states and territories.  The Arkansas portions were a little easier to navigate because of having traveled to most of them.  But a book of 588 pages and a book of this incredible caliber needed another dozen or more pages showing battlefield maps.

There is, somewhere, a listing of the 100 most important books on the Civil War.  I am sure that it is out-of-date.  I am equally sure that I have made up my own versions of such a list.  But in any reckoning on this war, this book will have to be in the line-up.  This work doesn’t have the fire and passion found in Bruce Catton’s books or Shelby Foote’s works.  It is scholarly military history with a penchant for giving lots of details.  But it is a worthy study and a powerful unveiling of a whole angle on the most neglected part of the Civil War.


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Thomas Cutrer seems to live a Hemingway-type of outdoor life without Hemingway’s penchant for doing overly reckless things.


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The author and his book.





Chickamauga: The South’s Greatest Victory and Missed Opportunity

The Battle of Gettysburg is often marked as the turning point of the Civil War. The high losses in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia both in terms of soldiers and commanders left him with few tactical choices other than fighting defensively for the rest of the war. Occurring in July of 1863, the battle was positioned roughly halfway through the war.

The idea of a turning point, however, is an interpretive tool of historians. Determining a historical turning point involves looking back after all the events are completed. Had Lincoln been defeated at the polls and had the Confederates effectively defended Atlanta, late 1864 could have been a turning point in the war. No one knows what the results would have been if General George B. McClellan had been elected as the Democrat replacement for Lincoln.

In the spring of 1865, had Lee led his men to the mountains and fought a guerrilla-style war for ten years after the fall of Richmond, historians might have talked about that as the turning point in the South’s successful War for Independence.

Small details, minor actions, and slight mistakes often determine the course of history. Almost any battle is, at some point, a close call, a near miss, a result of the unexpected and unplanned event, and the result of luck, fortune, or providence, depending upon who is writing the account. The “what if’s” of history entertain the thoughts of history students and the passions of history’s partisans.

To continue reading, click HERE.

Back to THE War

 American History is the story of the War Between the States.  Everything before 1861 functions as causes leading up to the war. Everything since 1865 is a result of the War.  The war is central to so much of American government and politics, Southern culture, American–particularly Southern–literature, racial tensions, and visions of what the meaning of America is all about.  That war between Americans still raises the ire of people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

For some years, I sought to specialize on Civil War history.  I took three college courses related to the War and the South.  I bought and read books with reckless abandon.  I visited battlefields, spent an inordinate amount of time teaching the War to my students, and even joined a re-enactment unit.  In time, I limped home…figuratively speaking…from Appomattox and turned my attention to other areas of history and literature.  But the love and interest has never been lost.

In recent weeks, I have written a couple of stories that are posted on the Voice of the South website.  On appeared on Stonewall Jackson’s birthday and told of the origin of the name “Stonewall.”  The next story I wrote was in honor of the birthday of Robert E. Lee.  So much has been written and said of him so many times that I wasn’t sure where to start.  So, I wrote about Robert E. Lee and His Horses.

At this time, I am hearing the voices of many Southern soldiers asking for their stories to be added to the ones noted above.  In short, the War Between the States is a grand and terrible story that demands to be retold again and again.  Although there are many other interests, historical and otherwise, it is the War, as in THE War, the one that has defined so much of who we are, that keeps luring me back.

I learned some years back that it was virtually impossible to even keep up with the number of books on Civil War history that were being published each year.  Whether motivated by scholarly pursuit or human interest, books on the battles and leaders keep pouring off the presses.  Just when one thinks that everything that can be said has been said, something else is said, or something is said again.

Two Recent Books on the Civil War

I see book reviewing as a contact sport and as exercise.  I also have to admit that it is fun and addicting.  But I am never caught up on the book reviews.  Here are two recent books I have received that are worthy of attention.

The Early Morning of War:  Bull Run, 1861 by Edward G. Longacre is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  As might be expected, they publish lots of books on western history and Native American history.  But they also have some incredible studies on ancient classics and on military history.  This book is Volume 46 in the Campaigns and Commanders series.  I probably have a dozen or more of the books in this ongoing series, and I wish I had them all.

This book is, however, somewhat different from many of the works in that series.  The previous works are often scholarly, detailed studies of some often obscure aspects of wars in history.  They are not written particularly for the non-specialist who simply enjoys a war story.  This book is longer.  Most of the studies are a couple of hundred pages, while this one is over 650 pages long.  As can be seen, it is decked with an attractive cover.  It is a fascinating study of the first real battle of the Civil War.

I am still in the perusing and scanning phases of this book, but I do have several observations.  The author, Edward Longacre, is a well respected military historian.  As hard as it is to believe that anything could be unsaid about this battle, Longacre combed through lots of previously unpublished sources, including diaries and letters of more than 400 participants in the battle.  He also said that he spent over 40 years working on this book.

First Bull Run, or First Manassas as we southerners prefer to call it, was a textbook case of seeing untried generals using untried troops to attempt to win the war in one day.  Going into the battle, the odds might have favored the north.  That would have seemed to have been justified throughout much of the day.  But the battle turned and the wheeling and flanking motions of the two armies led to a collapse of the northern lines. The northern retreat, better called a rout, is famous and almost humorous.

One portion I did survey closely was how the two sides viewed the battle in its aftermath.  There arose a view among southerners, and arguments as well, that the south missed the opportunity to pursue the Yankees right up to the doorstep of Abraham Lincoln’s house.  Longacre, rightly in my opinion, notes the extreme unliklihood of this being possible.  Some on both the northern and southern sides thought this battle had easily settled the outcome of the entire war.  The south was sure to win and northern efforts were doomed.

Stonewall Jackson, who got the name Stonewall in this battle, saw something few others realized.  He believed that a southern defeat might have been more beneficial to south.  The apparently easy victory gave southerners a sense of certainty of their victory.  The northern command, Irwin McDowell, was heavily, and somewhat unfairly, blamed for the defeat.  He was quickly sacked and replaced by George McClellan.  While McClellan would prove to be an inept battlefield commander over the next 2 years, he did train and mold the Army of the Potomac into a first rate fighting machine.

One other side note, Longacre gives credence to the idea that General Bernard Bee’s comment about General Jackson (“There stands Jackson  like a stone wall!”) was a criticism.  My recent story, linked above, deals with that incident.

A book I just unboxed today is Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas…and the burning of Columbia by Patricia G. McNeely.  This  book is a reminder that this was an ugly war.  Certainly, there was chivalry, respect for the honors of war, and many moments of nobility, courage, and godliness exercised in the midst of battle.  But this was one of the most brutal wars in history.

Southerners are not free of the atrocities of war, and neither are northerners.  In this case, with the campaign of William T. Sherman, the atrocities were not excesses or surprises.  For better or worse, Sherman launched what has come to be called “total war.”  It was also a psychological war campaign with the physical destruction of the south itself, and not just the defeat of southern armies, as its objective.

General Sherman said, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.  If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”

You can’t fault Sherman for not being honest and blunt about his military objectives.  His whole method of operation is in great contrast to that of fellow Union General George B. McClellan.  McClellan wrote a detailed letter to President Lincoln explaining the objectives of war for a civilized and Christianized people.  Lincoln basically discarded the letter.

As the saying goes, “All is fair in love and war.”  You can add this:  “There is no arguing with success.”  Sherman’s campaign across Georgia and then through the Carolinas was remembered for decades with bitterness in the south.  Perhaps it did shorten the war.  Perhaps it was “necessary” to settle the war.

But the means to success does not excuse the history teller from being honest.  In this particular book, the focus is on the burning of the city of Columbia, South Carolina.  The question to be answered is this:  Who burned Columbia, South Carolina?  The story emerged and got repeated that Columbia was burned by Confederate General Wade Hampton and the Confederate army.  On the one hand, retreating armies did burn vast amounts of supplies.  And fires lead to fires.  On the other hand, as Mrs. McNeely contends, this was a case of Sherman and his troops burning Columbia and then placing the blame on the Confederates.  This is not surprising.  Sherman’s campaign focused in part on specific military objectives, but the greater focus was on breaking the resistance of the South, breaking the will to carry on the war.  To do that, everything in the South was a military objective to Sherman and the northern army.  Farms were pillaged, art and jewels were taken, homes were burned, and railroads were dismantled.  Cities were primary targets; hence, Sherman was behind the burning and destruction of Columbia.

This should be quite an interesting read.