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Western Theater Overview (1861–1865)      Confederate      Union

This article presents an overview of major military and naval operations in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.

Theater of operations[]

The Western Theater was an area defined by both geography and the sequence of campaigning. It originally represented the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains. It excluded operations against the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard, but as the war progressed and William Tecumseh Sherman's Union armies moved southeast from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864 and 1865, the definition of the theater expanded to encompass their operations in Georgia and the Carolinas. For operations in the Southwest see Trans-Mississippi Theater of the American Civil War.

The West was by some measures the most important theater of the war. The Confederacy was forced to defend with limited resources an enormous land mass, which was subject to Union thrusts along multiple avenues of approach, including major rivers that led directly to the agricultural heartland of the South. Capture of the Mississippi River was one of the key tenets of Union General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan.

The Virginia front was by far the more prestigious theater. ... Yet the war's outcome was decided not there but in the vast expanse that stretched west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi and beyond. Here, in the West, the truly decisive battles were fought.

Stephen E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals[1]

The Eastern Theater received considerably more attention than the Western, both at the time and in historical accounts. This is related to the proximity of the opposing capitals, the concentration of newspapers in the major cities of the East, and the fame of Eastern generals such as Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, and Stonewall Jackson. Because of this, the progress that Union forces made in defeating Confederate armies in the West and overtaking Confederate territory went nearly unnoticed.

Military historian J. F. C. Fuller has described this as an immense turning movement, a left wheel that started in Kentucky, headed south down the Mississippi River, and then east through Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. With the exception of the Battle of Chickamauga and some daring raids by cavalry or guerrilla forces, the four years in the West marked a string of almost continuous defeats for the Confederates; or, at best, tactical draws that eventually turned out to be strategic reversals. And the arguably most successful Union generals of the war (Grant, Thomas, Sherman, and Sheridan) came from this theater, consistently outclassing most of their Confederate opponents (with the possible exception of cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest).

The campaign classification established by the United States National Park Service[2] is more fine-grained than the one used in this article. Some minor NPS campaigns have been omitted and some have been combined into larger categories. Only a few of the 117 battles the NPS classifies for this theater are described. Boxed text in the right margin show the NPS campaigns associated with each section.

Principal commanders of the Western Theater[]

Early operations (June 1861 – January 1862)[]

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From Belmont (November 1861) to Shiloh (April 1862).

The focus early in the war was on two critical states: Missouri and Kentucky. The loss of either would have been a crippling blow to the Union cause. Primarily because of the successes of Captain Nathaniel Lyon and his victory at Boonville in June, Missouri was held in the Union. The state of Kentucky, with a pro-Confederate governor and a pro-Union legislature, had declared neutrality between the opposing sides. This neutrality was first violated on September 3, when Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus, considered key to controlling the Lower Mississippi, and two days later Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, displaying the personal initiative that would characterize his later career, seized Paducah. Henceforth, neither adversary respected the proclaimed neutrality of the state. This sequence of events is considered a victory for the Union because Kentucky never formally sided with the Confederacy, and if the Union had been prevented from maneuvering within Kentucky, its later successful campaigns in Tennessee would have been more difficult.

Western Theater Campaigns designated by the National Park Service

On the Confederate side, General Albert Sidney Johnston commanded all forces from Arkansas to the Cumberland Gap. He was faced with the problem of defending a broad front with numerically inferior forces, but he had an excellent system of lateral communications, permitting him to move troops rapidly where they were needed, and he had two able subordinates, Polk and Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee. Johnston also gained political support from secessionists in central and western counties of Kentucky via a new Confederate capital at Bowling Green, set up by the Russellville Convention. The alternative government was recognized by the Confederate government, which admitted Kentucky into the Confederacy in December 1861. Using the rail system resources of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Polk was able to quickly fortify and equip the Confederate base at Columbus.[3]

The Union military command in the West, however, suffered from a lack of unified command, organized by November into three separate departments: the Department of Kansas, under Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the Department of Missouri, under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, and the Department of the Ohio, under Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell (who had replaced Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman). By January 1862, this disunity of command was apparent because no strategy for operations in the Western theater could be agreed upon. Buell, under political pressure to invade and hold pro-Union East Tennessee, moved slowly in the direction of Nashville, but achieved nothing more substantial toward his goal than a minor victory at Mill Springs under Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas. (Mill Springs was a significant victory in a strategic sense because it broke the end of the Confederate Western defensive line and opened the Cumberland Gap to East Tennessee, but it got Buell no closer to Nashville.) In Halleck's department, Grant demonstrated up the Tennessee River to divert attention from Buell's intended advance, which did not occur. On February 1, 1862, after repeated requests by Grant, Halleck authorized Grant to move against Fort Henry on the Tennessee.

Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers (February–June 1862)[]

Grant moved swiftly, starting his troops down the Tennessee River toward Fort Henry on river transports on February 2. His operations in the campaign were well coordinated with United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. The fort was poorly situated on a floodplain and virtually indefensible against gunboats, with many of its guns under water. Because of the previous neutrality of Kentucky, the Confederates could not build river defenses at a more strategic location inside the state, so they settled for a site just inside the border of Tennessee. Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman withdrew almost all of his garrison on February 5, moving them across country 11 miles (18 km) to the east to Fort Donelson. The Tennessee River was then open for future Union operations into the South.

Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, was more defensible than Henry, and Navy assaults on the fort were ineffective. Grant's army marched cross-country in pursuit of Tilghman and attempted immediate assaults on the fort from the rear, but they were unsuccessful. On February 15, the Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd attempted to escape and launched a surprise assault against the Union right flank (commanded by Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand), driving McClernand's division back but not creating the opening they needed to slip away. Grant recovered from this temporary reversal and assaulted the weakened Confederate right. Trapped in the fort and the town of Dover, Tennessee, Confederate Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner surrendered his command of 11,500 men and many needed guns and supplies to Grant's demand for "unconditional surrender". The combined victories at Henry and Donelson were the first significant Union victories in the war, and two major rivers became available for invasions into Tennessee.

Johnston's forward defense was broken. As Grant had anticipated, Polk's position at Columbus was untenable, and he withdrew soon after Donelson fell. Grant had also cut the Memphis and Ohio Railroad that previously had allowed Confederate forces to move laterally in support of each other. General P.G.T. Beauregard had arrived from the East to report to Johnston in February, and he commanded all Confederate forces between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, which effectively divided the unity of command so that Johnston controlled only a small force at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Beauregard planned to concentrate his forces in the vicinity of Corinth, Mississippi, and prepare for an offensive. Johnston moved his force to concentrate with Beauregard's by late March.

The preparations for the Union campaign did not proceed smoothly, and Halleck seemed more concerned with his standing in relation to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan than he did with understanding the Confederate Army was divided and could be defeated in detail. Further, he could not agree with his peer, Buell, now in Nashville, on a joint course of action. He sent Grant up the Tennessee River while Buell remained in Nashville. On March 11, President Lincoln appointed Halleck the commander of all forces from the Missouri River to Knoxville, Tennessee, thus achieving the needed unity of command, and Halleck ordered Buell to join Grant's forces at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

On April 6, the combined Confederate forces under Beauregard and Johnston surprised Grant's unprepared Army of West Tennessee with a massive dawn assault at Pittsburg Landing in the Battle of Shiloh. In the first day of the battle, the Confederate onslaught drove Grant back against the Tennessee but could not defeat him. Johnston died that day; he was considered by Jefferson Davis to be the most effective general in the Confederacy at that time. On the second day, April 7, Grant received reinforcements from Buell and launched a counterattack that drove back the Confederates. Grant failed to pursue the retreating enemy and received enormous criticism for this and for the great loss of life—more casualties (almost 24,000) than all previous American battles combined.

Union control of the Mississippi River began to tighten. On April 7, while the Confederates were retreating from Shiloh, Union Maj. Gen. John Pope defeated Beauregard's isolated force at Island Number 10, opening the river almost as far south as Memphis. On May 18, Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans, the South's most significant seaport. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler occupied the city with a strong military government that caused considerable resentment among the civilian population.

Although Beauregard had little concentrated strength available to oppose a southward movement by Halleck, the Union general showed insufficient drive to take advantage of the situation. He waited until he assembled a large army, combining the forces of Buell's Army of the Ohio, Grant's Army of West Tennessee, and Pope's Army of the Mississippi, to converge at Pittsburg Landing. He moved slowly in the direction of the critical rail junction at Corinth, taking four weeks to cover the twenty miles (32 km) from Shiloh, stopping nightly to entrench. The slowness of this movement has led this campaign to be nicknamed the Siege of Corinth. When he finally reached the fortified city, his opponent, Beauregard, decided not to make a costly defensive stand and withdrew without hostilities on May 29.

Grant did not command directly in the Corinth campaign. Halleck had reorganized his army, giving Grant the powerless position of second-in-command and shuffling divisions from the three armies into three "wings". When Halleck moved east to replace McClellan as general-in-chief, Grant resumed his field command. But before he left, Halleck squandered any opportunity to pursue and destroy Beauregard. He sent Buell to Chattanooga, Sherman to Memphis, one division to Arkansas, and Pope was ordered to hold a covering position south of Corinth.

Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Mississippi (June 1862–January 1863)[]

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From Corinth (May 1862) to Perryville (October 1862).

While Halleck accomplished little following Corinth, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg succeeded Beauregard (on June 27, for health reasons) in command of his 56,000 troops of the Army of Tennessee, in Tupelo, Mississippi, due south of Corinth. But he determined that an advance directly north from Tupelo was not practical. He left Maj. Gens. Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn to distract Grant and shifted 35,000 men by rail through Mobile, Alabama, to Chattanooga. Even though he did not leave Tupelo until July 21, he was able to reach Chattanooga before Buell could. Bragg's general plan was to invade Kentucky in a joint operation with Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, cut Buell's lines of communications, defeat him, and then turn back to defeat Grant.

Kirby Smith left Knoxville on August 14, forced the Union to evacuate Cumberland Gap, defeated a small Union force at the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky), and reached Lexington on August 30. Bragg departed Chattanooga just before Smith reached Lexington, while Buell moved north from Nashville to Bowling Green. But Bragg moved quickly and by September 14 had interposed his army on Buell's supply lines from Louisville. Bragg was reluctant to develop this situation because he was outnumbered by Buell; if he had been able to combine with Kirby Smith, he would have been numerically equal, but Smith's command was separate, and Smith believed that Bragg could capture Louisville without his assistance.

Buell, under pressure from the government to take aggressive action, was almost relieved of duty (only the personal reluctance of George H. Thomas to assume command from his superior at the start of a campaign prevented it). As he approached Perryville, Kentucky, he began to concentrate his army in the face of Confederate forces there. Bragg was not initially present with his army, having decided to attend the inauguration ceremony of a Confederate governor of Kentucky in Frankfort. On October 8, fighting began at Perryville over possession of water sources, and as the fighting escalated, Bragg's Army of Mississippi achieved some tactical success in an assault against a single corps of Buell's Army of the Ohio. That evening Bragg realized that he was facing Buell's entire army and ordered a retreat to Harrodsburg, where he was joined by Kirby Smith's Army of Kentucky on October 10. Despite having a strong combined force, Bragg made no attempt to regain the initiative. Buell was equally passive. Bragg retreated through the Cumberland Gap and returned to Murfreesboro by way of Chattanooga.

While Buell was facing Bragg's threat in Kentucky, Confederate operations in northern Mississippi were aimed at preventing Buell's reinforcement by Grant, who was preparing for his upcoming Vicksburg campaign. Halleck had departed for Washington, and Grant was left without interference as commander of the District of West Tennessee. On September 14, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price moved his Confederate Army of the West to Iuka, 20 miles (32 km) east of Corinth. He intended to link up with Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn's Army of the West and operate against Grant. But Grant sent forces under Maj. Gens. William S. Rosecrans and Edward Ord to attack Price and Van Dorn at Iuka. Rosecrans won a minor victory at the Battle of Iuka (September 19), but poor coordination of forces allowed Price to escape from the intended Union double envelopment.

Price and Van Dorn decided to attack the concentration of Union troops at Corinth and then advance into West or Middle Tennessee. In the second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4), they attacked the fortified Union troops but were repulsed with serious losses. Retreating to the northwest, they escaped pursuit by Rosecrans's exhausted army, but their objectives of threatening Middle Tennessee and supporting Bragg were foiled.

As winter set in, the Union government replaced Buell with Rosecrans. After a period of resupplying and training his army in Nashville, Rosecrans moved against Bragg at Murfreesboro just after Christmas. In the Battle of Stones River, Bragg surprised Rosecrans with a powerful assault on December 31, pushing the Union forces back to a small perimeter against the Tennessee River. But on January 2, 1863, further attempts to assault Rosecrans were beaten back decisively and Bragg withdrew his army southeast to Tullahoma. In proportion to the size of the armies, the casualties at Stones River (about 12,000 on each side) made it the bloodiest battle of the war. At the end of the campaign, Bragg's threat against Kentucky been defeated, and he effectively yielded control of Middle Tennessee.

Vicksburg Campaigns (December 1862 – July 1863)[]


Operations against Vicksburg and Grant's Bayou Operations.

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Abraham Lincoln believed that the river fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a key to winning the war. Vicksburg and Port Hudson were the last remaining strongholds that prevented full Union control of the Mississippi River. Situated on high bluffs overlooking a sharp bend in the river and called the "Gibraltar of the Mississippi", Vicksburg was nearly invulnerable to naval assault. Admiral David Farragut had found this directly in his failed operations of May 1862.

The overall plan to capture Vicksburg was for Ulysses S. Grant to move south from Memphis and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks to move north from Baton Rouge. Banks's advance was slow to develop and bogged down at Port Hudson, offering little assistance to Grant.

First campaign[]

Grant's first campaign was a two-pronged movement. William T. Sherman sailed down the Mississippi River with 32,000 men while Grant was to move in parallel through Mississippi by railroad with 40,000. Grant advanced 80 miles (130 km), but his supply lines were cut by Confederate cavalry under Earl Van Dorn at Holly Springs, forcing him to fall back. Sherman reached the Yazoo River just north of the city of Vicksburg, but without support from Grant's half of the mission, he was repulsed in bloody assaults against Chickasaw Bayou in late December.

Political considerations then intruded. Illinois politician and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand obtained permission from Lincoln to recruit an army in southern Illinois and command it on a river-born expedition aimed at Vicksburg. He was able to get Sherman's corps assigned to him, but it departed Memphis before McClernand could arrive. When Sherman returned from the Yazoo, McClernand asserted control. He inexplicably detoured from his primary objective by capturing Arkansas Post on the Arkansas River, but before he could resume his main advance, Grant had reasserted control, and McClernand became a corps commander in Grant's army. For the rest of the winter, Grant attempted five separate projects to reach the city by moving through or reengineering, rivers, canals, and bayous to the north of Vicksburg. All five were unsuccessful; Grant explained afterward that he had expected these setbacks and was simply attempting to keep his army busy and motivated, but many historians believe he really hoped that some would succeed and that they were too ambitious.

Second campaign[]


Grant's operations against Vicksburg.

The second campaign, beginning in the spring of 1863, was successful and is considered Grant's greatest achievement of the war (and a classic campaign of military history). He knew that he could not attack through Mississippi from the northwest because of the vulnerability of his supply line; river-born approaches had failed repeatedly. So after movement became possible on dirt roads that were finally drying from the winter rains, Grant moved the bulk of his army down the western bank of the Mississippi. On April 16, U.S. Navy gunboats and troop transports managed at great risk to slip past the Vicksburg defensive guns and were able to ferry Grant's army across the river to land south of Vicksburg at Bruinsburg. Grant employed two strategic diversions to mask his intentions: a feint by Sherman north of Vicksburg and a daring cavalry raid through central Mississippi by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, known as Grierson's Raid. The former was inconclusive, but the latter was a success. Grierson was able to draw out significant Confederate forces, dispersing them around the state.

Grant faced two Confederate armies in his campaign: the Vicksburg garrison, commanded by Maj. Gen. John C. Pemberton, and forces in Jackson, commanded by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the overall theater commander. Rather than simply heading directly north to the city, Grant chose to cut the line of communications (and reinforcement) between the two Confederate armies. His army headed swiftly northeast toward Jackson. Meanwhile, Grant brought with him a limited supply line. The conventional history of the campaign indicates that he cut loose from all of his supplies, perplexing Pemberton, who attempted to interdict his nonexistent lines at Raymond on May 12. In reality, Grant relied on the local economy to provide him only foodstuffs for men and animals, but there was a constant stream of wagons carrying ammunition, coffee, hardtack, salt, and other supplies for his army.

Sherman's corps captured Jackson on May 14. The entire army then turned west to confront Pemberton in front of Vicksburg. The decisive battle was at Champion Hill, the effective last stand for Pemberton before he withdrew into his entrenchments around the city. Grant's army assaulted the Confederate works twice at great cost at the start of the Siege of Vicksburg but then settled in for a lengthy siege.

The soldiers and civilians in Vicksburg suffered greatly from Union bombardment and impending starvation. They clung to hope that General Johnston would arrive with reinforcements, but Johnston was both cut off and too cautious. On July 4, Pemberton surrendered his army and the city to Grant. In conjunction with the defeat of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg the previous day, Vicksburg is widely considered one of the turning points of the war. By July 8, after Banks captured Port Hudson, the entire Mississippi River was in Union hands, and the Confederacy was split in two.

Tullahoma, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga (June–December 1863)[]

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From Vicksburg (December 1862 – July 1863) to Chickamauga (September 1863).

After his victory at Stones River, Rosecrans occupied Murfreesboro for almost six months while Bragg rested in Tullahoma, establishing a long defensive line that was intended to block Union advances against the strategic city of Chattanooga in his rear. In April, Union cavalry under Col. Abel Streight moved against the railroad that supplied Bragg's army in Middle Tennessee, hoping it would cause them to withdraw to Georgia. Streight's brigade raided through Mississippi and Alabama, fighting against Nathan Bedford Forrest. Streight's Raid ended when his exhausted men surrendered near Rome, Georgia, on May 3. In June, Rosecrans finally advanced against Bragg in a brilliant, almost bloodless, campaign of maneuver, the Tullahoma Campaign, and drove Bragg from Middle Tennessee.

During this period, Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his 2,460 Confederate cavalrymen rode west from Sparta in middle Tennessee on June 11, intending to divert the attention of Ambrose Burnside's Army of the Ohio, which was moving toward Knoxville, from Southern forces in the state. At the start of the Tullahoma Campaign, Morgan moved northward. For 46 days as they rode over 1,000 miles (1,600 km), Morgan’s cavalrymen terrorized a region from Tennessee to northern Ohio, destroying bridges, railroads, and government stores before being captured; in November they made a daring escape from the Ohio Penitentiary, at Columbus, Ohio, and returned to the South.

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Tullahoma Campaign.

After delaying for several weeks in Tullahoma, Rosecrans planned to flush Bragg out of Chattanooga by crossing the Tennessee River, heading south, and interdicting the Confederate supply lines from Georgia. He began operations on August 18 and used a two-week bombardment of Chattanooga as a diversion. The Confederate high command reinforced Bragg with a division from Mississippi and a corps (Longstreet's) from Virginia. Rosecrans pursued Bragg into the rugged mountains of northwestern Georgia, only to find that a trap had been set. Bragg started the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863) when he launched a three-division assault against the corps of George H. Thomas. A command misunderstanding allowed a major gap to appear in the Union line as reinforcements arrived, and Longstreet was able to drive his corps into that gap and send the Union Army into retreat. If not for the defensive stand by a portion of the line led by Thomas ("The Rock of Chickamauga"), the Union Army would have been completely routed. Rosecrans, devastated by his defeat, withdrew his army to Chattanooga, where Bragg besieged it, occupying the high ground dominating the city.

Back in Vicksburg, Grant was resting his army and planning for a campaign that would capture Mobile and push east. But when news of the dire straits of Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland reached Washington, Grant was ordered to rescue them. On October 17, he was given command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, controlling all of the armies in the Western Theater. He replaced Rosecrans with Thomas and traveled to Chattanooga, where he approved a plan to open a new supply line (the "Cracker Line"), allowing supplies and reinforcements to reach the city. Soon the troops were joined by 40,000 more, under Sherman and Joseph Hooker. While the Union army expanded, the Confederate army contracted; Bragg dispatched Longstreet's corps to Knoxville to hold off an advance by Burnside.

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Battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga Campaign.

The Battles for Chattanooga began in earnest on November 24, 1863, as Hooker took Lookout Mountain, which is one of two dominant peaks over the city. The next day, Grant planned a double envelopment of Bragg's position on the other mountain, Missionary Ridge. Sherman was to attack from the north, Hooker from the south, and Thomas was to hold the center. But Sherman's attack bogged down in confusion, and Grant ordered Thomas to launch a minor attack as a diversion to relieve pressure on Sherman. Thomas's troops, caught up in enthusiasm and anxious to redeem themselves after their humiliation at Chickamauga, continued their initial attack by charging up the imposing ridge, breaking the Confederate line and causing them to retreat. Chattanooga was saved; along with the failure of Longstreet's Knoxville Campaign against Burnside, politically sensitive eastern Tennessee was free of Confederate control. An avenue of invasion pointed directly to Atlanta and the heart of the Confederacy. Bragg, whose personal friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis saved his command following his defeats at Perryville and Stones River, was finally relieved of duty and replaced by General Joseph E. Johnston.

Atlanta Campaign (May–September 1864)[]

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Map of the Atlanta Campaign.

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In March 1864, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and went east to assume command of all the Union armies. Sherman succeeded him in command of the Western Theater. Grant devised a strategy for simultaneous advances across the Confederacy. It was intended to destroy or fix Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia with three major thrusts (under Meade, Butler, and Sigel) launched in the direction of Richmond and in the Shenandoah Valley; capture Mobile with an army under Nathaniel Banks; and destroy Johnston's army while driving toward Atlanta. Most of the initiatives failed: Butler became bogged down in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign; Sigel was quickly defeated in the valley; Banks became occupied in the ill-fated Red River Campaign; Meade and Grant experienced many setbacks and much bloodshed in the Overland Campaign before finally settling down to a siege of Petersburg. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign was more successful.

At the start of the campaign, Sherman's Military Division of the Mississippi consisted of three armies: James B. McPherson's Army of the Tennessee (Sherman's old army under Grant), John M. Schofield's Army of the Ohio, and George H. Thomas's Army of the Cumberland. Opposing him, the Army of Tennessee was commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. Sherman outnumbered Johnston 98,000 to 50,000, but his ranks were depleted by many furloughed soldiers, and Johnston received 15,000 reinforcements from Alabama.

The campaign opened with several battles in May and June 1864 as Sherman pressed Johnston southeast through mountainous terrain. Sherman prudently avoided frontal assaults against most of Johnston's positions; instead he maneuvered in flanking marches around the defenses. When Sherman flanked the defensive lines (almost exclusively around Johnston's left flank), Johnston would retreat to another prepared position. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27) was a notable exception, in which Sherman attempted a frontal assault and suffered significant losses. Both armies took advantage of the railroads as supply lines, with Johnston shortening his supply lines as he drew closer to Atlanta, and Sherman lengthening his own.

Just before the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20) in the outskirts of Atlanta, Jefferson Davis lost patience with Johnston's strategy and replaced him with the more aggressive Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. This turned out to be a strategic error because Hood, after occupying strong defensive works around Atlanta for a few weeks, chose to fight Sherman on open ground, a fight that his smaller army could not win. Sherman eventually cut Hood's supply lines from the south. Knowing that he was trapped, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1, burning military supplies and installations, causing a great conflagration in the city.

Coincident with Sherman's triumph in Atlanta, Admiral David Farragut won the decisive naval Battle of Mobile Bay on August 24. The city itself, long a desired target of Grant's, remained untouched until 1865, but the last seaport east of the Mississippi on the Gulf Coast was closed, further tightening the Union blockade. The capture of Atlanta and Mobile Bay together boosted Northern morale and made an enormous contribution to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

Franklin-Nashville Campaign (September–December 1864)[]

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Franklin-Nashville Campaign.

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While Sherman rested his army in preparation for offensive operations to the east, Hood embarked on a campaign to defeat Sherman by interfering with his lines of communications from Chattanooga. He drove west through Alabama and turned north toward Tennessee, hoping that Sherman would follow him and do battle. This was partially effective because his movements, and raids by Nathan Bedford Forrest, were causing considerable consternation to Sherman. However, the Union general did not fully engage. He sent Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to Nashville to coordinate a defense against Hood, while taking the remainder of his army in the direction of Savannah, Georgia.

Thomas's forces were divided. Half were with him in Nashville and the other half with John M. Schofield, moving in pursuit from Atlanta. Hood hoped to defeat Schofield before he could concentrate his forces with Thomas. He had the chance at the Battle of Spring Hill in Tennessee (November 29, 1864), but the Union troops were able to slip through the trap. At the Battle of Franklin the following day, Hood launched repeated massive frontal assaults against strong entrenchments and suffered severe casualties. It has been said that he mortally wounded his army at Franklin but killed it at the Battle of Nashville (December 15–16).[4] There, facing the combined force of Schofield and Thomas, he dug in a few miles south of the city and waited. After a two-week preparation period in winter weather, during which he received great pressure from Grant and the Union government to attack, Thomas unleashed an overwhelming assault that sent Hood and his survivors in retreat to Franklin and then to Mississippi, never to recover as a fighting force.

Sherman's March to the Sea (November–December 1864)[]

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Sherman's March to the Sea.

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Sherman's Savannah Campaign is more popularly known as the March to the Sea. He and Grant believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy's strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken. Sherman therefore applied the principles of scorched earth, ordering his troops to burn crops, kill livestock, consume supplies, and destroy civilian infrastructure along their path. This policy is one of the key tenets of a strategy of total war.

Sherman's army left Atlanta on November 15, 1864, and was conducted in two columns separated by about 60 miles (100 km), the right under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard and the left under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum. Between these columns, the destruction was significant and spawned hatred for generations. At Savannah, Sherman encountered about 10,000 defending troops under Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee. Following lengthy artillery bombardments, Hardee abandoned the city and Sherman entered on December 22, 1864. He telegraphed to President Lincoln, "I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah ...."

Carolinas Campaign (February–March 1865)[]

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Carolinas Campaign.

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After Sherman captured Savannah, he was ordered by Grant to embark his army on ships to reinforce the Union armies in Virginia, where Grant was bogged down in the Siege of Petersburg against Robert E. Lee. Sherman proposed an alternative strategy. He persuaded Grant that he should march north through the Carolinas instead, destroying everything of military value along the way, similar to his march to the sea through Georgia. He was particularly interested in targeting South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, for the effect it would have on Southern morale.

Sherman's plan was to bypass the minor Confederate troop concentrations at Augusta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, and reach Goldsboro, North Carolina, by March 15, 1865. As with his Georgia operations, he marched his armies in multiple directions simultaneously, confusing the scattered Confederate defenders as to his first true objective, which was the state capital Columbia. He faced the smaller and battered Army of Tennessee, again under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.

On February 17, Columbia surrendered to Sherman. Fires began in the city, and most of the central city was destroyed. The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, others a deliberate act of vengeance. On that same day, the Confederates evacuated Charleston. On February 18, Sherman's forces destroyed virtually anything of military value in Columbia. The last significant Confederate seaport, Wilmington, surrendered on February 22.

Johnston's last stand was at the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21), where he unsuccessfully attempted to defeat a wing of Sherman's army (under Slocum) before it could reach Goldsboro. Sherman pursued Johnston toward Raleigh.

On April 18, three days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at Bennett Place, a farmhouse near Durham Station. Sherman got himself into political trouble by offering terms of surrender to Johnston that encompassed political issues as well as military, without authorization from General Grant or the United States government. The confusion on this issue lasted until April 26, when Johnston agreed to purely military terms and formally surrendered his army and all Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. It was the second significant surrender that month; on April 9, Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. It was the virtual end for the Confederacy, although some smaller forces held out, particularly in the Trans-Mississippi region, into the summer.

See also[]


  1. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis, pp. xi-xii.
  2. U.S. National Park Service, Civil War Battle Studies by Campaign
  3. Mulligan, William H., "Interpreting the Civil War at Columbus-Belmont State Park and Sacramento, Kentucky: Two Case Studies", paper presented at "International, Multicultural, Interdisciplinary: Public History Policy and Practice", the 20th Annual Conference of the National Council on Public History, April 16-19, 1998, Austin, Texas.
  4. Eicher, p. 774.


Further reading[]

  • Bush, Bryan S., The Civil War Battles of the Western Theatre, Turner Publishing Company, 1998, ISBN 1-56311-434-8.
  • Welcher, Frank J., The Union Army, 1861–1865 Organization and Operations, Volume II: The Western Theater, Indiana University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-253-36454-X.
  • Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1865, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, ISBN 0-375-41218-2.

External links[]

fr:Théâtre occidental de la Guerre de Sécession ja:西部戦線 (南北戦争) no:Den vestlige krigsskueplassen i den amerikanske borgerkrigen pl:Kampania na Missisipi ru:Западный театр военных действий Гражданской войны в США vi:Mặt trận miền Tây (Nội chiến Hoa Kỳ)