Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nothing But Victory: A Review

Three dozen armies, North and South, fought in the American
Civil War. The vast majority of these were temporary organizations,
absorbed into larger forces as the war progressed.
Only seven rose to national prominence. Six of these---the
Confederate armies of Northern Virginia and of Tennessee,
and the Federal armies of the Potomac, the Cumberland, the James,
and the Ohio---have been the subject of full-length studies.
The last, the Federal Army of the Tennessee, was for a long time the
only army of the war not covered by a modern scholarly work.

Stephen Woodworth's Nothing But Victory: The Army of the
Tennessee 1861-1865
has finally filled that void. Through more
than 600 pages of concise prose, across eight major campaigns
and scores of battles large and small, Woodworth details the
operations of the military organization that he claims helped to
crush the Southern Confederacy to a greater degree than any
other Federal army. By the final page, as the Grand Review of
the Armies in Washington concludes and the veterans make
their way back home, the basis for this claim is more than
compelling; it is virtually indestructible.

Woodworth's book divides the
army's career into three major
sections: its beginnings in 1861
and its initial battles for
Tennessee; its reknowned
campaign against the
Mississippi fortress of
Vicksburg; and its closing
operations in Georgia and
the Carolinas. Every
major battle is covered---
Fort Donelson, Shiloh,
Champion's Hill,
Missionary Ridge,
Kennesaw, Atlanta---

in addition to the smaller engagements that cost fewer
casualties but still produced strong pyschological effects
on the troops. Along the way he introduces us to the
major figures---Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh
Sherman, James B. McPherson---as well as the
lesser lights: the ever-conspiring John McClernand,
the occasionally besotted Stephen Hurlburt, the
dashing and inspirational John Logan, and many
others who served at lower levels. We also
get a thorough look at the life of the common soldiers
of the Army of the Tennessee through their letters,
diaries and regimental memoirs. There is hardly a
man in the ranks whose life has not been laid bare
for us by the final chapter.

For most of the book Grant is the central character, not
surprising since he was the army's first and longest-tenured
commander. Woodworth aims to show that it was Grant's
personality--- simple, unassuming, yet dogged and determined
to win---that shaped the army's character from the beginning
and lasted long after he had departed to higher levels of
command. By creating a legacy of pressing onward relentlessly,
maintaining the initative---and, of course, winning battles---
Grant guaranteed that the officers and men of the Army of the
Tennessee would hold to these principles under subsequent
commanders and different circumstances. Perhaps the finest
example of this is seen in the chapter on the Carolinas Campaign,
when the army's "bummers" (unofficial and unorganized private
foragers) rally to the sound of gunfire and, on their own volition,
force the opposing Confederates out of the town of Fayetteville,
North Carolina. One could look in vain for a similar occurence in
the annals of the Army of the Potomac or the Cumberland. With
this sort of mindset, and the firm determination to accept, as the
title suggests, "nothing but victory", it is inevitable that the men
of the Army of the Tennessee would be the ones to march through
six Rebel states, defeating every enemy force thrown in their way,
to arrive in Washington not only undiminished in strength, but
numerically and physically stronger than when they had started
out from the training camps of Cairo, Illinois.

Since Woodworth's book is concerned with the complete
war experience of the Army of the Tennessee, he wisely avoids
excessive analysis of any one battle, instead painting the general
ebb and flow of the action without losing sight of the private in
the ranks. Nor does he delve too deeply into social or political
matters; the army's changing policy towards slaves is addressed
sparingly, and the intrusion of politics into the army's business is
dealt with only when it becomes onerous, as it does with
McClernand's continual and annoying habit of politicking in the midst
of military operations. A "fog of war" is draped over the the
motivations and squabbles of the opposing Confederates,
appropriately since this is a story about the Army of the Tennessee
and not about its enemies. Woodworth relies heavily on first-hand
accounts of the events, rather than offical reports or post-war
posturings. The result is a sense of immediacy, a feeling that all
hangs in the balance until the battle smoke clears, even though
the army's ultimate triumph is never really in doubt.

One major flaw of the work is its almost complete lack of maps.
A single frontispiece map showing the entire theater of the army's
operations over the course of four years is all that is provided.
Given the confusing nature of some of the engagements, such as
those at Iuka or Tunnel Hill, it is easy to get lost tactically. Even
broad maps showing movements at the divisional level would have
been helpful. It will behoove the reader to have at hand the
Official Records Atlas, in order to resolve this confusion.
Hopefully future editions will correct this deficiency.

Though Woodworth's thesis on the Army of the Tennessee's
importance to the North's final victory is welcome and needed,
he sometimes veers into questionable territory when
analysing the merit of individual commanders. General William
S. Rosecrans may not have been in the war-winning
"triumvirate" of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, but his record
hardly merits Woodworth's wholly negative evaluation, which
seems even less gracious than Grant's own (though considering
Grant's central position in the army's legacy, this is perhaps
unavoidable). John McClernand's several battlefield successes
at Arkansas Post and Port Gibson are credited to him grudgingly
at best. Likewise, the seasoned reader of Civil War history will
surely raise his eyebrows when confronted with Woodworth's
characterization of mediocre late-war army commander Oliver
O. Howard as a "solidly competent" officer whose defeats in
Virginia were due to his "superiors' misjudgment and...impossible
situations". And in view of a number of modern studies pointing
to the increased depravity exhibited by soldiers on both sides as
the war progressed, it isdifficult to accept Woodworth's contention
that the Army of the Tennessee actually behaved itself as if at
Sunday school while marching through Georgia and South Carolina.

But even if some of Woodworth's conclusions are suspect, the
accomplishments of the army he has chronicled are not. Nothing
But Victory
should prove a worthy addition to the ever-
increasing catalog of essential Civil War reading. If the key to
truly understanding the outcome of the war lies in looking
beyond battle-torn Virginia, past the Appalachian Mountains,
to the heartland of both the North and the South, then the
campaigns of the Army of the Tennessee are both a proper
starting point and an inescapable ending. Woodworth has
given us both.

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