Confederate Generals in the Western Theater Volume 3 Classic Essays on America's Civil War

Confederate Generals in the Western Theater Volume 3 Classic Essays on America's Civil War

Larence Lee Hewitt and Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., editors; Gary Joiner, Series Editor

University of Tennessee Press 2011 ISBN: 1572337532

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Review by Stephen Davis, Civil War News,September 2011  (Oct 2011)

In their third volume on Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, editors Lawrence Hewitt and (now, the late) Arthur Bergeron present 10 essays on officers both familiar and not. The essays are of two types: “detailed accounts spotlighting a particular event in a [famous] general’s career” and biographical narratives of officers whose lives are less well known.

A fine example of the latter is Prof. Rory Cornish’s well-researched survey of Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan, the victor at Olustee, Fla., who thus far lacks a published biography. On the other hand, there’s already a book-length biography of Kentucky Brigadier William Preston. Preston, untrained in the military, owed his commission to political connections.

But Thomas Schott’s survey of Preston’s war record counters the assumption that “political generals” were invariably blunderers. “An excellent administrator and organizer,” Schott claims, Preston ably commanded at brigade and division levels and “evinced some actual skill on the battlefield.”

Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner was a top-tier Confederate officer; Stuart Sanders offers a useful account of his accomplishments in Bragg’s Kentucky campaign. Bruce Allardice gives a smart, penetrating analysis of why Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee at Ezra Church outside of Atlanta, on July 28, 1864, ordered a frontal assault on prepared enemy positions — something a prudent, talented officer such as Lee should not have done.

In their preface, the editors offer an interpretation of the 10 featured generals. “We believe these men cost the Confederacy its independence,” they assert. Despite the widely varied war records of their subjects, Hewitt and Bergeron contend that their common bond is “responsibility for their nation’s downfall.”

This is damnation indeed, and in this volume the only general who might actually merit it is P.G.T. Beauregard, based on the blame that Wiley Sword accords him for the Confederate defeat at Shiloh.

Timothy Smith’s article on “The Last Hours of Albert Sidney Johnston,” to the contrary, reviews all that Johnston did to try to win that battle — including the giving of his life. In his own contribution to the book, Bergeron writes a thorough, sympathetic narrative about Maj. Gen. Martin Luther Smith, who “proved a competent and solid, though not flashy commander.” He concludes that, far from contributing to Confederate downfall, Smith’s “performance deserves more recognition.”

Four of the generals featured here had no prewar experience as soldiers, but even they served meritoriously. Hiram Granbury was just a lawyer in Waco, Texas, in 1861; he ended the war — and his life — as a Confederate brigadier. As John Lundberg points out, Granbury’s “larger than life persona, bravery and leadership set him apart from many other officers of his rank.”

An even better example is the case of Daniel W. Adams of Louisiana, who lacked military experience but, through his friend Gov. Thomas Moore, got an officer’s commission. After reviewing his war record, Jane Johansson judges Adams to have been an “intelligent, tough, and brave soldier who survived three serious wounds and maintained his loyalty to the Confederacy until the end.”

Her conclusion that “the Confederacy might have survived longer if it had more soldiers like Daniel W. Adams” is a refreshingly strong affirmation in the sometime murky realm of Civil War biography.

An example of this muddle is Robert Girardi’s “Leonidas Polk and the Fate of Kentucky in 1861.” The key here is the verdict on Polk’s Sept. 3, 1861, seizure of Columbus, Ky. The Confederates’ occupation “violated” Kentucky’s self-proclaimed neutrality and created thunderously bad PR for the South, allegedly causing a teetering Kentucky to align itself with Lincoln and the North.

Did Polk in fact blunder? Girardi sadly waffles and declines comment on the Federals’ establishment in August of a recruiting camp on Kentucky soil (wasn’t that a violation?). He declares Polk’s move “ill-conceived” but later says that his real mistake was in not occupying Columbus and Paducah.

In the end, when a relieved Lincoln counted Kentucky on his side, Girardi concludes “such was the result of Polk’s decision.” Yet elsewhere he adds, “Kentucky was all but locked up for the Union by the time of Polk’s invasion.” What viewpoint do we accept? I’m surprised the editors did not request some clarification.

They could have at least corrected Girardi’s sentence, “The Kentucky legislature … ordered the American flag raised over the state capitol.” (We assume the author, who is a Chicagoan, means the Stars and Stripes.) That was in September 1861. Another American flag was raised over the Kentucky capitol in October 1862 — this was the Stars and Bars.

As the Sesquicentennial is all about our remembrance of how American fought American, one has to forgive Yankees for their smug assumption that somehow only Northerners were “American.”

Dr. Gary Joiner