On this day in 1861, the first major battle of the Civil War in the west took place when around 5,400 Union troops under General Nathaniel Lyon attacked Confederate General Ben McCullough’s force of 12,000 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. General Lyon was killed in the action, and the Federals forced to retreat, in what became the first defeat for Union forces in the west. Over 2,500 men fell on both sides during the battle. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the first battle in a part of the war often overlooked in light of events in Virginia. Here, we shall look at the Western Theater of the American Civil War, and its importance in the outcome of the conflict.
When it comes to the history of the American Civil War, the events of the Eastern Theater, and primarily those that took place in Virginia, are the most studied of them all. But the Western Theater, primarily the events in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, are sadly overlooked in the realm of Civil War study. Although some battles and campaigns are mentioned, the attention to given to this part of the war, and to the men that fought it, pales in comparison to what has been lavished on the events of the east. But the events of the Western Theater of the American Civil War are just as important, and in some cases, probably more important, than the events of the east. To me, there are three reasons that this theater of war was important to the Union war plan.
1. Splitting the Confederacy
It was in this theater of the war that the United States would deal a severe blow to the Confederacy by tearing the country asunder by dividing the country. The Union first did this by taking control of the Mississippi River, which served as a natural divide, with the Confederate States of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas to the west of the river. Control of this river would divide the far western states from the rest of the country, and would allow passage for Union gunboats. The campaign to take control of this vital waterway was planned and led by Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and, although it would take longer than expected, was successful. With the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4th, and the capitulation of Port Hudson on July 9th, the Union took complete control of the Mississippi, and divided the South in two.
But Union plans would eventually lead to the Confederacy being divided yet again. In 1864, with Tennessee securely in Federal hands, Union General William T. Sherman began his infamous Atlanta Campaign, which ended with the taking of that city that September. With that success behind him, Sherman then made his legendary “March to the Sea,” capturing Savannah in December. With this campaign, the Confederacy was now split into three parts, with the Union in control of much of the country between the Mississippi and Tennessee/Georgia. Sherman was also able to march virtually unopposed through South Carolina, leaving a path of destruction in his wake before entering North Carolina in March, 1865.
2. Success in Georgia and Lincoln’s Reelection
The Elections of 1864 became heavily connected with the Western Theater of the war. By September of that year, the chances of Abraham Lincoln winning reelection were slim at best. Not only had previous presidents before him failed to gain a second term in office, but many citizens of the United States felt the war was not going well, and were ready to see it over. To make matters worse, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the Democratic Presidential nominee, General George B. McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac. Although he was not fully supportive of the idea, McClellan ran on a peace platform that, if elected, would see him seek negotiations for an end to hostilities, and possibly see the war conclude with the Union still divided, and slavery still in existence in the South.
But with news of the fall of Atlanta in September, things brightened for Lincoln and his administration. People began to realize that the war could be won, and that the Union could be preserved. That November, Lincoln won reelection, and was given the opportunity to see the war to its conclusion. Had the Confederacy held on to Atlanta until the time of the 1864 Election, things might have turned out differently.
3. The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant
The most important element of the Western Theater of the war is that this is where Union General Ulysses S. Grant made a name for himself. Yes, he is remembered as the man made Lieutenant General, the second since George Washington, and sent to defeat Lee in Virginia, culminating in the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. But had it not been for his success in the West, Grant would never have gained prominence in the eyes of Lincoln, who saw in him the man who could defeat Lee, and end the war.
He first gained recognition in capturing Fort Donelson in February 1862, where his call for surrender with no conditions earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Although taken by surprise at the Battle of Shiloh in April, and nearly undone by drinking and superior officers jealous of his popularity, he would go on to lead the successful taking of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and taking control of the Mississippi River from the Confederates, in July of 1863. Then, the icing on the cake came when he successfully broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga by driving Braxton Bragg’s army from their positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge on November 24-25, 1863. It was because of these successes that Lincoln called Grant east, pinned a third star on him, and gave him supreme command of all Union forces in the field.
These are the reasons why the Western Theater of the American Civil War was vital to the Union war effort. The taking of the Mississippi River, and Sherman’s successful campaigns in Georgia, split the Confederacy in three. Moreover, Sherman’s taking of Atlanta made it possible for Lincoln to win reelection, and continue the war effort. Finally, it was the actions of Ulysses S. Grant in this theater of war that gained him prominence, and brought him east to finish the fight against Lee. Without these successes in the west, victory for the Union may not have been achieved, and the preservation of the Union, and the ending of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, would possibly have been in vain.
Steven Hancock, Civil War Diary.
McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.