I have a saying about the war that I sometimes use to poke my Eastern Theater friends:
The East was a beast, but the best was out West!
I like to use the same phrase about the NBA, mainly because it's fun. (Go Thunder!)
But if you ever want to stir up a good war-based argument on something other than The Cause, try tossing out something about how the Eastern or Western theater was the "most important" theater of the war.
Then sit back and watch the fun, and maybe join in just to keep the embers stirred up.
I've been a card-carrying, flag-waving member of the Western Theater side of that debate pretty much since I started reading about the war. Which was....well, a long time back now. (The first book I ever read about it was The Golden Book of the Civil War, if that tells you anything.) My first personal exposure to the war was in Tennessee, at Chattanooga and the surrounding area. (Point Park on Lookout Mountain, along with the old "Confederama," is really where I got hooked on the war as a kid.) The next park I got to see in person was Shiloh. So you might say that I came into the War through the Western Theater door. (Okay, sorry for that one.)
Given that, it's probably no surprise to hear me say that I think the Western Theater has tended, over time, to get the short end of the attention-span where the war is concerned. That seems to have changed some over the last couple of decades or so, but by and large I think the East still tends to get the most attention, along with top-billing as the "most important" theater of the war.
What exactly does that mean anyway - most important theater of the war? Well for our purposes here, it simply means where the war was largely won and lost.
You'll find plenty of people, including some historians, who will kill a large number of electrons to show why East or West should rate as the war's most important area. (Fans of the Trans-Mississippi - I feel your steady stare. Keep the faith, we're going to include you in this conversation, and it won't be merely as an afterthought.)
I'm not going to lay out a long and complex case here for either side - mainly because I don't have the patience or the ability - but I am going to state my case for what I think the answer truly is. So stay tuned for the thrilling (unexpected?) conclusion!
To start, we're going to choose two comparison points - the spring of 1861 on the one hand, and the spring of 1864 on the other. Specifically where 1864 is concerned, early May, prior to the start of the Overland Campaign in the East and the Atlanta Campaign in the West. Why those two points in time? Because of an incredibly stark difference that points us toward the answer to our "most important" question.
The spring of 1861 in the East saw the two major armies squared off in northern Virginia, between the Union and Confederate capitals. Three years later, the spring of 1864 saw......the two major armies squared off in northern Virginia, between the Union and Confederate capitals.
Between those two dates, tens of thousands of men had died, more still had been wounded or crippled, millions of dollars in property had been destroyed, and countless lives had been shattered. Some of the most famous people and places in American history came to out attention within those three horrific years. Over that span of time, the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War saw some of the bloodiest, most ghastly fighting anywhere on the North American Continent, since forever. (It was about to get even worse, but that's for another day.)
And yet there in the spring of 1864 stood the two famous armies, for all practical purposes in the identical spots they had occupied in the spring of 1861. So much had changed. Yet so little had changed.
What does this tell us about the fighting in the East? It tells us that the Confederacy was winning.
To win the war, the Confederacy had to do one thing: Continue to exist. Do that long enough - make the North throw up their collective hands and say "enough," and the war, and independence, are won. Fail to do that, and they lose. Brutally simple reality.
Keep the Union at bay. That's the goal. In the East - at enormous cost to both sides - that's exactly what they're doing.
In fact, had the Eastern Theater been the entire Civil War, then we have a clear winner by the spring of 1864, and it isn't the North.
So now it's time to pose a question: Given what we've just seen, why didn't the Confederacy win the war? More to the point, why didn't they have the war all but won by the spring of 1864?
Lets take Horace Greely's advice, and go West for a possible answer. (See what I did there?)
The Western Theater is night to the Eastern Theater's day. (Day to its night?) The spring of 1861 in this theater saw the northern frontier of the Confederacy up in Kentucky, stretching from the Mississippi River over to the Allegheny Mountains. Three years later in the spring of 1864, the Union had pushed and shoved its way through Kentucky and Tennessee as well as much of Mississippi and Louisiana, and stood poised with three armies on the doorstep of Georgia. Along the way they had taken control of three major rivers, captured forts and railroads, major cities and towns, and eliminated two entire enemy armies. Basically speaking, they beat the fool out of the South.
As with the war in the East, it didn't come without a terrible price in lives, and a terrible price in property. The armies weren't as big in the West, for the most part, but the fighting was just as vicious.
But the outcome over that same three-year span was not just different, it was vastly different. In the East the Confederacy was holding its own. In the West? They were getting their collective head handed to them.
What does this tell us about the Western Theater? (Yes, I know - "Well duh!") It tells us that the North was winning.
Time for another question!
If the North was so incredibly successful in the Western Theater - and they undeniably were - why didn't they win the war before 1865???
Okay, you've probably figured out where I'm going with all this by now. But I'm going there anyway, because you can't quit in the middle of the story. Before we get there though, we have to say an important word about a forgotten area - the Trans-Mississippi.
Pretty much everyone seems to neglect this area, at least when it comes to our 'most important' discussion. We scream and holler and blog about East and West, but forget about Trans-Miss. Did it matter in the big picture? ( "Well Duh!" fits here again.) Yes it did, but for what might be an ironic reason.
What probably ranks as the war's most bitterly contested theater had something in common with the East - it was largely a stalemate for three years. Neither side really gained a major advantage, though both sides certainly tried.
In the East, this virtual stalemate played to the South's advantage. But out here in the wilds beyond the Mississippi, military stalemate actually helped the North.
How so? Had the Confederacy been able to make any serious headway west of the Mississippi, it would have forced the Union to divert troops and material to that area in order to deal with the threat. These forces would almost certainly have come from the Western Theater, thus robbing the Union of strength in that area at a vital point in time. Enough to alter the course of the war? That's forever an unknown. But the possibility most certainly exists. To be sure, there's no real way it could have hurt the South or helped the North.
And here's the main point - it was a realistic possibility.
The outcome in Trans-Mississippi was not a foregone conclusion, anymore than it was in the other two major theaters. Tip the balance one way or the other off the center-line, it will have important repercussions across the board, and especially in the Western Theater. So overlook the Trans-Miss at your own peril. Better yet, don't overlook it at all. It may not rank as the war's most important theater, but it may rank as the war's most important stalemate, given what happened elsewhere.
Okay, so final question time - Which is the war's most important theater, East or West?
The answer, as I'll bet you've guessed (or at least guessed that I'm going to say) - is both of them.
Does that seem like a cop-out on my part? Maybe, but I don't think it is myself. It's what the evidence points to, to me. And I say that as a still-card-carrying, flag-waving Western Theater advocate. But the evidence is what it is, so that's what I've got to go with.
Change the outcome in either theater, it changes the war itself. That much seems clear to me. You simply can't ignore either theater. You can't. If the Union in the East matches its success in the West, the war probably won't ever see 1864 let alone 1865. And if the Confederacy can somehow manage to duplicate its Eastern results in the Western Theater, we're reading in our history books today about the South's victorious war for independence. (Before they broke up into several more countries, but that's a different hollering match. )
So there you have it, and we can all sleep better now, knowing the "most important" question finally has an answer - The Oklahoma Sooners. (Pardon? The most important college football team, of course! What did you think I meant???)