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Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 By Steven E. Woodworth

Jacket: Hardcover
Pages: 784 pages
Publisher: Knopf (October 25, 2005)
Genre: Military History
ISBN: 0375412182

Comments about the author:

Dr. Woodworth is a two-time winner of the prestigious Fletcher Pratt Award, for his books Davis and Lee at War and Jefferson Davis and His Generals.

Steven was born in Ohio in 1961, raised in Illinois (mostly), and graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1982 with a B.A. in history. Thereafter he studied one year at the University of Hamburg, in Germany, before beginning studies at Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1987. From 1987 to 1997 Woodworth taught at Bartlesville Wesleyan College in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and at Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa Falls, Georgia. At both institutions he was more or less the entire history department and taught everything from ancient Mesopotamia to modern Europe and the United States. In 1997 he came to TCU, where he teaches courses in U.S. history as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Old South.

Review: Dr Woodworth of Texas Christian is a prolific Civil War writer. In some eighteen years he has seventeen titles to his credit. Some, like his studies of Confederate leadership and strategy in Davis and Lee at War and Jefferson Davis and his Generals, are critical successes. Some are not. Woodworth’s word craft is some of the best in the business. He has a gift for word imagery that makes maneuver and battle intelligible. He always surprises me with profound military lessons circumscribed almost accidentally in his narratives. His research and arguments are usually solid and supportable. If there is a fault it is a tendency towards harshness of judgment that appears unsupported in the work itself; although with so many published works it may be somewhere else.

This volume constitutes a history of The Army of the Tennessee. Woodworth asserts in his perfunctory introduction that this army and the men who commanded it were the decisive force of the war for the Union. No army of the Union has its name attached to more of the decisive battles of the war (Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta). Its first two commanders were Ulysses S Grant and William T Sherman. As the title indicates and the books research materials depict, this was an army that developed the assurance and cockiness that comes with battlefield success and a faith in its officers as special. Grant’s own had the panache of Lee’s own in the Army of Northern Virginia.

The book is structured in three parts of chapters (apologies to J Caesar). The first two hundred pages relate the beginnings of war on the Mississippi River and follows the story through the second battle of Corinth. The second part devotes 240 pages to the Vicksburg campaigning from November 1862 to July 1863. The third of some 170 pages relates the last twenty months of the war from Chattanooga to Washington DC.

I have heard some complain of the absence of maps in a book such as this. A few extra might have been occasionally useful. But this is a Grand Operational narrative of one field army in the entire war. The emphasis here is obviously to present a large collection of primary sources from the ranks to view the war as a memory of its participants.

On that subject we come to the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

The objectification of the Army of the Tennessee exclusively as a field army and the decision to limit the view of the reader/student to a litany of battle narratives with very limited bridging material does a disservice to history. Woodworth doesn’t make comprehension simple here; he oversimplifies.

The Army of the Potomac was the only Union field army purpose built as a standing mobile field force. The standard practice everywhere else was to define a strategic set of goals and create a Military Department to manage all the aspects of theater warfare. The Military Department was allocated forces based on its missions. What field forces were constituted in the Department was at the discretion of the Departments commander. The reason you should understand this is because being told that other Union armies were usually smaller than the Army of the Potomac gives a false picture of weight of forces available in military departments.

While the Army of the Tennessee often went into battle under 50,000 men in strength its commander had twice that number of men available in the vast rear area that grew to cover parts of five states.

Vicksburg is the turning point of the war. It was that wars Stalingrad. In the process of winning at Vicksburg Grant removed an entire Confederate theater army from the playing field of the war. Consequently Grant and his department’s forces put themselves out of a mission. The Union suddenly had over 60,000 veteran soldiers available to tip the scales somewhere else in the war. Fortunately for the Confederacy the Federal national command quibbled over how to best exploit this opportunity (Grant wanted to go to Mobile and gut the Confederacy from its underbelly.)

Unfortunately for the Confederacy this strategic reserve was idle when the South gained its greatest triumph of the war at Chickamauga and bottled the Army of the Cumberland up at Chattanooga. Suitable for a movie script, the second thunderclap of fate summoned Grant to Chattanooga along with a strategic concentration of military forces guaranteed to lift the siege, elevate Grant to extraordinary command and set the stage for the final grim phase of the war.

This final stage of the war required new concentrations of force. With Grant gone east, his protégée Sherman took over as the extraordinary commander of western field forces. Three separate field army elements representing the Departments of the Tennessee, The Cumberland and the Ohio were marshaled to take on Joe Johnston and sweep into the heartland of the Confederacy.

Sherman’s field force seldom exceeded 110,000 men. But the combined departments had 271,000 in total. The vast and hostile rear area needed to be policed. Transportation links needed to be protected and sustained logistically to keep Sherman supplied. A separate campaign against Nathan Bedford Forrest kept extra forces in Memphis.

As the book narrows its focus to the Army of the Tennessee a lot of this goes by the boards, or gets a passing remark. I’m not sure that is fair or honest. I would have liked to have seen more balance to operational realities rather than nose to the campaign memorials.

Within the scope of the book there is some excellent material. The Vicksburg section is the centerpiece and Woodworth provides some really marvelous insights and even some surprises.

Grants Memoirs relates that during the initial inland move into Mississippi that aborted when his Holly Springs depot was destroyed by Van Dorn, his army ate better on the retreat foraging, according to Grant, than it did advancing using formal supply lines. This anecdote has been a bellwether for historians demarking a change in warfare doctrine that enhanced mobility. Woodworth’s pluming of unit history and journals relates a different tale. The rank and file rather remembers foraging going south and going hungry limping back to Memphis. Grants headquarters may have faired better going home, but the long columns to his rear found the pickings getting rather slim.

In Summary: this is not a formal organizational history. If you want facts, go to Frank Welcher’s The Union Army. If you are willing to accept the nature of the narrative this is a good read. I went cover to cover twice before I wrote this. My first reaction was to pan the book for not being what I wanted it to be. On second reading I settled for accepting it for what it is and respecting what is presented for what it does accomplish. If nothing else this may cause you to dip into the bibliography and read more to wet the appetite created by Nothing But Victory.

— Reviewed by: David Kelly


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