The American Civil War:

‘Boys, get your guns and ammunition and rally behind this rock-fence!'
- Captain Jacob Axline, 2nd Bttn., Missouri Cavalry, at Independence (11th August 1864) [Quoted in E.E. Leslie, ‘The Devil Knows How to Ride’, p.134 , New York, 1998]

THE WAR IN THE WEST 1861-1865

To many, the American Civil War was characterised mainly by the campaign in the east and the strategy surrounding the assaults on Richmond and Washington. Yet, the war in the west was, arguably, the driving force that spurred the eastern campaigns onwards. It was the initial arena of General Ulysses S. Grant, who dominated operations in the western theatre with his military campaign there leading to many Union victories. Consequently, the Confederacy fought some of its most savage battles here and it was in the west that they seemed to constantly struggle for their very survival. Hopefully, the next few pages will give you some flavour of the fighting in the west and provide some interesting scenario ideas.

From the earliest days of secession, in January and February 1861, it was clear that the west would have a particular importance in the future conflict, as the States of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas led the withdrawal from the Union. Whilst in the east the Confederacy had victories at the Siege of Fort Sumter and First Bull Run (Manassas), in the west things took a slower pace to develop. On August 10th, its first victory in the west came at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri and, by the end of the year, both Missouri and Kentucky had been admitted into the Confederacy. This early winning streak came to a very sharp end in early 1862, when General Ulysses Grant’s volunteer troops captured the vitally strategic Forts of Donelson and Henry. These controlled the rivers Cumberland and Tennessee and led directly into the South’s heartland and, once taken, the integrity of the Confederacy itself was threatened. Whilst west of the Mississippi, a small Confederate army had captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it was soon beaten at Peralta (April 1862) and forced to retreat back to Texas. Yet, the first real battle in the west came at Shiloh (6-7 April 1862), when General A. S. Johnstone made a surprise assault on the Union Army under General Grant and was very nearly victorious. However, Johnstone was killed during a charge and replaced by General Beauregarde who, seeing Union reinforcements had arrived to assist Grant, withdrew the Confederate army. One Union private, Charles Morton, of the 25th Missouri Volunteers, summed up the bloody two-day carnage at Shiloh when he recollected; " I saw the Confederates, massed many lines deep... Our regimental commander gave the commands: ‘Attention battalion -ready-aim-fire!’ The moving mass was decimated..." [p174, O. Eisenschiml & R. Newman, The American Iliad- As Told by Those Who Lived It, New York 1947, Reprint 1991] The Confederate repulse was at a high cost, however, with Union casualties numbering nearly 13,047 missing, wounded and killed. Although forced from the field, Confederate casualties were less than those of the Union, but still amounted to just over 10,000 for the two-day battle.

Throughout 1862, Grant repeatedly cornered Confederate forces (at Iuka and Corinth) only to have his plans thwarted by his own superiors’ ineptitude. Whilst Confederate troops were constantly harried, they still managed to evade destruction through a combination of tenacity and the Union senior command’s inaction. There followed General Sherman’s unsuccessful assault at Chickashaw Bluffs (Dec.1862), north of Vicksburg, which left the town safely in Confederate hands. On his way to besiege Vicksburg (held by Confederate General Pemberton) Grant marched 200 miles in 19 days and managed to defeat the Confederates in five separate battles during the Big Black River Campaign. On the 4th July 1863, Vicksburg fell and the North finally managed to drive a wedge between the Southern States. However, Grant’s superior, General Rosencrans, was severely defeated in Tennessee, when his strung-out Union army pushed against Georgia and was halted at Chickamauga (19-20th Sept. 1863). They were virtually destroyed by the Confederate General Bragg, reinforced by General Longstreet, with only Rosencrans’ left flank, under General G.H. Thomas - ‘the Rock of Chickamauga’, escaping. Total casualties for the two-day battle stood at just over 34, 000 dead, missing and wounded. Despite this success, Tennessee was finally lost when Lincoln appointed Grant as Commander in the west in October and, with fresh reinforcements, he successfully relieved Rosencrans’ force and secured Chatanooga. Grant then quickly defeated Bragg at Lookout Mountain (Nov.1863), which effectively won Tennessee for the Union. Here, the Confederates had mounted a desperate defence on Missionary Ridge, repulsing Sherman’s column, but were overwhelmed by Grant’s direct assault the following day. With the Confederate heartlands vulnerable, the war along the Mississippi intensified.

In early 1864, a Union incursion into Florida was repelled at Olustee (20th Feb.1864), a failure which was further compounded by the ill-judged ‘Red River’ expedition - an 'amphibious' invasion of Texas, using Union river gunship superiority. Yet, the Union spearhead, under General Banks, was caught at Sabine Cross Roads (8th April 1864) and, despite a gallant holding action at Pleasant Hill the next day, the venture was lost. To its north, General Forrest audaciously defeated larger Union forces at Oklona, Fort Pillow and Brice’s Cross Roads, although he was checked at Tupelo (Feb.-July, 1864). Forrest replied by continuing his harrying operations, including a successful raid on Memphis. Despite these daring raids, the Union army in the west under General Sherman (Grant had been appointed overall Union commander in March) soon began to gain the upper hand. Sherman divided his vast army, left a covering force in mid-Tennessee and took the remainder (some 99,000 men) on a bloody advance through Georgia. Against him, General Joseph E. Johnston shrewdly stalled Sherman’s advance on Atlanta to almost a crawl (roughly a mile a day) and fought an able holding campaign during May at Dalton, Resaca and Cassville with his 60,000 strong Confederate Army of Tennessee. Johnston then took up positions surrounding Atlanta along Kenesaw Mountain and withstood a sustained Union frontal attack. The assault on Kenesaw Mountain (27th June 1864) was the last barrier between Sherman and Atlanta - and every Confederate there knew it. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee, spoke for many when he recalled that " ...it seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man seemed to think that at that moment the whole responsibility of the Confederate government was upon his shoulders." [p616, O. Eisenschiml & R. Newman, The American Iliad- As Told by Those Who Lived It, New York 1947, Reprint 1991] However, during the assault Johnston’s left flank was turned. As a consequence, the Confederates were obliged to fall back and redress their lines in order to defend Atlanta. Despite Johnston’s capable defence, President Davis removed him from command shortly afterwards and replaced him with the more aggressive, but tactically naive, General Hood.

Instead of baiting Sherman into a trap, Hood launched a disastrous attack at Peachtree Creek, (20th July 1864) where the Confederates vigorously attacked Sherman but were badly mauled and had to retreat within Atlanta’s defences. The ensuing battles of Atlanta and Ezra Church whittled the Confederacy’s forces away further, with a staggering 12,300 Southern casualties against only 4,354 Union. The final straw came after Hood’s counter-attack at Jonesboro (August 1864), which left Atlanta too weak to defend itself and the city was finally torched and evacuated. In the face of this loss, Hood was determined to sever the Union’s line of supply but Sherman swiftly outmanoeuvred him and, instead, plunged 68,000 men eastwards and advanced directly on Savanah. Sherman’s savage advance into Georgia was a deliberate strategy of bringing both the Confederacy’s economy and its civilian morale to its knees. Yet, despite this pressure, Confederate operations west of the Mississippi gave some comfort, with victories at Independence and Lexington.

The Raid on Independence was particularly important as it was a much-needed morale boost to the Missouri Confederates. It was co-ordinated by the Confederate Colonel John Hughes, a Mexican-war hero, who used the infamous William Quantrill’s raiders and three hundred of Colonel Hay’s raw Missouri recruits to capture his objective. The town housed a Federal garrison, commanded by the inept Colonel Buel who, despite being forewarned of the impending attack by residents sympathetic to the Union, dismissed these as hysterical rumours. Consequently, in the early hours of August 11th, Hughes’ forces (with Quantrill as the vanguard) descended upon Independence, quickly capturing the Public Square of the town. However, the subsequent attack on the nearby Union camp proved far more desperate, despite the continued attempts of the senior Federal officer, Captain Breckinridge, to surrender. He was continually thwarted in this by the doughty Captain Axline, of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, who had arrived with his troop the previous evening. Axline was disgusted at Breckinridge’s attitude and organised the defenders into a firing line behind a farm wall. Although they put up considerable resistance, all attempts to break through the Confederate lines back into the town proved fruitless. In response, the Confederates launched five charges against them and, during one attempt to outflank Axline’s entrenchments, Colonel Hughes was killed by a shot to the head. After such hard fighting, Axline felt bitterly betrayed when he saw an approaching white-flag carried by two Confederates and a Union officer; only to discover that it was Buel’s adjutant who, with Breckinridge’s approval, had acquiesced to the surrender of the Independence garrison. Elsewhere in the west, events for the Confederacy were otherwise disappointing.

With Sherman attacking the undefended Southern heartland, General Hood continued a spirited but illogical campaign of virtual self-destruction in mid-Tennessee. Finding General Thomas’ Union Army of the Cumberland in entrenched positions at Franklin, he immediately attacked them (30th Nov.1864), suffering 6,300 casualties that he could ill-afford. It gave the Union valuable time to regroup at Nashville, which Hood duly intended to attack. However, Thomas struck first (15th Dec.1864), with considerably larger forces and Hood, without the support of General Forrest whom he had ordered away on a raid, found his army shattered. As such, Nashville was to be seen as one of the most decisive victories of the war. Whilst Hood suffered comparatively few casualties, the morale of his men was totally broken and his army melted away, disorganised, disheartened and militarily useless. To this background, Sherman had arrived at Fort McAllister (13th Dec. 1864), threatening Savanah and finally forcing the Confederates from it by the end of the month. By early 1865, Sherman’s army was intent on joining up with the Union forces in the east and marched from Savanah to South Carolina. Here, Union forces had just taken the port of Wilmington (17 Feb.1865) and, with its capture, another desperate Confederate lifeline was cut. Their only hope lay in stubborn resistance and refusal to be beaten. General Johnston, skilfully maintaining his army’s coherency, managed to damage Sherman’s left flank at Bentonville (March 1865) but, faced by Sherman’s entire army, was forced to retire with heavy losses.

On 2nd April 1865, Union cavalry troops under General Wilson finally dislodged Forrest’s Confederates from Selma, a vital Confederacy depot in Alabama, and occupied it. The loss of their remaining foundries, supply and ammunition dumps was devastating to the Confederacy and effectively heralded the last stage of the war. After this, Southern hopes rested upon the resistance of the Petersburg-Richmond defence line in the east. When Richmond fell the next day, all hopes for survival evaporated. As expected and hoped for, the Union campaign in the west contributed greatly in wrecking the Confederate economy and social fabric. Its destructive nature, combined with the strangling of Southern morale, played a major part in the events which forced Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse on April 9th 1865. Three days later, the last major Confederate-held city (Mobile, in Alabama) was taken by Federal forces. Although the Union could finally claim victory, the war years from 1861 to 1865 had left a terrible legacy. Ironically, the day following the capture of Mobile, President Lincoln was assassinated. He was perhaps one of the most famous Union casualties of the war, the total for which stood at 110,070 killed and died of wounds. This did not include over 254,000 Union troops who died as prisoners of war or from disease. Confederate casualties were equally grim. Over 94,000 died of wounds or were killed outright, with 30,000 dying as prisoners of war and at least 70,000 dying from disease.

Recreating the western campaigns for wargames and skirmishes is both entertaining and rewarding, in its research, collecting of miniatures and use of tactics. The character of the war here had a special urgency and yet also had a uniquely ‘western’ appeal; from the ventures into New Mexico at Glorietta Pass (28th March 1862), or the raid on Independence, before Quantrill’s exploits became synonymous with the savage massacres at Lawrence or Baxter Springs. Yet, even the full-scale battles in the west had a distinctive sense of doggedness and resilience to them, from the 6th Mississippi at Shiloh, the 22nd Michigan at Lookout Mountain, or the 10th Tennessee at Chickamauga. The American Civil War is such a fascinating and compelling era of military history that it is hardly surprising it remains such a popular period for gamers. So, if you haven’t tried it already, why not raise a miniature company in Blue or Grey and follow Grant or Johnston in their battle for the west?

Suggested Further Reading

There is a mass of historiography on the American Civil War but the following works are a rough indication of some of the most useful to wargamers and researchers of the period. These are in addition to Brassey’s excellent History of Uniforms series on the Confederate Army and Union Army and the exhaustive Osprey series (by Philip Katcher) on uniforms and organisation during the war.

  • Arnold, J.R. - The Armies of U.S. Grant (Arms & Armour, 1995)
  • Congdon, D. (Ed.) - Combat - the Civil War (1967, Reprint 1992)
  • Davis, W.C. - Fighting Men of the Civil War (London, 1999)
  • Davis, W.C. - Commanders of the Civil War (London, 1999)
  • Eicher, D.J. - Longest Night - a Military History of the Civil War (Pimlico, 2002)
  • Eisenschiml, O. & Newman, R. - American Iliad- As Told by Those Who Lived It (1947, Reprint 1991)
  • Katcher, P. - Civil War Uniforms - A Photo Guide (Arms & Armour, 1996)
  • Leslie, E.E. - The Devil Knows How to Ride (New York, 1998)
  • Warner, E.J. - Generals in Gray; Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Louisiana State University Press, 1959)>/b>

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