An Interview with Historian & Author Steven E. Woodworth
Steven E. Woodworth received his BA in history in 1982 from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and his PhD in 1987 from Rice University in Houston, Texas. After teaching at small colleges in Oklahoma and Georgia, he came to Texas Christian University in 1997 where he is now a professor of history. Over the years he has authored, co-authored, or edited more than thirty books, including Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to Civil War (2010), Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (2006), While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (2001), and Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (1990).
1. What inspired you to write This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War?
Well, I don’t know if I’d say I was exactly “inspired” to write it. An editor with a publishing company I was working with suggested that there was a niche that needed to be filled – a readable, medium-sized history of the Civil War, not-too-long, not-too-short, suitable for college courses or the reading public – so that’s what I tried to write. I enjoyed writing it, and that was inspirational. I think it was Jack London who said, “You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you. You have to go after it with a club.”
2. In This Great Struggle, you note that forts Henry and Donelson might be considered the first turning point of the Civil War. What information helped you come to this conclusion?
I wasn’t the first historian to write that. Kendall Gott mentioned it in his book Where the South Lost the War, and I believe James M. McPherson has mentioned at least some parts of the argument for this in some of his writings.
Before the fall of forts Henry and Donelson, very little had gone wrong for the Confederacy. It had won the First Battle of Bull Run, as well as several battles that are now lesser known because they were small and because future events were to show that they didn’t decide anything – Big Bethel, Ball’s Bluff, Wilson’s Creek – but they made a splash in the newspapers at the time. And prior to the fall of the forts, the Confederacy had achieved almost all of its war aims. It controlled almost all the territory of the states that claimed to have seceded. The only exception was the parts of Virginia west of the Alleghenies. And the Confederacy also controlled significant portions of the “unseceded” states of Kentucky and Missouri. Within its eleven states the Confederacy had set up a fully operating government.
With the fall of the forts, the Confederacy lost two thirds of Tennessee and all the ground it had held in Kentucky. The land it held in Missouri was doomed too. The fighting front shifted from central Kentucky to northern Mississippi and northern Alabama. After that disaster for the Confederacy, every subsequent Confederate offensive campaign west of the Appalachians was a more or less desperate effort to recover what had been lost in February 1862. None succeeded. U.S. armies continued to press the advantage gained at the forts until they had overrun the whole theater of action between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. When Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended major combat in the Civil War, those same western armies – that had been turned loose by the fall of the forts – had finished clearing out the western theater, swung over into the eastern theater on the Georgia coast, and were marching north. They were little more than one hundred miles south of Lee’s army when it surrendered. The war was already effectively decided before Lee’s line broke at Petersburg and his army fled west toward Appomattox.
3. Based on your research, what Civil War commander in the western theater (Union or Confederate) do you believe was most important to the conflict as a whole?
Grant. No one else was even close. In either theater.
Grant seized the mouth of the Tennessee River in September 1861. He took forts Henry and Donelson the following February. At Shiloh that April he shrugged off the best punch the Confederacy could throw and defeated its closest bid for winning the war. Grant took Vicksburg, opening the Mississippi for Union commerce and capturing a Confederate field army. He broke the Confederate quasi-siege of Chattanooga and set the stage for Sherman’s victorious campaigns in Georgia, first the campaign to Atlanta and then the campaign from there to the sea. And of course, he finished up by defeating and capturing Lee. It should not be overlooked that along the way, between September 1861 and July 1863, Grant built the Army of the Tennessee into the most effective and successful of the armies on either side during the Civil War.
4. Historians often argue about which battle was the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy. Where do you believe the Confederate Army peaked in performance in the western theater?
I would look at that as being two different questions with different answers. I would say the “high-water mark” was the point at which the Confederacy was closest to victory. I would say that was Shiloh (at least as far as the western theater was concerned). If Johnston could have defeated (and, in that case, he probably would also have captured) Grant at Shiloh, the whole war from that point on might well have taken a different course. I’m not saying it was very close, but as close as it got, at least in the West.
The battle at which the Confederate army’s performance peaked in the western theater was probably the July 22, 1864, Battle of Atlanta. But it still lost.
5. What advice do you have for Civil War enthusiasts—novices or trained historians—who hope to become a more well-rounded student of the conflict?
Read as widely as possible. There are plenty of good books on the war. Read as many as possible.
6. What is your favorite Civil War site in the western theater to visit?
Ah, now here’s a hard question. Pea Ridge is beautiful and relatively easy to understand. Shiloh is beautiful and hard to understand (the ground, that is), but it’s very important. The bridge at Bridgeport, Tennessee, has an impressive view and is a great place to understand the Army of the Cumberland’s crossing of the Tennessee River during the Chickamauga Campaign. And when I think of a battlefield with a view, Lookout Mountain is at the top of the list. Of course, the fighting was halfway down the mountain at the Craven House, but the view from Point Park at the summit is great for understanding the whole sweep of the fighting around Chattanooga. Nevertheless, I’d have to say my very favorite western battlefield to visit is Chickamauga – great visitor center with a great museum, and then a big sprawling, important battlefield that is surprisingly easy to understand despite the amount and thickness of woods that cover much of it. Viniard Field, Brotherton Field, Snodgrass Hill, and most of all Dyer Field are all places where you can look around and get a good feel for what it must have been like when the armies were there.
Finally, an honorable mention – there ought to be a beautiful, well preserved battlefield for the July 22 Battle of Atlanta, but there’s not. The city of Atlanta overspread it, and the interstate highway system dug out its key terrain feature. Well, we can’t expect the country to stand still and not grow. A country that would never grow and prosper was certainly not what the soldiers were fighting for. But I wish we could see that battlefield in something halfway like the state it was in when McPherson fell and Logan rallied the Army of the Tennessee to victory. As it is, the closest we can come is the recently renovated Atlanta Cyclorama, now splendidly housed and displayed at the Atlanta History Center. Standing on the viewing platform and looking around through 360 degrees at the battle as it approached its climax is as close as we can get to watching a video of the action.
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