Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed

Over the last 150 years or so, many theories have been offered about why the Army of Tennessee (AOT) did not find more success on its battlefields. Most of those studies focus on the western army's commanders and their deficiencies. While leadership infighting certainly played a significant role in its struggles, author Larry J. Daniel offers a number of additional thought provoking ideas in his recently published Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed.

Off the bat, Daniel identifies several primary issues that emerged soon after the western Confederate force was established; at the time under the name the Army of the Mississippi. A primary disadvantage was a lack of professionally trained leaders. Few of the divisional, brigade, and regimental officers had significant military experience before 1861. Another unfavorable early factor that developed in the army was an internal sectionalism. Those men from the Deep South had some reservations about their comrades from the Upper South, who were often perceived as less committed (whether they ultimately were or weren't) and more cautious about secession and mobilization. Both of those sections were even more suspect about those men from Appalachian mountain regions. This lack of intra-army trust seems benign on the surface, but Daniel shows that it contributed to the erosion of the all important esprit de corps of the army.

Another primary hindrance that Daniel and other historians have figured prominently into the AOT's lack of success was the vast geographical area, and its unfortunate (for the Confederates) features (rivers) that the AOT was expected to defend. Not gaining more men after 1861-62 from border states, especially Kentucky, also hurt the AOT in terms of man power. In fact, Daniel states that "The need for raw numbers created a vicious cycle--men's reluctance after 1861 to volunteer led to poor-quality conscripts, which led to rising rates of desertion that frequently resulted in brutal forms of coercion and increased executions." All of which zapped army morale, reduced effectiveness on the battlefield, and thus continued to spread disillusionment. Daniel is fairly damming of the AOTs cavalry, especially Joseph "The War Child" Wheeler. This branch of service, other than Nathan Bedford Forrest's sporadic parts, was a constant hindrance.

In the preface to the book, Daniel states that he models his study in "topical and narrative approach" to Joseph Glatthaar's General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. One area that Glatthaar covers and that I wish Daniel had done so, too, is a statistical sample of soldiers who came from slaveholding families. Glatthaar found that about 44% of Lee's men came from slaveholding families, it would have been interesting to see the AOT's numbers in comparison.

Where I found Conquered at its best was Daniel's examination of its soldiers' experiences, largely derived from his previous work, Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army. Subjects such as punishments, religion, furloughs, training, camp life, logistics, arms and ammunition, and even camp slaves are found throughout the book and all have ties to why the AOT experienced the war as it did.

Of course, as one would expect, the actions and decisions of the AOT's leaders: A. S. Johnston, Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston, John Bell Hood, and Joe Johnston again, receive a significant amount of critical examination.

The book's thorough endnotes and bibliography provide evidence of Daniel's depth of research. His writing style makes this study a true pleasure to read. The only pesky drawback I found in the book were a few small errors, particularly in reference to individual's names: Stephen Hulbert instead of Hurlbut, William Helm instead of Benjamin Hardin Helm, and Edwin Ruffin instead of Edmund Ruffin. Regardless, Conquered: Why the Army of Tennessee Failed is a worthy and welcome new addition to the literature concerning the Confederacy's primary western theater fighting force. I recommend it.

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