McDonough, James Lee. The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble: From Atlanta to
Franklin and Nashville. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
In The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble: From Atlanta to Franklin and Nashville, James Lee McDonough presents an exhaustive study of the crucial Tennessee campaign and the last push by the Confederate Army of Tennessee during the American Civil War. While McDonough follows both armies’ maneuvering, he never loses focus of the Tennessee campaign and its connection and importance to the Western Theater. Perhaps less biased than other recent works on this particular subject, this author does an exceptional job at describing the commanders of both Union and Confederate armies, and where they had successful stratagems and where they failed abysmally.
Not surprising, John Bell Hood receives an exorbitant amount of criticism, with John Schofield fairing little better. The supporting characters or lower level commanders receive quite a lot of consideration here as well. Another unique issue that McDonough takes an exception to, is that many believe that Hood’s campaign peaked at Franklin. He argues that despite dissension amongst staff, little logistical support, and a drained morale, the Army of Tennessee had a real chance of changing the tide of the war against the overconfident Federalists at Nashville.
Author James Lee McDonough is an award-winning historian and native of Nashville. He received his higher education at David Lipscomb College, Vanderbilt University, Abilene Christian College, and Florida State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in History. McDonough has held faculty positions at Lipscomb and Pepperdine University. Eventually, he joined the History Department at Auburn where he is now Professor Emeritus of History. Most of McDonough’s numerous books, articles, and book reviews deal with the American Civil War. He has spent a considerable amount of time speaking for various groups around the nation. Some of McDonough’s best-known books are Shiloh: In Hell before Night, Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee, Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy, Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin, which was co-authored with Thomas L. Connelly, and From Shiloh to Perryville.
McDonough begins by diving into the Fall of 1864 when the Confederates were smarting from the collapse of Atlanta and the massive casualties sustained, which were upwards of 8,000. Hood is struck another blow by Atlanta’s Governor, Joseph E. Brown, who withdrew the state’s militia. McDonough shares that like Bragg before him, Hood could not accept fault for his actions, and looked toward his subordinates to place blame. He found his target for the loss at Peachtree Creek in General William J. Hardee and wanted him relieved of duty. “General Hardee, who considered Hood incompetent to command an army, was equally resolved to serve no more under the rash Kentuckian.” (p. 26)
With first-hand accounts, McDonough allows the reader to feel like an actual observer of the colorful characters and their emotions. The section on Spring Hill does not disappoint. As Confederate mishaps continue to pepper the army, they worsen dramatically after General John Schofield’s Union force escaped Hood under the cover of darkness. McDonough uses the private and professional papers from the rebel commanders to complete the scene in its entirety. The author serves up several interesting rebel tales that worked against success at this time as well. The 1863 death of cavalry leader Earl Van Dorn by a jealous Spring Hill husband, Dr. George Peters is one such tale he elaborates on. Van Dorn had a reputation as a ladies man and once he arrived, he and Jessie, Dr. Peters’ wife, started an affair that became public. Dr. Peters killed the general and immediately fled from Spring Hill.
McDonough could not be more clear or concise on Hood’s failings when he states that because he commanded the Army of Tennessee he is responsible for the failure. He gives credence to this when he lists Hood’s faults as the general failure to have a plan, the breakdown of command responsibility and communication, and “His failure to remain on the field to see that his orders were implemented is inexcusable.” (p. 73) General Hood’s painfully, the crippled body did not help matters, which is why his use of drugs for the pain contributed to his ineffectiveness.
The soap opera of Spring Hill continues with more drama as Mrs. Peters’ name pops up again and again and yet again. While Hood was enraged at Cheatham for not following orders, the bachelor did not let his superior’s wrath interfere with his romantic pastimes. He supposedly spent an inordinate amount of time at the home of Mrs. Peters. Cheathum’s biographer would later write that he may have availed himself of Jessie’s charms but it would be almost impossible to establish. General Forrest was said to have had more than a passing acquaintance with the lady. Two years later Colonel Henry Stone would give a report when asked about Spring Hill. He believed that both Cheatham and Forrest were being entertained by Mrs. Jessie Peters the night that the whole of Schofield’s army snuck by them. McDonough finds that Jessie Peters notwithstanding, the debacle of Spring Hill was encapsulated in a lack of command initiative. Over-imbibing of whiskey and Hood’s use of narcotics were just more nails in the Army of Tennessee’s coffin. Hood’s best chance to finish the Union forces in Middle Tennessee was ruined for good that night.
Not to be deterred, Hood would follow Schofield to Franklin. McDonough writes that although General Schofield “did not want to fight at Franklin, he could hardly have asked for a better defensive position from which to repel a frontal assault.” (p. 84) Another advantage for the Federals was that most of their entrenchments had already been erected in 1862-63. McDonough gives numerous accounts of the Franklin battle. The Army of Tennessee had approximately 7,250 casualties and the Union suffered about 2,325. The Confederates lost an amazing number of their leaders. The leaders they lost included Generals Cleburne, Gist, Granbury, Adams, and Strahl, with John C. Carter mortally wounded. George W. Gordon was captured and five other generals were unable to continue serving due to injuries, and an unbelievable fifty-three regimental commanders. McDonough quotes a Federal veteran who later wrote of Franklin that it “stands without an equal in the history of the world,” and that it was a battle of “a succession of ferocious assaults, bloody hand-to-hand struggles and horrid scenes of carnage and destruction that beggar description.” (p. 110) The haunting accounts McDonough features throughout his writing are so engaging and move the writer like no modern rendition could possibly do.
The debilitating loss is not enough to turn General Hood from his course to Nashville. Though McDonough fairly states that he had no acceptable alternatives, except to stay the course he had set. Hood would say later that he believed his troops would be “better satisfied, even after defeat if, … a brave and vigorous effort had been made to save the country.” (p. 137) Meanwhile, McDonough focuses on the Battle of Cedars, fought on the Stones River battleground. This was the second time Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest found himself near the small town of Murfreesboro. After a reconnaissance mission showed that the eight thousand manned garrison, Fortress Rosecrans at Murfreesboro, was too daunting to assault, he chose to wait it out in a position west of the fortress. General Rousseau was aware of the Rebel presence and sent Major General Robert H. Milroy out for a reconnaissance of their own. What ensued was an hour of back and forth artillery fire followed by a surprise attack by Milroy’s Union forces. General Forrest tried without success to halt his fleeing troops, but Forrest received what Captain John Morton called, “the hardest blow” that he ever took during the whole war. (p. 147) Milroy was recalled to the fort because of false reports coming in of Confederate reinforcements, but still, it was a decided Union victory. Unfortunately for Hood, he would now not have this cavalry’s support as Forrest continued to wreck the railroad, which made getting supplies to the Yankees at Fortress Rosecrans very difficult.
After a particularly harsh bout of cold weather that turned from rain to sleet and snow, the battle at Nashville was postponed. The accounts recorded by the poorly clothed Confederate soldiers are a picture of absolute misery. Some men even dug holes in the frozen ground to lay in to get some relief. Meanwhile, the Union army advantage was threatened because of infighting between Schofield and Thomas. Schofield asked Grant to get rid of Thomas because of his lack of action at the Rock of Chickamauga and because he put off attacking Hood at Nashville. McDonough believes that Thomas had every right to delay due to the inclement weather. Schofield’s lambasting of Thomas did make General Grant anxious.
Thomas and the Union forces were victorious, “And so the Army of Tennessee, one of the Confederacy’s two major armies, had essentially ceased to exist.” (p. 274) Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was under siege at Petersburg, with little hope of reinforcements, and the reinforcements being sent to help General Joseph E. Johnston in the standoff with Sherman was equally as hopeless. McDonough writes that four months after Hood asked to be relieved of duty, the war was over.
McDonough has done a fine job of analyzing the Tennessee campaign. Numerous authors have written their own accounts of this time in history, however, it should be said that McDonough is able to shed light on even the most twisted campaign trails. The reader is able to not only thoroughly enjoy his interpretation but also get new and exciting material. He adds several civilian encounters throughout this history, Jessie Peters’ account is just one of them, which enhances this campaign with a new set of layers yet to be seen.
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