Although I don’t spend too much time reading campaign and battle studies, I recently reviewed James Lee McDonough’s, Nashville: The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble for the Florida Historical Quarterly (Vol. 84, No. 2): pp. 273-75.
Only in the last few years have historians moved beyond interpreting the post—Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns as reflecting an inevitable decline in Confederate prospects for independence. Ulysses S. Grant’s “Overland Campaign” and investment of Petersburg in the summer of 1864 and William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in the fall of 1864 no doubt damaged Confederate morale and the war effort, but the tendency to view the final year of the war as leading inevitably to defeat obscures the extent to which southerners both in the ranks and on the home front continued to identify with the various armies still in operation. Substituting the lens of contingency for inevitability allows for a more sympathetic portrayal of the decisions and campaigns that came to define the final year of the Confederacy. James Lee McDonough’s Nashville fits neatly into this new breed of history. The author of studies of the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Chattanooga, and Franklin has established this retired Auburn history professor as an authority on the Confederacy’s western theater.
McDonough situates his study in contrast to a broader historiographical context which assumes that the battle of Franklin (Nov. 30, 1864) rather than the battle of Nashville (Dec. 15-16, 1864) constituted the climax of a campaign that began with Confederate General John Bell Hood’s decision to disengage from the Atlanta area following Union occupation and attack Sherman’s supply lines from Nashville through Chattanooga to Atlanta. Despite deteriorating morale, compromised logistics, and officer dissension McDonough tracks a Confederate army that by and large remained convinced that it could turn the tide of war.
Much of this book is centered on John Bell Hood. McDonough’s Hood was “aggressive,” offered “inspiring leadership of men on the brigade and division levels,” but was “particularly poor in dealing with logistics.” (32) Some readers will question McDonough’s contention that Hood was influenced by the opiate laudanum throughout the Nashville campaign and the limited supporting evidence. Despite the author’s conviction that Hood was impaired by the drug McDonough provides a rationale for his decision to continue to move his army towards Nashville following the debacle at Franklin. McDonough emphasizes Hood’s decision to dispatch Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s unit to Murfreesboro to cut off and capture the Federal garrison. The decision resulted in a defeat for Forrest at the “Battle of the Cedars” and deprived Hood of much-needed cavalry units.
McDonough’s analysis of the Union high command uncovers petty jealousies and conflicting aspirations, most notably between Generals George Thomas and John Schofield. In the days leading to the battle of Nashville, Schofield lobbied Grant to dismiss Thomas owing to the latter’s unwillingness to attack. McDonough sympathizes with Schofield, but concludes that the feud threatened to divide the army’s loyalties as the campaign reached its climax.
As a campaign study, McDonough devotes exhaustive coverage to the battle of Franklin. Never losing sight of the men in the ranks, he utilizes a wide-range of primary materials and secondary studies as he weaves through the action on Peach Orchard Hill and Shy’s Hill before the Confederate left flank gave way resulting in a general rout of the Army of Tennessee. To his credit, McDonough devotes significant space to the actions of United States Colored Troops who once again demonstrated their skill and heroism on a Civil War battlefield and challenged a skeptical northern populace, including George Thomas himself. The results of Nashville erased any chances of success in the western Confederacy. The quality and placement of the maps – especially in the section covering the battle of Nashville – constitutes the only major weakness of this book.
James Lee McDonough succeeds admirably in capturing the contingency that defined the Nashville campaign of 1864. The author reminds readers more focused on events around Petersburg that what took place in Tennessee in late 1864 mattered and potentially (given a different outcome) may have altered the months to follow.