Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Recent reads: Simpson, The Civil War in the East

I just finished Brooks D. Simpson’s The Civil War in the East, and entered my notes into Zotero. This short work published by Praeger is a quick read and well worth it. Simpson argues that no matter how decisive historians view the western theater, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb’s contemporaries – ranging from concerned citizens to demanding newspapermen to the meddling presidents and government officers in the not too distant capitals -- always considered the eastern front to be the most important field of combat. Although this book is chockfull of interpretative nuggets I have two major takeaways that will shape how I teach the Civil War in my community college survey courses. First, Simpson argues that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck made a colossal blunder in recalling the Army of the Potomac from peninsula campaign in the summer of 1862. Simpson argues that Halleck should have done the opposite; that is, removed the incompetent commander and left the army on the peninsula where it could have threatened the rebel capital and altered the strategic calculus in the eastern theater. Instead, what followed was a series of bloody battles (some won by the Union and some by the rebels) that produced no decisive strategic outcome. Connected to this (and my second takeaway) is Simpson’s argument that the battle of Gettysburg was not a decisive, war altering event. High water mark of the rebellion notwithstanding, he considers it as yet another one in the series of bloody yet ultimately indecisive battles. Like other victories (Rebels at Second Bull Run and Union at Antietam) destroying the enemy force was beyond the grasp of the exhausted victors.