American Civil War: Commanders of the Western Theater

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War — Early Union Triumphs in the West

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The American Civil war was a huge movement, majorly fought between the southern secessionists and the northern Unionists. This event, which to a large extent shaped the United States as we know them today, was led by a number of powerful figures, some of whom led the war at the Western Theater. 

Soldiers of the Union forces in trenches before battle, Virginia.
Many professional military men felt that the most decisive battles of the Civil War would be fought in the Western Theater. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The battle of First Manassas or Bull Run had captured the imagination of citizens North and South, as the first great war of the time. The common perception at the time was that the area between the lands of the north and the south, the land between the two national capitals, would be the decisive place for the war. 

However, according to many professional soldiers who were deep into the middle of the war, it was the west, the great area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, was the most decisive arena of the war.

Both sides had different vantage points in the west. While the south had significant ground to cover, the north had excellent advancing avenues. 

The battle in the West eventually led to the first major victory for the North. This victory was driven by a chosen few, who spearheaded their platoons through various wars. 

Learn more about First Manassas or Bull Run.

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott Led the North

One of the men who led the North to its victory was the General In Chief, Winfield Scott. He was pivotal in a lot of strategic planning for the North, though he left the force in November 1861. 

For quite a while by then, he had been troubled not just by certain health problems, but also by the attitude of Major General George B. McClennan, who did not see eye to eye with the General. In fact, when Scott left the field in his mid-seventies, it was McClennan who replaced him. 

In the West, two men led important commands – Henry Wager Halleck and Don Carlos Buell. 

Henry Wager Halleck

Henry Wager Halleck, one of the commanders of Scott's Union army.
Henry Wager Halleck was revered as a military mastermind.
(Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Henry Wager Halleck was given the command of the area from the Cumberland River west, including Missouri. All of 46 years of age, he was a brilliant alumnus of West Point, where he later also served as a professor after having turned down a full professorship at Harvard and had written a number of books on military topics, law, and engineering.

Henry Wager Halleck controlled the area from the Cumberland River west, including Missouri. Halleck was 46 years old. He’d been a brilliant student at West Point, a number of books on military topics, on law, and on engineering.

Halleck was a man of peculiar characteristics. He was not imposing and did not really look like a soldier at all, with his potbelly and balding head of hair. He had an unsettling habit of staring at people without blinking, and dropping his head while doing so. Despite his idiosyncrasies, great things were expected of him, and his nickname from before the war, “Old Brains”, carried on with him. 

Halleck resigned from the army in the mid-1850s and went into business, where he went on to amass a huge fortune. 

Halleck had two goals in his military career. The first was to pacify Missouri and bring it under complete Federal control, and the second, concentrate on the Mississippi River to push the Union’s forces southward into the Confederacy, either along the Mississippi or along with one of the other rivers.

Don Carlos Buell

The other major commander in the west was named Don Carlos Buell, who led his forces from the Cumberland River east, including most of Kentucky, as well as eastern Tennessee. Much of that area was quite Unionist in sentiment. Buell was a professional soldier who had also served as a staff officer. While his brilliance was never seen as something to write home about, he was methodical, careful, and competent at his job, although his stubborn behavior did, at times, come at a price for the Union forces. 

Similar to Halleck, Buell was also faced with two primary goals, one of which was majorly influenced by political pressure. 

The first goal, which had political motivations, was to create a logistical line of advance into the south.  For the area under Buell’s jurisprudence, a sensible way of doing so would have been taking the Louisville and Nashville railroad, which ran from Louisville straight to Nashville, which would’ve permitted a line of advance for the army into middle Tennessee.

Lincoln, however, was concerned about the Unionists in East Tennessee, and wanted Buell to liberate that region by moving there instead of moving on to Nashville.

The other goal in front of Buell was to cut the railroad connections between Virginia and Tennessee, in order to strip the confederacy of strategic interior lines in that part of the nation.

In fact, by this time, Lincoln had realized the importance of interior lines, and had, with his generals, agreed to cut those off. This strategic play brought to light a common characteristic of civil wars – a hoipolloi of political and military agendas, which arise due to pressures from the civilian sector. 

While the Confederates ended up taking severe blows on the Western Frontier, they, too, were helmed by a formidable captain, who led his forces amidst huge adversity on the frontier. 

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Commander of the Confederates: Albert Sidney Johnston

In the Western theater, the Confederates were commanded over by Albert Sidney Johnston. Having a strong leader in that part of the war was imperative for them, as they faced a difficult problem in the Western Theater. The enormity of the expanse of territory covered by the Confederates ended up becoming a bane, as they needed to defend all of it, the vast area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Albert Sidney Johnston, the Commander of the Confederate forces in the Western Theater.
Albert Sidney Johnston was widely regarded as one of the best Confederate soldiers and put in command over the Western Theater.
(Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Public domain)

The command here also included all of Kentucky and all of Tennessee. 

Johnston did not disappoint, at least at first. He was a tall and well-built soldier, with a far reaching reputation as perhaps the best Confederate soldier. He had served for eight long years in the United States Army before resigning to fight in the Texas Revolution. He eventually became commanding general of the Republic of Texas’s forces. He was also the Texas Secretary of War.

He had rejoined the Army late in the antebellum years as a colonel commanding one of the newly created cavalry regiments. While the ranking general of all Confederate generals was Samuel Cooper, he was more of a bureaucrat, and it was Albert Sidney Johnston who actually took the field as a ranking officer.  He was deeply revered by the Confederates, as was clear when he received his command, touted to be the most important at the time. 

Learn more about the Confederacy’s Kentucky Campaign.

Preparing for a Great Offensive

Both the parties had several advantages and disadvantages by their sides. While the Federals had the advantage of numbers and well placed advancing lines, the Confederates were backed by a strong railway and interior lines network, and also had the advantage of Johnston being in overall command, as he didn’t have to consult anyone on his actions, providing an unequivocally unified command over the west. 

The first great offensive in the West Theater came from the Union’s side, and while the Confederates put up a mighty fight,  the former emerged victoriously. As can be expected, each of the leaders on either side had pivotal roles to play in the series of events that led to this outcome, and alas, Johnston couldn’t live up to the mounting expectations placed on him. 

Learn more about the Soldiers of the War.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Commanders of the Civil War in the West

Q: Why did General Winfield Scott leave the force?

General Winfield Scott retired, after making several strategies for the civil war, in 1861 after facing a number of health problems.

Q: What was the area the confederates covered in the Western Theater?

The Confederates in the Western Theater had to defend the entire area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Q: What were the political motives to be fulfilled by Union Commander Don Carlos Buell?

Commander Don Carlos Buell had to liberate the Unionists in Eastern Tennessee because of political pressures while waging war in the Western Theater.

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