Western Theater Historians Association

Last weekend I was away at the annual meeting of this esteemed group. I’ve been to several of these conferences now, and I’ve found them both enlightening and very good fun. Among the members are many well-respected authors and historians; a mix of both academic and non-academic students of the war. Organized by Mike Ballard and John Marzelak, this group has been meeting for about ten years now, in various locations.

This year we went to Corinth, Mississippi, a reprise of an earlier trip (which happened before I joined.) As you may know, Corinth has a new interpretive center, which has helped to organize and interpret the many scattered sites relating to both the battle and occupation of Corinth during the war. I’ve been to Corinth before, usually in conjuction with a Shiloh trip, but this was the first time where Corinth was the principle focus of my touring.

The Conference opened on Thursday evening with a reception at the Interpretive center and group dinner at a local restaurant. Friday is the centerpiece, with a daylong discussion of various topics relating to the war, with a focus, obviously, on the Western Theater. The discussions are informal, with no presenting of papers or the like. There are a lot of heavy hitters in the room, however, so I find the talks fascinating.

Saturday is usually reserved for touring. We took a look at the battle of Corinth in the morning, and after lunch we did go to Shiloh for a couple of hours. It was on the way home for me, how could I not?

Corinth is important to Chickamauga, I think, mainly for its effect on the career of William Starke Rosecrans. Success at Corinth propelled Rosecrans into command of the Army of the Ohio (soon to be the Army of the Cumberland) less than a month later. The battle of Corinth was fought on October 3rd and 4th; Rosecrans replaced Don Carlos Buell on October 27th. I suspect that without the signal success of Corinth, Rosecrans might not have been tapped for the new job.

Corinth (along with the related action at Iuka in September) also soured relations between Rosecrans and Ulysses S. Grant. So while it set the stage for Rosecrans’ rapid rise, it also laid the groundwork for an equally rapid fall. It would be Grant’s decision that Rosecrans should go in the wake of the defeat at Chickamauga. While I believe that Grant’s decision was in part fueled by personal reasons, it did elevate George Thomas to army command as well.

The Grant-Rosecrarns-Thomas triangle has been studied often by historians, with varying conclusions. Each man has their cheering section. Rosecrans and Thomas fans tend to assail Grant unmercifully, characterizing him as a malicious schemer eaten up by jealousy. I don’t go that far. I think Grant had tough choices to make and not everyone was going to be happy with all of those choices. I do think that Grant was mistaken in some of his character judgements. On the question of who ultimately should have had command of the Army of the Cumberland, and did a better job, I am also not completely certain: I think both Rosecrans and Thomas have pros and cons to consider.

It is clear, however, that before Iuka, Rosecrans and Grant had a much more positive working relationship; had that lasted, Rosecrans might not have been relieved.



One Response to “Western Theater Historians Association”

  1. Mark Says:

    Very cool blog! The western theater usually gets ignored, but it seems like you’ve got something on everything:)

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