Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History. By Richard M. McMurry. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Pp. xvi, 204. Map, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95.)
It is refreshing to read a book that takes the high ground and delineates issues of large significance in Civil War military history, a subfield dominated by minutia. Richard M. McMurry rises above the detail and provides what he calls "a philosophical and historiographical introduction" (p. xiii) to a much larger study that he plans to write about the Confederate war effort in the western theater. This larger study, which will seek to explain why the Confederates lost the Civil War through their magnificent defeats in the West, will cover military operations and "political, economic, strategic, tactical, organizational, administrative, naval, and logistical facets" (p. x).
This short work—which is an essay comparing the major rebel army of the West, the Army of Tennessee, with the major rebel army of the East, the Army of Northern Virginia—deftly sets the stage for the upcoming book. It spells out in clear language, supported by convincing evidence, McMurry's thesis that the Army of Tennessee had all the cards stacked against it. Geography, industry, transportation, training, administration, and organization all hampered the western army while favoring Robert E. Lee's eastern force. The more competent Federal generals in the West compared to those in the East further upset the balance of opportunity. In McMurry's view there was little chance that the Army of Tennessee could have been successful.
McMurry's argument is convincing, although one could protest its deterministic tone. If more imaginative and inspirational leaders could have been found for the Army of Tennessee, surely strategic gains could have been made in the West, as they nearly were during Braxton Bragg's mishandled invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1862. But of course McMurry deals with facts, not might-have-beens. His major contribution is to show that not only poor generalship but a host of social, cultural, and geographical factors as well led to Confederate defeat in the West. In accurately gauging the relative effect of both theaters of operation on the course of the Confederate war effort, McMurry supports the nascent argument that the West was the decisive theater. It is an interpretation that may upset those whose heart is with Lee's army, but it rings wonderfully true to those specialists who have been weaned on the western battles.
EARL J. HESS is visiting assistant professor of history, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He has recently published Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union (1988) and is currently writing a book on the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas.
Two Great Rebel Armies
An Essay in Confederate Military History
Richard M. McMurry
Publication Year: 2014
Richard McMurry compares the two largest Confederate armies, assessing why Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was more successful than the Army of Tennessee. His bold conclusion is that Lee's army was a better army--not just one with a better high command.
"Sheds new light on how the South lost the Civil War.--American Historical Review
"McMurry's mastery of the literature is impressive, and his clear and succinct writing style is a pleasure to read. . . . Comparison of the two great rebel armies offers valuable insights into the difficulties of the South's military situation.--Maryland Historian
Published by: The University of North Carolina Press
Series: Civil War America
Page Count: 222
Publication Year: 2014
Series Title: Civil War America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College; Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia; Caroline E. Janney, Purdue University; and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, West Virginia University See more Books in this Series
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Two Great Rebel Armies
Appendix: Known Antebellum Military Experience of Confederate Generals