Countless books have been written about the American Civil War, but few have demonstrated the important role the state of Ohio, along with the Union’s western armies, played in helping the Northern cause.
"Blood, Tears, and Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War," by James Bissland, Ph.D. and published by Orange Frazer Press, effectively tells Ohio’s, and the western armies,’ stories in a strong narrative format that intertwines personalities, politics, culture, and military strategy.
I recently interviewed Bissland about his book.
Rick Palsgrove: What sparked your interest in Ohio’s role in the Civil War?
James Bissland: "After learning the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War will occur in April 2011, I began to discover the amazing role Ohioans played in the war, and how little Americans, including most Ohioans, realize it today."
RP: Why was Ohio positioned so well to help the Union cause politically, economically, and militarily?
JB: "Ohio was a big, robust, influential state, with the third largest population of any, a leader in agriculture, industry, and national affairs. And it sat on the edge of the war zone, positioned to contribute huge numbers of men and resources to the war effort while enduring not much fighting on its own ground."
RP: The western Union armies played a significant role in determining the outcome of the war for the North. Why do you think the western Union armies do not get recognized for this achievement?
JB: "Most people today who are not historians assume the Civil War was fought largely in Virginia by eastern Armies, that Gettysburg was the turning point of the whole war, and that Appomattox in 1865 was the ‘winning moment.’ That’s wrong. Troops mostly from west of the Appalachians – Ohioans most of all – fought and won most of the Western Theater battles that would shape the outcome of the war, and they accomplished it by the end of 1864 at the latest.
"Since the war itself, those achievements have been largely overlooked. Then as now, the major news media were headquartered in New York. Naturally, they and the federal government were most interested in nearby eastern battles. This was due partly to a preoccupation with defending Washington against capture while hoping to capture Richmond (the Confederate capital) instead.
"To Easterners, the western battlegrounds were partly out of sight and partly out of mind. And, because of sectional prejudices, Easterners tended to think Westerners made poorer soldiers than they did.
"After the war, moreover, Confederate apologists churned out propaganda praising Lee and Jackson more than they deserved, celebrating the Confederacy’s eastern successes, and soft-pedaling its many losses west of the Appalachians.
"So, for nearly 150 years, the eastern Civil War has gotten much more attention than the western war. And that’s a shame, because for three years the war in the East was a bloody standoff. It produced more widows and orphans than anything else. Meanwhile, westerners were steadily crushing the Confederacy, rolling it up from the West. Finally, it took Western commanders coming east to finish the war."
RP: Why were the western Union armies more successful than the eastern Union armies in their battles against the Confederates?
JB: "For much of the war, the Union’s best generals were in the West and the poorest in the East, while exactly the opposite was true for the Confederacy. Also, the Confederates never had enough troops in the Western Theater, which was a vast territory hard to defend. Finally, some historians argue that Eastern troops, repeatedly unsuccessful because of poor leadership, developed a ‘loser’ mentality while eastern Confederates considered themselves unbeatable. In the Western Theater, the repeatedly successful Union soldiers developed a ‘winner’ mentality and that made a big difference on the battlefield."
RP: In what western battle or battles do you think Ohio soldiers played a pivotal role in Union victory?
JB: "Most of all, at Shiloh, Tennessee, in 1862; Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, and Missionary Ridge (in Chattanooga) in late 1863, but Ohioans played important roles in almost every campaign and most battles in the Western Theater. Of course, they didn’t do this all by themselves. They never formed a majority, and sometimes not even a plurality of soldiers in any given battle, but so often there were so many of them that the number of battles in which they must have played a pivotal role was huge."
RP: How were the Midwestern Union soldiers different from the eastern Union soldiers?
JB: "More than Easterners, Midwestern ‘citizen-soldiers’ soldiers,few of whom were military professionals, had made their livings from the tough work of farming. Midwesterners were not long removed from the frontier years, either. Also, many Midwestern volunteers were recent immigrants. People like these, accustomed to the risks and demands of farm life, retaining the frontier spirit or driven by the ambition of immigrants, were self-sufficient, undismayed by hardship, and willing to take chances and risk danger. They were practical men, too, not overawed by rank or impressed by gold braid. Grant is the ultimate example. He was driven by a steely determination, was seldom discouraged and, unlike other generals who were always demanding more supplies, he made do with what he had. And, unlike some generals with their fancy theories, he understood war came down to staying on the attack and destroying enemy’s ability to make war. He and Lincoln, another Midwesterner, were the perfect leaders for the Union in its hour of greatest peril. Their prominence during the Civil War ranks among the greatest strokes of good fortune this country has ever enjoyed."
RP: Why don’t Union generals U.S. Grant, William Sherman, and Phil Sheridan receive the wide adulation that is given to Confederate General Robert E. Lee?
JB: "In fact, in recent years, there has emerged a near-consensus among historians (and others outside the South, at least), that Grant was the greatest general of all generals in the war, bar none.
"Lee was a fine tactical commander and regional strategist, often ranked second among all Civil War generals. However, Lee was more committed to defending his native Virginia than the Confederacy as a whole. Grant had the larger vision, seeing the war in its entirety, embracing both East and West and believing the war had to be pressed on all fronts simultaneously. The eminent British military historian Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller agreed with Grant that, in the last analysis, ‘Lee was not a highly imaginative man.’
"As for Sherman and Sheridan, historians tend to rank Sherman second or third among all Union generals, while Sheridan, who became most prominent near the end of the war, wins a place among the top 10 on some historians‚ lists.
"The sanctifying of Robert E. Lee as the ‘Marble Man’ comes partly from the South’s historic tendency to romanticize and exaggerate the past, and partly from an unceasing effort by Confederate apologists ever since the war, and continuing until this day, to deny that they were fairly defeated and that their cause, the defense of slavery, most of all was unworthy. Grant called the Confederate cause ‘one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.’"
RP: Why were Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan more successful than their fellow Ohioan, Union General George McClellan?
JB: "During the Civil War, success in battle had much less to do with training, education, or experience than you’d think, and much more to do with the commander’s psychological makeup. All four men were West Point graduates, but McClellan’s skills lay in inspiring, organizing and training troops, not in leading them in battle. Before and during battle, the ordinarily cocky McClellan almost always experienced timidity. He repeatedly convinced himself that the size and abilities of the enemy were much greater than they really were. Again and again, he turned cautious and held back in situations where Grant, for example, simply would have forged ahead.
"Grant was amazingly calm, cool, and collected in the heat of battle and almost always optimistic and confident about his plans. Other generals tended to get rattled in combat, but not Grant. Sherman was not a great tactician, but a superb ‘original thinker’ about overall strategy. Sheridan was daring, dashing, and charismatic."
RP: While researching your book, did you find anything that surprised you?
JB: "Anyone who studies the Civil War for very long is impressed by three things, in addition to how much bigger a role Ohio played than it’s gotten credit for. These three things are: (1) how unbelievably costly the war was in human lives; (2) how committed the citizen-soldier volunteers were to their cause, despite extraordinary hardship, discouragement, and suffering; (3) how important women were to the war effort, in sustaining morale, in voluntarily collecting supplies for the soldiers, and in ‘keeping the home fires burning’ by taking care of homes, families, and farms while the men were away.
"All of us, Ohioans and other Americans alike, owe a debt of gratitude to our Civil War ancestors for saving America, the Declaration of Independence’s promises to us of liberty and equality, and therefore, the American Dream."
James Bissland is a native New Englander who has lived in Ohio since 1976l. A former newspaperman and public relations manager, he taught journalism at Bowling Green State University for 20 years and works full time as a writer. He maintains and regularly updates a blog about Ohioans in the Civil War: http://bloodtearsandglory.blogspot.com
For information on "Blood, Tears, and Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War," see www.orangefrazer.com.btg