Which Confederate Victory in the West Would Have had the Greatest Consequences?

OldReliable1862

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 2, 2017
Location
Georgia
As an enthusiast of the Army of Tennessee and their battles, I've naturally given some thought to how their performance affected the War of Secession as a whole. As I listed the great battles they fought - Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, the battles for Chattanooga, the battles for Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville - I found myself wondering which of these, had they won it decisively (or at least as decisively as one could in this war), would have impacted the war the most?

As how the victory is achieved is quite important for determining consequences, I wanted to use the OP to look at the likelihood of a Confederate victory at the following battles.

Pea Ridge (8-9 March 1862)
Yes, this is not a battle of the Army of Tennessee, but I think an argument could be made that a success here would have greatly aided the Army of the Mississippi at Shiloh. One potential change would be having Bragg accept command of the Army of the West. While many terms have used to describe him, one thing he was not was careless. Actually bringing the wagons with the army would be really nice.

Shiloh (6-7 April 1862)
I think I'll take a wager that Shiloh will be the favorite here - the Confederates defeating a significant defeat to one of the major Union field armies in early 1862 is sure to have important consequences.

I'd love to find if the oft-mentioned original attack plan by Johnston would have fared better than the one used historically. Considering the inexperience of the Confederate forces and their commanders, the forces would still have become muddled once they charged into the woods.

Perryville (8 October 1862)
I readily admit I don't have the same degree of familiarity with the Kentucky campaign as I do with Chickamauga or Atlanta, but from what I can tell, the battle does not strike me as unwinnable for Bragg.

Murfreesboro (31 December 1862-2 January 1863)
Rosecrans achieved a tactical draw at Murfreesboro, but a strategic victory. Had the Union failed to stabilize after it had jackknifed on itself in Hardee's attack, or Wheeler and Wharton interdicted the ammunition wagons, I think a victory may be possible. The trouble here is that Bragg's chances of taking Nashville are doubtful.

Chickamauga (19-20 September 1863)
Including Chickamauga may not seem to make sense, while it was certainly a Confederate tactical victory, but it was far from decisive. Rosecrans was able to fall back on Chattanooga, the real prize of the campaign. This could only be achieved by turning the Union left, forcing them away from Chattanooga. I've wondered if this could have been achieved by D. H. Hill's attack occurring on time, or if the Confederate right had promptly attacked as soon as Longstreet achieved his breakthrough.

the Chattanooga battles (23-25 November 1863)
All I can say is: Cracker Line. Once it was opened, I don't really see how Bragg could have pulled a victory out of this.

the Atlanta battles (20-28 July 1864)
This is the last campaign which I think, given the right set of events, could have maybe, just maybe, resulted in a substantially improved Confederate strategic situation. It's arguable whether retaining Johnston as commander of the AoT would have saved Atlanta, and I've heard arguments for both sides.

The battles of Peach Tree Creek, Bald Hill, and Ezra Church, as they were fought historically, do not hold much promise. The first two were overly ambitious, and the third only occurred because S. D. Lee ignored his orders. I'm intrigued by the suggestion, fanciful though it may be, that a similar strategy to that used by Lee at Petersburg could have worked at Atlanta.

Franklin (30 November 1864)
With these last three battles, I don't see how victories at any of them are particularly likely. About the best chance I see for improving Hood's chances in this campaign may be if he actually manages to capture Schofield's wagons at Spring Hill. Other than that, perhaps an early attack at Franklin or Lee's corps being present from the beginning may improve the situation, but I doubt it. Forrest's flank attack, based on reading Stephen Hood's book, seems to have not been the guaranteed success many have claimed it would have been.

Nashville (15-16 December 1864)
Arguably, the battle of Nashville should have never been fought, and Hood's chances for anything like a victory here is very slim.

Bentonville (19-21 March 1865)
I don't believe it will come as a shock that I don't see how a decisive victory for the Confederates in 1865 is even possible, let alone how such an improbable victory could materially improve the strategic situation. I really don't have anything to contribute here, and it has been included for completeness. Of course, I'm willing to hear a case for it, but I doubt there is a particularly good one.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The reason why Shiloh would be significant is not because of the loss of any given commander, IMO, but the destruction of a US field army coming in early April (quite possible with better CS deployment and even moderately better discipline). It's the first significant clash of force on force since Bull Run and it's gone even worse for the Union than that one did.

The real key with Shiloh is for each corps to have a sector of responsibility rather than all of them having the whole of the line. That makes things a bit less confused.
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
The reason why Shiloh would be significant is not because of the loss of any given commander, IMO, but the destruction of a US field army coming in early April

"Destruction of a field army" seems a bit of an exaggeration, even for most best-case scenarios. A Union collapse would probably rout them off the north side of the battlefield. It would have been very rough going with the terrain and some elements might have been trapped, particularly artillery. But the ACW almost never destroyed field armies in battle.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
"Destruction of a field army" seems a bit of an exaggeration, even for most best-case scenarios. A Union collapse would probably rout them off the north side of the battlefield. It would have been very rough going with the terrain and some elements might have been trapped, particularly artillery. But the ACW almost never destroyed field armies in battle.
The concept of operations involved a left wheel (by the right wing, the one Beauregard underweighted when he buggered up the deployment) to pin the Union troops against the swamp to their west; even given the significant failures in deployment that happened historically they still gave Grant's force a rough time. It's not beyond the bounds of plausibility to have that wheel go off, and while it doesn't result in the army entirely captured or entirely KIA/WIA it would instead result in the army being shattered - losing cohesion as the men escape through Owl Creek Swamp, having to abandon much of their heavy equipment on the retreat, with heavy casualties and worse morale.

It's true that the army is not completely destroyed in that it still has some of the men left, but it's going to need a complete rebuild and it is very much a resounding CS victory. I'd consider that the destruction of a field army for colloquial purposes, in the same sense that the Falaise Pocket saw the German 7th Army destroyed as a fighting unit until rebuilt.
 

LCYingling3rd

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2021
I am not on board with those that argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point of the war; that there was never a point that the Confederacy could have won.

I am also not on board with those who argue that Grant's victory at Fort Donalson was the turning point of the war.

Although, I am not really a turning point kinda guy, I have to say that I am pretty close to believing that Saturday, July 4, 1863 is probably the most important point in the war. I believe that the combined victories in Gettysburg and Vicksburg really put the breaks on the Democratic anti-war movement. I believe that defeating Grant and Meade would have been the best chance for Confederate victory. I really don't believe the Confederacy had a snowball's chance after that.

Except for Cedar Creek and Atlanta. There have been arguments made that Lincoln would have lost the November 1864 election had Atlanta not fallen and Sheridan lost at Cedar Creek...? They believe that, had he lost, McClellan would have negotiated an end to the war with the Confederacy intact. Even though I am a Cedar Creek guy, because it is the only battle my great, great grandfather actually fought against my great grandfather, and I would love to think that the war was won at 4:00 PM, October 19, 1864 when Sheridan began his counterattack at Cedar Creek...I don't...I don't believe the election was really in doubt and I don't think McClellan would have allowed the Confederacy to remain intact...but, those are all different discussions...LOL...

So, I will say, Vicksburg. Actually, I believe Vicksburg is the most amazing campaign of the war. I have argued that it blows Lee's Chancellorsville campaign out of the water! Marching his army through swamps is an engineering masterpiece, crossing into enemy territory and fighting five battles against two separate Confederate armies with barely a supply line....gaining control of the Mississippi, essentially cutting the Confederacy in half...

That is the most important western victory to me...
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
I agree with the posters who have chosen Shiloh as a battle whose different outcome would have made a significant difference. But I would also like to propose that the battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) could have seriously enhanced Confederate fortunes had Van Dorn succeeded in deranging Curtis's Army of the Southwest, thereby threatening federal control in Missouri. A Confederate victory would have opened the way to central and east Missouri via the Telegraph Road to Springfield and Rolla and would have put pressure by flanking Union efforts to control the Mississippi River from New Madrid and Ft. Pillow, and Grant's movements against Fts. Henry and Donelson further east. But of course, that didn't happen, and Pope, Grant and coordinated naval forces were able to sweep southward without worrying about their western flank in Missouri. By the time the south was able to concentrate at Shiloh as a last ditch effort, the Union had already achieved a major strategic goal by busting wide open the Confederate defense shield that stretched from Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
 

A. Roy

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
An intriguing OP here. I'm in Raleigh, and much of my CW study has been very local. I'm most familiar with the Battle of Bentonville. As it was fought, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Army of Tennessee could have claimed a victory, given the asymmetry of forces.

That said, I wonder how things might have played out if Hood had not attempted his Tennessee Campaign at all -- thus no battles at Franklin and Nashville. I imagine this could have made more resources available to resist Sherman's Carolinas Campaign, so that by the time a significant battle or series of battles had occurred in North Carolina (not necessarily at Averasboro, Wise's Forks, and Bentonville; but somewhere around here; maybe at Raleigh? who knows?), the outcome of such a battle could have been different from the real-world Bentonville.

Big picture, it's seems unlikely that this scenario would have made a difference in the ultimate outcome of the war. But I suppose it might have delayed the timing of Johnston's surrender; and resulted in a different location for that surrender.

Wondering what others think.

Roy B.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
That said, I wonder how things might have played out if Hood had not attempted his Tennessee Campaign at all -- thus no battles at Franklin and Nashville. I imagine this could have made more resources available to resist Sherman's Carolinas Campaign, so that by the time a significant battle or series of battles had occurred in North Carolina (not necessarily at Averasboro, Wise's Forks, and Bentonville; but somewhere around here; maybe at Raleigh? who knows?), the outcome of such a battle could have been different from the real-world Bentonville.
The real trick here would be Fabian tactics. Sherman's move was extremely logistically risky, and if he'd ended up with a Confederate army popping up to manoeuvre against him after week one - even if said army was not able to take on his whole strength in a stand up fight - it would force him to remain more concentrated and move more slowly, both of which cut into his supply intake rate (Sherman's force was relying on foraging across a wide swath and on moving fast before they'd run out in the immediate area). If Sherman runs out of supplies before he reaches the coast, he's done for.
 

19thGeorgia

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Chickamauga (19-20 September 1863)
Including Chickamauga may not seem to make sense, while it was certainly a Confederate tactical victory, but it was far from decisive. Rosecrans was able to fall back on Chattanooga, the real prize of the campaign.
...but if the Confederates lose at Chickamauga, the campaign for Atlanta begins in September 1863 instead of May 1864.

After driving the Feds into Chattanooga and placing them under siege, the Rebs should have sent every available unit to reinforce Bragg. Forcing the surrender of Grant, Sherman & Co. or driving them out would have been a stunner.
the Atlanta battles (20-28 July 1864)
This is the last campaign which I think, given the right set of events, could have maybe, just maybe, resulted in a substantially improved Confederate strategic situation.
...if Hardee and Cheatham attack at the same time on July 22.
 
Joined
Aug 7, 2019
First, I was thinking about Shiloh, but then I realized that the battle resulted in the consequences of previous events, especially the battles of Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge.
Fort Donelson deprived the Confederacy of several thousands of men and allowed the Union to conquer Tennessee. But as long as it's not on the list proposed in this thread, I would retain Pea Ridge.

With the Confederates victorious at Pea Ridge, and assuming that they suffer less casualties than the Federals (historically, 1,400 Union losses vs 2,000 Confederate losses), then the road to St. Louis is wide open for Van Dorn. Halleck cannot allow Grant to make his way down south and should protect St. Louis by detaching units from Pope and Grant. Buell, without any support from Halleck's Department, refuses to move any further. A.S. Johnston, with the help of Beauregard, can effectively fortify his positions at Corinth gathering between 40,000 and 50,000 men. If St. Louis cannot be taken by Van Dorn, he can at least divert Union efforts and reduce the threat on Tennessee by fighting like Jackson and Early in the Shenandoah Valley (inspired by an hit-and-run tactical model). I believe that Van Dorn's objectives were ruined by the messy order of battle (caused by difficult subordinates) and the lack of discipline and training of his troops.

Army of the West : MG Earl Van Dorn (14,000 infantry / 5,000 cavalry / 66 guns)

- Cavalry Division : BG James McIntosh (5,000)

- - - Cavalry Bde : Col. Elkanah Greer (2,500)
- - - - - 3rd Texas Cav. Rgmt
- - - - - 6th Texas Cav. Rgmt
- - - - - 9th Texas Cav. Rgmt
- - - - - 11th Texas Cav. Rgmt
- - - - - 1st Texas Cav. Btln

- - - Indian Bde : BG Albert Pike (2,500)
- - - - - 1st Cherokee Mtd Rifles
- - - - - 2nd Cherokee Mtd Rifles
- - - - - 1st Choctaw & Chickasaw Mtd Rifles
- - - - - 1st Creek Mtd Rifles

- McCulloch's Division : BG Ben McCulloch (7,000 / 18 guns)

- - - 1st Bde : Col. Louis Hébert (3,500 / 10 guns)
- - - - - 3rd Louisiana Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 14th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 15th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 16th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 17th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 4th Texas Cav. Btln (dismounted)

- - - 2nd Bde : Col. Evander McNair (3,500 / 8 guns)
- - - - - 4th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 19th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 20th Arkansas Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 1st Arkansas Mtd Rifles (dismounted)
- - - - - 2nd Arkansas Mtd Rifles (dismounted)
- - - - - 1st Arkansas Cav. Btln (dismounted)

- Price's Division : MG Sterling Price (7,000 / 48 guns)

- - - 1st Bde : BG Daniel Frost (3,000 / 18 guns)
- - - - - 2nd Missouri Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 3rd Missouri Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - Greene's Consolidated Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - Slack's Consolidated Inf. Rgmt
- - - - - 1st Missouri Cav. Rgmt (dismounted)

- - - 2nd Bde : BG Martin Green (2,000 / 18 guns)
- - - - - 2nd MSG Div.
- - - - - 5th MSG Div.
- - - - - 6th MSG Div.

- - - 3rd Bde : BG James Rains (2,000 / 12 guns)
- - - - - 3rd MSG Div.
- - - - - 7th & 8th MSG Div.
- - - - - 9th MSG Div.
 
Last edited:

OldReliable1862

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 2, 2017
Location
Georgia
On further reflection, if I was going to include Pea Ridge, I probably should have added Fort Donelson. Shiloh was at the tail end of a sequence of events that started with Polk invading Kentucky, and was followed by Belmont, Mill Springs, and Forts Henry and Donelson.

I remember that Grant had wanted to withdraw on 14 February, but other than this I'm not sure how a Confederate victory is possible after 12 February.
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
On further reflection, if I was going to include Pea Ridge, I probably should have added Fort Donelson. Shiloh was at the tail end of a sequence of events that started with Polk invading Kentucky, and was followed by Belmont, Mill Springs, and Forts Henry and Donelson.

I remember that Grant had wanted to withdraw on 14 February, but other than this I'm not sure how a Confederate victory is possible after 12 February.
The "withdrawal" Grant was considering was only to back up out of range of the guns, and dig in for a siege. He never considered abandoning the operation against Donelson.

I'd vote for Henry/Donelson, because if the confederates won there it would have confirmed in Halleck's and McClellan's minds that offensives were too risky. And it would have denied the use of the two rivers to the Union and given the confederates more time to fortify the Tennessee.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I'm not sure I follow the hypothetical Shiloh result based on Johnston's original plan - unless we start altering a lot things: for one example the date. Johnston's premise was to defeat Grant before Buell came up, because once that happened he'd be up against a 2:1 disadvantage. The fact is that a significant reason why the attack did not occur until April 6 was due to the inexperience of most of his troops during a very inefficient approach march. On April 6, as we know, Buell was already in the vicinity. So - even if Johnston inflicted a significant defeat on Grant, which requires a lot of things to have gone right despite the wise warning about "contact" and "plans" by von Moltke the Senior - that leaves another 40,000 man army confronting Johnston after a battle in which Johnston would have taken significant losses, etc. There also is the problem that one A of the T division on the morning of April 6 was not at Pittsburg Landing and was to the north. And the fact is that the ACW did not produce battles which "destroyed" enemy armies, with the possible exception of Hood's wreck that got effectively finished off at Nashville - but still was able to retreat.

If the A of T had won at Shiloh, what next?
 

Zack

Corporal
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
I'm going to echo @OldReliable1862 and @DanSBHawk and say greater Confederate success in the Kentucky Campaigns of 1861-1862. Beating Grant to Paducah and Smithville and securing the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers probably would have thrown the Union for a loop. Failure to drive the Confederates out at Mill Springs also would have made a difference. Also throwing in a Confederate victory at Island Number Ten for good measure, closing off the Upper Mississippi River for longer, or a Confederate victory at Henry and/or Donelson delaying the evacuation of Columbus, further closing the Upper Mississippi.

My recent reading into this theater of the war has made me realize how significant those early Union successes out West were. You'd have to venture pretty far into "what if" to figure out whether long term the Confederates would be able to hold on in Kentucky, but short term Union reverses in those early days would have thrown the character of the war off for a bit. The Confederate defensive line was stretched pretty thin though in 1861.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The reasonable best case for the Confederates at Shiloh essentially boils down to better Confederate discipline during the approach march (i.e. they don't eat all their multiple days' rations on the first night) and the plan being better worked out, or to be more precise the initial plan being more fully followed with the left wheel and a deployment to match.

What you then have is five Union divisions in camp (about 62-64 regiments by my count) being attacked by the whole of ASJ's field army (totalling about 78 infantry regiments by my quick count) with operational surprise and a good deployment. Historically they had a poor deployment rather than a good one and managed to push the AoT back a long way, but that meant they were falling back on Pittsburg Landing instead of being forced away; the Confederate army was also disrupted by the troops breaking ranks because they were hungry, and the loss of ASJ meant there was no centralized command to have them bypass and encircle hard points like the historical Hornet's Nest.

This means that there are two to three reasons for the fighting to go better (troops better fed, better deployment) and the structure of the fighting is to force the Union troops on the field against Owl Creek Swamp, and cut them off from Pittsburg Landing rather than force them back on it. Even with their historical problems the Confederates made most of the headway (on the 6th) they'd need to make in this alternate, so this is merely "things going better where there were historical screwups".

The outcome of that is not the loss of every man of Grant's forces on the field; it's heavy casualties and the loss of most of their equipment. The remainder would be the ones who could either escape the wheel by moving north or escape over Owl Creek Swamp in the night of the 6th, which would then link up with Lew Wallace's division (to the north) and Buell's arriving forces on the 7th.

Given the casualties that were suffered historically (13,000 men lost including the surrender of a division) despite all the problems that were involved, it seems reasonable to me that you could have on the order of 20,000 Union casualties in this situation. The result is that the Army of Tennessee would be down to one formed division (Lew Wallace) and enough fragments to count as one or two more, but without their equipment - at best they'd have their personal weapons.

At this point the Confederate army might be able to turn on Buell, if he's transported his divisions over the river to Pittsburg Landing (he'd be outnumbered around 2:1 once all four of his divisions arrived); if he's instead linked up with Lew Wallace to the north then the Confederates would probably be best served by retiring from the field.


The result of this is that the Army of the Tennessee needs a virtual rebuilding, especially in terms of morale.
 

Pat Answer

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Oct 8, 2013
Location
“...somewhere between NY and PA”
My recent reading into this theater of the war has made me realize how significant those early Union successes out West were. You'd have to venture pretty far into "what if" to figure out whether long term the Confederates would be able to hold on in Kentucky, but short term Union reverses in those early days would have thrown the character of the war off for a bit. The Confederate defensive line was stretched pretty thin though in 1861.

Keeping the Federals from using the rivers was the key to the west. So I join with those who say holding the Donelson area successfully would have at least bought some time and perhaps given the Union high command pause when considering how to effectively pursue a river campaign. Once backed up to Shiloh and Corinth, together with the losses of Island 10 and New Orleans, it’s probably already too late for any of the other major battles to significantly reverse the momentum for the Confederacy.

That said, the political consequences of a big Bragg win at Murfreesboro coming on the heels of Fredericksburg, with Holly Springs and Chickasaw Bluffs saving Vicksburg at the time, might have been tremendous, as Lincoln observed...
 
Top