For more than a century after the Civil War, the Western Theater, where Wood came to grief and then glory, remained underappreciated in the national consciousness. The great iconographers of the war — Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote (even, most recently, Ken Burns) — all focused on the Eastern Theater and the battles between Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and a batch of mainly hapless federal generals in charge of the Army of the Potomac.
History is a living subject that evolves over time, with each generation finding its own truth amid never-ending debates. Many historians have come to see that while the East was largely a stalemate until the very end, the West was a grand drama of movement and maneuver that ultimately left the Confederacy a husk ready to fall at the slightest touch.
“With the short distance between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, it’s like two guys slugging it out in a phone booth,” said David E. Roth, editor and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine. “In the Western Theater, there is a lot more territory, wide open, lots of room for open-field running.”
The fall of Chattanooga, “the gateway to the South,” offered the prospect of direct penetration into the heart of Dixie. Ringed by the Cumberland Mountains, Chattanooga was a bastion on the Tennessee River, anchored by railroad to the South’s entire northern defensive perimeter, a shield at the center of gravity for the entire war. Beneath that shield lay the Confederacy’s military-industrial complex, a series of factories producing war materiel in central Georgia and Alabama.
“Militarily, and I’m emphasizing the word militarily, much of the decision of the war was determined by what happens in the Western Theater,” said Jim Ogden, a historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
In 1862, no less a personage than Abraham Lincoln said taking the railroad near Chattanooga was “fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.” The next year, the president wrote to his leading general in the area, William Rosecrans, “If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the rebellion must dwindle and die.”
Maj. Gen. Rosecrans, a cautious tactician, took Chattanooga from Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg without a battle through a series of brilliant flanking maneuvers in early September 1863. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland, numbering about 58,000, then pursued the retreating Bragg into north Georgia, hoping for the kill. Bragg was feigning weakness and hoping for a kill of his own.