Until recently the cis- Mississippi west--the sprawling expanse between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River--was something of a poor relation in Civil War historiography. Despite its obvious importance to the military struggle, the West never attracted the wealth of finely detailed studies lavished upon the campaigns in Virginia. The skewed perspective reflected the unbalanced attention the two theaters received during the war itself. With both national capitals located in the eastern theater, politicians, diplomats, and opinionmakers tended to follow operations in that region most closely. Most of the North's population, and much of the South's, was located east of the Appalachians and that reinforced the focus on the Virginia theater. By contrast, the struggle in the West tended to be perceived in more broadbrush fashion.
In addition to geography, one historian has also blamed "the ' Lee tradition' in historical writing," which "deified" the Virginia army and its generals as the epitome of how Southerners saw themselves: "knightly manners, gentleness, planter society." Southern focus on such Virginians as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jeb Stuart helped fix Northern attention on their exploits as well. Even Ulysses S. Grant, the western general par excellence, is known chiefly for his climactic duel with Lee. If the Civil War was an American Iliad, then Virginia has long been its principal Troy.
The past thirty-five years, however, have seen a significant shift in focus. The eastern theater retains its fascination, but historians have been drawn increasingly to the West, believing that the military struggle was decided there. The Union victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Island Number Ten placed the South at a disadvantage from which it never recovered. The capture of Vicks