Benjamin Franklin Cooling
When Francis Miles Finch wrote his poignant 1867 tribute, "'The Blue and the Gray," his contemporaries understood that the late Civil War had taken place both ashore and afloat. They related to Finch's first stanza: "By the flow of the inland river, whence the fleets of iron have fled." The Union government in particular had named its principal field armies for those rivers: the Potomac, James, Shenandoah, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Residents of heartland America, in particular, could identify with such a river war. Their prewar economic and social fabric had depended in large part upon those streams. They related in ways that future generations, weaned on movie spectaculars like Gone with the Wind, and Gettysburg or the unceasing rehash of the "100-mile war" for the rival capitals, could appreciate only partially at best.
The Civil War involved more than a bloody minuet over Washington and Richmond. The very moment that Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee seceded from the Union (and Kentucky wavered), the conflict was guaranteed to embrace America's inland waterways. In fact, the war in the trans-Appalachian West was fought on two axes: the great Mississippi River and its tributaries, and the overland and predominantly railroad route from Louisville through Nashville and Chattanooga to Atlanta. Even in the second case, rivers like the Cumberland and Tennessee, as well as the smaller Green, Barren, Harpeth, Duck, Elk, and other streams all figured in the military operations in ways that often elude today's student of the conflict. The geography of the heartland is essential for understanding the Civil War. And the rivers of the heartland were central to both the physical and cultural geography of that era.
A case surely can be made that it was in the West that the Civil War was