TCU professor plays key role in ‘Civil War’ program

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Civil War: The Untold Story

• 10 p.m. Thursday

• KERA/Channel 13

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Civil War: The Untold Story, a PBS series premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday on KERA/Channel 13, differs from most Civil War documentaries.

Instead of revisiting familiar stories about battles at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg in the Eastern states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, this series focuses on the Western Theater and the battles fought between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Many historians — Steven E. Woodworth of Texas Christian University among them — insist that the West is really where the war was won.

Yet the battles back east traditionally get most of the attention in our history books.

Why?

“I could talk a long time on this,” says Woodworth, one of the key historical advisers for the five-episode series. “The Eastern battles, and above all Gettysburg, have gotten more than their share of attention because A) they were near the major media markets; B) they were near the rival capitals; C) they featured larger individual armies, though not larger total troop numbers in-theater; D) Southerners have preferred to remember a theater of war in which their forces performed very well; and E) because Gettysburg was fought near Washington and was secure Union territory within weeks of the battle, Lincoln was able to go there to help dedicate the cemetery and give the most famous speech in U.S. history, putting into a brief passage the heart of what America was about and why the war had to be won.”

Woodworth, who has written more than two dozen books about the Civil War, including 2009’s Sherman and 2006’s Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide, is one of the foremost champions of the view that the war was decided between the Appalachians and the Mississippi.

He says it’s “beyond high time” that a series like Civil War: The Untold Story sets the record straight.

“The fighting in the West was absolutely more pivotal than that in the East,” Woodworth says. “The East quickly developed into a deadlock. No decisive result could be achieved there.

“Meanwhile, the repeated advances of Union troops in the West cost the Confederacy tens of thousands of square miles of resource-producing territory and a large population base. They also reopened the Mississippi River to Midwestern trade, something that was then a huge political issue in the Midwest.

“Most educated Americans know that when the war ended, Lee’s army [the Confederacy’s army in the East] was at Appomattox Court House in the state of Virginia, in which it had fought throughout the war.

“Where were the Western armies at this time? The Union’s Western armies, having defeated all major Confederate resistance west of the Appalachians and marched through Georgia all the way to the Atlantic, had turned north and were nearing the Virginia line, closing in to help Grant finish off Lee.”

Chris Wheeler, the executive producer and director, says Woodworth’s insight and input were essential in making the series.

“Dr. Woodworth is one of the most respected Civil War scholars in the nation,” he says. “Because of his focus on the ‘untold’ battles of the Western Theater, we sought his expertise to help our viewers understand how the Civil War was won — and lost — in the lands between the Appalachians and Mississippi River.

“Dr. Woodworth is not only knowledgeable but also articulate. He became one of our primary on-camera historians, appearing in all five episodes.

“Additionally, Dr. Woodworth served as a historical consultant, assisting us to ensure that Civil War: The Untold Story is not just good television, but also good history.”

Woodworth has been a history professor at TCU since 1997.

“I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t enjoy history, including the history of the Civil War,” he says. “I guess the books of Bruce Catton did as much as anything to make me a Civil War historian, even if Catton is mostly an Eastern Theater guy.”

Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign began 150 years ago this summer, but Civil War history is still of great interest to many today, as evidenced by the fact that Woodworth’s lecture tour took him all the way to Australia last week.

Even though he has written more than two dozen books about this chapter in American history, he continues to uncover new material on the subject.

“There were about 30 million Americans alive in the United States when the Civil War began,” Woodworth explains. “Most of them were literate. Letter and diary writing were far more in vogue then than now and many people wrote memoirs after the war, some published as books, some as retrospective articles in magazines and newspapers, some left in attics and only recently come to light.

“Thousands upon thousands of such writings are preserved. How do I keep finding new things to write about? How would a man standing in the surf on the seashore keep finding more and more saltwater? When I’ve bailed out the Gulf of Mexico, I’ll let you know.”

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