- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

In 1903, the American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple wrote a brilliant but since-forgotten book about the impact of geography on U.S. history, “American History and Its Geographic Conditions.”

Her sweeping narrative encompassed the European settlement of, and conflict over, North America; the triumph of Great Britain over France in the struggle for political control of the continent; the successful rebellion of Colonial America against the British Empire; the relentless westward expansion of the United States; and the emergence of the United States as a Pacific Ocean power in the early 20th century.

Semple’s book included a lengthy chapter on “The Geography of the Civil War,” which helped explain that momentous conflict by placing it in its strategic geographical setting.

Ellen Semple was born in Louisville, Ky., during the Civil War, on Jan. 8, 1863. She subsequently studied history at Vassar College, graduating first in her class in 1882. She continued her studies abroad at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where she was a student of one of the founders of modern political geography and geopolitics, Friedrich Ratzel.

After returning to the United States, Semple taught at the University of Chicago and later at Clark University in Massachusetts. She also lectured at Oxford, Wellesley, the University of Colorado and the University of California at Los Angeles. From 1904 to 1910, she helped edit the Journal of Geography, and in 1921, she was elected president of the Association of American Geographers. She died in 1932.

In her 1911 book analyzing Ratzel’s geographic concepts and theories, Semple wrote, “[T]he geographic element in the long history of human development has been operating strongly and operating persistently. Herein lies its importance. It is a stable force. It never sleeps. This natural environment, this physical basis of history, is for all intents and purposes immutable in comparison with the other factor in the problem — shifting, plastic, progressive, retrogressive man.”

Semple brought to her study of American history, including the history of the American Civil War, that Ratzelian emphasis on the immutable conditioning factor of geography.

Semple began her chapter on the Civil War in “American History and Its Geographic Conditions” with a discussion of the economic and political differences between the states of the North and South as well as the political-geographical conditions of northwestern Virginia and the important border states of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland.

Kentucky, she explained, was particularly important because it was “wedged in between the Confederacy and the Union.” “Kentucky,” she wrote, “stretched its great length east and west from the Appalachians to the Mississippi across the very threshold of the South.” The Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers traversed its territory, and the Ohio River hugged its northern border. These geographic factors made Kentucky a “strategic area … of paramount importance to the South,” which caused both sides to attempt to control the state early in the war.

Maryland’s strategic importance, Semple explained, derived from its geographic proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. “The possession of Maryland,” she wrote, “meant the possession of Chesapeake Bay, a protected sea route to the gaping estuaries of the Virginia rivers.” With the Union capital at Washington and the Confederate capital at Richmond, Federal troops’ control of Maryland and the territory that became West Virginia meant that “the country between the Potomac and the James [rivers] … became one continuous battle-field in the defensive and aggressive operations of both armies throughout the war.”

Semple pointed to three key geographic features that conditioned the fighting in the Eastern theater of the war: the length and north-south direction of the Chesapeake Bay; the southeast course of the Potomac, Rappahannock, Pamunkey, Chickahominy and James rivers; and the Shenandoah Valley.

The length and reach of the Bay, Semple wrote, enabled Union armies and supplies “to be transported by sea to any point on the Virginia coast.” Later in the war, when Federal forces controlled the James and other rivers leading inland, she noted, Union sea power supported land operations against Petersburg, Va., and Richmond.

The southeast course of the Virginia rivers and the fact that they gradually widened as they neared the Bay, Semple noted, “made the movements of an invading army difficult” in Tidewater Virginia and forced Union commanders to fight battles farther inland in Piedmont Virginia. Thus, geography conditioned the major battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg.

Semple next explained how the third key factor, the Shenandoah Valley, was “a protected highway for a northward marching army [which] enabled a Confederate force to threaten Washington just as surely as [the] Chesapeake Bay rendered Richmond’s position unsafe.”

It was, for example, the threat to the exposed Union capital of a Confederate force emerging from the Shenandoah Valley through gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains, coupled with the stubborn Confederate defense led by the new field commander, Robert E. Lee, that ultimately doomed Gen. George McClellan’s efforts to take Richmond during the Seven Days Battles in spring 1862.

It also was through the Shenandoah Valley that Confederate forces successively invaded the North in September 1862, resulting in the bloody Battle of Antietam; in June and July 1863, resulting in the even bloodier Battle of Gettysburg; and in July 1864, resulting in the much smaller Battle of Monocacy.

In each case, Semple explained, “the deep groove of the Shenandoah was a pistol in the hands of the Confederacy, pointed at the heart of the Union, and from its barrel poured the deadly fire of Jackson’s, Lee’s, and Early’s armies.” The Shenandoah Valley finally was removed as a conditioning factor late in the war when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to lay waste to the area. After that, Semple said, “the peace of desolation settled down upon the valley.”

In the Western theater of the war, Semple said, rivers played an even greater role in the course of the fighting. There, the key rivers were the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland (and, even farther west, the Red and Arkansas rivers). “The Western rivers,” she wrote, “by reason of their large size, navigable character, and predominant north and south course … [were] highways for safe and easy water transportation right into the heart of the enemy’s country.”

Union forces led by Grant seized Paducah, Ky., which, as Semple noted, “commanded the mouths of the Tennessee and the Cumberland.” Grant’s combined land and naval forces captured Forts Henry and Donelson and defeated Confederate forces at Mill Spring, which “compelled the Southern army to evacuate Nashville, abandon the line of the Cumberland, and fall back … farther south along the bend of the Tennessee” near Corinth, Miss.

That movement set the stage for the Civil War’s first mass-casualty battle, at Shiloh in Tennessee in early April 1862. In subsequent battles at Corinth; Iuka, Miss.; and Stones River, Tenn., Union forces attempted “to advance east to the mountain gap at Chattanooga.”

Control of Chattanooga, Tenn., Semple said, “was of utmost importance to the Confederates.” She explained that Chattanooga and southeastern Tennessee “commanded the approaches to Atlanta and the South Atlantic states, and controlled the intermontane bypath up the Great Appalachian Valley to Virginia and central Kentucky. Through this Shenandoah Valley of the West, the Confederates could throw their invading armies over the Cumberland Mountains into central Kentucky by minor passes, eluding the Federal forces at Cumberland Gap, threatening Frankfort and even Cincinnati, then retreat, driving their captured horses and … plunder from the rich Bluegrass country, and vanish along the old Wilderness Road into the mountains again, into whose vastness few dared to pursue.”

Meanwhile, Grant initiated a combined naval and land attack on Vicksburg, Tenn., which, when it fell to Union forces on July 4, 1863, meant that “the Mississippi was a Federal stream bisecting the western Confederacy.”

Having gained control of the Mississippi River, Union forces fought fierce battles at Chickamauga and Chattanooga (Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge) and ultimately gained control of eastern Tennessee. “The Gulf states were cut off from the Atlantic states of the South,” Semple said, “[and] the theater of the war was … reduced to the Atlantic plain, and the national forces closed in around Richmond from the south as well as from the north.” The fate of the Confederacy was sealed.

As a political geographer, Semple recognized that the Union victory in the Civil War enabled the United States to complete its Manifest Destiny to expand westward and politically control the vast center of the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, “from sea to shining sea.” The geography of the Civil War, therefore, ensured that the United States had the wherewithal to become a great world power, able to intervene decisively in the future global conflicts of the 20th century and beyond.

Francis P. Sempa, author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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