Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cooling: "Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam"

[Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam by Benjamin F. Cooling (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, notes, bibliographic essay. Pages total/main: 384/313 ISBN:978-0803215153 $45]

Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam is the tenth volume to be released from the University of Nebraska Press's Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series. Author Benjamin F. Cooling has always been a great writer of historical narrative, but what makes his latest effort a wonderful addition to the series is the expert manner in which he mines the literature for the best scholarship the subject has to offer, dissects the findings, and concisely reprocesses it for the benefit of a wide range of readerships while at the same time injecting his own insightful analysis.

Cooling does a nice job of placing his account of the eastern theater within the broader military and increasingly radicalized political backdrops. Concurrent with Lee's military campaign were other important Confederate counter offensives. Bragg and Kirby Smith advanced into Kentucky while Van Dorn and Price targeted Federal forces in northern Mississippi. Mention is also made of lesser known campaigns, such as the massive recruiting drive in Missouri and Loring's Kanawha Valley offensive in western Virginia. On the social and political fronts, the author documents the period's intensifying debates over slavery and the institution of a harsher brand of warfare, including the Confiscation Acts and the emancipation efforts of the more radical elements of the legislature. Of course, Lincoln himself was mulling over his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation during this period. Cooling raises a point often overlooked by many writers, that of a rather sharp east-west disconnect when it came to the U.S. army's application of "hard war". Particulars that provoked lively debate in the east were perhaps old news to western civilians1. Was it hypocrisy or a practical reaction to differing military situations across theaters? Cooling suggests that an earlier, widespread southern reliance on irregular warfare was the main reason behind this initial 'hard war in the west/soft war in the east' duality2.

At their heart, the volumes that make up the Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series are works of scholarly synthesis. Cooling certainly takes this to heart, providing frequent quotes from or summarizing the results of the best of current scholarship3. However, while this does bring the reader up to date in terms of scholarly thought and trends, for the smaller points Cooling is often satisfied with simply providing the message without offering his own critique. On the other hand, for the larger controversies, the author examines them with a steady, even hand. One of the greatest subjects for debate is the alleged slowness of McClellan in forwarding reinforcements to Pope. Of course, McClellan could have sent elements of the Army of the Potomac more rapidly, but they would have arrived in comparative dribbles, deficient in cavalry and artillery. Instead, the general sought to concentrate any reinforcements before sending them forward to Pope. Regardless of what one my think in hindsight of the advisability of throwing caution to the wind, given the intelligence fog McClellan was operating under (with no helpful direction from a harried, confused Halleck or a stubbornly ignorant Pope), it is difficult to continue to argue that his actions were unreasonable.

Critics, then and today, also underestimated the vast difficulties in transporting the Army of the Potomac from Harrison's Landing to northern Virginia. Rapidly moving an entire army of close to 100,000 men, plus all the horses, wheeled transport, and artillery (not to mention the thousands of sick and wounded) is an enormously difficult logistical feat4, and Cooling asserts that McClellan did indeed move with all due speed in this regard. On the other hand, the wording of McClellan's dispatches did little to inspire the confidence of Lincoln and a frazzled Halleck.

Given the series' emphasis on the intersection of politics, society, and warfare, it is perhaps not surprising that more space, historiographical background, and analytic thrust is devoted to the Lincoln-Halleck-Pope-McClellan relationship than the partnership between Lee and Davis. The role of Jefferson Davis in these events is largely relegated to the shadows. On the whole, and probably in keeping with the larger mandate of the series, no truly major revisionist themes were detected. Like most writers, Cooling can be quite rough on McClellan, but he is much fairer than most, and does not shrink from praise when due.

Although detailed tactical studies (some definitively so) exist for the battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, South Mountain, and Antietam; B.F. Cooling is the first author to attempt a multi-faceted, single volume synthesis of the current literature for this fluid period. Counter-Thrust is a great addition to Nebraska's Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series, and should serve as a valuable summary for beginning students and specialists alike.

1 - Pope's infamous threats against civilians in Virginia should have come as no surprise, as the general invoked the same harsh policy (and followed through with it) many months earlier in NE Missouri.
2 - The point should be made that the 'bushwhacking' brand of irregular warfare was hardly a distinctly Confederate trait during this period--a pro-Southern citizen along the Missouri-Kansas border, or a Confederate soldier transiting the wilds of NW Arkansas, East Tennessee, West(ern) Virginia, and SE Kentucky during 1861-62 will express similar indignation.
3 - Helpfully to those interested in further reading, Cooling names these historians directly in the text. No resort to "a prominent historian has suggested...", forcing the reader to refer to the notes, where the scholar's identity may or may not be revealed.
4 - It should be mentioned that it took many weeks to piecemeal shuttle the army to the peninsula in the first place; the reverse process (with all its new difficulties) might arguable be considered no easier, even after taking into account efficiencies gained through experience and the accumulated resources available.


  1. Thanks Drew, this looks like a book worth the effort to buy. I appreciate your review.

  2. You're welcome, Brian. I like to venture East every once in a while. IMO, from my limited experience, the series is like most mature ones in that it's a bit of a hit & miss proposition overall. By that I mean some balance the military-politics-society mandate much better than the others. They really got it right with this one.


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