Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Review: "The Darkest Days of the War"

I launched into this book by Peter Cozzens as a continuation of my exploration of the fighting in the Western Theater. The campaigns conducted west of the Appalachians were incredibly complex, and the appellation "Western Theater" is wholly inadequate. I have a theory about why this oversimplification exists, but that'll be covered in another post.
Mr. Cozzens opens up the battles of Iuka and Corinth, fought in September/October, 1862, to the rigors of current historical method, and a rich mine they are. Long forgotten, these battles were a tipping point in the fighting in Mississippi in 1862, and aside from launching and ruining more than a few careers, opened the path towards Vicksburg for the Union Army.
The battles themselves were brutal, clumsy affairs marked by terrifyingly inept decisions made by personalities like Van Dorn, Price, Bragg, Rosecrans, Ord, and Grant. The conditions were ghastly-hot, with water and rations at a premium on both sides. The casualties relative to numbers of men engaged were unreal, and Cozzens brings us right into the thick of the fighting with a tremendous array of primary citations from fighting men on both sides.
Cozzens does a most solid job meeting the various requirements of a good campaign history, but really sets himself apart by using contextual analysis exceptionally well. A primary theme of this book is the pivotal nature of these comparatively small-scale battles and the tremendous consequences of their outcomes; Cozzens illustrates this theme well by wrapping this story into the larger issues of the concomitant Confederate invasions of Kentucky and Maryland. This way, we can easily fit the battles of Corinth and Iuka into the larger strategic picture.
There are also no punches pulled when it came to describing the ineptitude of commmanders at the top of both armies. Cozzens seems to take particular interest in showing the bizarre and foolhardy behavior of Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn, as well as presenting the genesis of the schism between Union Gen. William Rosecrans and Gen. Ulysses Grant.
I would have liked to have seen some more discussion about how the Union and Confederacy responded to these battles at the political and social level. Were they lost in the shuffle of Lee's defeat at Antietam and Bragg's retreat from Kentucky? Did the population of Mississippi reply with anger, resignation, frustration? This perspective of the aftermath of these campaigns is only minimally explored.
The battles of Iuka and Corinth had been mostly forgotten until "The Darkest Days of the War". This text provides us with a rigorous accounting of these struggles and helps remind the student of the Civil War of the tremendous tactical and strategic import of these clashes. If you wish to engage this subject matter, look no further than this book

1 comment:

Skap said...

Good review, Mark.

If you make the trip to Tennessee and Mississippi to see the battlefields definitely make the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center a destination. It opened since Cozzens' book came out (in 2004). There is alot of strong scholarship on these campaigns being done. The Interpretive Center is a unit of Shiloh National Military Park, and represents some of the best public history in or out of the National Park Service.

Best,

Bjorn