- The Brave Men of Company A: The Forty-first Ohio Volunteer Infantry by Edward S. Cooper
Unit histories have been the staple of Civil War studies since the veterans began producing them in the decades after the war. While early efforts were often flawed by biases and unreliable recollections, these earnest attempts to document past military experiences make for fascinating reading. More recently, Civil War buffs, descendants, and academics have been constructing more in-depth, balanced, and comprehensive histories of the war’s regiments. In The Brave Men of Company A, Edward S. Cooper, a nonacademic with several biographies to his credit, utilizes an exceptional collection of letters to produce a history of the 41st Ohio centered on its first company. Although the cover blurb promotes the book as “the story of the correspondence,” what lies between the covers is a solid, chronological account of a hard-fighting western regiment that produced two of the war’s many notable leaders—William B. Hazen and Emerson Opdycke. Formed in June 1861, the 41st participated in nearly every battle fought by the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland from Shiloh to Nashville, including key operations around Chattanooga in the fall of 1863. Most of the regiment reenlisted in 1864 and after a stint in Texas, mustered out in November 1865.
The centerpiece of Company A’s story are the letters of Andrew Parker, an enlisted man whose regular correspondence provided insight into the unit’s formation, training, progress, and numerous campaigns. Generous excerpts from Parker’s letters appear throughout the narrative, augmented by correspondence from several of the company’s officers and men, an older regimental history, Hazen’s published reminiscences, and a variety of other primary and secondary works. What Cooper brings to this particular story, thanks to his insightful sources, is a window into the inner workings of the 41st Ohio, particularly the revolving door of commanders at all levels. Before the regiment left Ohio, Company A’s elected captain, Seth Bushnell, was rather unceremoniously dumped in favor of Opdycke, then a first lieutenant. With Opdycke soon promoted to captain, others moved up through the ranks. This process [End Page 87] of bumping continued throughout the war as the officer pool was increasingly ravaged by resignations, promotions, disease, wounds, and death. Colonel Hazen quickly graduated from regimental to brigade command, and after being given a division in 1864, no longer had any official contact with his old unit. Captain Opdycke also left the regiment in September 1862 to take a lieutenant colonel’s commission with the 125th Ohio.
The tragic parallel to this upward mobility was the steady losses in the company, all carefully recorded by the correspondents and recounted in Cooper’s narrative. Given the prewar associations between many of these men and their families, the escalating casualties literally hit close to home. We share the sadness when familiar characters from Parker’s letters fall in battle or succumb to disease. While the details of marches, foraging, camp life, and hardships are all well documented, it is the personal references that make this an above-average unit history. These details extend into the numerous battles, as Cooper weaves his correspondents’ accounts with recollections from other veterans, reports from the Official Records, selected secondary sources, and even some Confederate perspectives. The results are vivid and dramatic as men we know literally drop in front of our eyes while others capture guns, rescue wounded comrades, and perform other heroic feats.
The book’s weakness is its introduction and concluding materials, both based on the rather odd insistence that this is a collection of letters rather than a narrative history. Instead of a historiographic essay that grounds this unit’s story in the literature of Ohio regiments, the history of the Army of the Cumberland, or the Western Theater of the war, the introduction is little more than a summary of the contents telling us what we are about to read...