The Army of the Potomac

By Jeffry D. Wert. Simon & Schuster. 559 pp. $30

The Army of the Potomac performed the Union's heaviest lifting during the Civil War. The republic's largest and most important army, it fought in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. While other U.S. commands won victories west of the Appalachians, the Army of the Potomac -- matched against the Confederacy's best general, Robert E. Lee -- endured numerous defeats and suffered enormous casualties. For example, in the year and one week between late June 1862 and early July 1863, a time when the army never numbered more than 135,000, it lost four of six battles and had at least 90,000 men killed, wounded and missing. Yet it ultimately prevailed, forcing Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

A number of talented historians have explored the army's history, most notably Bruce Catton and Stephen W. Sears. Catton's Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Stillness at Appomattox still merit attention because of their graceful writing and sound analysis; Sears's studies of Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, together with his biography of the gifted but profoundly flawed Gen. George B. McClellan, rival Catton's work in literary quality and frame the army's operations within a political context. These titles represent a tiny percentage of the books on the topic. So should any author plow another furrow in such thoroughly cultivated ground?

Jeffry D. Wert would answer yes -- citing the passage of more than 50 years since Catton's work came out and the need for a one-volume history based on recent scholarship and unpublished materials. The Sword of Lincoln, which exhibits the sound research and efficient prose typical of Wert's earlier books, provides an excellent starting point for any exploration of the Army of the Potomac's history. Wert identifies three themes: the degree to which the army's operations "defined the fortunes of Abraham Lincoln and his administration"; the development of a senior leadership "cursed with internal dissension, political intrigue, and ineptness at times"; and the "morale and attitudes of the common soldiers."

McClellan dominates much of Wert's text. McClellan built the army in the summer of 1861, forging a problematical culture of command that lasted for the rest of the war. That culture emphasized caution, embracing none of the killer instinct that permeated the high command of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan frittered away breathtaking opportunities during the Seven Days campaign, which should have resulted in the capture of the Confederate capital, and at Antietam, which should have been turned into a devastating Confederate defeats. Wert somewhat gently attributes McClellan's caution to "his deep belief that if the army were destroyed the cause would be lost. It was a reasonable judgment on his part, but it tethered him as a general." In exploring the well-known tension between Lincoln and McClellan, Wert highlights the general's refusal to set aside his Democratic politics and deal honestly with his Republican president: "He either was blinded to or refused to see that link between the army's need to act and the political pressures on the administration." Gone from the army a few weeks after Antietam, "Little Mac" remained a palpable presence: "No general haunted the army's soul more than McClellan."

Wert reaches sound but largely familiar conclusions about other generals. Ambrose E. Burnside fought the battle of Fredericksburg so badly that he must be reckoned "the most unfortunate commander of the army." Joseph Hooker, Burnside's replacement, did well in planning the campaign of Chancellorsville but stumbled badly as the action unfolded. George G. Meade, who followed Hooker and headed of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war, won at Gettysburg (where the army "confronted its past, a record of defeats unmatched by any American army since the American Revolution") but did not to try to deliver a knockout blow to Lee's reeling army. Only with Ulysses S. Grant, who accompanied Meade's army as general-in-chief in 1864-65, did a man possessing an "inner core of 'cold steel' . . . . who understood and accepted that fighting meant killing" take charge of the war in Virginia. "Much like Lee," observes Wert, "Grant was a warrior; Meade was not." Yet even Grant, who built a record of daring offensive success in the Western Theater before arriving in Virginia, could not entirely overcome McClellan's pernicious legacy. As late as Appomattox, many officers schooled in "Little Mac's" style of passive generalship remained in the army.

Wert's heart lies with the common soldiers, most of whom fought steadfastly on difficult fields. The doomed assaults at Fredericksburg in December 1862, which resulted in a sickening slaughter, underscored the soldiers' mettle: "It was an insane place, but time and again men went forth -- because of orders, because of duty, because of something beyond themselves. It was a place of greatness." Like so many of their ranking officers, however, subalterns and soldiers often emulated McClellan in gauging success. Although Wert asserts that McClellan's retreat during the Seven Days did not promote a culture of defeat in the army, his quotations from two junior officers suggest a sense of having fought so as not to lose. One lieutenant applauded that "the retreat was conducted superbly," while another described McClellan's escape as "one of the greatest feats in military history."

Wert is best at capturing the spirit of triumph against enormous internal and external obstacles. Campaigning in the shadow of Washington, the army was whip-sawed by political forces, made all the more intrusive because congressional Republicans distrusted McClellan and his subordinates. McClellan's timidity and the formidable Army of Northern Virginia posed additional threats to easy success. Sometimes the soldiers "despaired of the outcome and cursed their leaders," Wert concludes, but "resiliency became one of their defining characteristics." Their hard-won reward came with Lee's surrender, which they justifiably could describe as the death of the rebellion. Readers conversant with existing literature do not need to be reminded that the Army of the Potomac played a leading role in restoring the Union, but anyone new to the topic, as well as veteran students seeking a convenient one-volume treatment, can turn with confidence to Wert's narrative. *

Gary W. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia.

President Lincoln with Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan at Sharpsburg (Antietam), Maryland, in 1862