Review: Army of the Potomac, Vol. 3 by Russel H. Beatie

by Brett Schulte on May 12, 2008 · 9 comments

Russel H. Beatie. Army of the Potomac, Volume 3: McClellan’s First Campaign March 1862-May 1862. New York: Savas Beatie LLC; First Edition (2007). 723 pp., 36 maps, notes, index. ISBN: 1-932714-25-1 $45.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Note: I’m getting around to viewing this one a little late. I thought I’d give readers some links to other reviews as well, trying to represent both the pro and con viewpoints:

1. Drew Wagenhoffer

2. Dimitri Rotov has not only a short review but quite a few other posts and an interview with the author as well.

3. Stephen Graham

4. “Liberty and Union”

5. David Kelly

With this preliminary note out of the way, let’s move on to the review.

Camp Pope Publishing

Was George McClellan the ridiculously cautious but extremely organized general he is caricatured as? Or is there much more to the oft-maligned Little Mac? In Army of the Potomac, Volume 3: McClellan’s First Campaign March 1862-May 1862, author Russel H. “Cap” Beatie continues his discussion of the that very topic. McClellan’s many difficulties during the early portion of the Peninsula Campaign constitute the main theme of the book. Beatie argues McClellan had to face an uncooperative government who appointed leaders and took away troops without his advice, an uncooperative navy who was unwilling to help capture Yorktown, inept Corps commanders at in the upper echelons of his command structure, and even nature, when constant rainfall and poor roads slowed his advance up the Peninsula to a crawl. Beatie believes McClellan would have benefited greatly by making Lincoln an ally. Throughout it all, McClellan struggled to make his campaign a success on his own.

By March 1862 McClellan’s careful nurturing of the Army of the Potomac was paying dividends. Large numbers of troops were trained and ready for use against the Confederates. The question became “when and how are these troops going to be used”, and McClellan was constantly criticized for not moving forward. Eventually, his plan was to ship his Army of the Potomac by boat to the Urbanna peninsula to outflank the Confederate Army and occupy a position closer to the Confederate capital in Richmond. However, Joseph Johnston’s cautious nature caused him to fall back to the Rappahannock River line on March 9, 1862, rendering McClellan’s plan obsolete. Still not wanting to fight an “overland” campaign, McClellan decided to land his men even further south on the Yorktown Peninsula, and the movement was initiated on March 17, 1862.

McClellan moved slowly up the Peninsula in late March and early April, finally settling in for the “Siege” of Yorktown on April 5, 1862. It was not technically a siege in the true sense of the word as the Confederates were able to leave at any time. Still, McClellan did heavily rely on siege operations, bringing in heavy artillery and starting to dig parallels to try to force the Confederates away. On May 4, 1862, just as McClellan’s Battery #1 was getting ready to launch a full scale bombardment, Johnston’s Army retreated under cover of darkness. The Confederates fought a rearguard action at Williamsburg on May 5 before falling back westward to positions behind the Chickahominy River.

Camp Pope Publishing

While this early phase of the Peninsula Campaign was underway, Stonewall Jackson was not quiet in the Shenandoah Valley. He had suddenly and unexpectedly reversed course during a retreat from Winchester and struck James Shields’ Union division (commanded by Nathan Kimball in the field) at the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862. Although Jackson had underestimated the strength of the Union forces and was beaten in the fight, he won a strategic victory. Lincoln grew concerned with the threat Jackson posed to Washington, D.C. and began funneling as many troops as possible to the Shenandoah Valley or to positions between Jackson and the capital. A good portion of these troops, including Irvin McDowell’s entire I Corps, were taken from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

In the Army of the Potomac series, Cap Beatie has repeatedly stressed to readers his focus on the upper echelon leadership of this Union army, the brigade, division, corps, and army commanders. While Beatie does continue this method in Volume 3, he also has strayed a bit, going into great tactical detail for the Battle of Williamsburg especially. I have read that Beatie believes this portion of the Peninsula Campaign is so misunderstood that he felt the need to go into greater detail than he normally would, his purpose being to refute some generally held beliefs on McClellan’s handling of the situation. In the future, I would rather see the author stick more to his area of focus. If he does not, I cannot imagine how long this series is going to be!

Throughout the book Beatie stresses the hardships McClellan faced as he tried to successfully wage his campaign to take Richmond and end the war. One of these hardships involved the leaders he found under his command, specifically his Corps commanders. Lincoln decided to appoint these men without consulting McClellan and before McClellan was ready to use them. His choices, according to Beatie, were with only one exception poor. Beatie believes Keyes was a coward, Sumner was in over his head, and only Heintzelman performed with any degree of skill. McClellan had wanted to keep divisions as the highest official organizations until suitable corps commanders could be found as their battlefield skills shone through. Interestingly, the Confederates did just this through the end of the Seven Days, and in fact official “Corps” were not created until late 1862 in the Army of Northern Virginia. Beatie believes the division commanders McClellan was able to choose performed well almost without exception (Silas Casey comes to mind) during the campaign. The colonels of regiments were almost always appointed by state governors, and Beatie believes they did a remarkably good job considering the political nature of these appointments.

You cannot win campaigns without manpower, and McClellan was stripped of a large number of troops he expected to use on the Peninsula. Stonewall Jackson’s thrust at Kernstown caused a major overreaction by Lincoln. McDowell’s large I Corps of the Army of the Potomac (40,000 men with Franklin) was taken from McClellan with only the exception of William Franklin’s division (10,000 men) and placed along the Rappahannock River. Banks’ original V Corps, Army of the Potomac (30,000 men) was in the Shenandoah Valley trying to neutralize the wily Jackson. Blenker’s German Division was sent to Fremont in the Mountain Department. Gen. Wool’s 10,000 man garrison at Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula was off limits as well. Rather than call these deductions excuses by an overcautious McClellan, Beatie correctly (IMHO) sees this as unfortunate and unneeded tampering by Lincoln and Stanton.

Beatie believes the Union naval forces failed McClellan badly at Yorktown. Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough was in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and he assigned only Captain John S. Misroon and several ships to the York River flotilla to help with the capture of Yorktown. In Beatie’s book, Misroon and Goldsborough offer up many excuses for not being able to help McClellan, especially running the batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester. They claimed the risk of losing capital ships was too great in such an operation. Beatie makes an excellent point when he refers to prior Union naval experiences at New Orleans, Port Royal, and Fort Donelson under similar circumstances. No capital ships were sunk in these operations. In fact, by 1865 almost no major Union ships were sunk by shore battery fire. The excessive caution of the Navy, argues Beatie, left McClellan with no real alternatives. The last point to make on naval cooperation involves Lincoln. As Commander-in-Chief, he was the one man who had the authority and the ability to make the two services work together. Unfortunately, says Beatie, Lincoln failed to recognize this was even an issue.

The last of McClellan’s obstacles during the campaign was his relationship with the politicians who mattered, especially Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton and McClellan were at odds almost immediately, especially because of their irreconcilable political views. This enmity and distrust continued to fester throughout McClellan’s tenure as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. To make matters worse, Lincoln was growing to dislike McClellan as well, something Beatie shows the general did not yet realize. McClellan’s best option, says the author, would have been to make Lincoln a strong friend and ally who could have acted as a buffer against Stanton and other Radical Republicans.

The idea of McClellan as an able organizer but ridiculously cautious commander when conducting a campaign is far too simplistic. Efforts to rehabilitate the general’s image have been undertaken by many, including Ethan Rafuse, Beatie, and Dimitri Rotov at Civil War Bookshelf and the McClellan Society. I applaud these efforts, and wish for the purposes of this review that I had already read Rafuse’s book McClellan’s War. I got the sense repeatedly in this volume in particular and less strongly in the earlier volumes that Beatie tends to give McClellan the benefit of the doubt while at the same time refusing to extend this courtesy to others, especially Stanton. Stanton obviously had serious issues and was almost assuredly a megalomaniac, but some of the interaction between Stanton and McClellan seems too one sided in favor of the general. This is small quibble in what is for me an essential look at the early phases of the Peninsular Campaign, but I felt I had to mention my perception of this bias in order to be fair as a reviewer.

Volume III of the series is the first published by Savas Beatie, a favorable turn of events IMHO. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are fewer in this volume than in the first two, but enough were found to make this an ongoing issue. I hope Savas Beatie makes it a particular point in the next volume to try to eliminate as much as possible these issues, and I am confident they will. The great thing about Savas Beatie, as I have said many times in the past, is their belief in packing as many maps into a book as possible. Cap Beatie, not only the author of the book but co-owner with Ted Savas, believes the same. One area in which you will not be disappointed is the number and quality of the maps in this book. By my count, the book contains no less than 36 maps, which is an astonishing number and one you simply will not find in book by major publishers or university presses. Compare the number of maps in this book, for instance, with two other recent studies on the Army of the Potomac. Jeffry Wert’s The Sword of Lincoln, published by Simon & Schuster, contains around 16 maps. Stephen R. Taaffe’s Commanding the Army of the Potomac, published by the University Press of Kansas, has only nine maps. Both of these studies cover the entire war.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Beatie’s style. He employs a “fog of war”, “you are there” look at the Army of the Potomac. The reader knows only what McClellan and his generals know without the benefit of almost 150 years of hindsight. The author also relies almost completely on primary sources, discovering for himself what was written and basing his interpretations of events. This leads to what has so far been a much different and sometimes controversial view of the early life of the Army of the Potomac. I for one welcome these new interpretations. Even if I am not convinced in some situations by Beatie’s writing, he is making me question what I thought I knew about one of my favorite campaigns of the entire war, and this is always a good thing.

Russel H. Beatie’s third volume in the Army of the Potomac series continues to tread new and important ground. The move to Savas Beatie bodes well for the future of this series as well. Beatie’s look at the difficulties McClellan faced takes readers through the thought processes of the Army of the Potomac’s upper echelon leaders, providing those readers with a “you are there” look at McClellan’s army during the early stages of the Peninsula Campaign. Deep readers and those interested in detail will find this book and the other volumes in the series indispensable. Despite some minor issues I had with the book, I can unreservedly recommend this one, just as I did the other two volumes. You may not agree with everything Beatie says about the Army of the Potomac, but you will be impressed with the detailed research and interesting new interpretations of events in this army from March to early May 1862.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Keeney May 12, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Thanks for this review, Brett. We really appreciate your thoroughness and thoughtful analysis. We’ll be sure to post it on our website as well.

Sarah Keeney

Reply

Brett Schulte May 12, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Sarah,

No problem! I was happy to write it. I have enjoyed the series so far and look forward to future volumes.

Brett

Reply

elektratig May 12, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Brett,

Thanks for the review. Certainly food for thought.

Accepting your (and/or the book’s) major premise, I still wonder how many of these problems McClellan brought on himself. For example, did Lincoln perhaps reasonably interfere because McClellan never took the time or effort to explain why or how the capital would be safe even if McDowell’s entire force were brought down? My impression has been that McClellan was always his own worst enemy in this respect.

Reply

Brett Schulte May 12, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Elektratig,

You’re welcome! I should have rread the book and written this review a long time ago. My “to read” pile is growing exponentially, unfortunately.

It is all Beatie’s premise other than my paragraph discussing Beatie’s tendency to give Little Mac the benefit of the doubt. I need to be more explicit in my reviews as to what is my viewpoint and what is the authors. It’s something I can and will work on in future reviews.

I tend to agree with you. McClellan just simply didn’t share his plans enough with Lincoln at a time when it was crucial that he did so, forcing Lincoln to act with the information he did receive, both from McClellan and from other sources.

At the same time, I do believe Lincoln overreacted, a) in keeping the sheer number of troops he kept from McClellan and b) in not appointing one commander to command a combined force to deal with Jackson.

In the end, I still think McClellan was a sub par battlefield commander, no matter which way Beatie (or anyone else) slices it.

Brett

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elektratig May 12, 2008 at 9:39 pm

Brett,

I suppose my instinct is to defend Lincoln, but if a military expert wants to achieve a certain configuration of forces, and he knows his Commander in Chief is a military neophyte who is worried about defending the seat of government, doesn’t common sense suggest that the expert takes the risk if he fails to communicate adequately with his C-in-C?

Sorry to bombard you with questions — I hope you understand it’s a complement — but I wonder about a couple of of other points.

Does the book shed any light on the numbers issue? Dimitri contends (if I understand him correctly – not always easy) that McClellan was outnumbered (or was equally numbered?) on the Peninsula. Any insights?

It’s struck me as a weakness of McClellan that he seemed to believe that he could win the war by capturing a place — as opposed to Grant, who believed that the way to win was by destroying the enemy’s armies. Does the book discuss the assumptions underlying McClellan’s campaign and analyze their validity?

Hope I’m not driving you nuts!

Reply

Brett Schulte May 12, 2008 at 9:51 pm

Not at all! I really enjoy these types of exchanges, especially when they occur as a result of one of my blog entries.

I agree that McClellan simply was not forthcoming enough with his government and it cost him in the end. Jackson’s meddling in the Valley was just the icing on the cake.

At this point in the campaign (late March-early May 1862), McClellan was certainly not outnumbered, and Beatie does not claim that to the best of my knowledge in the book. However, I do agree with Dimitri (and Stephen Newton, see his Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond for details) that McClellan was outnumbered by the Seven Days once Jackson’s Valley Army joined Lee.

That’s an excellent, and I believe valid, point. In this volume, Beatie doesn’t really go into the underlying assumptions for the end of the campaign because he has only covered the first portion of it. I’m hoping to see much more of that in Volume 4.

Volume 3 strikes me mainly as a discussion of the issues faced by McClellan first in getting the campaign started, and then (more importantly) during his advance up the Peninsula culminating in the rear guard action at Williamsburg. This volume went into far more tactical detail than the first two. I’m wondering if this is going to continue for the Seven Days. If so, this is going to be a MASSIVE series of books…

BTW, I’ve been trying to contact you by email. Did you get any of those at your AOL address?

Brett

Reply

elektratig May 13, 2008 at 7:28 pm

Brett,

Thanks so much for your response. My Peninsula Campaign knowledge is limited to Stephen Sears and the like. I’m always happy to encounter a good revisionist history, but I’m still going to have to think about 700+ pages covering such a brief period!

I’m not dissing you. My original email is so deluged with junk that I shudder to visit it. I’ll send you another via your contact us link.

Reply

Brett Schulte May 13, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Elektratig,

You’re very welcome. The Peninsula and Petersburg happen to be the two campaigns I’ve probably studied the most lately, and The Peninsula Campaign is probably my favorite. The Beatie series is definitely not for everyone. I think there will probably end up being something like 12 volumes if the current pace keeps up. I’d highly recommend Brian K. Burton ‘s (I think?) book on the Seven Days. It goes into quite a bit of tactical detail but isn’t always so hyper-critical of McClellan like Sears is.

Cool. I figured my emails had just been flagged as spam or something. I’ll go take a look at your comment now.

Brett

Reply

elektratig May 14, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Brian,

By way of compromise, I’ve added Brian Burton’s Extraordinary Circumstances to the cart. Thanks. Maybe I can be dissuaded from my feeling that George McClellan was the Joe Johnston of the North!

e

Reply

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