Review: Army of the Potomac, Volume III: McClellan’s First Campaign, March – May 1862

by James Durney on June 23, 2009 · 13 comments

Army of the Potomac, Volume III: McClellan’s First Campaign, March – May 1862
by Russel Beatie

armyofthepotomacvolume3beatieProduct Details

  • Hardcover: 864 pages
  • Publisher: Savas Beatie (February 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932714251
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932714258

Details, they say the devil is in the details and they might be right.  I am convinced that history is in the details.  Details are the reason events happened as they do instead of how they are planned or expected to happen.  Few histories contain the details needed to understand why an event took the path it did.  Edwin Bearss’ three volume Vicksburg Campaign and Gordon Rea’s four volumes on Overland Campaign contain these details.  Joining them is Russel Beaties’ ongoing history of the Army of the Potomac.  This is the third volume and McClellan is taking his army to war, staring with the occupation of Harpers Ferry and ending with the battle of Williamsburg.

This is the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign, the first real test of McClellan, Lincoln, his administration and the army.  These 92 days set the stage for The 7 Days but are never more than a prequel to those battles.  Sears in “To the Gates of Richmond” covers this time in about 90 pages.  Burton in “Extraordinary Circumstances” covers this time in one general chapter on the war to date.  This book averages 9.4 pages per day.  From the siege of Yorktown to the battle of Williamsburg is almost 200 pages of good writing that gives a systematic account of the action.  This level of detail becomes critical to our understanding of what the army is experiencing and their understanding of events as they occur.

As much as this is a test for McClellan, this is a test for Lincoln and Stanton too.  Like it or not, happy or not, Washington has to make decisions, implement them and live with the results of their decisions.  Lincoln was shaken by McClellan’s illness in volume two and now losses confidence in him.  However, Lincoln cannot ignore decisions and recommendations from his army.  Stanton unhappy with McClellan, courting the radicals and trying to please everyone creates a different series of problems.  Both try to apply political solutions to military problems.  Could Jackson have attacked Washington after First Winchester?  The historic answer is NO.  However, this battle results in the largest corps in the army being retained for Washington’s defense.  Do the Congressional Radicals want Freemont to have a command?  How many problems can the detachment of one division cause?  Is the Navy unwilling to risk ships in the rivers?  Is the Navy, still worried about the CSS Virginia?  The Secretary of War refuses to order the Secretary of the Navy to corporate with McClellan’s army.  Not enough ships to make the lift we promised, oh well it will just take longer.  Each of the above is examined in detail; each change of plans causes a reduction in options as each report from the front forces a decision.  Once a course of action is started, changing direction becomes more difficult as gradually we see the historical plan develop.

Management is a problem or opportunity depending on the managers and their teamwork.  The Corps Commanders during this time, McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman and Keys are not on the list of great Union Generals.  McDowell & Heintzelman will never have a field command after Second Bull Run.  Keys will resign under a cloud in 1863.  Sumner, born in 1797, will command the attack on Longstreet’s position at Fredericksburg and die of old age within the year.  Washington assembles McClellan’s management team without consulting him, the seniority list being the major qualification.  This causes problems on the field and at headquarters for all concerned.

While leaning on McClellan supporters, Beatie makes an excellent case and supports his position.  McClellan is not the helpless victim nor is he a fool.  McClellan has lost the confidence of his boss, is trapped in a bad situation and doing his best.  Keys and Sumner both fail at critical points.  The bright side is we see the emergence of Hancock, Kearny, Howard, Hooker and others that will lead this army to victory.

This is a well written, very detailed but readable account of first 92 days of campaigning in what will be a long war.  Russel Beatie has written another readable and appealing history that fits nicely next to the first two books.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Coly Hope June 23, 2009 at 10:39 am

A terrific review Jim. You guys find some good books to add to my list to buy.

Coly

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Will Hickox June 23, 2009 at 8:48 pm

I’ve read some scathing reviews of Beattie’s work, but I think I’ll give Vol. 3 a chance because it includes such a thorough description of the wild, bloody fighting at Williamsburg. It seems a pity that this battle has been forgotten, since it was the first big test for McClellan’s AoP. There was much more to this battle than just Hancock being “superb.”

Incidentally, in skimming through the book at the local Border’s I came across a long passage in which there is several lines of dialogue between Little Mac and his men. I seriously doubt that the general had a stenographer following him through the siege lines of Yorktown, or that someone had brought along a prototype phonograph. Invented dialogue in history texts always bothers me. I wonder how others feel about this.

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Stephen Graham June 23, 2009 at 11:46 pm

I’ve reviewed Beatie elsewhere and think less of his work than Mr Durney does. There are enough details wrong throughout the series to make me doubt Beatie’s research without independent verification. If you can borrow it from a library, I’d recommend doing that rather than buying it.

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James Durney June 24, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Beatie like many of our better authors is a lawyer not a trained historian. Many people have problems when lawyers do a better job than historians.
Even worse, Beatie is not a member of the “Mac is a fool” camp. This creates even more upset as he isn’t staying with the accepted party line.
This is a very serious detailed series of books that are fully sourced & footnoted.

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Will Hickox June 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm

I forget where I read it, but one reviewer found some snide comments directed at modern USMC officers in Beattie’s footnotes. The reviewer (a Marine) took great exception to this example of the Marine-Army rivalry by Beattie (a former Army officer). Seems like another reason to borrow the book rather than put more change into Mr. Beattie’s pocket.

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Stephen Graham June 24, 2009 at 11:58 pm

James, it doesn’t matter to me whether Beatie is professionally trained as a historian or not. What I care about is whether he gets his facts right. And he made some very basic factual errors that he should have caught had he used his sources correctly. The rank issue I pointed out in my review is minor but there is no excuse for Beatie making that mistake, when he used the references with other individuals.

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James Durney June 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm

“I forgot where I read it:” is a poor reason to not buy an author. I have looked into a couple of these things and found them to be over stated, never occured or a misunderstanding.
Most of the MAJOR ERRORS are proof reading or so minior that they have zero impact on the story.

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Stephen Graham June 26, 2009 at 12:21 am

You’re not touting Beatie as a story but as a “very serious detailed series of books that are fully sourced & footnoted. ” The criticisms of his treatment of Ball’s Bluff weren’t minor details but substantive disagreements of interpretation.

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admin June 26, 2009 at 10:01 am

Stephen,

It’s interesting you mention Ball’s Bluff. I know at least one prominent author (who also happens to be a very nice guy, BTW) vehemently disagrees with Beatie’s interpretation of the battle.

With that in mind, I wonder how people will view his interpretation of Williamsburg as well. I haven’t heard anything on that front, but I really need to go back and reread that portion of the book and some of the other Williamsburg sources I have to see how they differ.

Brett

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Stephen Graham June 26, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I recently read Steven Woodworth’s No Band of Brothers, whose account of Williamsburg doesn’t quite jibe with Beatie’s as I recall it. But they are told from different perspectives and we have to allow for Woodworth’s prejudice against Longstreet.

On a more general note, I’m not saying that Beatie’s work is without value, as one might gather from Mr Durney’s reaction. But I take a five star review to indicate a must-read work, whereas I rate it as a read it if you’re interested work.

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Gil Renberg June 27, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Regarding Williamsburg, I’m about a third of the way through, and likewise plan to compare it to the other works. It’s a bit perturbing that he doesn’t seem to have consulted “A Pitiless Rain” or “Defend This Town,” especially since the former reflects on-site examination of the battlefield. So far, the treatment of the battle strikes me as a bit disjointed. More importantly, it really tells just the Union’s side of the battle, with minimal discussion of the Confederate forces, except for when they make themselves available as targets. I’ll post more after I’m done reading and analyzing.

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john sutton February 6, 2012 at 1:43 am

I found the writing very choppy and difficult to read. What an very extensive Bibliography. Yet, the book is terrible. Too often, the names of commanders are given but their rank and what they command is not mentioned. I found many errors in facts. He repeats himself too frequently. Also more familiarity by Beatie with what he is writing about would make a better book.
No mention is made of MClellan’s intelligence chief Pinkerton who misled McClellan. While General Magruder is mentioned, no mention is made of his famous deception of McClellan at the Warwick River. The Williamsburg battlefield is generally to the East, not South as located by Beatie. The statement that Fort Magruder presented a front of more than 100 yards is misleading. A better description could be found almost anywhere. It actually was 600 yards circumference on the top of the parapet. The elevation of the parapet to the bottom of the water filled trench was about 14 ft, not 6 ft. If you really want to know about the very interesting Battle of Williamsburg, read “Defend This Old Town” by Carol Dubbs, She has written an excellent account of the battle. It is a good fun read.
Too bad Beatie had not read “Defend This Old Town” first.
I have never read a books as bad as this. It belongs on the 10 cent rack.
Reading other comments praising this work makes me wonder just who is writing these favorable reviews !!

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john sutton February 6, 2012 at 1:49 am

Please excuse my spelling errors in my comment above . This is my first review I have ever written.
I was so disappointed in the book, I dashed the above review off without checking it. I do not write books, I read them. Good thing.

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