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