Army of the Potomac, Volume III: McClellan’s First Campaign, March – May 1862
by Russel Beatie
- 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.
Editor’s Note: Jim is a Top 500 Amazon.com reviewer.
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