Civil War Book Review: The Army of the Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865

Collins, Darrell L. The Army of the Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865, with Commanders, Strengths Losses and More. (McFarland & Company, Inc., August 2013). 328 pages, orders of battle, notes, index. ISBN: 978-0-7864-7346-5 $75.00 (Paperback).

The Army Of The Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865 by Darrell L. Collins.  Published by McFarland.At first glance, Darrell Collins’ new book on the Army of the Potomac’s orders of battle throughout the Civil War looks to be a companion volume to The Confederate Order of Battle, Volume 1: The Army of Northern Virginia by F. Ray Sibley, Jr.  In his work, Sibley listed strengths, casualties, leaders, and organization for the Army of Northern Virginia month by month.  Collins looks to do the same for the Army of the Potomac with The Army of the Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865, with Commanders, Strengths Losses and More, published by McFarland & Co., Inc.  The books contain several key differences, however, which will be discussed below, and which prevents this book from being all it could have been.

First, let’s look at the sources used in each case.  Sibley combed Confederate Service Records, old regimental histories, newspapers, and more in an attempt to make his book as accurate as possible.  Army of the Potomac author Darrell Collins instead chose to use only the Official Records to complete his book.  He discusses this odd choice, given the vast multitude of sources available, in the Preface to his book:

Initially, I gave brief consideration to consulting outside sources in order to fill missing gaps and provide supposedly more accurate and up-to-date information.  I soon realized, however, that, no matter how thoroughly researched, no other resource could completely avoid controversy on some level.  I therefore chose to use only the OR, letting the reader decide which direction he or she wished to follow in pursuit of more complete information.

This does not make a great deal of sense.  As long as notes are provided with explanatory discussions relating why the author thinks a source is accurate, there would not be a great deal of protest from readers/researchers.  I am doing this myself at The Siege of Petersburg Online with my Siege of Petersburg units list.  Besides, there are other official sources, like the Adjutant General reports from various states as well as the returns filed down to company level in the National Archives, which would have made this a better book.  Of course, by relying solely on the Official Records, the time spent researching the book as well as the number of pages spent on notes and a bibliography is exponentially reduced.  A great opportunity was missed here, and the book is not as useful as Sibley’s ANV volume as a result.

Another difference is that The Army of the Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865, with Commanders, Strengths Losses and More was published only as a paperback, whereas Sibley’s volume was a hardcover book with a dust jacket.  Reference books are meant to be used and abused, much more so than a typical Civil War book on a person, a battle, or a set of letters.  I worry about how my copy will hold up when referring to it again and again for research.  Cost is probably at play here.  The paperback version is set at an already steep price of $75, and a hardcover version would have been even more costly.

I also wanted to comment on the choice to include the Battles of First and Second Bull Run, the 18864 Valley Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg without explanatory content.  There was no Union Army of the Potomac at First Bull Run, and only part of the forces on the field at Second Bull Run belonged to that army.  Likewise, only part of Sheridan’s Army in the Valley in 1864 had formerly belonged to the Army of the Potomac.  Also, why would you include the 1864 Valley Campaign but not the 1862 Valley Campaign?  Lastly, the Army of the James is included in the orders of battle for Petersburg where appropriate.  This book seems to me to be more a look at orders of battle for the main battles in the Eastern Theater (with a few omissions) rather than an order of battle for the Army of the Potomac specifically.  This is really nitpicking, but these were questions I had as I consulted the book, and I’m sure some other readers might as well.

For those of you reading so far, you may think I am not a fan of this effort.  While the lack of sources beyond the Official Records is disappointing, the book does offer value, even at the $75 price.  The Official Records are freely available online in more than one location, so a diligent researcher could theoretically go through all 128 or so volumes and pull this same information, but the cost in time would be staggering.  Collins offers readers an immense amount of information, all taken from literally tens of thousands of pages from the Official Records.  If you are interested in orders of battle for the main Union armies in the east during the Civil War, this is a reasonable price to pay rather than spending hundreds to thousands of hours of your own time looking for this information and compiling it on your own.

I want to spend the rest of this review looking at exactly what you do get in the book.  As stated earlier, all of this information is available in the pages of the Official Records.  Each chapter contains one major campaign of the main Union army(s) in the East.  In some chapters, like First Bull Run or Fredericksburg, the order of battle given is for the entire campaign.  In others, like Gettysburg and the 1864 Valley Campaign, orders of battle are given for each separate battle rather than for the campaign as a whole, with total campaign casualties given at the end of the chapter.

Each order of battle breaks down the army into regiments and batteries, listing for each unit (both at the regimental level and higher) the following columns:

  • Present (There is no discussion of exactly what this means, Present for Duty, Present for Duty Equipped, or truly just Present?  Judging by what Collins lists on Petersburg for June 15-30, it’s really present for duty.)
  • Killed in Action
  • Wounded in Action
  • Missing in Action
  • Total
  • Pct. (This is the percent of total strength the casualties represent, only used when the strength and casualties are both known.)

In addition, the units are very clearly marked and organized to make easy sense of the army’s organization at any given time.  In addition, unit leaders down to the regimental/battery level are listed where known, with replacements also listed.

At the end of each chapter, the editor also lists the following:

  • Total campaign losses
  • Campaign losses by state
  • Top ten regiments in terms of the number of casualties suffered.

A concluding chapter 15 neatly summarizes the entire book in a big picture look at Union strengths and losses in the East during the Civil War, including grand totals in terms of strength and losses by:

  • campaign
  • battle
  • year
  • corps
  • state
  • top ten regiments in terms of casualties

The bibliography contains Frederick Dyer’s Compendium, Heitman’s Historical Register, and the Official Records.  A notes section which is quite sparse does prove useful.  It tells readers exactly where to go in the Official Records if they’d like to look over the original records, in essence making what could be a time consuming search for unit strengths and casualties easier.  The book is rounded out with a commanders index and a unit index.

The Army of the Potomac: Order of Battle, 1861-1865, with Commanders, Strengths Losses and More is a valuable reference work, but it could have been even more valuable.  The decision to include only the Official Records is a puzzling one, and the author’s explanation does not resonate with this reviewer.  The price is pretty steep for individuals, but if your main interest is in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, this is a worthwhile book to own.  Wargamers will also find this book well worth the cost.  The Official Records are the first source you should turn to when studying any campaign, and this book collects a very specific aspect of the Official Records and presents it in an attractive, easy to use format.  If you can afford the cost, the book is worth a look.



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