The Army of the Potomac
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A carefully argued account of “the largest army in American history”—and one that barely survived its commanders.

Civil War historian Wert (Gettysburg, Day Three, 2001, etc.) considers the Army of the Potomac as something of a microcosm of Northern society; its recruits were “awkward on drill fields, rowdy in camps and on city streets, attired in a kaleidoscope of multicolored, ill-fitting uniforms,” spoke many languages, and, at least at the army’s formation in 1861, were wont to think of their officers as equals. Many had joined the army for the money, nothing more. But, Wert asserts, many more joined out of sheer idealism, a motivation that would keep the army, if not a good portion of its soldiers, alive for the duration of the war. Working against that idealism and exuberance was the disdain of the professional officer class, made up of men who were inclined to think of their subordinates as rabble—and who, like George McClellan, were often afflicted by what Abe Lincoln called “the slows,” a seeming reluctance to engage an enemy led by the much more audacious Robert E. Lee. Slowly, Wert shows, the Army of the Potomac shed its lesser poor leaders after being bloodied at places like the Battle of First Bull Run. But McClellan’s overly cautious approach still turned victories into defeats, as at Malvern Hill in July 1862, when he inflicted great damage on Lee’s forces but still withdrew from the field, a turn that “saved Richmond and redirected the war in Virginia.” Interestingly, Wert connects that caution to McClellan’s conservatism otherwise, which caused him to regard Lincoln’s plans for emancipation and the suspension of habeas corpus with horror; McClellan, Wert sympathetically notes, also feared that if his army were destroyed, so too would be the Union. Still, McClellan’s removal from command allowed subsequent generals, especially U.S. Grant, to transform the Army of the Potomac into one of the most consistently effective forces to serve the Union cause.

An engaging study, particularly for students of Civil War military history—and of leadership.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-2506-6
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2005


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