Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac
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Ten essays by an eminent Civil War historian profile the Army of the Potomac and its feisty generals, enmeshed in passionate criticisms of one another during a depressing period of successive defeats at the hands of wily Robert E. Lee. Sears (Chancellorsville, 1996, etc.) spins an accessible narrative as he draws close-up portraits of the succession of less-than- perfect generals who led the Union Army until the coming of Grant. George McClellan, not a favorite of the author’s, is depicted as a pompous, self-promoting egoist whose distaste for combat (and the resultant overdrawn alibis) tried President Lincoln’s patience, though Sears admits McClellan was a good organizer, capable quarter-master, and popular figure with his men. Detailing the near-constant in-fighting among the generals, the author describes behavior that would astound a modern officer, including finger pointing, expressed criticism of fellow officers, and constant breaking of the chain of command to complain to the president. McClellan’s critics ran the risk of court-martial and suffered threats from Secretary of War Stanton; “political” generals, like Tammany hack Dan Sickles, short on military skill but long on connections, received high commands and were responsible for the loss of many lives; an outstanding general like “Fighting Joe” Hooker, hampered by a dubious personal life, was smeared as overambitious. Partisan politics between the radical Republicans and conservative Democrats grew increasingly petty and bitter, skewing justice in cases like the court-martial of General Fitz John Porter. McClellan’s personal dislike of John Pope, whom he failed to reinforce at the battle of Second Bull Run, may well have led to the Union’s defeat there. The combination of military losses and incompetent leadership destroyed the morale of the army, and desertions grew alarmingly. Sears’s devastating account leaves no doubt that Grant was desperately needed. A well-researched, well-told, readable addition to Civil War history that explores the characters of famous officers and chronicles some little-known events.

Pub Date: Feb. 25th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-86760-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999


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