Review of “Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac” by Stephen W. Sears

In this age of twitter, I can follow the political machinations of the Trump Administration from moment to moment, from every imaginable side, and with the perspective of a variety of viewpoints. I have often wished that we could have the same level of information about historic periods.

This massive and detailed study by Civil War historian Stephen Sears makes me feel as if my wishes had been granted, at least with respect to the creation and ongoing development of the Union Army during the Civil War. By focusing on the processes by which generals and officers were selected, trained, honed, and culled, Sears catalogues the evolution of a self-taught army led by volunteers into the experienced and efficient fighting machine that was in place by the end of the struggle. His is a story of backbiting, jealousy, outright sabotage, lapses, blunders, meddling, timidity, inexperience, disjointedness, miscommunications, resentment, and paranoia. But it is also a tale of courage; personal growth of many actors, both political and military; and ultimately of triumph. Mostly though, one may think of this book as an organizational history.

To my surprise, my opinion of George McClellan actually improved from this account (although I feel a bit like Senator Al Franken on Ted Cruz, who said on CNN, ”I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz.”). Sears demonstrates rather convincingly that McClellan, for all his faults, took on the leadership of an inadequately-sized army with few officers and helped form it into something workable.

In 1860 the U.S. Army was small – less than 15,000 present for duty, with most of the army posted west of the Mississippi River, and having just 372 line officers and five general officers. Nearly a quarter of West Pointers on active duty in 1861, and close to 37 percent of cadets at the time of the secession crisis, joined the Confederacy. The General-In-Chief was 74-year-old Winfield Scott, an erratic and quarrelsome man in bad shape and ill health who was not up to much more than broadly overseeing the course of the army.

Lieut. Gen. Winfield Scott, 1861

As Sears writes, when McClellan was called to Washington to assume command of the new Division of the Potomac in July, 1861, “Ahead of McClellan loomed an enormous task, no less than building a new army upon the ruins of an old one.” Morale was also in tatters. George McClellan may have not liked to fight, and he was certainly paranoid and delusional, but he was good at organizing, and at restoring the army’s confidence in itself. He revamped the army’s officer corps (incidentally creating a group of men fiercely loyal to him). He structured the army into divisions and set up programs for drilling recruits. Although he could not entirely evade (much to his chagrin), the popular political patronage process of the appointment of company and regimental officers, he supported examining boards for officer competency, and widened the use of courts-martial.

1861 photograph of George B. McClellan by Mathew Brady

McClellan didn’t take kindly to any second-guessing of his decisions, nor could he abide the administration’s unwillingness to respond “appropriately” to his call for massive numbers of new recruits based on his wildly inaccurate assessments of enemy strength. But ultimately, it was his stubborn reluctance to fight that led to his replacement. It was not an easy decision for Lincoln, given McClellan’s popularity with the army he had virtually created from scratch. But it was the right decision to win the war.

Ulysses S. Grant, who eventually took over as head of the army, also found that serving as the top commander did not insulate him from political pressures, especially as he was compelled to keep on less than competent and/or compliant division leaders. But Grant was there to fight a war, and he did what he could to work around political realities.

General Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864

Typical of Grant’s military leadership vis-a-vis others that came before him was this description of Grant’s behavior at the end of the Wilderness campaign:

“May 7 marked a watershed. It did not occur to Grant that day . . . to pull back across the Rapidan, in the manner of Hooker or Burnside (or McClellan, changing his base), to lick wounds and regroup and plot some next campaign.”

Grant’s attitude, Sears notes, was not lost on the men of the Army of the Potomac.

Grant was as eager to work with other generals as McClellan had been to run every operation himself. Grant, a humble and generous man, worked well with Meade, Sherman, Sheridan, and others in a way that showed respect for these men and their talents, allowing them to blossom and thrive under his direction. He made mistakes, but for the most part owned them, and did not cast off blame on others. He welcomed Lincoln’s counsel rather than eschewing it as did McClellan, and in return received Lincoln’s utmost confidence and support.

Sears reports that “…the Potomac army that marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in spring 1865 [after the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox] was almost a completely new army, top to bottom, from the Potomac army that went to war on the Virginia Peninsula in spring 1862.” Only a handful of officers of position from those early days remained by the end. Whole army corps had come and gone…. “For all the turnover at the top,” Sears writes, “the Army of the Potomac conquered, forcing the surrender of its renowned opponent. Obscured by the extensive turnover of generals, a vital, solid core of leadership remained, survived, prevailed. It was this lesser-known half of the high command that held the Potomac army together through one battlefield hellfire after another.”

Grand Review of the Army 1865

And it is this story he tells in great detail in this valuable addition to Civil War scholarship.

The book includes blow-by-blow accounts of many battles, extensive notes and more than 150 illustrations.

Evaluation: There isn’t anything really “new” in this book, but the detail lends a feel of immediacy to the story by the author’s incorporation of extracts from journals, diaries, letters, wires, congressional post-mortems and other documents. Sears reports Stanton and Lincoln hanging onto updates by wire just as we now flock to twitter to see what is happening from moment to moment. With this book, we too are behind the scenes, privy even to more than Stanton and Lincoln, as we follow the ins and outs of the history of a great fighting machine.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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4 Responses to Review of “Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac” by Stephen W. Sears

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I know I should be more interested in history and politics than I am but, to be honest, I’m over all of it.

  2. litandlife says:

    Again, you’ve added another book to the list of books I need to get and pass on to my dad.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    See, I wish that we could know a lot less through twitter. What we learn from the current President is terrifying. I’d rather pretend he was a normal adult, but, dammit, he won’t let me!

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