- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

A U.S. president is narrowly elected after an acrimonious campaign that sows bitterness across the political landscape.The resultant discontent of the politically powerful and the American public festers into a widespread hatred of the new chief executive.

The wounds haven't begun to heal by Inauguration Day, yet the president forges ahead with policies viewed as dubious on one congressional hand and less than intelligent on the other. Shortly into the term, the president is faced with a terrifying national crisis, one that shakes the foundation of the nation and threatens its sovereignty. Unhesitatingly, this president assumes the heavy mantle of leadership and resolutely vows to prevail.

President Bush?

Try Abraham Lincoln.

It is doubtful that when Russel H. Beatie sat down to write "Army of the Potomac" he intended to draw a parallel between today's war on terrorism and the Civil War or, more specifically, between Presidents Bush and Lincoln. Indeed, the research required to produce such a thorough history began years before last year's attacks.

Certainly, whatever parallels exist between the two sets of presidential circumstances end there.

Nonetheless, the similarity of these two distinct times provides an intriguing context for Mr. Beatie's story. At its heart, "Army of the Potomac" is a fascinating study of the inextricable mesh of politics and the military that existed before the War Between the States. However, with fascination comes a concomitant feeling of disgust with a system that was more of a Byzantine aristocracy than a military organization.

When he writes of the machinations of powerful Southern politicians, who, according to the author, saw to it that key leaders and units were dispatched to the Western territories, far from useful positions in the East in the event of unrest or secession the author is actually describing a pathetically organized military that had last seen service during the Mexican War in the 1840s and was held hostage to the whims and nepotism of its chief, Gen. Winfield Scott.

Scott by 1860 had become a pathetic figure, a hero of the Mexican War who struggled to bask in his fading glory. Vain, petty, moody, insecure and ill, he found favor only with those officers who curried favor.

Though this situation was neither original nor unique in the antebellum U.S. Army, Scott's position and access to the White House and his influence, however dwindling had an enormous impact on the direction of the war. Scott formed the army for Lincoln, a man who puzzled Scott.

The general saw the president as something of a rube from the Midwest. Scott, like many others after him, misread Lincoln as the general filled the ranks of the Army of the Potomac with officers he had known for years. In fact, nearly every officer of any caliber, and some of very little, owed his position to Scott, from a brevet captain recalled from the dusty frontier to Gen. George B. McClellan.

There is a saying that the South's biggest mistake of the war was having Robert E. Lee as its military leader because without him, the South would have lost the war four years earlier and been spared the devastation of the war. If that's true, the Northern corollary would be that the Union's biggest mistake was to have Scott as the head of its military, for without him, Lincoln might have found Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman much sooner.

Mr. Beatie's research is solid; his sources are revealing and entertaining though he tends to patronize the Southern side, particularly when he writes of a Union officer who "also felt, as did many of his fellow Northern officers, considerable sympathy for the South and the ordinary, intelligent Southerner who was being swept along in the torrent of hot-headed Southern emotion."

His willingness to research every detail, however insignificant, makes up for that indiscretion. However, the research is a double-edged sword; the book is poorly indexed, and the extensive footnotes tend to distract from the story. In fact, some footnotes become anecdotes themselves, discussing an obscure point about World War II in an attempt to make another point about the Civil War.

Mr. Beatie is at his best when spinning the yarn of political intrigue and near-hysteria that permeated Washington in the days leading up to, and immediately after, South Carolina's secession. His narrative tends to come unraveled, however, when he wanders off into a subplot that lessens the significance of his main point, a sure sign of zealous researching.

For example, Mr. Beatie devotes many pages to the terribly confusing array of state militias, volunteer militias, independent regiments and Regular Army and U.S. volunteer units that covered the Eastern seaboard like a patchwork quilt. This is a significant aspect of the difficulty Lincoln and Scott encountered as they formed the Army of the Potomac, yet the significance gets lost in several anecdotes about the various state politicos and military dilettantes that formed, equipped and managed these various units and their efforts to dominate whatever political arena they happened to occupy.

At times, Mr. Beatie loses track of which sycophant he's describing; sudden, confusing name changes leave the reader madly thumbing back through the text to identify the various players in the drama.

At the same time, Mr. Beatie draws a justifiable amount of attention to the very serious consequences of the resignations from the U.S. Army of such future Confederate officers as Albert Sidney Johnston, Lee, and Joseph Johnston.

Even with its flaws, the book stands as an excellent presentation of a crucial chapter in the history of the United States, a chapter that, more than any other before it, would determine the resolve of the American people or, more specifically, the American government to exist as a nation of one people rather than independent but cooperative states.

Phillip Thompson is the book editor for Army Times Publishing Co. He is the author of "Enemy Within" and "Into the Storm: A U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf War."

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