- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006


By Stephen R. Taaffe, University of Kansas Press, 284 pages, $34.95

Has there ever been a harder-luck outfit than the Union’s Army of the Potomac?

For most of the Civil War, it faced the Confederacy’s toughest army, led by generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Opposing those stalwarts were incompetent commanders like Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker. Whereas the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought almost the entire war under the gifted, aggressive Lee, the Army of the Potomac had five chiefs, under whom no fewer than 36 men served as corps commanders.

Stephen R. Taaffe, a professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, thinks many of the Army of the Potomac’s problems rested with its corps commanders. Mr. Taaffe has examined the Northern command structure, noting who was appointed to corps command, why they were appointed and why so many of them failed when tested.

The author believes that the army’s corps commanders can be divided, with some overlap, into four groups: adherents of the army’s first commander, Gen. George McClellan; political supporters of the Lincoln administration; a broad group of “opportunists”; and those who were promoted on merit.

Mr. Taaffe classifies about half of the army’s corps commanders as McClellanites. In his words, “These officers shared McClellan’s political and military views, and many considered McClellan’s enemies their own. Like McClellan, most were War Democrats who initially interpreted the Civil War as a conflict solely to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.”

Both the Federal and Confederate armies were obsessed with rank and seniority; when two major generals met, the one whose commission bore the earlier date was in charge. Nevertheless, when McClellan was called east, he had a relatively free hand in choosing his senior subordinates. The results were mixed. In Mr. Taaffe’s view, McClellan’s favoritism “undermined unity in the officer corps and hindered its performance on the battlefield.”

McClellan’s personal views also helped politicize his army. He openly opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, a fact that, as it became known, made him and his army a target for radical Republicans in Congress. The author charges McClellan with creating “an almost Byzantine culture in which high-ranking officers operated for the remainder of the conflict.”

When McClellan fell out of favor, his successor was the luckless Ambrose Burnside, a modest man with much reason to be modest. Although he alone was responsible for the Federal disaster at Fredericksburg, the tepid support he received from the outset from corps commanders such as Hooker, Daniel Butterfield, William Smith and William Franklin virtually assured that he could not successfully lead the Army of the Potomac.

As Burnside’s replacement, Lincoln chose Hooker, a hard-fighting, hard-drinking New Englander who had intrigued against Burnside in the hope of replacing him. He also had cultivated the radical Republicans by affirming his independence from the McClellanites.

Lincoln had his doubts about Hooker but was impressed — as were many others — by the steps he took to improve army morale. “Fighting Joe” improved the soldiers’ diet, instituted a liberal furlough policy and improved sanitation in camp. To promote unit pride, he instituted a system of corps and division badges.

All of this came to naught when Hooker lost his nerve at the great Battle of Chancellorsville, where the Army of the Potomac suffered yet another humiliating defeat. Mr. Taaffe believes leadership at the corps level was better under Hooker than under McClellan or Burnside but that Hooker made poor use of his resources.

The infighting among the officer corps abated somewhat with the appointment of Gen. George G. Meade to succeed Hooker. Meade had served competently in division and corps commands and, despite a legendary temper, was about as apolitical as one could be in the Army of the Potomac.

Meade’s victory at Gettysburg brought him little acclaim, however, for Lincoln was displeased with the army’s cautious pursuit of Lee. Moreover, malcontents led by Gen. Dan Sickles accused Meade of wanting to yield the field at Gettysburg to the Confederates before accepting battle.

Gradually, however, the army got rid of Hooker, Sickles, Franklin and Smith. Corps commanders such as Winfield S. Hancock and John Sedgwick respected Meade and were happy to serve under him.

“By quieting troubled waters,” Mr. Taaffe writes, “Meade performed a service for the Union war effort second only to his victory at Gettysburg.”

There were jealousies and rivalries in Lee’s army, but the infighting never reached the level that was endemic in the Army of the Potomac. Mr. Taaffe’s thoughtful book helps explain why it took the Union four years to win the war.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War subjects.

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