Continuing his prodigious series on the Civil War in the East, Russel H. Beatie has turned out a third, extensive volume that covers the early part of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and the preparations for it — a relatively brief two-month period. This is not a book for the fainthearted. The level of detail is, at a minimum, involved and, at times, complex. For those with the stamina to persevere, however, there are considerable rewards.
“The Army of the Potomac: McClellan’s First Campaign, March-May 1862” is a provocative adventure in reading that focuses on political machinations and intrigue, military ambition, incompetence and occasional heroics as well as the complexities of siege, pursuit and assault. Previous volumes were “Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861” and “McClellan Takes Command, September 1861-February 1862.”
The encyclopedic detail of the narrative places this third study more appropriately into the category of a reference work. The sheer length of more than 800 pages dictates absorbing it in measured intervals.
Mr. Beatie sets out to separate fact from fiction regarding the controversies that arose over the years concerning President Lincoln’s relationship with the young, independent-minded Army commander McClellan. There is sufficient grist for the mill in this subject because Lincoln became directly involved in decision-making on military matters owing to McClellan’s reluctance to take the field in opposition to the enemy lurking uncomfortably close to the capital.
Lincoln pressured McClellan to employ his army in an offensive against the Confederate forces in the vicinity of Manassas. The general’s plan to land his troops at Urbana and take Rebel Gen. Joseph Johnston’s position in reverse went up in smoke when Johnston decided to withdraw farther south. Continuing insistence from the president led McClellan to ship his massive army to the peninsula formed by the James and York rivers east of Richmond.
The chances of success for this amphibious invasion and land march to capture the Confederate capital were lessened when Lincoln, despite McClellan’s wishes to the contrary, imposed a reorganization on the Army of the Potomac and chose the commanders who would lead this new corps structure. Selection of these men on the basis of seniority and political suitability rather than competence did not bode well for the campaign’s success.
McClellan’s strained relationship with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was another omen of troubled times ahead. Promised naval cooperation in conducting combined operations also never materialized. This undermined McClellan’s plans for an attack against Rebel fortifications at Yorktown from land and water. Inept leadership on the part of the infantry commanders compounded the ineffectiveness at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign.
The author identifies Gens. Edwin V. Sumner and Erasmus D. Keyes as two corps commanders with whom Lincoln saddled McClellan. In their incompetence, they turned Union efforts to capture the Confederate stronghold at Williamsburg into a costly debacle. At the same time, division commander Gen. Joseph Hooker engaged in behind-the-scenes anti-McClellan politics for a perceived snub of his combat heroics.
When action in the field is blended with events in Washington, the narrative becomes particularly animated. The author’s frequent use of sidebars and anecdotes, however, distracts from continuity, requiring strict attentiveness and reliable recall. The upside is a better appreciation for the obstacles, some self-induced, McClellan faced in implementing successful military strategy.
Though Mr. Beatie extensively employs primary sources, he frequently relies on quotes from the diary of McClellan’s aide the Comte de Paris, whose staff position necessarily limited the objectivity of his observations.
The penultimate and final chapters deal with McClellan’s leadership and his relationship with Lincoln, respectively. McClellan had shed the cloak of secrecy that surrounded his activities while within the fortifications of the capital for a more open exchange with authorities in Washington while in the field.
The author characterizes him as an astute tactician and caring commander, but some of his personal shortcomings combined with meddling from above and incompetence on the part of his commanders undermined the possibilities for operational success. Back-channel exchanges between disgruntled Army personnel and newspapers and politicians ensured that accusations of mistakes and blunders reached the public’s ears.
Given that only the early part of the campaign is touched upon in this book, not enough water had gone over the dam to evaluate fully the Lincoln-McClellan relationship. Yet Lincoln had assumed control of the strategic military decision-making process and appointment of top-echelon positions. This limited McClellan’s flexibility as field commander and proved detrimental in implementing tactical operations.
The author points to the lack of clearly defined war aims from Washington as a factor in the faltering military campaigns. By working together, McClellan and Lincoln could have overcome some of the obstacles encountered, but the general was not apt to solicit the president’s support when most needed.
Maps placed strategically throughout the text help track the action. The author’s considerable explanatory material and supportive evidence could have been reduced with proper editing. A multipage discussion of how mortar boats could have been employed against Yorktown is one example. Historian James McPherson’s advice “not to tell the reader more than he wants to know” is applicable.
While the author does not address the overall goal of this long-range enterprise, his mention of Douglas Southall Freeman as a role model offers a clue. The renowned author produced multivolume works on Robert E. Lee and Lee’s lieutenants that in essence provide a history of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. At the present rate of production, Mr. Beatie’s project, being the definitive work on the Army of the Potomac, will surpass Freeman’s if only in sheer volume when completed.
There is a lot to recommend this study, with some reservations and desire for modification in future editions. Civil War enthusiasts cannot afford to overlook Mr. Beatie’s “McClellan’s First Campaign,” but be prepared for a challenging experience.
Thomas J. Ryan from Bethany Beach is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.