The Army of the Potomac, by Bruce Catton

by Robert A. Parker

Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951)

The subject of this series of three volumes is the Army of the Potomac, the Northern army that would directly confront Robert E. Lee’s Rebel troops in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The first volume covers the leadership of General McClellan through the battles of Bull Run, the Peninsula, and particularly Antietam.

This first volume begins with moments of confusion, internecine rivalry among the officers, and a lack of discipline. This is in August of 1862, when a lack of leadership characterized the Union forces to the south of Washington.

Then follows the second defeat near Bull Run, as Catton exposes how the Union officers’ failures led to the confusion of a retreat by weary and desperate enlisted men. In these initial chapters, the reader learns how incompetence at the tactical level led to the horror on the ground, based on journals letters, and diaries that capture the broad spectrum of war.

McClellan himself understood discipline, and re-organized the divisions under him. But, quoting his orders and his letters, Catton suggests a personal insecurity that inhibited his ability to attack the successful armies of the Confederacy. This was compounded after the Union defeat of another general, at Leesburg, near Washington, because a disillusioned U.S. Congress began overseeing how the war was being conducted in the field.

For example McClellan had a valid plan, called the Peninsula campaign, to sail his troops down the coast, land them, and attack Richmond, the Confederate capital, from the rear. But the civilians took away some of his troops to protect Washington, torrential rain made maneuvering impassible, and the intelligence man he hired, Allan Pinkerton, wrongly reported that Lee had twice as many troops defending Richmond as McClellan had to attack it. Moreover, just as McClellan was ready to attack, Lee himself attacked the Union troops where they were weakest, causing the withdrawal of all those troops back to the coast.

With a lull in the action, and with Lee advancing into Maryland, there is a pause as the Union army reorganizes. Then, suddenly, a break. Two enlisted men discover, wrapped around cigars, papers revealing the Rebel‘s troop movements in Maryland. Catton calls it “the greatest security leak in American military history.” For it reveals Lee’s army to be scattered, and vulnerable if the Union quickly attacks. First, however, comes a brilliantly described battle scene near Harper’s Ferry that might have resulted in the destruction of Lee’s army, but does not because McClellan, in command of his Army of the Potomac, moved too slowly.

This is followed by the Battle of Antietam (named after a local creek), near Sharpsburg, in which McClellan still has the large army, about 87,000, but builds his position slowly because he thinks Lee has 100,000, when Lee has only about 25,000. He does not know it will be the last time he will have such an advantage in numbers.

The battle is in three parts. The opening battle in the cornfield between two woods, Catton says: “might well have been the most savage and consuming fighting American soldiers ever engaged in.” Because it initially involves bloody charges into that cornfield, counterattacks by the Rebels, and another charge back across—in all, during four hours, from 5:30 to 9:30, more than 12,000 on both sides died or were wounded in this first phase, a battle in which artillery played a major role, since soldiers, with muzzle-loaders, could fire, at most, two rounds per minute.

A second phase, at the “sunken road,” pushed the Rebels back, and with 10,000 fresh troops, the Union could have routed the Rebels. But the fresh troops were never used, because one general saw the possibility of a bloody counterattack, and McClellan supported him.

The third phase, crossing Antietam Creek, was supposed to support the other two phases, but was delayed as it focused on crossing a defended bridge rather than fording that stream. Catton says the stupidity of the generals was saved by the heroism of the soldiers, for, with 10,000 troops available, only 2,500 were used in this phase, because the generals kept them in reserve, fearing a major counterattack. And yet these Union soldiers routed the enemy. But the Rebels checked this phase three advance when A.P. Hill’s experienced regulars rushed up from Harper’s Ferry and confronted the Union soldiers while wearing the blue uniforms they had found there.

The casualties for that day, of the killed, wounded, and missing on both sides, totalled, according to official estimates, almost 22,700—with 13,900 casualties at the cornfield, 5.500 at the sunken road, and 3,700 at the bridge. According to Catton, there were more soldiers killed or wounded at Antietam that in any other one-day battle of that war. And that, overall, there was no winner, even though the Rebels withdrew to the south, and that is why the Union leaders claimed victory. But their army could have destroyed Lee’s forces, and did not. And a major reason they did not is that McClellan gave each of the commanders of the three phases their own orders, but did not give them the overall plan that showed how their simultaneous actions were the key to defeating Lee.

So both sides learned that the war would continue until one side won, that the moaning of the wounded soldiers that night in the field would be repeated over and over, that the war would last two and one-half more years, and that there would be no compromise, no South holding on to its slaves and no North without a complete union of all the states.

One other result was that McClellan lost his command. He had not defeated Lee, and was considered a spokesman of a limited war that no longer existed. As one veteran wrote: “It always seemed to me that McClellan, though no commander ever had the love of his soldiers more, or tried more to spare their lives, never realized the metal that was in his grand Army of the Potomac….”

 

Comment. Catton is offering in this work a unique presentation of Civil War strategy and suffering. He evaluates both the generals and their strategy as fairly as possible, which includes McClellan. And he flavors his account with dramatic re-enactments of both skirmishes and full battles, based on the diaries, journals, and memoirs of all who participated, from generals to privates.

It is a refreshing view, and is presented in a strong narrative style, some have said a novelistic style. This is what makes this volume, and presumably those to follow, so dramatic. That he can embellish a scene with the weather, the sounds, the sense of geography and landscape, and, finally, the mental reaction and physical sensations of the soldiers—until the reader experiences either the confusion of the battlefront almost as if he is there.

All told, this is a remarkable portrait of the beginning of the Civil War, climaxing in its bloodiest one-day battle, a battle which, Catton says, was inconclusive, which could have ended the war, but which resulted in a war to be fought until one side won conclusively—and either the South preserved its slave economy as a separate nation, or the North reunited the county and freed all slaves. Indeed, I had heard of Antietam but knew little about the battle itself, much less about its importance in the war. So one, in fact, does learn about history from this book.

There is a sadness here, between the lines, regarding McClellan’s fate. Indeed, this volume centers on McClellan; and Catton was obviously interested in him—in why he acted as he did. For McClellan wanted desperately to lead his men to victory, he had certain military skills and he had the enthusiastic support of his troops; but he did not understand politics, either of the army or of Washington. And so his fatal flaw, of hedging his strategy, of delaying his assaults until he was sure, resulted in the loss of trust by the leaders in Washington and his resulting downfall.

Catton concludes this volume by writing that the romance of war, as imagined by the troops before going into battle, was over. That now they faced “ugliness and dirt and pain and death.” (December, 2014)

Glory Road (1952)

In the fall of 1862, a new stage of the war began. Its goal was now less to preserve the union and more to free the slaves. This second volume centers on the battles at Fredericksburg, Virginia, with the Union forces now under General Ambrose Burnside, the Rebels under Lee, and then climaxes with the more significant Battle of Gettysburg.

At Fredericksburg, the Union army was disorganized, a delay which allowed Lee to build up his force. So when the Union forces finally moved across the river and then through the bombarded Fredericksburg, they found the Rebels entrenched on high ground. Despite charge after heroic charge, the Union forces could not break through. The result: tremendous losses.

The story of this battle is difficult to read, it was so one-sided, as the Union generals demanded a new charge, and sent soldier after soldier to their death. In all, the Union lost 12,500 killed and wounded, and the Rebels 4,500. Burnside wanted to attack again, but was dissuaded by his generals. The battle’s repercussions: the Union soldiers pillaged a ruined Fredericksburg, the Rebels stripped dead Union soldiers naked for their clothing and boots, and the two armies swapped tobacco, coffee, and even visits.

As a result, Burnside is replace by General Joseph Hooker, who still wanted to defeat Lee at Fredericksburg, but by circling from north and attacking Lee from the rear. Thus, the battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. But the latter’s forests and streams hindered maneuvering; and Hooker decided not to attack, although he had superior numbers, but to let Lee attack him. It was terrible strategy. The first battle was confusing in the dark of night, with burning trees, smoke, fog, flashes of guns, and noise. Plus, Hooker didn’t believe news that an attack was coming from the rear against his newest troops. Note that Stonewall Jackson was killed at this point, accidentally, by his own Rebel troops.

In the morning, Hooker could have attacked, since Lee’s troops were divided, but he didn’t. He thought he could win by defeating the charging Rebels, but did not because their artillery decimated his troops. Finally, he retreated across the river, having lost 17,000 soldiers killed, wounded, and missing, and having used only half of his available force.

Lee next headed north with 70,000 troops, and Hooker followed with 75,000. But he objected to government restrictions, and Meade replaced him. At Gettysburg, Lee had more troops early on, and encircled the town on its western side. On the first day, he charged successfully into Gettysburg, inflicting heavy losses on Union forces, which had 5,000 left to fight as they held on at Cemetery Ridge.

On second day, more Union forces arrived, and Meade decided to fight here, setting his troops on high round from Cemetery Ridge to Big Round Top to the south. Rebels charged on both flanks, but Union stopped them, and then Rebels attacked again, with heavy losses on both sides.

The North lost 20,000 dead and wounded those first two days, so Meade decided to wait for Lee’s attack on the third day, since he held higher ground. A few skirmishes occurred in the morning, then quiet—until a tremendous Southern barrage of 130 guns pounded the North. But most shots were high, did not strike front lines of North. So when Pickett charged the center of the line with more men, Northern artillery, flank attacks, and a timely counter-attack stopped the Rebels.

The Rebels had lost 25,000 men, and Lee retreated from Gettysburg with a wagon train 17 miles long. The North had 23,000 total casualties, with another 15,000 unwounded but missing. Plus there were 5,000 dead left in field that had to be buried over the net few weeks, after both armies left.

To commemorate the battle, Northern states with soldiers who participated created a memorial cemetery of 17 acres. It was dedicated on November 19, at which the orator Edward Everett spoke at length, followed by Abraham Lincoln. (His address of about 270 words used only 130 separate words.)

Comment. The value of this work again comes from Catton’s comments, from the perspective of history on one level—interpreting both the military strategy at the front and the political maneuvering in Washington—and on another level employing the words of the generals and the enlisted men to show what this war was like, both on the front lines and from the officers’ tents overlooking the battlefield. We witness the rain, the mud, and the cold experienced by the soldiers, as well as their frustration at the confusion and disorganization of their leaders. And we see the infighting among the generals, their personal disagreements as they maneuver for promotion.

This work is history dramatized. But it is also a personal evaluation, as Catton discusses the impact of the battle on both civilian and military strategy, as well as on the soldiers’ commitment to and belief in their cause. Catton also pauses to portray Northern society behind the lines and Washington politics. But more significant are those quotations that capture the mood, the physical burden, and the frustration of both officers and enlisted men.

At the half-way point of this book, one wonders how the North ever won this civil War. And even after the Battle of Gettysburg, it is not clear how Lee’s army will be defeated. Of course, there were other fronts, but there is barely a one-sentence reference to the war won in the West, and there is no suggestion of Sherman’s March to the Sea. This is strictly about the Army of the Potomac. And given it was the most significant army going against its most significant foe, Robert E. Lee, Catton’s perspective is justified. It was a choice, of course, but a legitimate one. We shall now see how he concludes the series. (December, 2014)

A Stillness at Appomattox (1953)

By 1864, the war had lost all its romanticism. Despite a failed cavalry attack on Richmond, the Northern army was more professional. But it was also filled with bounty men—who joined for the bonus money, then deserted and joined again. Plus, many had signed up for three years, and now this term was ending and they had seen enough of war.

But on the highest level, things had changed, for Ulysses S. Grant was now in charge of the total army of 533,000, and he set up his headquarters near the Army of the Potomac, presumably to have better control over it. He brought from the West his reputation as a tough, smart general. But, in fact, he did not like the military, and would have preferred to become a professor of mathematics. Grant also brought in General Phil Sheridan to head his cavalry, expanded the fighting force by pulling troops away from protecting Washington, and reorganized the army into three corps instead of five, with new leaders.

In May, 1864, the Army of Potomac, 116,000 men, moved out, with Meade in charge and Grant alongside overseeing it. The objective was no longer to capture Richmond but to defeat Lee’s army. The route south led again to the Wilderness, where thick woodland still hindered visibility and maneuverability and where small arms produced fires and dense smoke. Confusion resulted as neither side could see its own troops or the enemy, and impromptu hand-fighting became the severest of the war.

After a pause at night, the main battle developed at Plank Road, with the generals in the rear having no idea how the battle was going. The South advanced this time, until the North built a defense line, and then counter-attacked. The North had more soldiers, Catton says, but that didn’t matter in the rough terrain. In all, the North lost 15,000 men. But, instead of withdrawing after what was a stalemate, that night the North continued south under Grant—an advance that revived the men’s spirits.

At Spotsylvania, a new cavalry strategy was developed by Colonel Emory Upton, who devised a way to breach the Rebel lines—not yelling or firing until on top of the trenches—and this was later implemented on a larger scale by Sheridan. But initial successes in both cases were eventually stalemated. Not least because having too many Union troops inhibited maneuverability

The worst fighting of the war, Catton says, was here at the Bloody Angle (a bending trench), and was complicated by rain and mud. Bodies eventually were piled four or five deep in the trenches. The North lost 7,000 men and the South more, but the Union generals agreed the advance was not worth the price. In all, the fighting in the area lasted more than two weeks, and the North lost 33,000 men.

And yet, under Grant, the Army of the Potomac continued south.

As the Union army crossed a series of rivers to approach Richmond, a major battle occurred at Cold Harbor. Again, the North lost an initial advantage, and the South held, not least because new rifles could now kill at longer distances, and a new strategy of digging trenches protected the shooters. Also, the Union forces of 40,000 had not surveyed the topography and the Rebel defenses. In a half hour, the North lost 7,000 men.

Grant dug in and realized he needed a new strategy. He decided to attack Petersburg, on the Appomattox River south of Richmond, because it was the key to supplying Richmond. Finding that city had strong defenses but few soldiers, General William Smith gained early success. But then he delayed attacking Petersburg, allowing the South to re-enforce its lines. The North also didn’t coordinate its military units, and as a result the attack failed, Lee’s army was not defeated, Richmond was not captured, and the war continued for another eight months.

In insufferable heat and dust, the Union had lost in four days what had lost in 12 days at Cold Harbor, including its bravest officers. Of 100,000 combat troops it had started with in May, it has lost 60,000, but with inexperienced replacements the roster was up to 86,000.

In a breakthrough strategy, the Union decided to use miners to dig a mine shaft into the hill under a Rebel fortress. Catton spends many pages on this unique idea. The main troops were tired, so the strategy called for fresh troops to charge, and these happened to be colored troops. But prejudice changed the decision at the last minute, and the charge that followed the tremendous explosion was late and disorganized. This gave the Rebels time to re-enforce their broken defenses and slaughter the Union troops. The latter lost 3,800 men, and Grant called this moment “his saddest affair.”

In July, 2014, the Union troops of an incompetent General Hunter withdrew from the Shenandoah Valley, and Jubal Early used the opening to threaten Washington, but seasoned Union troops arrived before the capital just in time. Meanwhile Stanton and the War Department overruled a Grant appointment in the field that Catton calls a “crisis of the war.” Grant reacted by appointing Gen. Phil Sheridan to lead his troops south and destroy Lee’s army. Catton calls this “the beginning of the end.”

In August, 1864, the war was still at a stalemate, and with a presidential election coming up, many thought Lincoln should not run. But then Sherman took Atlanta, Sheridan defeated Early in the Shenandoah Valley, and Grant ordered Sheridan to deprive the Rebel army of its breadbasket by burning or destroying barns, fences, and crops, and driving away all animals in that Valley. Lincoln again became a viable candidate, and took the election, even winning the soldier vote. A brief setback occurred when Sheridan was away and Early attacked up the Valley and threatened Washington again. But Sheridan arrived back just in time and almost single-handedly reorganized his troops, pursued Early, and destroyed his effectiveness.

Meanwhile, Union troops had built 35 miles of strong trenches south of Richmond and east of Petersburg, with the Rebels having equal defenses. As Grant began stretching the Rebel’s southern flank, thinning their forces overall, Southern morale was dropping. The Rebels even sent a peace mission north that was rejected, while, in Washington, Lincoln suggested offering reparations for the South’s loss of property (slaves?), which his cabinet rejected.

In March, 1865, Rebels made their last major attack, east of Petersburg, and were quickly stopped. At this point, Lincoln met with Grant and Sherman to decide the offer of surrender they might make. They decided not to be vindictive, and troops on both sides were in a similar mood. They were not bitter, but respected each other.

Grant wanted a flank attack of cavalry under Sheridan to cut the South’s supply lines, but rain hindered his plan; and the South, desperate, attacked first. But before Sheridan could trap the Southern forces out in front, Lee withdrew them. Grant then ordered a new attack all along the 35-mile line, and the Southern troops were too thin in the trenches to resist. Catton says this heralded the end of the war, as Grant pursued Lee westward, seeking to at long last destroy the Army of Virginia. Lee fled west on the north side of the Appomattox River, while Sheridan kept south of him to prevent his escape.

Sheridan soon announced he was facing a strong Rebel infantry force at Appomattox Court House and needed re-enforcement. Hungry, tired Union soldiers made a forced march to join Sheridan and to flank the Rebel army on three sides.

On Palm Sunday, 1965, two tired and hungry armies faced each other in silence, waiting, when out came a Southern rider with a white flag. Soon Grant and Lee were meeting at the Court House, while the troops waited. Still silent.

The cheering, Catton says, would come later.

Bruce Catton closes his book with a Union soldier’s quote. “I remember how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years all so stubbornly, so bravely and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were fully at our mercy—it was pitiful, sad, hard, and seemed to us altogether too bad.”

Comment. The overall impression one gets from this volume is that Grant made all the difference. Despite the tremendous loss of life, and the casualties sent to the rear—one hospital wagon train carried 7,000 wounded—he kept his army moving south. And this revived the soldiers’ spirit. Because they knew their leaders were not acknowledging either stalemate or defeat. Instead, they were part of the effort to outmuscle Lee, to keep him reacting instead of allowing him to plot his own strategy, such as his earlier incursion into Pennsylvania.

Catton also points out how often the North had an opportunity to crush Lee’s army. And failed, mainly because it did not coordinate its various units to act in concert, but also because of poor weather, poor judgment by senior officers, and the low morale of frequently tired troops.

What is remarkable throughout these three volume is the details given for every battle, details regarding weather, topography, the individual units involved, the personal reactions of the enlisted men, and the individual strategies for the companies brigades, divisions, corps, etc.—all of it based on the tremendous research cited in the notes, and based on original reports, narratives, and journals kept by the men involved in each battle. If there is a negative to the entire series, it is the effort needed to track the number of each unit as it reappears in the narrative, and so understand its relative place in the overall picture.

This has been a marvelous series of three volumes that not only describes the tactics and strategy of the Army of the Potomac but also helps the reader become a witness to the heartless horror of that 19th century war as experienced by its courageous soldiers and the, at times, incompetent officers. This is not a story of the entire war, but this was where the two major armies confronted each other and decided the outcome of that war.

The wealthy and industrial North could have won this war more quickly if at the start a stalwart Lincoln had found generals like Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman. When he did, the formerly confused and even rebellious Northern troops became proud and effective soldiers. These volumes give the reader a far greater understanding of life at the various bloody battlefronts of the American Civil War, the most bloody war of its era. And an understanding, too, of what it took to win that war.

I recommend these three volumes for all readers who want to enrich their knowledge of the American Civil War. And also to those who want to read a strong narrative of the second major event in this country’s history. But this is more than history. It is also about the price of our national heritage. It is about sacrifice and stupidity, about courage and confusion. It is about the blood that dyed those familiar names of Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. It is about the humanity that persevered, and the enmity that turned into respect. And while it is from the North’s point of view, it is fair, I think, to the South. It is the horror of total war that we read about, not horrors committed by either side. (January, 2015)

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