Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac

A long time ago a much younger fellow read Bruce Catton's trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, probably best known for the third volume, A Stillness at Appomattox. It was one of the first history books I read about the Civil War and the trilogy followed me around all these years on my bookshelf -- yet I never revisited it.

So the last week or so I tackled it again, inspired in part by some recent BGG discussions about Lee and Grant.

It's been quite an eye-opening experience. First off, it really is a beautifully written book, well deserving of its Pulitzer prize.

I also realize now that it's not really a military history, but rather a biography. In this case it isn't the biography of an individual, but of an army.

And not just the Army of the Potomac, but of the five corps that made up the heart of the Army of the Potomac: I, II, III, V and VI Corps. Some other corps that were part of the Army of the Potomac or served with it are mentioned during their service with it, but their time before and afterwards rates a bare mention. Burnside's IX Corps passes in and out of the story a couple of times. The XI and XII Corps careers before they joined the AP are covered briefly and their exploits when sent away are not mentioned. But VI Corps sojourn under Sheridan in the Shenandoah is described in great detail.

It's a heartbreaking story as well, because it really was an ill-starred army that deserved better leadership than it got. Each of its commanders, in his own way, managed to fail the soldiers. An each man leaves the reader with mixed feelings.

McClellan, more than any man, left his stamp on the army, for good and ill. He was undoubtedly a gifted organizer and a good strategist as well. His failure of nerve when put to the test was deeply unfortunate, of course, but in many ways his worst legacy was the endemic lack of urgency which seemed to permeate the military culture of the Army of the Potomac -- a characteristic it never really shed.

Burnside was an infuriating mix of competence and bumbling. He really had some good moments and was on the whole, despite the final verdict of history, better than the average federal general. Compared to people like Sigel, Hunter, Butler etc. he really wasn't all bad.

Hooker is similarly a mash up of excellent qualities and colossal failure. But he also redeemed himself afterwards and performed some useful service under Grant at Chattanooga.

Meade was solid, but I think it's clear that he didn't have the qualities needed to sustain an offensive against Lee.

That had to come from Grant, who both shines and looks like crap at different times. Perhaps the most heart-breaking part of the book is at Petersburg, when Grant has finally out-maneuvered Lee and has a war-ending move in his grasp, only to have the Army of the Potomac's slows kick in again -- and so the war lasted 9 more months.

Another peculiar aspect of the book is how Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia figures in the narrative -- almost ghostly in the way it flits in and out of the picture. There's almost nothing from the Confederate perspective in the book, which creates a fascinating effect. It really is the Army of the Potomac's story.

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