One of the pleasures of a university library is the odd book that jumps off the shelves. My campus, Wilfrid Laurier, doesn’t have a great American Civil War collection, but I was pleased to find a book I didn’t know, Jeffry Wert’s study of the Union’s most well known army, The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. It’s always tempting to think about the great armies of history as having their own particular characters, to judge them as to their resilience, their endurance, and so forth. Of course these debates can have an artificial character. For one thing, armies change over time. Napoleon’s Grand Army of 1805 was not the same army that went to Russia in 1812 or that fought at Waterloo. Likewise, the Whermacht of 1945 was a shadow of its former self And then there is leadership. Was the Army of Northern Virginia a great army because of its troops, or because of Lee and his lieutenants, or because for most of its career it went up against the Union’s second stringers?
Jeffry Wert, a Civil War historian of note, makes a good case that the Army of the Potomac had a distinct character that was found in its soldiers, who did not get the general they deserved until Grant, even if Grant too had his bad days (such as Cold Harbor). I quite enjoyed this book, and thought his last paragraphs worth quoting.
The Army of Northern Virginia’s battlefield prowess and victories came against an opponent that at its core - its rank and file - was a great army. No other Union army opposed such a formidable foe, fought more battles incurred more casualties, and withstood more command turmoil than the Army of the Potomac. At times, its soldiers despaired of the outcome and cursed their leaders. But they remained devoted to the cause, despite the fearful losses and inept generalship. Resiliency became one of their defining characteristics. They wanted a fair fight with their enemy, convinced that they could whip them every time on such a field.
If the greatness of men can be found in specific places, there was no better place to measure the rank and file of the Army of the Potomac than before the stone wall at Fredericksburg. It was an insane place, but time and again men went forth - because of orders, because of duty, because of something beyond themselves. It was a place of greatness.
One of their own gave them a fitting epitaph. Wriitng in October 1863, Sergeant Charles Bowen of the 12th United States Infantry told his wife: “If is actually wonderful how the Army of the Potomac stand the deprivations, trials, & reverses that have been heaped on them without stint or mercy to meet the foe with undaunted spirits. I do not believe there ever was an army in any country that would endure the same treatment this army has & yet be ready to fight as good a battle, & perhaps a better one than they could when they first came out. Although we have been deprived of the privilege of winning any lasting victories, it has not been our fault, as history in future days will show. I look forward to the time when a man can say with pride, “I belonged to the Army of the Potomac. We look to history to give us our just due & to place all the blame where it belongs."
Just as I finished this book, I came found this photo, which was taken around 2000. I’m not sure that tubby fellow in the foreground, when I was younger and heavier, would have looked typical of a private in the Army of the Potomac, but some of the chaps in the back did a good job of representing the genuine article.