Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Beatie: "ARMY OF THE POTOMAC: McClellan's First Campaign" Vol. III

[Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March - May 1862 by Russel H. Beatie (Savas Beatie, 2007) Hardback, photos, 35 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages total/main text: 754/656. ISBN: 978-1-932714-25-8]

Even for someone like me whose primary Civil War study interests are more western in nature, the release of another volume in Russel Beatie's command history of the U.S. government's most prominent army is much anticipated. For me, there are few upcoming books that generate as much excitement.

As readers of the first two volumes are already doubtless aware, the publisher has changed in the middle of the enterprise. Some improvements are immediately noticeable. Although not immune to scattered errors, the text is certainly cleaner this third time around. New publisher Savas Beatie has elected to keep the same overall presentation (jacket theme, print, etc.) and, perhaps most thankfully, has also decided to keep the use of footnotes vs. endnotes. This is very helpful in immediately appreciating the scale and use of the new and unusual material the author has amassed in his decades of research. Also, the notes themselves often make for useful reading. The cartographer, well known mapmaker George Skoch, is new to the series with volume III and he does his usual fine work. The operational and tactical maps are appropriate to the text and deeply helpful in understanding military movements. Some, such as the one detailing channels and navigational depths of the creeks and inland waterways of the lower peninsula are thoughtfully included for the more deeply involved readers. Even the bibliography is a uniquely interesting read as, directly below many if not most entries, the author has recorded his thoughts on the source's value.

Beatie's writing does have its idiosyncracies. An undoubtedly controversial carryover is the author's continued penchant for his "indirect discourse converted to direct" use of source materials. The degree of manipulation involved in accomplishing this has never been explained and, in lieu of dropping the practice altogether, one wishes the author would at least provide a detailed example of this irregular methodology.

A central examination of Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign [ed. is the 1861 West(ern) Virginia campaign chopped liver?], and the series in general, is the interaction between the Lincoln administration and the army's officer corps (particularly George McClellan). This task is accomplished through heavy use of primary sources. Of course, this is a trait common to all worthwhile studies, but Beatie takes it to another level. In doing so, Beatie is unburdened by the 142 years of insufficiently critical scholarship of Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief (sparse though it is). While narrowly focused, it's a completely fresh reassessment. As a reader there is an absorbing immediacy to the narrative that really allows one to view the magnitude of Lincoln's strategic errors in a proper perspective. While never sparing McClellan from appropriate criticism, the popular idea of Lincoln as a talented natural strategist and war manager takes a beating. Issues involving strategic decision making processes, interservice cooperation, information security, and the withholding of vital reinforcements of men & material are discussed from multiple angles. Lincoln often displayed an unfortunate inclination for allowing purely political matters to trump military necessity. This is very clearly seen with the decision to transfer Blenker's division to the Mountain Department and in allowing Gen. Wool to keep his entire command independent of McClellan. This is all in addition to the president's critical decision to withhold McDowell's I Corps. According to Beatie's largely convincing arguments, and contrary to popular belief, McClellan was not set up beautifully for success on the peninsula. The author's research and well supported conclusions about the Lincoln-Stanton-McClellan relationship pound deep cracks into the cast-iron mold forged by generations of scholarship. However, it is my sincere hope that this series does not become pigeonholed as a mere effort to revive McClellan's military reputation as one of the war's great captains at the expense of Lincoln. That simplificiation would be a grave injustice to this author and his monumental undertaking.

Another great strength of Beatie's narrative is the depth with which he examines the Union army's high command and his willingness to enter dusty cubbyholes. His detailed discussion of the degree of influence exerted by high ranking generals such as Ethan Allen Hitchcock and John E. Wool at critical junctures is fresh and fascinating. In chapter 15, there is an absolutely brilliant assessment of James Wadsworth's conduct as Washington garrison commander and of the Lincoln administration's fundamental misunderstanding of the most relevant military issues of the capital's defense system.

In general, AofP is a command level study that does not concern itself with the tactical minutiae of individual battles. On the other hand, the Union preparations for breaching the Warwick River-Yorktown line are discussed in great detail, making it easily the best account from any single source. Beatie's conclusions about Kernstown and James Shield's conduct during and after the battle enrich our understanding of it. They mesh well when intersecting with the work of that battle's definitive chronicler, Gary Ecelbarger. Additionally, the author's patient efforts to sort out the details of the confused pursuit of the Confederate rear guard to Williamsburg, and the muddled command decisions during the battle itself, reward the reader with yet another fresh interpretation of the strengths and failings of the individuals comprising the Army of the Potomac's high command at this stage of the war. The role (or non-role) of the navy in the campaign is another very prominent theme, nicely summarized in the book's final chapter.

Let's face it. If you want to want to understand the war in the east, this series is essential reading. With three volumes completed now, covering the war from the Union side up to May 1862, we really have in our hands the most detailed, most challenging, and perhaps most controversial scholarship for this period to date.


  1. Drew,

    That was a really helpful review. I'm especially intrigued by your description of the author's treatment of the Warwick River-Yorktown line, and similar preludes to larger events. That kind of thing gets glossed over in most campaign studies, since the large battles to come invariably dominate the lion's share of the narrative. That's where a multi-volume series can really break new ground.


  2. David,
    One of the things I like about Beatie is he spends just as much time, and often more, with the setup as the payoff.

    One thing I forgot to mention is, even for a study of this type, the narrative is almost universally one sided; it employs complete fog of war in terms of Confederate plans and movements. In a lot of ways it's an effective technique, but it does require prior familiarity with the literature (to an unusual degree) in order to appreciate it fully.

  3. Yet another perspective...

  4. Recently got a copy of this volume, and looked into the possibility of other volumes being released, or if the series had died (like Leggierre's 'The Fall of Napoleon'...), and was saddened to hear the author passed away some years ago.

    1. Derek,
      Beatie left behind an unfinished volume when he passed, and there was some talk a while back from the publisher about completing and publishing it. I haven't heard anything new on that front, though.

  5. Recently got a copy of this volume, and looked into the possibility of other volumes being released, or if the series had died (like Leggierre's 'The Fall of Napoleon'...), and was saddened to hear the author passed away some years ago.


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