Thursday, April 28, 2016

Conner & Mackowski: "SEIZING DESTINY: The Army of the Potomac's 'Valley Forge' and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union"

[Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge" and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union by Albert Z. Conner, Jr. with Chris Mackowski (Savas Beatie, 2016). Hardcover, 8 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:330/384. ISBN:978-1-61121-156-6. $34.95]

Joseph Hooker's January 25 - April 27 (93-day) resurrection of a dispirited Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1863 is lauded in many Civil War histories, but details have been generally sparse, and no one has written an entire book on the episode, until now. Albert Conner and Chris Mackowski's Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge" and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union brilliantly explains how Hooker took an army crippled by desertion and disease (and badly demoralized by the Fredericksburg disaster, political scheming, and command infighting) and transformed it within a few short months into a splendid fighting force at peak strength. Seizing Destiny demonstrates "Fighting Joe" at his best, when the bombastic personality revealed his most effective army command skills to be administrative in nature. The authors rank Hooker's achievement of this reversal of fortune up there with that of Washington's army at Valley Forge, noting that hundreds of writers at the time made the same comparison.

Conner and Mackowski emphatically agree with Hooker himself that the new commander's initial moves needed to target the most pressing issues from the bottom up. The first priority was stopping the army's hemorrhaging of manpower through desertion. Though never stopped completely, the plague was effectively managed. Improved troop care measures (in the form of hospitals, food, clothing, and more) were also immediately addressed. Hooker and his Chief of Staff Daniel Butterfield reformed the furlough system, weeded out incompetent officers, and pushed for merit promotions. They enhanced unit drilling and reorganized the logistical apparatus and wheeled transportation system. The book provides a fascinating short study of how the Army of the Potomac managed its prodigious equine needs. Other important administrative moves included an expanded inspector-general system and implementation of corps badges for ready identification as well as development of unit esprit de corps. All of the above measures are both described and analyzed in great detail by the authors. In addition to exploring many themes related to the Army of the Potomac's bottom up refitting under Hooker's direction, the physical layout of the winter encampment (including the systematic establishment of picket posts and erection of fortifications along essential lines of communication, especially to the main army supply base at Aquia Creek) is also explored at length.

The book properly recognizes that wintering armies were not just static beings but rather a continual bustle of activity and adjustment. The authors recount in some detail the myriad of small unit actions and area defense operations conducted during the season. One of the latter, the February 1863 reconnaissance mission toward Rappahannock Station conducted by a division of General George G. Meade's Fifth Corps, is well described given the lack of sources and also rather sharply criticized (perhaps overly so) as being an unnecessary wastage of troops. The book also details the late February Confederate raid on the Union outpost at Hartwood Church, the Federal rout demonstrating that the blue troopers and their leadership still had far to go. 

In a bid to reshape the army's command and control structure, Hooker reorganized the Army of the Potomac order of battle, abolishing the wing-equivalent Grand Division system created by Ambrose Burnside and reverting back to the corps as the largest army sub-unit. Hooker's move has been universally praised by historians (each accepting the view that the larger formation was irredeemably unwieldy), and it also garnered wide support from high ranking officers at the time. However, it would be difficult to form a convincing case that any aspect of the Fredericksburg Campaign disaster could be traced to the Grand Division concept, and one might reasonably argue they had unrealized merit as maneuver elements when commanded by the right men. A late suggestion in the book indicates that the authors agree that the blanket dismissal of Grand Divisions is something that needs reexamination.

The non-infantry branches of the army were also significantly retooled by Hooker. Some positive ordnance changes were made, but the authors fault Hooker's reorganization of the artillery for being too decentralized. For the mounted arm, Hooker's creation of the Cavalry Corps is highly praised. Building on their study of the corps's formation, the authors detail the new command's flailing before and during the critical phase of the Chancellorsville Campaign. While George Stoneman's appointment to lead the corps was justifiable at the time it was made, the general quickly proved himself unequal to the task and the narrative clearly shows this.

Hooker and Chief of Staff Daniel Butterfield also ordered the creation of the Army of the Potomac's first formal intelligence gathering organization. Headed by Colonel George H. Sharpe, the Bureau of Military Information (BMI) was designed to consider "all-source intelligence," with the aim of systematically increasing the accuracy of information and using it to aid command decisions. According to the authors, the BMI was far from a well oiled machine during Hooker's tenure, but it was a fine start.

In support of the many arguments put forth in Seizing Destiny, the authors assembled a vast number of accounts written by the officers and men that experienced the "Valley Forge" moment firsthand. These relate to a great number of topics. In addition to rank and file reactions to the conditions present in the army under Burnside and the reforms initiated by Hooker and Butterfield, the diary and letter writers also expound at length upon other weighty issues like emancipation, conscription, spiritual awakening, and the growing anti-war movement on the home front (which increased the communal resolve of many soldiers and disillusioned others). The words of the soldiers also mark the April visit of the president to the camps as a bonding event for many and an additional boost to morale.

A major theme of Seizing Destiny is the idea that the Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge" moment shaped it into a war-winning instrument. Of course, the fly in the ointment of this argument is the embarrassing defeat (largely self-inflicted) at Chancellorsville that closely followed. But in examining soldier letters and diaries written immediately after the battle, the authors make at least a plausible case that, unlike Fredericksburg, the troops were not demoralized by Chancellorsville. Indeed, many participants did not view it as a major defeat at all, only a temporary setback. The remarkable speed by which the army recovered for the victorious Gettysburg Campaign supports this notion, as well.

Complaints are minor. The book suggests that Butterfield deserves more recognition for the army's transformation than he's been awarded historically (a new biography would be helpful), but the authors might also have advanced this cause with a more thoroughly explicit job of parsing credit (if indeed that's possible) for the initiative and administration of the many army reforms so well explained in the text. Also, to get a better idea of the relative scale and breadth of change that occurred in such a short period of time in early 1863, it might have been instructive for the book to summarize how the Army of the Potomac spent the winters bracketing the "Valley Forge" event, when General McClellan famously created the army in late 1861-early 1862 and the 1863-64 season that brought U.S. Grant to the East and ultimate victory.

Unlike many history books, which seem to cross the finish line with easily recognized relief, this one is reluctant to leave the reader. The epilogue offers an extensive analysis of the "Valley Forge" reforms using sixteen 'systems of war', the section both applying modern thinking and providing an excellent recapitulation of the book's major themes. The postscript delves into preservation issues while also reviewing the historiography of the winter events of 1863. Finally, the study ends with a trio of appendices. The first summarizes the historical legacy of many of the individuals mentioned in the book, the second is composed of rather lengthy biographical sketches of a large selection of women prominently involved in the proceedings, and the last is an order of battle (with organizational changes between Burnside's relief and the beginning of the Chancellorsville Campaign designated in bold).

Seizing Destiny conclusively demonstrates that the Army of the Potomac's much ballyhooed revival during the first months of Joe Hooker's command tenure was no exaggerated event. Nor was it simply a result of time healing all wounds or the consequence of talented individuals working magic within their limited spheres of expertise and responsibility. Real change on the order of what occurred in the Army of the Potomac during the dark interlude studied in the pages of this book requires extraordinary administrative leadership from the top, and Hooker and Butterfield provided that in spades in early 1863. Unfortunately for their place in history, how they would use the magnificent instrument they reforged would fall definitively flat soon after, leaving it to George Meade and U.S. Grant to wield the Army of the Potomac to final victory. Seizing Destiny is an award-worthy study.


  1. Hi Drew

    Thank you so much for reading and delving deeply into "Seizing Destiny." All of us at Savas Beatie are so pleased to see this, especially because Al Conner had worked so long and hard to research and write this, and Chris Mackowski came aboard to help push it across the finish line with Al's health weakened.

    Your last line--Seizing Destiny is an award-worthy study--was especially welcome. I hope the award committees are listening.

    Again, we appreciate all you do for the Civil War publishing community in general, and independent publishing in particular.


    1. Thanks, Ted. I hope it reaches the audience it deserves.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Drew. The credit really goes to Al for all the research he put into the book and then having the vision to see something new in all that. He really assembled a remarkable body of information and drew some impressive insights from it. It was impressive scholarship. For me, it was a real treat to come on board and help see it through.


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