Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review of Matsui - "THE FIRST REPUBLICAN ARMY: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War"

[The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War by John H. Matsui (University of Virginia Press, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:169/240. ISBN:978-0-8139-3927-8. $39.50]

The Union's Army of Virginia existed for less than three months in the summer of 1862 and was disastrously defeated in its only major battle (at Second Bull Run). Its dissolution and rapid absorption into the Army of the Potomac rendered it a footnote in the popular history of the Civil War. However, John's Matsui's The First Republican Army constructs a reasoned argument that General John Pope's command had an influence and significance to the course of war that belied its short-lived status and catastrophic military failure, enough to make it richly deserving of its own study.

As one might expect, the first few chapters discuss the origins of the Army of Virginia and its formation during a period of intense national debate over the conduct and progress of the war. In summer 1862, the stalled pace of the Army of the Potomac's drive on Richmond and the conservative generalship of its commander George B. McClellan both came under intense political scrutiny (especially from Radical Republicans). In response, the Lincoln administration combined several existing departments into the Department of Virginia and placed rising star John Pope in command. Matsui summarizes Pope's background and ably illustrates how the western general's successful early war military career and unabashed targeting of enemy civilians made the Kentucky-born Ohioan an immensely appealing figure for partisan Republican politicians. The book also informatively discusses how Pope took the punitive occupation measures he honed in the laboratory of Missouri's bitter internal conflict and applied them to his Virginia department. In the form of Pope's new army, a powerful counterpoint to the limited war previously practiced in the eastern theater was quickly established. In the views of its supporters, a vigorous and successful Army of Virginia would discredit both the conservative West Point clique that dominated the Army of the Potomac's high command and conciliatory "soft" war policy as a whole.

Matsui's vivid descriptions of the character of some of the partisan politicking that took place within units of the Army of Virginia effectively remind us of the nakedly political nature (to some degree or another) of all Civil War volunteer armies. However, the evidence that the author assembles in support of his claim that politics was of "particular significance" (pg. 8) to the experiences of the officers and men of the Army of Virginia from top to bottom isn't entirely compelling. Matsui effectively contrasts the Republican flavor of the Army of Virginia's high command with the more conservative outlook of the Army of the Potomac's leaders. The difference began at the very top with John Pope and permeated the Army of Virginia's corps, division, and brigade commanders with their higher proportion of citizen-generals and professionals who sympathized with the more radical war aims.

Among the men in the ranks, however, the differences cited by Matsui seem less clear. The author's remarks about the Army of Virginia being the most geographically representative of all Union armies formed during the war is interesting to consider, but it seems counterintuitive to argue that the men in the Army of Virginia were generally more sympathetic to the plight of contrabands and supportive of emancipation when the Army of the Potomac had by far the greater concentration of New England troops. In developing his own case for the Army of Virginia, Matsui is less convinced by Glenn David Brasher's argument that the Army of the Potomac's direct interactions with the Peninsula's black population led to widespread antislavery sentiment among its units. He cites Brasher's failure to adequately take into account the regional and demographic variations within McClellan's army. This may have merit, but the author's own Army of Virginia study sample (an unsystematic compilation having significant officer and unit overrepresentation) also makes broad ideological conclusions about the masses in the ranks less reliable.

If accurate, the book's contention that, even though the Army of the Potomac operated in the more plantation-rich southeastern tidewater counties, far greater numbers of slaves were sheltered by the Army of Virginia adds support to Matsui's characterization of Pope's command as the pioneering instrument of Radical war aims in the eastern theater. On the other hand, in pointing this out, the author's exclusive reference to the slaves as "self-emancipated" rather unfairly marginalizes the army's invaluable role as beacon, agent, and protector of black freedom. On a related note, the author credits Pope with the superior intelligence gathering system of the two, a significant part of it being local knowledge obtained from African Americans. Others, like Brasher, have also successfully argued that a similar relationship aided the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula, but it seems that the major difference, according to Matsui, lies in the Army of Virginia's higher-level integration of black-sourced intelligence information.

Another contrast between the Virginia and Potomac armies explored in the book involves military-civilian relations. As stated before, John Pope refined hard war principles in the West and brought these punitive practices to Virginia. Unfortunately, as the book shows, all too many soldiers mistakenly interpreted Pope's harsh rhetoric as license to plunder and harass enemy civilians. Gross inconsistencies in punishment combined with the apathy displayed by too many officers toward curbing abuses led the high command to backtrack on the tone of its proclamations, but damage to property and army discipline alike was already done. Matsui also persuasively cites specific experiential factors, such as a much greater degree of involvement in fighting guerrillas and performing occupation duties amid hostile local populations, as particularly important in pushing those units that would comprise the Army of Virginia toward supporting and practicing punitive war. The author's determination that the mid-September assimilation of the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac significantly accelerated antislavery and hard war sentiment in the Union's premier army may very well have credence, but it might also be true that the Potomac army's own bloody experiences on the Peninsula and in central Virginia during that summer played an equal or even greater role.

In addition to ideological concerns, the book also addresses some of the positive military reforms that Pope instituted within his command. For example, Matsui credits Pope for creating a cavalry organization that was ahead of its peers in the Army of the Potomac and, in bypassing seniority and jumping John Buford several grades up the command ladder, demonstrating a good eye for selecting leaders of promise for the Army of Virginia's mounted arm. 

While it's certainly true that all Union armies were shaped at some level by party politics, John Matsui's suggestion that the Army of Virginia as a whole was a uniquely Republican agent, forged and consumed at a key policymaking crossroads, is an intriguing one. In the eastern theater, the conflict's political center of gravity, the Army of Virginia came to embody the radical turn in war aims, away from status quo antebellum and toward punitive action and emancipation. Some are more powerfully supported than others, but the arguments contained in The First Republican Army go some distance toward ensuring that the Army of Virginia has a lasting legacy to challenge that of its terrible defeat at Second Bull Run.


  1. The Army of Virginia ceased to exist after it's absorption into the AoP, but the units and leaders were all still in place. Wouldn't their influence have been felt longer after they became apart of the AoP?

    1. That's what the author maintains. The "seeding" action of the army after its dissolution is more assumed than demonstrated in the text.

      Actually, many AoV leaders didn't make the transition to further active service with the AoP. Just looking at the top, all three corps commanders were relieved or relatively quickly phased out.

      (Also, please follow the posting rules re: signing comments with your name.)


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