Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book News: First for the Union

I recently noticed that there is another Army of the Potomac corps history in the works. Scheduled for release this fall, Darin Wipperman's First for the Union: Life and Death in a Civil War Army Corps from Antietam to Gettysburg (Stackpole, Oct 2020) follows on the heels of Lawrence Kreiser's Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac (2011) and James Pula's two-volume Eleventh Corps project that was completed in 2018. I can't believe it's been nearly a decade already since Kreiser's Second Corps book was published (seems like it was only a few years ago!).

I was going to go into the rarity of Civil War corps histories (or divisions for that matter) in comparison to the far more popular regimental, brigade, and even army studies, but Wipperman's book description took the words right out of my mouth. According to the writer, "corps remain relatively overlooked—not because they are an unimportant or unappealing subject, but because mastering the subject is so difficult, requiring knowledge of many commanders’ careers, dozens of constituent units, and many battles. Few are willing to tackle the subject." I would agree that those reasons have something to do with it. On a related topic, using the AoP Fourth Corps (which was dissolved in 1863) as an example, a reader recently suggested to me that there is also good cause to study corps that were dysfunctional or otherwise did not live up to expectations. I would agree with that notion as well.

But getting back to the matter at hand, First Corps (unlike Fourth Corps) essentially fought itself to extinction. From the description: "The Army of the Potomac’s First Corps was one of the best corps in the entire Union army. In September 1862, it was chosen to spearhead the Union attack at Antietam, fighting Stonewall Jackson’s men in the Cornfield and at the Dunker Church. In July 1863 at Gettysburg, its men were the first Union infantry to reach the battle, where they relieved the cavalry and fought off the Confederate onslaught all day before retreating to Cemetery Hill. Their valiant stand west of Gettysburg saved the Union from disaster that day but came at great cost (60 percent casualties). The corps was disbanded the following spring, having bled itself out of existence."

I would be interested in reading this. I suppose it's no surprise that all the current Union corps-level scholarship is concentrated in the Army of the Potomac (though, of course, Eleventh Corps was transferred out west in '63). I have Pula's books, but not Kreiser's volume. My review copy request went unfulfilled at the time of release, and I never did get a chance to see it or read it. If you'd like to offer your own thoughts about the book, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review.

    Chris Barry

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  2. I read Kresier's book and what stood out to me was not the battle descriptions but his discussion of the Second Corps' political intrigues. Many of its regiments were Irish-heavy or recruited in the cities of the Northeast and consequently leaned Democratic, as did Hancock and other commanders. I also appreciated Kresier alerting me to the existence of a collection of an ancestor's letters I hadn't known about!

    The First Corps has always interested me. I hope Mr. Wipperman's book is innovative like kresier's and not simply another love letter to a favorite unit.

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    1. That could be another reason why corps histories are less common than they should be. Personal attachment is a strong motivator behind so many regimental histories, and I would imagine that connection to the more "faceless" corps is much more difficult to cultivate (unless we're talking about the cult of admirers that follow generals like Reynolds) .

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  3. I wonder why the author didn't include this outfit's role as the III Corps in the Army of Virginia. Essentially the same organization and some of its units had their first combat in that relatively short span (e.g., the Iron Brigade)

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    1. Yes, one thing that the author of a corps history has to decide is how far and how deep to go into progenitor formations, detachments, etc. At this time, it's impossible to know exactly what is or isn't in the book. There might be some introductory chapters that cover the winding org path (McDowell's First Corps that got parceled out and then restored as the Third Corps AoV intermediary you mention) that preceded Hooker's First Corps AoP.

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  4. True - that's why I was focused on the late July - September period. It's pretty short and the III Corps (A of V) went into the A of the Potomac largely intact. The duration of the corps as an organization is short enough as it is. And given that it did literally nothing at Chancellorsville I'd be concerned about a rehash for the Xtieth time of what we already know regarding the Cornfield and McPherson's Ridge.

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