Army of the Potomac, Vol. 3, McClellan’s First Campaign: March–May 1862

by Russel H. Beatie, Savas Beatie, 2007, 723 pages, $45.

For what was ultimately a victorious fighting force, the Army of the Potomac nevertheless has long languished in the historiographic shadow of its vanquished foe from the South. While countless shelves have groaned for more than half a century under the weight of Douglas Southall Freeman’s titanic study of the Army of Northern Virginia and its vaunted leadership, there has been no equivalent treatment of the Federal effort in the Civil War’s Eastern theater. Russel H. Beatie, clearly undeterred by either the scope of the challenge or the near-Olympian standing of his Confederate counterpart, has stepped forward to redress this imbalance. With the release of the initial volume of his Army of the Potomac series in 2002, he began crafting a comprehensive history of the Union’s most famous, if ill-starred, command.

In this installment, Beatie covers the opening stages of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s great offensive into Virginia in 1862—from the abortive effort at an overland advance into the Shenandoah Valley (forestalled, of course, when the requisite pontoons for bridging the Potomac River proved a few inches too wide for the locks of the C&O Canal) to the fierce fighting at Williamsburg some 10 weeks later. The picture that emerges differs greatly from the traditional interpretation.

Drawing on an impressive array of primary sources, Beatie rejects the all-too-common caricature of McClellan as equal parts coward, villain and buffoon. Beatie argues strenuously that the general had learned from his missteps with civil authorities in the opening months of the war. He writes that it was a “new” McClellan who emerged from his sickbed in the early months of 1862 to present his plan for a waterborne invasion of Virginia—that he had learned the importance of being forthright and communicative with his superiors. The effort availed him little, however. As Beatie writes, McClellan was faced with a president who was “somewhere between a babe in arms and a well-intentioned man of ignorance on military questions” and a secretary of war afflicted by “excitable cowardice” that demonstrated his “unsuitability for a high level, policy-making position in a time of crisis.” His careful planning was undermined time and again by interference from men who lacked the political courage to reject his strategy yet continually withheld from him the assets and assistance necessary for its success.

Beatie depicts McClellan as having been denied adequate control over promotions, and forced to operate with corps commanders deficient in ability and lacking confidence in the operation. Moreover, he was blindsided by the last-minute removal of key units from his control, and abandoned by the Navy (its promised cooperation had constituted a critical element in his plan for reducing Yorktown). Beatie maintains that the execution of the campaign was so far removed from McClellan’s original concept that its failings cannot be charged to him. It is a bold and unique thesis, and Beatie’s strident declarations and strongly opinionated language will leave few readers dispassionate in their reaction.

Enthusiasts will delight in the book’s 35 gorgeously rendered maps, and the publisher’s refreshing use of footnotes is a boon to researchers. In wrestling with such a large volume of material, however, Beatie’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Now and again, the demands of smoothly flowing prose collide with his desire to be comprehensive in recounting events, resulting in some ragged transitions between passages. Further, since the book was constructed as a component in a single multivolume narrative and not as a stand-alone work, readers who have not acquainted themselves with the previous offerings in this series, or who are unfamiliar with the events treated more fully elsewhere, may struggle at times to comprehend the meaning of certain remarks. But given the length of the final product, Beatie can be forgiven for not adding to it further by stopping to refamiliarize his audience with individuals and episodes covered earlier.

As he has expended more than 1,800 pages thus far to take his readers to Virginia’s lower peninsula, one may rightly wonder whether Beatie will ever reach Appomattox at the present pace. What is beyond dispute is that he is attempting one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in the field of Civil War studies—and that merits healthy respect for his effort.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here