896 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0618428250
Like many amateur historians of the American Civil War, amongst the first books I read were the trilogy on the Army of the Potomac written by Michigan’s own Bruce Catton: For Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and A Stillness at Appomattox in the guise of their 1988 reissue as Bruce Catton’s Civil War, after my Dad had taken us on our first Historic Odyssey way the hell back in 1982. I’ve since read a few more volumes on this hard-luck army and its travails since then, and as far as dedicated Army of the Potomac histories go, Catton’s work has largely been superseded as serious history due to their anecdotal style and lack of footnotes, along with the utterly awful or nonexistent maps – but there has been no real replacement of impeccable quality, either. Enter Stephen W. Sears, who has written several excellent campaign histories of the American Civil War’s Eastern Theater (Antietam, Peninsula, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg), as well as much about General George Brinton McClellan. Besides being an old hand at this stuff, at this point Sears has also covered a lot of background details about the much-despised and much-maligned Army of the Potomac in his other books…how could he possibly add anything new to this endlessly rehashed subject?
Well, he dood it in Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac, in which Sears focuses more on high command interactions, personalities of the generals and their staffs and the (often dysfunctional) institutional structure of the Army of the Potomac. This sort of material is usually the background to campaign studies, but here Sears inverts the usual approach and the campaigns are instead background to the institutional history. This may sound dull but it is not, as Sears is a graceful and highly skilled writer, and his campaign and battle descriptions are well done and, of course, occurs frequently enough to make things interesting (his descriptions of troop formations and organizational shakeups, however, are as dry as sand on toast). More significantly, Sears makes the info on the generals seem fascinating: between flamboyant characters like Dan Sickles and Phil Kearny, intriguing failures like Franz Sigel and Samuel Heintzelman, and even McClellan’s cadre of sycophants like Fitz John Porter and William Franklin, Sears has an eye for telling detail and interesting (well-documented) anecdote. Sears also ranges into interesting topics like the reasons why McClellan, a cavalry officer by training and inclination, presided over such an awful cavalry arm when he was commander in chief, and contrasts Union and Confederate handling of artillery organization. To an American Civil War reader like me who has been hearing peripherally about these matters in numerous campaign studies, it’s intriguing to finally get the full story covered with all the details illuminated. What you won’t find in Lincoln’s Lieutenants is any description of what life was like for either Billie Yank or Johnny Reb: no life in the trenches stuff, no snippets or quotes about the grunt’s eye view of battle experiences, no descriptions of suffering, hunger or homesickness. But considering the title of this book, that should come as no surprise (also missing was nay comparable descriptions of what was going on in the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia; but again, I refer you to the book’s title).
I have only one real criticism, but it’s an important one: the maps are almost, but not quite, useless: while nicely produced and full of information – I mean, damn near every town name, road, river etc., seems to be included – BUT no troop movements, starting formations, or even handy read-or-blue arrows to help you figure out what in the hell is going on. The troop movements mentioned in the texts have to be puzzled out by the reader, and if you don’t know that the Union was moving in such-and-such direction at a given battle, it can be hard to figure out what is going on. This is no minor omission, as part of Sears’ theme is that Howard was a good general because he did X at Y battle, while Keyes was not so good because he did Y at X battle, instead. If you can’t track the maneuvers on the map, it makes it tough to see Sears’ points. I assume most persons reading a 900+ page history on the Army of the Potomac are probably pretty familiar with the American Civil War to begin with, and so can probably follow along on the maps from memory or can dig out other books and use those as references.
With that said, I learned a lot from this volume and feel Sears has outdone himself here. This is his longest book by far, and his readable style, fair-minded objectivity and ability to master a huge amount of material and convey it to the reader without making the process a dull slog remain fully intact (plus, he gives hell to McClellan, and deservedly so). As mentioned, Sears is advanced in years at this point (84-years-old at time of writing) so this may be his last book. I hope not, as I always hoped for one or more Overland Campaign studies from him, but if this is indeed his swan song, he is ending his career on the highest possible note. For new readers of the American Civil War, I will say only that this is a fine book for anyone with an interest in the subject as long as they have a reasonable familiarity with the overall subject War in the East. I would not recommend coming to this large detailed volume cold, though; that is, with no prior reading done on the war. Maybe read the above-mentioned Catton books for starters. Not necessarily for newcomers, and needs better maps, but experienced readers will love this, as the story of the tragic Army of the Potomac is an utterly fascinating one. Sears is maybe the finest American Civil War writer alive at present, and he does a great job telling an important and interesting story here.