No Glory But Victory: The Triumph of the Army of the Potomac

By The Wargamer 04 May 2003 0


It began with great promise, yet, tellingly, with even greater expectation: a grand army, a beloved general, and a brilliant plan to crush the rebellion. Instead of marching through northern Virginia to capture Richmond, Union forces traveled by sea in an attempt to outflank the Confederate army encamped within miles of Washington and reach the enemy's capital first. In April 1862, the more than 100,000 man strong Army of the Potomac, commanded by the charismatic George B. McClellan landed on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in Virginia and began their first-and many thought their last-campaign. Some speculated that the Union would be restored by the Fourth of July.

In such individual was Theodore Dodge. He was impressed by the strength and discipline of the organization to which he belonged: The Army of the Potomac. During the drive to Richmond, he pondered:

"Where is there such another machine as the human body and where such a machine of machines as an Army? It is wonderful. You see a Regiment march up all order, every man in his place; they break ranks, all is confusion; one word and all is order again?.One vast distinction there is between the component parts of an Army, i.e. Man, and an Army itself. The one is rendered comparatively unfit for service by any part being disabled, but how many blows can an Army suffer in the destruction of its numbers without apparent slack in the work of its machinery."

Time would prove this idle musing both prophetic and tragically ironic: on the first day of Gettysburg, a bullet shattered Dodge's right ankle, which caused his leg to be amputated and ended his active campaigning with the army, though not his military career. Like Dodge, the Army of the Potomac suffered greatly in its service to this country.

The Peninsula Campaign ended in failure. Over the next 17 months, the army tried four times to capture Richmond by an overland march through Virginia from the north. In the process, it suffered many humiliating and bloody defeats. Men were needlessly sacrificed and there was no gain to offset the increasing despair that many soldiers felt; desertion was at an all time high. The Army of the Potomac came very close to breaking down entirely.

As historian Brian K. Burton notes, "Soldiers in the Civil War based much of their behavior on their generals." The commanding officer was very often idolized and greeted with warm cheers wherever he and his staff went. He was the ballast that kept an army together and inspired it to achieve in battle. The Army of the Potomac had five commanding officers, counting Ulysses S. Grant who as General-in-Chief of all the Union armies campaigned with the Army of the Potomac and essentially funneled his orders through George Meade. This attrition did not come about through battlefield injury, but was often the result of political demand after military failure. First, McClellan lost command and was replaced by Ambrose Burnside who quickly proved incompetent to lead such a huge force. His replacement, "Fighting Joe" Hooker did not prove much better nor did he remain in command for very long. In the summer of 1863, George Meade took charge and remained its commander until the end of the war. Since the Potomac Army was very much a product of its home base, Washington, D.C., perhaps it was unavoidable that it would be one of the most politicized armies of the Civil War. Each general left his mark on the men and changed the Army of the Potomac in some fundamental way, sometimes for the worse. By the end of the war, the organization was completely transformed.

The story of the Army of the Potomac is a grim one filled with tragic mistakes, unnecessary sacrifice, and just plain bad-luck. It is a story where ordinary men engage in countless acts of bravery in the fulfillment of their duty. This article traces that story and details the work of a number of historians who have recorded the deeds of this noble organization and sought to explain them to future generations.



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