Monday, April 24, 2017

Lincoln's Lieutenants

Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by [Sears, Stephen W.]

Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac- Stephen W. Sears
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: April 25, 2017

Rating (out of 5)

Synopsis: The high command of the Army of the Potomac was a changeable, often dysfunctional band of brothers, going through the fires of war under seven commanding generals in three years, until Grant came east in 1864. The men in charge all too frequently appeared to be fighting against the administration in Washington instead of for it, increasingly cast as political pawns facing down a vindictive congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.  President Lincoln oversaw, argued with, and finally tamed his unruly team of generals as the eastern army was stabilized by an unsung supporting cast of corps, division, and brigade generals. 


Lincoln's Lieutenants explores the rocky history of the high command of the Army of the Potomac, from the first shot at Fort Sumter to Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse.  What starts out as a slightly intimidating, 800 page tome quickly becomes a thrilling read, well-written and researched to provide any history buff a truly fascinating account of the personalities behind the Army of the Potomac.

The Army of the Potomac guarded Washington D.C., fought at the bloody battlefields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, First and Second Bull Run, and finally, Petersburg.  They faced Confederate General Robert E. Lee almost from first to last and were led by famous generals like McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, and Grant.  Sears searched archives from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, the National Archives to the Library of Congress and uses first-hand accounts, diaries, and letters to give the reader an in-depth, on-the-scenes view of events and people. Sears does an excellent job of allowing the words of soldiers, generals, and Lincoln to draw readers in, showing the personalities behind the names history still remembers.

I was amazed to learn how much fighting was done among the Cabinet, Senate, and generals. Nearly all the Potomac's generals found themselves at odds with President Lincoln on how their campaigns should be fought. How they managed to fight a war with all of the in-fighting, back-stabbing, favoritism, and egos dominating every decision is still unclear by the end of the book.  Personalities, politics, and patrons played as much (often more) of a role in who led men into battle as experience and ability.  So many of the lower commanding officers had neither experience nor ability in leading men into battle, so many wrong decisions were made or opportunities lost, that it left me wondering how this army ever managed anything.  Grant finally comes east and, for the first time in the war, has each of the Union armies working together (sort of), as well as being the first Potomac general to have a lasting, good working relationship with Lincoln.  I found it helpful that whenever Sears described a battle decision one of the generals made, he would usually add what was happening on the other side and if the decision was actually a good one or not.  For example, every time McClellan claimed the Confederates had 200,000 men against his army, Sears would provide the actual numbers and some explanation for why McClellan thought the way he did.  It was also rather frightening to discover how personal egos and fears often played  such a large role in causing troops to fail being sent to support what could have otherwise been a winning strategy.              

The one complaint I had with this book was Sears' tendency towards repetition.  I appreciated how, after going through the details of a particular campaign, Sears would provide a summary of the events to help the reader get things set in their minds.  However, Sears tended to give multiple summaries of the same event, or repeat more times than necessary who had fallen in each battle and who had taken over their command.  That detracted a bit from the flow and was, for me, annoying,

Overall, Lincoln's Lieutenants was a fascinating book, focusing more on the men in command than just the events they commanded.  History buffs will appreciate the details and the voices of the men allowed to shine through, often providing well timed ironic and humorous moments.  While Lieutenants might be intimidating for those only casually interested in the topic, anyone looking for a well-researched study on the Army of the Potomac will find a treasure in Stephen Sears' newest Lincoln's Lieutenants.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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