#Reviewing Lincoln’s Lieutenants

Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Stephen W. Sears. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

There is room for innovation in the old, populated field of Civil War military history. Studies of the soldier’s experience as well as policy toward civilians and guerrillas show that it does not consist solely of tactical and operational narratives.[1] These works are stimulating to some historians and battlefield enthusiasts, but Earl J. Hess urges peers to “write for a discerning academic audience with an eye for new interpretations.”[2] Mark Grimsley observes that military history writ large would benefit from greater attention to theory. Donald Stoker’s pioneering 2010 effort, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, attests to the dearth of strategic analysis for America’s bloodiest conflict.

Stephen W. Sears, author of twelve prior Civil War volumes, reassesses the Eastern Theater in Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. It explores two topics germane to the modern military. Strategists will note that the Army of the Potomac was the most important Northern force and fought in the preeminent theater. Russell F. Weigley claims that this area “offered the most promising opportunity for a short war and thereby the limitation of costs and destructive violence.”[4] Students of civil-military relations will focus on the relative politicization of the officer corps and whether President Abraham Lincoln could impose his strategic vision on commanders.

Sears argues that the Army of the Potomac’s links to the Capitol and fixation on northern critics meant its leaders “were challenged as no other generals…in the Civil War.”[5] Their mistakes explained the army’s uneven performance, and their quick succession revealed intense partisanship as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War persecuted Democratic officers in its search for traitors. General George B. McClellan selected cautious commanders who sought media coverage and promulgated coup rumors. Ambrose E. Burnside and Joseph Hooker’s defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville elicited officer criticism, but prospects improved under George G. Meade and General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant. Despite the 1864 Overland Campaign’s heavy toll, treasonous musings and denunciations of superiors faded. Political concerns surfaced during the presidential election, “but…the Potomac army had become Mr. Lincoln’s army.”[6]

Major General Irvin McDowell (Civil War Trust)

Sears first examines war mobilization. Reliance on state units was a “tacit acknowledgement that the United States of 1860-61 was…a loosely woven compact of states…[in which] a…‘national’ army would not be tolerated.”[7] This influenced the creation of regiments and general appointments, illustrated by Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase’s patronage of fellow Ohioan Irvin McDowell to direct the nascent Army of Northeastern Virginia. Inadequate staff and experience underlay his First Bull Run defeat. Although the commander adapted plans to battlefield realities, he was irresolute, inaccessible, and bungled tactically.

Lincoln replaced McDowell with McClellan to lead the renamed Army of the Potomac. McClellan embraced Lieutenant General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, which favored steady naval and land-based pressure over a swift drive to the enemy capitol, Richmond. But his scaled-down version was devoid of “a timetable and operational detail.”[8] Fearing an outsized opponent, McClellan replaced amateurs with professional officers while disregarding staff work. He rejected civilian oversight, responding to demands for action by ordering reviews, drills, and special assignments. When McClellan learned that Confederates were departing Leesburg, he dispatched soldiers to drive out the remainder, with controversial results. Brigadier General Charles P. Stone directed one advance toward Ball’s Bluff, which failed and resulted in the death of Republican politician-turned-colonel Edward D. Baker. This combined with First Bull Run to exacerbate political tensions, leading Congress to establish the Joint Committee. It castigated his unclear strategy, officer favoritism, and desire for a restrained war leaving slaves untouched. Responding to its denunciations of Stone, Secretary of War Edwin V. Stanton signaled Republican resolve by imprisoning the Democrat for unverified secession and slavery sympathies.

Sears criticizes McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign: he did not consult with the generals, organize corps, or communicate his defensive arrangements for the Capitol. Favoring his own Urbanna scheme to outflank the Confederates, McClellan rejected Lincoln’s Occoquan proposal that would “deny the enemy...time to dig in and reinforce.”[9] Absent from the field at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and much of the Seven Days, his shock at combat losses revealed “a reluctance to accept the human toll necessarily expended…to win.”[10]

McClellan hoped to be the Union savior and withheld aid to John Pope, general of the Army of Virginia. The latter’s confused order-giving, inability to recognize changing battlefield conditions, dispirited troops, and derelict lieutenant McDowell produced the Second Bull Run disaster. Regardless of Cabinet demands for change, Lincoln restored McClellan in his “most wrenching military-command decision of the war.”[11] Sears praises the general’s effect on despondent troops, barring rumors of officers hoping to march on the Capitol, sideline slavery concerns, and secure “a peace negotiated between the armies.”[12]

During the Maryland Campaign, a lethargic McClellan did not articulate a schedule or operational plan, or even inform officers of Robert E. Lee’s Special Order No. 191 which Union soldiers had discovered. This facilitated Confederate fighting at South Mountain and then Sharpsburg, his first actual battlefield command. Consulting only with Major General Fitz John Porter, McClellan ordered individual advances and committed no reserves for fear that Lee’s counterattacks augured vast numbers. The tepid Northern pursuit demonstrated he “lacked the courage of any conviction that he could win this battle; only that he must not lose it.”[13] His condemnations of the Emancipation Proclamation and delayed southward offensive pushed Lincoln to replace him.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan in the general's tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862. (Wikimedia)

Sears claims Burnside, the next in charge, “was not so deeply rooted in the Army…culture and politics that his independence was compromised.”[14] Establishing three grand divisions reaffirmed his predecessor’s wing structure, however, and McClellan’s imprint remained on the army. During the Fredericksburg calamity, an exhausted and indecisive Burnside oversaw disorganized offensives. The Joint Committee’s search for negligence worsened command tensions, officers plotted his removal, and Republicans demanded Cabinet dismissals. The author judges the army at its administrative nadir. Stanton sought Porter’s court-martial for his abysmal conduct at Second Bull Run. Alongside with McClellan, his departure was a cultural shift, as “the Potomac army began to distance itself from opposition politics and to turn more to…war making.”[15]

Hooker next assumed command, improving furlough, rations, and intelligence-gathering, quashing desertion, reorganizing the command hierarchy, and forming a cavalry corps for more effective operations. His “campaign plan was the most innovative…to date,” though his decision to fight defensively allowed Lee to shape events.[16] Sears attributes the Chancellorsville reverse to corps commander mistakes, infantry mismanagement of artillery, poor communication and coordination, and retreat from good ground at Hazel Grove. Hooker resigned due to a skeptical administration and critical officers who disregarded his mid-battle concussion, but his initiatives had steeled army resolve for two battles in as many months.

General George G. Meade, Photographed by Matthew Brady (Wikimedia)

Sears praises Meade’s tenure, especially his oversight of subordinates at Gettysburg. The question of whether he should be blamed for allowing Lee’s defeated army to retreat has been fraught for historians.[17] This theme of Civil War victories marred by half-hearted leadership permeates many histories yet Weigley comments that “victory...invariably cost the winning army too many casualties and...disorganization to permit swift and determined pursuit.”[18] Sears justifies Meade’s behavior by pointing to heavy rain, a bloodied officer corps, the danger posed by Lee’s comparably-sized force, and his formidable Williamsport fortifications. Notwithstanding Joint Committee efforts to obscure the Democrat’s leadership, Lincoln disregarded its demands to restore Hooker. Meade brought about improved leadership and larger corps, producing “a new model army, its high command…pruned of deadwood.”[19]

New general-in-chief Grant changed operational tempo, ordering an advance rather than withdrawal after the Wilderness. Sears notes the unusual command dynamic wherein “Grant did the grand strategy…[Meade] the grand tactics.”[20] The former’s rapid style challenged the sizable army and its obstinate leadership, causing mistakes at Spotsylvania and the march on Petersburg. The Overland Campaign battles involved costly assaults on Confederate fortifications, and Meade rightly found the Cold Harbor attack futile before Grant. Since they formed an efficient duo, botched fighting at Petersburg resulted from “on-the-scene command lapses, or the unsoldierly manpower now filling up the ranks.”[21] Attesting to ongoing military partisanship, Grant tolerated ineffectual political commanders who represented important constituencies for the Republican presidential campaign. Voting soldiers repudiated McClellan’s Democratic candidacy, but among the military efforts of the army, only a successful General Philip H. Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley contributed to Lincoln’s reelection.

General Ulysses S. Grant and his Staff (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

The reader should draw several lessons. The Army of the Potomac would initially seem likely to strike the Confederacy decisively. This largest and best-supplied of Northern hosts was also closest to Richmond. And yet, Sears illustrates that its institutional culture was crucial. McClellan’s inculcated officers with his overly-cautious style, with which subsequent commanders had to contend. Quantifiable factors do not fully reveal an army’s capabilities, as per historian John Lynn, who foregrounds cultural characteristics over “the dominance of material factors.”[22] Strategists should note that a general’s decisions not only shape an army’s campaigns, but its future capacity for waging war.

Sears also shows that the Army of the Potomac’s proximity to Washington, DC fostered counterproductive officer partisanship. Military politicization predated the Civil War, as presidents Thomas Jefferson and James K. Polk demonstrated with efforts to foster Republican and Democratic military constituencies, respectively. More recently, scholar Adrian R. Lewis finds that between the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, “generals and admirals endeavored to exert greater influence over the conduct of war and the decision to go to war,” while congressional members worked with military figures in ways that compromised executive leadership.[23] Balancing civil-military relations is an ongoing dilemma. Given that current policy studies must consider the roles played by the Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council, the less-developed Lincoln administration might seem of distant relevance. And yet, that president’s struggle to develop a good relationship with successive commanders exemplifies the complexities of America’s traditional civilian control of the military. McClellan believed this “all but intolerable.”[24] Hooker even pondered a dictatorship, and Grant’s success reflected a greater matching of military expertise to executive goals.

Unfamiliar audiences will learn much from Lincoln’s Lieutenants, but it is not an ideal introduction. One-volume histories of the whole conflict, such as James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Allen C. Guelzo’s Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction better address the political, economic, social, and cultural factors essential to understanding this national schism. Readers will still find Sears’s book valuable because it embraces the Army of the Potomac’s entire history, a subject normally requiring the consultation of several monographs. Whereas most Civil War military history centers on battles or campaigns, Sears focuses on the army itself to show that its experiences and attributes should be part of any serious operational discussion.

Despite the book’s strengths, Sears obscures the generals’ strategic aptitudes by exploring command decisions amidst profusive tactical detail, this little elucidated by thirteen maps lacking unit positions and directions of movement. Although grounded in archival material, his assessments are frequently unsurprising. The notion of politically-riven officers mirrors the historiography, and he offers no comparisons with other Civil War armies to support the contention that these commanders faced unique challenges. The author’s claim that the army accepted Lincoln’s civilian oversight by 1864 founders in his conclusion that it “had always been Mr. Lincoln’s army[25].” He points out, however, that the nature of the officer corps had changed, as the original men mostly ceded to those who ascended the ranks by providing “inspiring leadership, trust, and morale.”[26] Well-written and comprehensive, Lincoln’s Lieutenants nevertheless leaves room for further analysis of operational and strategic questions.

Alexandre F. Caillot is a third-year Ph.D. student at Temple University specializing in American military history. His dissertation will explore the Civil War.

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Header Image: Generals of the Army of the Potomac: Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, George G. Meade, Henry J. Hunt, Andrew A. Humphreys, George Sykes (Wikimedia)


[1] Bell Irvin Wiley is commonly credited with founding the study of the Civil War soldier’s experience, with The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952). Recent works have centered on Union discipline, namely Lorien Foote’s The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (2010) and Steven J. Ramold’s Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (2010). Barton C. Myers notes that the increased interest in military policy toward civilians and guerrillas reflects modern-day concerns about the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. See Barton C. Myers, “The Future of Civil War Era Studies: Military History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (2012): 2, http://journalofthecivilwarera.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Final-Myers.pdf. For notable treatments, see Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (1995), Robert R. Mackey’s The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (2004), Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (2007), and Daniel E. Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2013).

[2] Earl J. Hess, “Rejuvenating Civil War Military History: A New Take on Infantry Tactics,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 7 (2017): 168-169.

[3] Mark Grimsley, “Why Military History Sucks,” November 1996, http://warhistorian.blogspot.com/2016/06/


[4] Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), xxii.

[5] Stephen W. Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), viii.

[6] Ibid., ix.

[7] Ibid., 38.

[8] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 82.

[9] Ibid. 187.

[10] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 230.

[11] Ibid., 339.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Ibid., 415.

[14] Ibid., 437.

[15] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 479-480.

[16] Ibid., 497.

[17] For assertions that Meade wrongfully delayed after Gettysburg, see Donald Stoker’s The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (2010), Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013), as well as Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh’s The American War: A History of the Civil War Era (2015). For arguments emphasizing his difficulties in launching a post-battle offensive, see James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), Weigley’s A Great Civil War, Earl J. Hess’s Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001), as well as Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh’s A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (2016).

[18] Weigley, A Great Civil War, 62.

[19] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 625.

[20] Ibid., 663.

[21] Ibid., 746.

[22] John Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), xiv.

[23] Adrian R. Lewis, The American Culture of War: The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2007), 384.

[24] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 139.

[25] Ibid., 757.

[26] Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, 758