The Army Of The Potomac: Glory Road, by Bruce Catton
This book is the second part of a trilogy (at least) of works relating to the Army of the Potomac, covering the period between the aftermath of Antietam and the aftermath of Gettysburg. As one can say with reading any of Catton’s books, this particular work is one that shows Catton’s skill as a historian and one that also portrays the humanity of the Army of the Potomac, that much maligned instrument of Union policy in the Civil War’s Eastern theater. While the Union troops of the Western and Trans-Mississippi fronts generally were able to succeed against troops with pretty bad leadership, it was the misfortune of the Army of the Potomac to suffer from its own poor leaders and to be opposed to the Confederacy’s A team of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, and so on. As someone who has a fairly typical American support of “underdog causes,” this book certainly appealed to me given its author’s desire to address the justice of an army’s reputation and how proud soldiers dealt with an army whose leaders led them into failure time over the dark days of 1862 and 1863, at least until the tide of war turned.
This book of about 350 pages is divided into six chapters, many of them with three or four sections. Catton begins with a discussion of the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg and its shattering effect on certain regiments, including a green regiment that had been added to the Iron Brigade with other Midwestern ones (1). After that comes a discussion of the “mud march” and the mutinous attitude of the Army of the Potomac as it reached its nadir (2). This is followed by a discussion of the revival of the army’s fortunes and its reorganization under Hooker, who showed himself a very good logistical commander and helped the Union cavalry to reach new heights (3). After this comes the downbeat account of the Battle of Chancellorsville and how Hooker failed when it came to combat, leading to a great many soldiers losing a battle in which few of them even fought (4). The period between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg is then discussed, where the army had preserved its morale (5), before the book ends with a discussion of the battle of Gettysburg, and what a near-run thing it ended up being (6). After notes and a bibliography there are some maps of the three battles discussed in this book.
Although this book is still great, largely because it is written by Bruce Catton, in many ways this book is clearly a middle part of a larger work and suffers accordingly for its transitional nature. As this is not the fault of the author, it is a flaw that is comparatively minor in terms of how this work (or any other middle work in a trilogy) is to be evaluated. At the beginning of the book the Army of the Potomac is portrayed as still trying to find its way under incompetent leaders who lacked the sort of aggression that was required by Lincoln and the demands of victory in the Civil War. Throughout the course of the novel logistics are dealt with and the army shows itself able to win a battle where the involvement of the higher command was relatively minor and where the commanding officer at least did not sabotage the chance for victory because of disastrous errors. In showing an army of growing resolve, even as it finds itself continually struggling with political matters, this book does a great job at reminding the reader that armies cannot only be judged by the quality of their leading generals, but on much more complete grounds.