Book Review: Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac (by Stephen W. Sears): CWT

8/12/2001 • Mag: Civil War Times Reviews

Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac, by Stephen W. Sears, Houghton Mifflin, 800-442-2043, 320 pages, $26.

Stephen Sears has established himself solidly as the most versatile, wide-ranging historian of the Union war effort in the eastern theater. His well-regarded campaign studies of the Peninsula, Antietam, and Chancellorsville and his investigations into the murky persona of George B. McClellan all constitute major servings on the plate of written history. Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac, a compilation of 10 essays relating to the Army of the Potomac, is a pleasing complement to his larger works–a satisfying dessert after the main course, if you will.

Producing good history requires skill in writing, research, and thinking. The constant in these essays is Sears’s writing. Sears’s is not the prosaic verbiage of a Catton; rather, it is clever, pointed, and often artful (and argumentative, too).

The army of researchers swarming over Civil War topics has elevated the socially acceptable level of research to heights that are sometimes excessive; the emphasis is too often on the accumulation of sources rather than the analysis of them. Certainly, in this book Stephen Sears does not meet the exhaustive threshold that many hold dear. The research here is strongest in those areas where Sears has trod before: McClellan, the Antietam Campaign’s Lost Order, Hooker, and Chancellorsville. On these topics, his command of the source material, combined with his skill for argument and storytelling, yields formidable essays.

Elsewhere, the range of source material used is more limited. The essays on Dan Sickles and the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, though artfully and skillfully composed, break little new historical ground. In his essays on the dismissals of Fitz John Porter and Gouverneur K. Warren, Sears failed to consult those officers’ massive collections of personal correspondence, instead relying on others’ analyses of those papers. These collections focus almost exclusively on the very controversies addressed in Sears’s book, and their startling omission is puzzling and regretable.

More important to Sears than the accumulation of source material is the way the material is used. Sears is a bright, creative (though not unarguable) thinker. He understands the Army of the Potomac as well as anyone writing today, and his selection of topics reflects that understanding. An unspoken underlying theme in these essays is the tension that existed between the Army of the Potomac and the government it served. Sears’s chapters on the unjust ordeal of Charles Stone–arrested but never tried–the court-martial of Fitz John Porter, and McClellan’s return to command after the Second Manassas Campaign reveal much of importance about the strain between the army and government, and the factors that caused it. Sears’s work on the “Generals’ Revolt” of 1862 through 1863 offers an important look at the army’s underside and an important point of departure for future historians.

Other essays fire salvos sure to stimulate response. Sears’s sympathetic views on Hooker at Chancellorsville are unique among modern historians–provocative, though at times overstated. Like William Marvel’s work on Burnside, Sears’s work on Hooker will give pause to historians inclined to be harsher, and will likely move history’s assessment of Hooker to more moderate (and, probably, proper) ground. Sears’s views on McClellan remain critical–even harsh. The essays here may again stir the defenders to action.

Controversies and Commanders is a mix of the important and the interesting, the last word and the first word. This is a book that should appeal to a broad range of readers–from general students looking for a stimulating bedtime book to historians seeking a target for scholarly rebuttal.

John Hennessy
Fredericksburg, Virginia