Book Review: Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experiences of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson (edited by J. Gregory Acken): CWT

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

Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken, 1998, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 717-796-0411, 500 pages, $34.95.

Reviews of Civil War soldiers’ letter collections rarely grace the pages of most history periodicals. There are reasons for that. Many published collections possess a numbing sameness that diminishes their appeal to the general reader. Others boast only quaintness of language and spelling that quickly wears thin. And most commonly, many are so esoteric that only the most highly specialized historians (and there are many of them these days) find useful or even interesting material in their pages. Rare indeed is the letter collection that combines literary merit, sharp observation, and important history.

Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson is one such gem. Donaldson served first with the 71st Pennsylvania (until his wounding in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on May 31, 1862) and later with the famous “Corn Exchange Regiment,” the 118th Pennsylvania. His letters faithfully span the full term of his service from the fall of 1861 through his dismissal from the Union army in December 1863. Woven into the missives are the wonderful sort of battle descriptions that many students of the war so crave. Ball’s Bluff, the Peninsula, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the campaigns of the fall of 1863 all receive extensive coverage here. These letters offer a rare combination of immediacy and literary merit. They are clearly not the work of a detached narrator. Rather, they have the tone of an active participant skilled with the pen. (The personal pronoun “I” is common here–often a useful indicator to the value of a book of this sort.) This book contains some of the fullest, most eloquent descriptions of the battles of the Army of the Potomac anywhere.

The glue that holds the book together is not the battle narrative, but the constant undercurrent of observation and opinion about ordeals and events often overlooked–everyday struggles lost to history. Donaldson offers riveting accounts of the exceptional, like the mass execution of five deserters near Beverley Ford, Virginia, in August 1863. But he also spins mundane marches into travelogues, rich with detail about landscapes, civilians, and incidents on the march. Woven into these pages is an important recounting of the war’s impact on civilians caught in the path of advancing armies.

Donaldson was, like so many Union soldiers, a war Democrat with a strong allegiance to the like-minded Major General George Brinton McClellan (“the greatest military chieftain of the age,” wrote Donaldson). But he, and many of his comrades, slowly came to see the military value of a broader, unified war effort. He considered any hint of lack of support damaging to this effort and railed against it, no matter the source. His letters offer an exceedingly useful view on the great issues of the day and how they played with the men on the front, the men ultimately charged with transforming American society.

A little disgruntlement always heightens the descriptive powers, and Donaldson possessed both in large measure. His is a story of a man often struggling against a hated superior (Colonel James Gwyn) in an organization he came to bemoan. (He called the 118th Pennsylvania “the most dreadfully demoralized command in the service.”) In these letters are fresh insights into the stresses that rent virtually all volunteer regiments during the war. But here too is a novel denouement: Donaldson became so disgruntled with his billet that he purposely engineered his own downfall and dismissal (a real-life Corporal Klinger, without the woman’s clothing, if you will). The story is a gripping one.

Editor Gregory Acken and his publisher have done an outstanding job of introducing, annotating, illustrating, editing, and indexing the missives. Maps by the prolific George Skoch are solid and well placed. Illustrations–so often clumped irrelevantly (and sometimes irreverently) in the middle of the book–are spread throughout the work, adding to their impact and usefulness. Acken’s work accomplishes what every good editor should aspire to: giving the reader cues to recognize and devour the important themes that course through the book. There is also a streak of uncommon nobility in his work. Acken has devoted all the editor’s proceeds from this book to support the ongoing efforts of the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia, where Donaldson’s original 169 letters and his diaries repose.

For the serious researcher of the Army of the Potomac, this book will take a place among the best sources available–the letters of Charles Brewster, Surgeon Daniel Holt, Oliver Norton, and Robert Carter. Every major book on the army will henceforth cite Donaldson’s letters, or be criticized for not doing so. For the more casual student, these letters are an eloquent, intelligent, and gripping look at the experience of America’s Civil War–one of the first primary sources any emerging student of the war should read.

John Hennessy
Fredericksburg, Virginia