Reviewed by Steven Wright
By Jeffry D. Wert
Simon & Schuster, New York, 559 pages
Over 50 years have passed since the publication of Bruce Catton’s monumental three-volume history of the Army of the Potomac. In all that time, no one attempted the nearly impossible task of a follow-up history of the largest of the Federal armies. That great void has at last been filled by The Sword of Lincoln, an outstanding one-volume treatment by the prolific Jeffry D. Wert.
Created to defend the nation’s capital, the Army of the Potomac was fraught with problems, not the least of which was a plethora of controversial commanders. In addition, this truly was the “sword of Lincoln,” an army intimately connected to the politics of Washington. Despite such hindrances, the Army of the Potomac played a central role in a string of famous engagements: from its early days along the Peninsula with McClellan, to its somewhat timid victory at Antietam and tragic defeat at Fredericksburg, and on through Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland campaign, Petersburg and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Wert’s book is not meant to be a detailed account of campaigns and battles, however, but rather a study of an army’s existence. Wert answers important questions concerning McClellan’s hesitancy, the political pressure on the army, and soldier morale.
To accomplish this task he uses literally thousands of quotes from both Union and Confederate sources, many from unpublished manuscripts, to tell his story. (Unlike his predecessor, Bruce Catton, Wert supplies a footnote for virtually every paragraph in the book!) As a result, the reader is richly rewarded with a gripping, well-researched narrative that at times is impossible to put down. We learn the story of the army from nearly anyone who was touched by it: officer and enlisted man, Yank and Reb, politician and civilian. Wert truly has an ear for what these people said, and we are all the better for it.
This is a story well and fairly told. A new history of the Army of the Potomac has been a long time in coming, but it has certainly been worth the wait–because like Bruce Catton’s trilogy, this book is destined to become a classic.