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Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac

by William Swinton

No victorious military force in the history of the United States has received less acclaim and more criticism than the Army of the Potomac. A string of defeats in 1862-63 under a string of mediocre generals has led many to conclude that the major Union army in Virginia stumbled to victory, largely because it had more men and more supplies than its adversary did. The sprig of this idea can be found in the immediate post–Civil War years when veterans on both sides deprecated adversaries and comrades alike when celebrating or defending their role in the war. “Setting the record straight” became an obsession for many, and the veterans of the Army of the Potomac encountered a Southern propaganda attack in the form of the “Lost Cause” that undercut their military accomplishments.

Before the Lost Cause onslaught, William Swinton published a popular history in 1866 titled Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac that paid tribute to the Northern soldiers but also unintentionally provided fodder to the propaganda cause of exConfederates. During the war, Swinton was a New York Times correspondent who was expelled from the Army of the Potomac on two occasions during the Overland campaign. A residue of bitterness certainly twisted Swinton’s evaluation of the army’s principal generals, but for the most part his account is fair and balanced toward both sides. The whiff of criticism from a respected Northern writer, however, energized Confederate apologists like Jubal Early, who appropriated Swinton’s words to demonstrate that Ulysses S. Grant and other Northern generals won simply because of an overwhelming advantage in resources. Swinton also recalled an instance when Grant interrupted a George Gordon Meade lecture on the importance of maneuvering by proclaiming, “Oh! I never maneuver.” Such statements are specious, particularly since the Overland campaign was driven by a series of flanking maneuvers between battles, culminated by Grant’s June 15 crossing of the James River, which the famous Confederate artillerist E.P. Alexander ranked as the most impressive and complex flanking maneuver of the war. One also cannot overlook the Vicksburg campaign, which is a model of maneuver.

Swinton’s criticisms of Grant had a lasting historical impact and partially explain the popular perception of Grant as a “butcher” who mindlessly slaughtered his troops. Grant was understandably incensed by Swinton’s characterizations of his leadership, and the general struck back in his memoirs, reminding readers that Swinton had spied on private meetings, that Burnside had proposed to execute him and that Grant had expelled him from the army.

Swinton’s distortions are few in Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. In fact, his book is exceptional among immediate postwar publications for its commitment to objectivity. Swinton even consulted Confederate records and corresponded with James Longstreet about Gettysburg. He concluded that Robert E. Lee was largely to blame for the defeat in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the Lost Cause writers overlooked such arguments because they did not further their denigration of Longstreet or their deification of Lee.

Controversy aside, Swinton’s Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac masterfully chronicles the army’s military operations while making clear that higher ideas motivated the men in the rank and file. He insisted that the “patriotism of a free people” inspired the ordinary soldier, enabling him to endure so many hardships, so many battlefield reverses and so much criticism from the home front. Without Swinton’s path-breaking work, it is difficult to imagine the immensely popular history of the Army of the Potomac by Bruce Catton, who is mistakenly lauded as the first and most important historian of the North’s primary army in Virginia.


Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.