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Commanding the Army of the Potomac

by Stephen R. Taaffe, University Press of Kansas, 2006, 284 pages, $34.95

The corps system of military organization was unknown in the U.S. Army before the Civil War. When the government began fielding armies that numbered in the tens of thousands, the system was more or less forced on military leaders. Stephen R. Taaffe’s Commanding the Army of the Potomac tackles this issue and several others as it explores leadership, organization and politics in the Union’s principal field army.

Taaffe’s account begins after the debacle of the First Battle of Bull Run. The army that Irvin McDowell commanded in that fight was divvied up into brigades and regiments and was disorganized, if not dysfunctional. This fact slowly dawned on the government after the battle.

McDowell lost his job as the top eastern field commander to George B. McClellan, who had won some strategically significant victories in western Virginia and would prove to be outstanding at training and organizing what became the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was averse to dividing the army up into corps until combat revealed those generals most fit for high command. Corps organization became a political battle that “Little Mac” eventually lost.

President Abraham Lincoln took matters into his own hands and divided the army into four corps, assigning commanders based on seniority. Taaffe argues that this was a mistake—not because there was a flaw in the concept of corps organization, but because appointing commanders by seniority discounted talent and, unintentional as it may have been, turned each corps into a hotbed of anti-McClellan intrigue and politicking.

McClellan created two new corps during his campaign up the Peninsula in the spring of 1862 and appointed Fitz-John Porter and William Franklin to command them. Now Little Mac had some corps commanders on his side, though Taaffe shows that this did not end the political infighting that took place within other corps and between corps. The intensity of officer politicking was one of the primary characteristics that distinguished the Army of the Potomac from the other Union armies.

Following McClellan’s dismissal after Antietam, the Army of the Potomac was turned over to a wary Ambrose Burnside. He inherited a highly politicized command structure. McClellan had made enemies out of commanders he denigrated or excluded from his inner circle, and those officers, especially Joseph Hooker, had schemed to get rid of Little Mac. Hooker would continuously plot against Burnside too—even after the latter created a system of three “Grand Divisions” and gave Hooker one of them.

Burnside believed he was not fit to command an army—and proved it at Fredericksburg. Hooker then took command and finally got the opportunity he had been campaigning for. He would not enjoy the success as an army commander that he did commanding a corps, but he did restore the morale and organization of the Army of the Potomac, a prerequisite for the army’s later success at Gettysburg. He got rid of Burnside’s cumbersome grand divisions and did not purge the army of officers he may have perceived as “anti-Hooker” or “proMcClellan.” That was remarkable, given what an intriguer Hooker himself had been. When he resigned his commission just before the Battle of Gettysburg, the army was is relatively good shape.

George Meade, who commanded the V Corps, took over for Hooker and was pushed into the Gettysburg fight by his corps commanders. Meade ultimately won the battle, but got a slow start pursuing the retreating Confederates. Lincoln was livid with Meade for being, in his opinion, overly cautious, but Taaffe points out that there was no guarantee of victory in a headlong assault on the retreating Confederates. The president ultimately praised Meade for the victory at Gettysburg, but in the army some officers reverted to their favorite pastime of conspiring against their commander. Meade would retain command of the Army of the Potomac, but starting in March 1864, it was effectively under the control of the North’s most victorious general, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was not at all shy about expressing his views on corps commanders. Taaffe credits Grant with the infusion of proven talent into the high command of the army that created a responsive and reliable command structure.

Taaffe explores Grant’s determination to demand command excellence and remove the hesitation that had plagued the army. On the eve of the Battle of Five Forks, Grant told Phil Sheridan that if he was dissatisfied with the performance of Gouverneur Warren, who commanded the V Corps after Gettysburg, he was authorized to relieve him—which Sheridan did. When Warren appeared at Grant’s headquarters to protest he got a sympathetic pat on the back, but the order stood.

Taaffe has taken a fresh new look at the Army of the Potomac through this unique approach to the story of its command. There is a wealth of biographic detail on every corps commander, covering where they came from, how they rose to command and what they did after the war. It is a refreshing and riveting read.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.