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Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac

by Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr., Indiana University Press

Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr. has undertaken the monumental task of narrating the events of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps from its inception in 1862 through Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The author’s research is extensive, profusely end-noted and documented. Unlike the previous II Corps history printed in 1886 by Brevet Brig. Gen. Francis Walker, Kreiser’s book offers much analytical support of his thesis that the corps was an elite fighting unit. He makes his case while interweaving dozens of memoirs, letters and correspondences to enhance the narrative. I was particularly pleased to see letters from my great-great-grandfather, James Rea of the 52nd New York, used in narrating the Petersburg Campaign.

War veterans placed great importance on their corps. Many Union monuments include corps’ insignia, memoirs and postwar escutcheons. When the U.S. government authorized the formation of the corps structure in early 1862, they became not only tactical units but also bonds of comradeship, loyalty and pride. After the myriad regimental histories written by veterans, postwar chronicling seems to skip the brigade and division-level works, but various corps histories were written—usually by staff officers, seeking to promote their leaders and comrades. No modern corps history has emerged until Defeating Lee, which offers a balanced look at what Kreiser argues was the most effective corps in the Army of the Potomac.

Any modestly informed reader will recognize many of the famous commanders in this esteemed corps, including Edwin Sumner, John Sedgwick, Nelson Miles, Francis Barlow and Winfield Scott Hancock. The II Corps was involved in much of the hard fighting of the Army of the Potomac, but perhaps its most famous moment was at Gettysburg, where it turned back Pickett’s Charge. Kreiser chronicles their admirable service in the Seven Days’, capturing the Bloody Lane at Antietam and storming the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, as well as their disappointments at Petersburg and Reams’ Station. Overall, Kreiser’s work is a fascinating and easy read as well as a worthy scholarly contribution to the war’s history, two traits seldom combined in one book.

Defeating Lee includes several corps tables of organization, and info so that readers can track the reshuffling of commands. Kreiser covers the infighting between leaders and also traces the formation of the veterans’ society and how the former warriors interpreted their own history. If there is any criticism to be made, it might deal with the omission from the bibliography of M.V. Armstrong’s works on the II Corps in the Maryland Campaign, as well as the lack of maps. Those points aside, Kreiser’s book is sure to stimulate discussion among partisans of other corps.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here