Share This Article

Fighting for Defeat: Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865

By Michael C.C. Adams

In December 1862, on the muddy banks of the Rappahannock River, a semi-literate soldier from Indiana became convinced that the Union Army was powerless to end the rebellion. The Army of the Potomac’s shattering defeat at Fredericksburg, the soldier wrote home to his sister, was only the latest proof that the Rebels were unconquerable: “Sis, I don’t know what you think about the war but I will tell you what I think and that is the north will never whip the south as long as there is a man left in the South. They fight like wild devles.”

That Hoosier was not alone in his pessimism. Many of his comrades felt equally overwhelmed by the mystique of General Robert E. Lee and his grand Army of Northern Virginia. Such defeatist thinking, in fact, pervaded the entire Army of the Potomac throughout the war, historian Michael C.C. Adams argues in his book Fighting for Defeat: Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865, originally published under the title Our Masters the Rebels. Adams writes that with the Federal army’s initial big loss at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and subsequent defeats, Northern soldiers and civilians developed an unbending inferiority complex—negativity that permeated the rank and file of the Army of the Potomac and its leadership.

Fighting for Defeat explores the ways in which Northern perceptions of the enemy influenced the Army of the Potomac’s military performance. Adams does a reputable job of detailing how cultural currents infiltrated the decisions of the Union high command. Major General George B. McClellan’s extreme caution, for instance, is traced to the antebellum view that Southerners were more martial and disciplined because they came from an aristocratic society. That notion, Adams asserts, underscored a generally held belief that the advance of industrialization and democracy had weakened Northern men and had made them soft and effete.

Adams writes that even victory at Gettysburg in July 1863 did little to alter the mental outlook of the Union rank and file. One Northern officer wrote just a few weeks after the climactic battle: “Lee’s army at Gettysburg was in every respect superior to the Army of the Potomac, superior in numbers, better officered, a better fighting material, as well armed, better clothed and as well fed.”

Such remarks counter the notion that Gettysburg was the great turning point of the war. It also reveals that the residue of cumulative defeats tenaciously clung to the Army of the Potomac like Virginia mud, even as it gained the upper hand on the battlefield in 1864.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.