Book Review: Army of the Potomac: Vol. III, McClellan's First Campaign, March-May 1862: A Wide-Ranging Study of the Army's Leaders and Their Decisions


by Russel H. Beatie

New York: Savas Beatie, 2007. Pp. xxi, 723. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN:1932714251

 McClellan's First Campaign, the third volume of Russel H. Beatie's major synthesis of modern scholarship on the Army of the Potomac, picks up the story with McClellan poised to undertake a major, possibly war winning, offensive against the Confederacy. This period saw the beginnings of the Valley Campaign through to the movement of the Army of the Potomac to Virginia and the onset of the Peninsular Campaign. 

Characterized by relatively little fighting, it was time of great debate over strategy and organization, infighting among generals and politicians, a major clash of wills between Lincoln and McClellan, inter-service disputes, and more. Beatie recounts all this in a good deal of detail, while building his case that McClellan was a much better commander than the verdict of history indicates, and arguing that Lincoln hampered the war effort. Since the focus of the work is primarily a military one, it fails to address critical political issues that necessarily had to affect military policy, and Beatie avoids discussing McClellan's seemingly contemptuous attitude toward the president. 

As has been his style, Beatie provides numerous profiles of important military figures, and in this work makes a useful analysis of the difference between those commanders who belonged to the "Bull Run Pool" and those who did not. Although conceding that McClellan was sometimes reluctant to use the fine army that he had created, Beatie argues that his actions were dictated by what was known at the time. This gives McClellan a pass for his uncritical embrace of the unreliable information being gathered by the inept Alan Pinkerton, Beatie fails to provide an analysis of why McClellan willingly accepted Pinkerton's flawed figures, despite evidence to the contrary; a careful look at the general's reasoning might well strengthen the case in his favor. 

Despite this, the work provides an excellent look at the development of the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater on the eve of the great campaigns of the Spring and Summer of 1862. As an aside, at the rate he is going, Beatie's efforts seem likely to require six or eight more volumes before the tale of the Army of the Potomac reaches its end. 
Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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