Sunday, April 6, 2008

Army of the Potomac:Birth of Command

July 2, 2002. - The Eastern Theater of The American Civil War - The curtain rose from the stage at the premier of Da Cappo Press' newest production, to reveal "Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command November 1860 - September 1862." Authored by Russel H. Beatie, it is the first of a series covering the history of the Army of the Potomac.

Mr. Beatie has been kind enough to present us with a Dramatis Personae, a playbill, if you will, providing us with the briefest of possible biographical sketches of the players about to grace the stage. Receiving top billing, of course, is Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War. He is supported by a cast of subordinates: Charles P. Stone, Robert Patterson, Fitz-John Porter, Benjamin F. Butler, Elmer Ellsworth, J. K. F. Mansfield, Irvin McDowell, Samuel P. Heintzelman, David Hunter, George B. McClellan and Nathaniel Prentis Banks.

The stage has been carefully set. On November 6th, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States without a single electoral vote from any of the Southern states. Shortly thereafter, on December 20th, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union. It is January 1861 and Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia & Louisiana have now also left the Union. Texas will join her sister Southern states on February 1st.

Lincoln, having been confronted with the problem of resuplying or reinforcing Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, immediately upon his inauguration, chose the less confrontational route: to resuply it, thus, maneuvering the South into firing the first shot of the war on April 12th, 1861 and providing the inciting incident of our national drama, and the beginning of the Civil War. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee soon after seceded and joined the Confederate States of America.

Mr. Beatie illuminates the central question in the first act of his drama, "How does one create an army?" by shining his spotlight on New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where from nebular clouds regiments of soldiers begin to emerge.

Maryland provides our first plot point. Heavily secessionist in sentiment, Maryland surrounds Washington D.C. on three sides. With Virginia having already seceded, if Maryland were to cast its lot with her sister slave states, Washington would be cut off. Now that there is an army, fractured though it is, how does one move it through hostile territory to Washington where it is needed?

Here the author shifts his focus from upstage to stage center, narrating Abraham Lincoln's steps to ensure that Maryland stayed in the Union by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and arresting the state legislators who sided with the South. All the while, Patterson, Porter, Butler, Keyes, Lefferts & Stone began to secure routes both through and around Baltimore, a city seemingly seething with anti-unionist sentiment, to Washington, D.C.

The first Battle of Bull Run is the center piece of Mr. Beatie's second act, as the action moves down stage to Virginia. Mr. Beatie deftly weaves together the fate of Harper's Ferry and Patterson's attempts to keep Joseph E. Johnston's southern soldiers bottled up in the Shenandoah Valley and preventing them from joining the rest of the Confederate Army under P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas. Patterson's ultimate failure allowed the two Southern armies to join in battle against the Federal Army, led by Irvin McDowell at Bull Run Creek.

The battle is the midpoint in Mr. Beatie's drama. As the two armies collide on the field of battle, the point of view is strictly from the vantage of the men and commanders of the Federal army. Mr. Beatie presents the facts and events throughout his narrative as they happen, this technique can some times be confusing to the audience, and the one critique this reviewer has is the wish for more maps in this section to allow the audiance to better follow the action as it proceeds. The fog of war envelopes the Union forces, facts are misinterpreted, mistakes are made, and ultimately the failure of the command structure results in a Confederate victory, and the curtain falls on a defeated demoralized Federal army as they gradually make their way back to Washington.

George B. McClellan enters from stage right at the beginning of the final act. Having been called from the West after several small but impressive victories to assume command of what will soon come to be known as the Army of the Potomac. Mr. Beatie concentrates on the bickering between Scott, the General-In-Chief and his subordinate officer, McClellan, and as the light shines brighter on McClellan, Scott's time in the light begins to fade. Scott's letter of resignation sent to Lincoln serves as the last plot point and the final curtain falls to the stage floor with George B. McClellan soon to be commissioned as General-In-Chief.

Mr. Beatie's "Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command November 1860 - September 1862," has been well received and hailed as a critical success. Not since Douglas Shouthall Freeman's, "Lee's Lieutenants," has a work of such magnitude and scope as Mr. Beatie's graced the literary stage of the American Civil War.

An appendix, "Officers and Battlefield Maneuvers," as well as a fully annotated bibliography siting the strengths of weaknesses of the source materials used, serve as Mr. Beatie's curtain calls. And on a production note, the book is fully noted with footnotes at the bottom of every page.

This, Mr. Beatie's first production in the series, has already spawned two sequels, and if they are its equal, I'm sure they will be followed by others.

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