In his civil war book Commanders of the Army of the Potomac Warren Hassler Jr. fantastically recounts the events that transpired between 1861 to 1865 during which seven men were given the reigns of the North’s Army of the Potomac and asked to lead the Union to victory. However, one of the greatest commanders in history stood in their way; Robert E. Lee, and each was pitted against this great general one by one and given the chance to make history. The first, Irvin McDowell was regarded in this book as a great soldier in his own right but a terrible leader who displayed visible gaps in his preparedness, in his tactics, and in his strategy. He was the first to take control of the northern army. Not much later towards the end of May of 1861 General Lee established a defensive hold along the small stream of Bull Run located in Manassas.
During the Battle of Bull Run McDowell was crushed by Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre Beauregard due to weak planning and it became apparent that this in fact would not be a short-lived war. Next up was the most popular and perhaps the greatest of the commanders, George B. McClellan.
After the embarrassing defeats at Bull Run he masterfully regrouped and disciplined the AOP as he himself showed outstanding military presence and was constantly increasing his knowledge of offensive tactics. From spring of 1862 till July of that year General McClellan was successful in driving the Confederates out of West Virginia and he was inching toward the southern capitol of Richmond when General Jeb Stuart under Lee encircled and outmaneuvered McClellan’s forces who were driven back and finally held at Malvern Hill during the Seven Days Battle. During this time period there was some shifting of control and the AOP was put into the arms of General John Pope. This book regards Pope as one of the most pathetic leaders of the Civil War as he screwed up and changed his ways during the second battle at Bull Run and sacrificed his men uselessly. Meanwhile, McClellan blew an opportunity to catch the Confederates off balance after he learned of Lee’s plans but stalled and hesitated for a day giving the southern reinforcements plenty of time to arrive and group together and the north escaped with a slight victory only after Lee decided it would be wise to withdraw his forces. This victory gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.
The next commander to take the helm was Ambrose E. Burnside whose troubles lied in his stubbornness coupled with his poor judgement and lack of ingenuity. He lacked the ability to think at moment’s notice and get things done immediately when faced with a problem. He suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December of 1862 and after was man enough to admit his faults and acknowledged his removal as commander.
Superceding Burnside was Joseph Hooker, who was very passionate but like Burnside did not have the ability to improvise under changing conditions. He was great at grouping armies and preparing battle plans beforehand but on the field he could fall apart. During his battle of Chancellorsville the South took a mighty blow with the death of Stonewall Jackson. He was totally outmatched against the superior skills and techniques of Robert E.
Lee. Replacing Hooker was George C. Meade, a brave, sound, and conscientious man who was able to outshine Lee during the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He was able to work well with top generals as a team and as a result held his post in Gettysburg as Lee drew back his forces to Virginia, signaling the victory of the battle for the North. Unfortunately, many people criticized Meade for not following the Confederates while they were broken. He retained nominal leadership till the end of the war as Ulysses S.
Grant took over as commander of the AOP in March of 1864 and was fortunate enough to take control of the army as the tide was turning favorably for the Union. After successful campaigns in 1863, as chief of all federal armies Grant was relentless and often forced inconclusive battles, which were very hazardous to the North’s position. Although he was average in handling artillery and cavalry he had no grasp on commanding and strategies. Mr. Hassler end his book with a conclusion summarizing the main points of his descriptions of the commanders of the AOP and there effects on the Civil War.
In this book, Mr. Hassler has a very convincing style and method to his writings of the commanders. One of these would be his inclusion of maps and pictures throughout the book. The maps are very helpful as they enable the reader to actually see what the author is talking about, as sometimes it can become a bit confusing with the way all the different armies are advancing.
It also creates some variety and interest among the 200 some pages which creates a nice change once in a while. The pictures of the commanders are also used this way and are very interesting as the reader can see who Mr. Hassler is talking about and helps you to put a face with a name. Another inclusion that the author uses many times is excerpts from many other different readings, from newspapers to journals.
By quoting these authorities Mr. Hassler can strengthen his ideas and create more of a diversified work which makes the reader feel more comfortable with what he is saying and that in fact it is all with truth. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter, such as for example Whoever makes the first aggressive move will be beaten. by Sylvanus Thayer, are a nice relation to the situation and his writings and can be applied to everything that he conveys in his book. A very interesting thing that Mr. Hassler did at the beginning of each chapter was first give a physical description of the commander and what he was like and regarded as.
For instance he calls George McClellan a handsome blue-eyed man, broad-shouldered and muscular, with very dark auburn hair, mustache, and touch of a goatee. He says that Little Mac, as his soldiers called him, carried himself well, and was a magnificent horsemen. Immediately after he begins to talk a little bit about the early life of each leader but only general details as this is only a fraction of each chapter. This includes remarks such as born in, attended, appointed, etc.. and is approximately only a paragraph. Then it begins to go into detailed information about each commander’s positions right before, during, and right after his appointment as leader of the Union armies.
This part is the bulk of his descriptions in each chapter and focus mostly though on the commanding period, sticking with the title and theme of the book which is how these men fared individually against the armies of one of the mightiest generals of all time, Robert E. Lee. Mr. Hassler does a good job of staying on task as information not pertinent to the men’s command was not mentioned.
Mr. Hassler also does a good job of keeping his personal feelings and opinions out of the book so that his views are not biased. By doing this he can stick straight to the facts as he does the whole time and does not lighten up or take pity on some as he refers to a few as pathetic, incompetent, unfit for command, etc.. By giving it to us in this manner he can there by succeeding in bringing his purpose across to us so that we could learn more about the great things these men did and did not do and how their actions impacted the future of the United States of America.
Why did I select this book? After factoring in our preset guidelines of a non-fiction book with at least 250 pages and constraining that to the period of exploration through reconstruction I decided that what I would find the most interesting would be something from the Civil War. When visiting my public Library I came across the book Commanders of the Army of the Potomac, written by Warren W. Hassler Jr. When I had finished reading the basic summary of the book on its cover I decided that this was the book for me for a number of reasons. First of all, it would cover almost all of the Civil War from the angle of the commanders, spanning through the leadership of seven different men.
Secondly it seemed like an interesting topic with different strategies and tactics mentioned for each commander and how they fared. Lastly, the author didn’t draw this book out into a 600 page book like some do but kept it short and sweet within its 275 pages. Reading this book I hoped to gain a lot more knowledge of the Civil War and also some of it from a different angle. I found in-depth discussions on commanders’ decisions and how they presented themselves during the war. It was very interesting to know I would be learning about exactly what was happening not just above the battlefield, win or lose, but what was taking place behind the scenes and how it connected with the outcomes of the numerous battles and ultimately the Civil War. In conclusion, Commanders of the Army of the Potomac was a very interesting historical book which accurately and descriptively explains the events the transpired between 1861 to 1865 as seven men took control of the Union army and did their best to lead the North to victory in the Civil War of the United States of America.
Warren W. Hassler Jr. does a tremendous job of amassing information from a variety of sources and condensing them into an understandable and well-written book which would be beneficial to anyone wishing to learn more about the military procedures during the Civil War or even the war itself in general. Hopefully we will see more works by Mr. Hassler in the future which have the same spirit and understanding as this book.
Hassler, Warren W. Jr. Commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1962.