“The Sword of Lincoln” by Jeffry D. Wert reviewed

Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2005. 404 pp.

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln

The Sword of Lincoln is a competant Civil War history but breaks little ground for anyone who qualifies as a Civil War buff and isn’t accessible and broad enough to be an introduction to the conflict.  The book focuses exclusively on the Federal Army of the Potomac which the author, Jeffry D. Wert, calls “America’s most star-crossed army [who] would be cursed, even damned, with the burdens of defending Washington, inept leadership, and a splendid opponent.” (3)  In the same line, he quotes military historian Williamson Murray, who said that “The Army of the Potomac had a record of unambiguous failure matched by no other unit of equivalent size in the history of the United States Army.” (414)  Murray said the army only won two major battles, lots twelve, and drew one (Antietam) during the course of the conflict.  The book looks in more depth at the reasons for the army’s failures and how it eventually got to Appomattox.

The book’s many pages describing the battles are good enough, but nothing special.  The book has only about a dozen maps, but they’re not as helpful as they could be and none show theater-level features.  The book also has problems in the picture department.  It features 20 pictures between pages 178-179 and then the same exact 20 pictures again between pages 370-371.  I’m guessing that the book was supposed to have a different second set of images; as it is, the book lacks images of George McClellan, Joseph Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside, an otherwise inexplicable omission (there are no images of Confederates).

The book is good when describing the evolution of the army and when analyzing the army’s ever changing commanding generals and their relationship to President Lincoln and the political situation in the North.  The army did not start off very auspiciously;  when they first showed up in Washington to defend the capital they completely lacked discipline.  (Wert doesn’t mention this, but some Massachusetts troops being bivouacked in the Senate chamber bayonetted Jefferson Davis’s desk; it still bears the marks today.)  After their first combat at the Battle of Bull Run, William Tecumseh Sherman opined that “Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain loudly if they don’t get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up.  It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.” (28)   The early officers weren’t any better. The first commanders were basically just guys who happened to be at hand at the time—one guy tapped to command a division hadn’t been in the military for 30 years, but happened to be in Washington at the time.  This basically doomed the Union forces to lackluster and incompetant leadership until better commanders, like Sherman and Grant, could rise up.  Unfortunately, while Wert points out that the Army of Northern Virginia had much better leaders almost from the start, he fails to address why they ended up with so much abler commanders.

The author does a good job examining the strengths and weaknesses of George McClellan and his successors, like Joseph Hooker and George Meade.  His analysis is fair, and he pays due regard to their strong points, which were mainly apparent off the battlefield on the organizational and administrative side of things.  One interesting revelation from the book concerns the endurance of the men’s fondness for McClellan, even after he was dismissed for the second time by Lincoln.  Even shortly after the Army of the Potomac won it’s greatest victory at Gettysburg rumors were easily spread within the army that “Little Mac” was coming back.  Given how little regard history has for McClellan’s leadership, this is surprising to a modern reader.  Wert explains that the poor showing of McClellan among the troops when he ran against Lincoln for President in 1864 was due to a plank in the Democratic platform to negotiate with the South.  A book exploring the exact feelings of the men in the ranks for McClellan could be quite interesting based on these points.

Lincoln, of course, had less and less patience for McClellan’s reluctance to engage the enemy as the war went on.  When McClellan used the excuse that the army’s horses were too tired, Lincoln’s reply is classic: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  The President took to calling the Army of the Potomac “General McClellan’s body-guard.”  (177)  After Lincoln visited the army after Antietam and judged that he was more popular with the men than McClellan, Lincoln had the confidence to dismiss him for good.179)  Wert, who calls McClellan “the most controversial commander” of the army, explores some of the other excuses and reasons that Mac had for his less than fierce leadership style but breaks no new ground there.  What he does present that I found interesting concerns the president’s view of the military situation:

Lincoln saw, however, that neither Burnside nor any other general in the army seemed to grasp a truth about Fredericksburg.  There was, he told a secretary, an ‘awful arithmetic’ to the conflict.  The disparity in casualties between the Federals and Confederates in the battle had been staggering.  But in Lincoln’s reckoning, if the two armies fought each other every day for a week and sustained a similar casualty rate, the Rebels would be wiped out, and the Army of the Potomac would still be ‘a mighty host.’  According to his secretary, the president asserted, ‘No general yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.'” (208)

It seems that most Civil War books have an inherent point of view that they’re pushing, and this one isn’t an exception.  Wert seems to strain to find praise to lavish on the Army of the Potomac, even when little is due.  After their poor showing at Bull Run he says that from that battle “came the beginning of one of the army’s enduring characteristics—a resiliancy in the aftermath of a defeat that approached defiance.” (28)  Of course, the Union army had many advantages in recruiting and materiel that the Rebels didn’t have and it was those factors, more than the army’s “resiliance” that ultimately decided the war in the North’s favor, factors that Wert doesn’t examine in much depth, due to the level of his analysis.  He also fails to really comment on the effect of men leaving the army at the expiration of their terms, which many men did in 1864 on account of their three-year enlistments.  Fortunately for the North, many subsequently re-enlisted, but often only after returning home and being out of the war for months. 

Those looking for a good overview of the Civil War obviously won’t find that here.  This book focuses only on the Army of the Potomac and mentions other theaters and aspects of the war only in passing (and in a way that presumes some knowledge of the larger war).  This book failed, for me, to sufficiently explain the political factors that weighed on the book’s subject, “Lincoln’s sword.”  Northern sentiment is hardly touched on and the word Copperhead doesn’t even appear.  The analysis is no more in depth than the claims that (1) Lincoln didn’t want Washington, D.C. to be captured and (2) Lincoln needed victories in the war to maintain public support for said war.  The book’s observations and analysis of the Army of the Potomac is insufficiently skilled and insightful to make up for the book’s narrow focus.  I’d recommend readers turn elsewhere for a good Civil War read.

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