I was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Zachery Fry, assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Dr. Frey is the author of A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac, a new release from the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). Dr. Fry was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the book.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
1) Tell us about the title of your book, Republic in the Ranks, which sets up a pretty interesting metaphor.
The United States in the mid-nineteenth century was a republic that demanded civic virtue but indulged in raucous partisan politics. First and foremost, the book’s title indicates that the Union Army of the Potomac was a mass citizen army whose soldiers had not forsaken that political tradition by donning the blue uniform. In fact, as one veteran put it, the army was “the people in arms,” and it reflected a diversity of background and opinions. That was especially true for the many junior and field-grade officers in the army. The vast majority of the enlisted men, however, were youths who only learned the deeper political issues of the day after signing up to protect the flag and the Union. I tried to pay close attention to that range of experiences.
As I thought about a title, I wanted something that would convey how effectively the army managed to replicate the nation’s political culture under truly adverse conditions. First among those conditions was the fact that any army is naturally a hierarchical organization and not a true democracy; Democrats had to fear reprisal from the Lincoln administration and wartime governors, and Republicans had to fear punishment from Democrats in the army’s high command. Second, Union soldiers for much of the war were forbidden from voting absentee. And third, the army’s natural purpose was to fight, not necessarily to assert itself politically. The fact that junior officers and men in the ranks nonetheless shaped the national dialogue by casting themselves as a vanguard for civic virtue is a remarkable story.
2) There are a lot of reasons why we tend to think of the Army of the Potomac as a highly political entity. Can you talk about that for a second?
The Army of the Potomac was the primary military arena in which Republican and Democratic visions of the war contended. Those visions coalesced into a struggle for loyalty between followers of Abraham Lincoln and staunch allies of George B. McClellan. Generals, junior officers, and common soldiers alike debated the war’s direction according to these competing loyalties. That’s the first and most obvious reason the army was so highly politicized. And of course, the army usually fought within a hundred miles or so of Washington, so the high command operated under a political microscope. The great example of this surveillance was the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a congressional body that worked zealously to instill a “hard war” backbone among McClellan acolytes at headquarters. Generals competing for command capitalized on this political context to advance their careers, so there was even more backstabbing and passive-aggressive behavior in the Potomac army than other field forces. Thus the long and depressing procession of field commanders in the Eastern Theater.
3) Your book contends that the generals’-eye view of the army has created a misconception about the political culture in the ranks. What happens when you drill down to the lower ranks?
The army’s high command was, with a few notable exceptions, infamous for its loyalty to McClellan. And viewed from that perspective, a traditional narrative has held sway for decades in the literature: the Lincoln administration versus the Army of the Potomac. The notion of the army’s ranks as “McClellan’s Bodyguard” (until the 1864 election, that is) feeds the narrative.
This traditional interpretation would have surprised the veterans of the Army of the Potomac. The army was definitely devoted to McClellan for the first half of the conflict. But viewed through the eyes of junior officers and the men in the ranks, McClellan’s appeal early in the struggle had a great deal to do with the notion that he was steadfastly guarding the army from political meddling and interference. When he at last showed his true colors in late 1863 as a proud Democratic partisan, the army was genuinely aghast and immediately worked to disavow him. The officers and men had, by and large, accepted the idea that unflinching loyalty to the administration was the sine qua non of the Union war effort. They articulated that belief in bold letters for the public eye and, despite significant reverses in 1864, voted that way in the nation’s single most important presidential election.
4) You argue that “the war was an intense political education for its common soldiers.” Was there a political element to army life that these men weren’t used to, or didn’t engage in, back home?
My research led me to realize there were really two types of volunteers in 1861. First, there were the more educated, often white-collar young men who realized the full implications of the Northern war effort. Democratic or Republican, they entered the war with mature political sensibilities. An example of that class would be someone like Henry Nicholls Blake, a youngster from Massachusetts who joined after marching for Lincoln in 1860 with the “Wide Awakes.” Much more common, however, was the average farmer or laborer who knew the broad contours of the political landscape but joined under a simple rage militaire to save the flag and the Union. That’s not to downplay their zeal for the Union war effort. But as the war dragged on and these nineteen and twenty-year-old soldiers witnessed the horrors of slavery, heard the machinations of Copperhead Democrats, and fumed over the lack of replacement troops at the front, their politically-savvy officers prodded them to channel these frustrations into Republican loyalty.
The war created the opportunity for these young men collectively to assert themselves in the public eye. Their first experience with politics was writing and supporting unit-wide pronunciations of wartime loyalty, some of which called for fairly radical policies. Many of them voted for the first time in 1864 when the stakes could hardly have been higher. And in that political education, I argue, lay the key to understanding the army’s widespread disillusionment with George B. McClellan, a man they initially would have followed to the ends of the earth.
5) How did the Army of the Potomac, as its own “mini Republic,” compare to other armies, like the Army of the Tennessee or the Army of the Cumberland?
That’s a fascinating question that definitely deserves more study (and some has been done already by folks like Kristopher Teters and Keith Altavilla). I did some research into the spring 1863 unit political resolutions of both the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Tennessee, for instance, and found much of the same anti-Copperhead activity in those ranks. And of course the Army of the Cumberland featured a similar divide among its officer corps centered on loyalty to Don Carlos Buell, a McClellanite figure. However, as I mentioned a moment ago, the Army of the Potomac truly was unique for its proximity to the capital and the fact that its most well-known figure gained the opposition party’s nomination for president.
6) Did the competing political allegiances within the army impact its overall effectiveness as a fighting unit?
Military historians typically assess a unit’s “combat effectiveness” by looking at a combination of quantitative and psychological factors. The former wasn’t at all my focus in this book, but the latter has never been far from my mind. As far as high command leadership is concerned, political squabbling crippled the army’s effectiveness on numerous occasions. At the lower level, though, political differences seemed to vanish with the first volley in each battle. Soldiers at the front were much more focused on the tasks of fighting and surviving. Those disputes would return with a vengeance, however, in a battle’s fallout. Letters after Fredericksburg, for example, feature accusations from pro-Lincoln and pro-McClellan camps attacking the other for cowardice in combat. As the war went on, the solidarities engendered by anti-Copperhead controversy did give the army a renewed sense of purpose. It’s tough to measure quantitatively, but my hunch is that the army emerged from its war of words with antiwar Democrats as a more formidable and effective fighting force.
7) You talk about different political “crisis points” for the army. Is there one that you would rank as the most precarious/dangerous to the army? To the country?
I chose to frame the work as a series of crisis points to highlight the importance of contingency. The army’s ultimate vindication of Lincoln in the 1864 election was not inevitable. Reading forward through the story (and avoiding what Gary Gallagher calls the “Appomattox syndrome”) reveals numerous twists and turns where things could have been far different. The setback on the Peninsula in mid-1862, the threat of a large-scale mutiny after McClellan’s removal, and a series of other episodes each receive a chapter in the book.
I think the most important political crisis point for the army was its widespread repudiation of the Copperheads in early 1863. Numerous state legislatures had adopted an antiwar stance, and some newspapers were starting to call the war lost. All this came at a time when Lincoln and the Republican Party were doubling down on emancipation and national conscription. The army’s junior officers mobilized the ranks on behalf of the Republican Party to disavow anti-administration politicians. I was able to locate over sixty resolutions from different regiments in the Army of the Potomac adopted by the men in camp to influence home front sentiment. The language in these documents is every bit as startling now as it must have been to readers then. Whole units called antiwar protesters “unholy” and vowed to march home to exterminate Democratic politicians. Yet it was this same zeal for the administration and the Republican prosecution of the war that helped the downtrodden Army of the Potomac emerge from its darkest period of the war—Fredericksburg and the Mud March—to take its place as the nation’s vanguard for political loyalty.
8) What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
The unit political resolutions, without a doubt. Fascinating, dramatic, and sometimes downright chilling documents. The collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, housed in the Union League archives, holds the original draft of the 119th Pennsylvania resolutions against the infamous “McClellan testimonial” from September 1863 (more about that in chapter four of the book). It was one of those real goosebumps moments for a historian.
9) Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
Joseph Hooker. He was a complicated man, and not always one I’d want to emulate, but I came away from this project with a renewed appreciation for his skill in rebuilding a shattered and dispirited army in early 1863. The Army of the Potomac that emerged from that bleak winter in Stafford County was no longer McClellan’s. It was Fighting Joe Hooker’s. His zeal as an ally of the Lincoln administration created the conditions for junior officers to actualize a passionate response to the Copperhead threat at home.
10) What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
It was genuinely fascinating to write the portion of chapter six that details how Army of the Potomac veterans mobilized on the home front in 1864. Plenty of soldiers didn’t reenlist or had returned home during the war from wounds and illnesses. These men gathered into energetic political campaign clubs–“The McClellan Legion,” “The McClellan Old Guard,” “The Veteran Union Club,” “The Soldiers’ Campaign Club” and the like. They organized themselves into battalions and companies reminiscent of the battle front, sponsored speakers, marched in torchlight parades, and even brawled with each other as the election neared. It’s never easy to find something really new to say about the Army of the Potomac, but this is truly an unsung episode of the war.
11) What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
I recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area, so I have to say George McClellan’s statue on Connecticut Avenue. Although the monument itself is beautiful, the surrounding “park” (if one can call it that) is overgrown, unkempt, and forgotten in a busy Northwest DC neighborhood. It’s a perfect symbol for Little Mac’s legacy.
12) What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?
How did political mobilization in the Union Army compare with the experiences of the Confederate Army?