At the end of April, I shared a BookChat Q&A with historian Zachary Fry about his new book A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac, now available from the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). I followed that up with a podcast episode (which you can download for free from our Patreon page).
Despite all that opportunity to chat with him about his book, I still had a follow-up question I wanted to ask. Zack was kind enough to spend a little extra time with me to provide an answer.
Q: One reason we think of the AoP as a political beast is because of its proximity to Washington and the flow of congressmen, senators, governors, and other politicos back and forth between the capital and the army. What kind of influence did that have on the men and junior officers, and was that different than the impact those visits had on more senior officers (which we tend to hear about more)?
A: That’s a great question. As early as 1862, the Army of the Potomac looked askance at the political class because they believed partisan meddling could harm the war effort. When specific leaders visited the army, though–especially Lincoln in his numerous trips to the front–those soldiers were often more forgiving in their appraisal. Some Democratic officers found the president’s concern for the army to be disingenuous, but the majority of soldiers, I found, appreciated his visits and learned to place him above the partisan wrangling back in Washington.
The same could be said for Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, “the soldier’s friend,” who visited the army ahead of the 1863 gubernatorial election. As I show in the book, Curtin gained near-universal support among the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac for his steadfast patronage and concern for the welfare of the ranks.
High-ranking Democrats in the army found the political surveillance from Washington frustrating, of course, but a lot of the lower-ranking officers used the ease of access with politicians to their advantage. As far as junior officers were concerned, undoubtedly the most important political effect of the army’s proximity to Washington was the access to major newspapers such as the Washington Chronicle. Editors and journalists kept in constant contact with the army, and the mid-level officers from the army used these connections to push for a vigorous defense of the administration.