Political Visitors to the AoP

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.

4 Responses to Political Visitors to the AoP

  1. I enjoyed Dr. Fry’s book very much. It helped me sort out the feelings of the officers, especially the lower-ranking officers during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign (65th NY Major Joseph Hamblin was rather ambivalent about Mclellan, for example, in his letters home) and was a new way to look at command decisions within the Army of the Potomac.

    –Chris Barry

    1. I concur fully with this. The content is eye-opening. Fortunately, UNC was staging its annual 40% off sale when I decided to buy the book. 🙂

  2. One of my favourite visitors to the Army of the Potomac made two visits: once in October 1862, in company with Allan Pinkerton and President Lincoln, shortly after the Battle of Antietam; and earlier, in July 1861 when the precursor to the A o P – the Army of Northeastern Virginia – was visited by VADC (Colonel) and then-Congressman from Illinois, John A. McClernand. After the earlier visit, in consequence of a skirmish originally termed “Battle of Bull Run” but subsequently re-named as the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, Colonel McClernand waited only until the battle report was prepared; then rode away east with his dispatch to deliver the good news to everyone at Washington late in the afternoon of July 18. Newspapers reported it as “Victory at Bull Run!”
    The second visit in 1862 came about because Major General John McClernand felt he was being sidelined by Army of the Tennessee commander, Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Gaining a leave of absence in September, General McClernand journeyed north… then east to confer with his close confidant, President Lincoln (since August 1861 John McClernand had been sending unofficial reports to Lincoln of observations in the Western Theatre.) Now, McClernand was in need of a favor… and got it: President Lincoln put John McClernand in command of an Army Corps, and returned him to the West with authority to “attack and seize control of Vicksburg.”
    Now, John McClernand’s difficulties with U.S. Grant REALLY began…
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PinkertonLincolnMcClernand.jpg Photo taken 3 OCT 1862.

  3. Stephen Engle’s Gathering to Save a Nation is another book to add to this growing list of fascinating political analysis. I am a fan of this thread.

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