Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw
What an interesting book… Vincent L. Burns tells the story of the Army of the Potomac through the voices of the men who served. He narrates the story in an interesting and concise way, but it is the quotations he uses that set this work apart. Burns does not neglect the other side; there are also numerous quotations from Confederates. Perhaps the best way to give the potential reader an idea of the book is to show some of the citations included:
- Early in the war, June 1861: “Leaving out of the view all the villainy practiced by contractors who have clothed our troops in uniforms that fall to pieces after a week’s work… we are brought face to face with the overwhelming danger of being led into action under Generals… who are actually not qualified to maneuver a platoon.”
- In October 1862: “We have not as yet received one cent of the payment due to us… Our families (a good many of them) are bordering on destitution.” The sense of discouragement is palpable.
- Things became better for the soldiers under McClellan, but victory was nowhere in sight: “He was undoubtedly a great organizer,” one solder said, and went on: (but McClellan was) “Afraid of himself; too timid to carry out his plans.”
- They soon became too used to bloodshed and slaughter. After Cedar Mountain: “…the dead and wounded lay thick around us, yet we could pay no attention to them.”
- February 1863, a soldier who was lucky enough to have a tent left a feeling for army life in winter: “Woke up this morning with my blanket covered with snow that had drifted under my tent.” You can almost feel the cold and misery.
- After Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: “The men were not tired of fighting, but they were tired of being sent to slaughter by incompetent generals.”
- And at Pickett’s Charge, they fired at the Confederates and “swept them down as hail does the growing grain…. A tempest of lead and iron; their steady line wavered, rallied, quailed again, and began to break and flee.”
There are many, many other quotations, and the reader begins to feel what life was really like in the army. If there is any criticism, it is that nearly one third of the book is devoted to the Gettysburg Campaign, but overall Burns’ work is well worth the time spent by the reader.
The final chapter if the book is in itself a good read, and is important. Burns gives a high-level view of life after the war. He touches on the returning veterans, pensions, the end of Reconstruction, and ultimately of reconciliation. The author relates how the nation changed, and all of the legislation passed during the conflict, such as the Homestead and Morrell Acts, the populating of the great plains, the trans-continental railroad, and more. All of this is great stuff, but in the end, it is the story the veterans told themselves that matters. As Burns states:
“They knew, perhaps subconsciously, they had been set apart. And many wanted others, their children and those to follow in time, to know, to hear at least an echo of their accomplishment, what it had cost, and what had been purchased with so much blood.”