Eric's Reviews > Mr. Lincoln's Army

Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton
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Feb 05, 11

bookshelves: americans, history, massacres, us-civil-war, war
Read in January, 2011

Cyril Connolly noted the depressive effect of numerous and exhaustive biographies of hard-luck poets—reading yet another life of Baudelaire “we know, with each move into a cheap hotel, exactly how many cheap hotels lie ahead of him.” Mr. Lincoln’s Army makes me feel that way. Catton’s masterly narration envelopes you—

the skirmish lines went down the slope, each man in the line separated from his fellows by half a dozen paces, holding his musket as if he were a quail hunter with a shotgun, moving ahead step by step, dropping to one knee to shoot when he found a target, pausing to reload, and then moving on again, feeling the army’s way into the danger zone


—while never allowing you to forget that Malvern Hill and Second Bull Run and Antietam—perfect apocalypses while you’re reading—are but the first clashes of a very long war. There is still more dying. This battle will decide nothing; that general will blunder; these men will die in vain. Mr. Lincoln’s Army ends in November 1862. A year and a half later, in spring 1864, Sherman correctly prophesied that “the worst of the war is not yet begun.”

~

Petomek, Algonquian, means “trading place.” Patawomeke on Capt. John Smith’s 1612 map. Patowmack in the correspondence of the Founding Fathers, as they discuss the location of the Federal seat. Potomac by 1861, when in camps along its banks the tens of thousands of volunteers who had flocked to defend the nation’s capital and smite the rebellion were drilled into a real army, blue and brass. “The manhood of the eastern states,” a southern officer called this army, though there were Hoosiers and Badgers and Minnesotans among its Boston Brahmins and Maine lumberjacks, its Pennsylvania Germans and Connecticut farmhands, its colorful New York levee of Brooklyn firemen, well-heeled Whartonians in tailored tunics, and French immigrants who sang the Marseillaise on parade and relished the giant bullfrogs found in the Virginia swamps. The Army of the Potomac—“an army of legend,” Catton calls it; “with a great name that still clangs when you touch it.”

~

Rummaging in the attics of national memory you come across tokens of George B. McClellan, the Army’s first and beloved commander. McClellan was yet another Man of Destiny who popped and fizzled out. Walt Whitman called him the idol of an alternate universe. In 1861, when he took command (aged thirty-four), the northern press proclaimed him “Savior of the Republic” and, in the same breath, “Young Napoleon”—completely antithetical titles. The power brokers who whispered in his ear that the times called for a military dictator at least understood what Napoleon had been about.

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McClellan didn’t simply train the Army; he made its men “feel like soldiers”—a much more mysterious, and ultimately histrionic, process. The men were rewarded for long weeks on the parade ground under the drillmaster’s abuse with elaborate brigade and division reviews, at the end of which their young commander, astride a massive black charger, and followed by an entourage as splendidly mounted and uniformed as himself, went galloping down the lines of hurrahing troops, turning to acknowledge their cheers with a gesture one witness described as going beyond a formal salute—a courtly twirl of his cap “which with his bow and smile seemed to carry a little of good personal fellowship even to the humblest private soldier.”


From McClellan’s performance of the Dashing Young General I step back and note the innocence of the audience that applauds him, tears in their eyes and cheers on their lips. I usually cringe and snarl when any generation of Americans gets called “innocent”—this has been a hard-souled country from the very start, we started out as Indiankillers and slaverapers—but “innocent” must be my word for the ecstatic faith, shared by both sides, that the war would be a brief, flashing, grandly decisive “affair of esprit de corps and hero worship and the élan of highhearted volunteer fighters.” McClellan’s superb martial airs and stagy proclamations—

Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac! I have fulfilled at least part of my promise to you. You are now face to face with the Rebels, who are held at bay in front of their capital. The final and decisive battle is at hand. Unless you belie your past history, the result cannot for a moment be doubtful.


—are mementos of a society that paraded gaily, pleased with its fine uniform, toward an abyss. Think of McClellan as a dealer in Napoleonic goods, at the time a sort of luxury brand promoted by Bonaparte’s nephew and emulator, France’s emperor Napoleon III. French Army fashions were the must-haves of martial ardor. Numerous regiments, especially those made up of New York and Philadelphia firemen, joined the Army of the Potomac costumed in the fezzes and baggy red pantaloons made famous by the Zouaves, France’s North African light infantry. McClellan made his redesign of the French Army’s kepi the standard headgear. He’s wearing one in the studio portrait below, which looks like the carte de viste of a matinee idol.

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The cruel irony is that McClellan was, as a battlefield general, a failure. Too good to be true. Bella figura, beau ideal, bust. “The final and decisive battle”—just big talk. Lee swatted McClellan back from the doorstep of Richmond not by winning victories or inflicting massive casualties or menacing the supply lines, but simply by showing a ballsy daring, a relentless passion for the attack, which left McClellan completely cowed, psyched-out, mindfucked. (Lee assumed that McClellan’s men were as hollow as their commander—a mistake he didn’t really have to pay for until Gettysburg.) When the order to retreat from the Rebel capital came through, the fiery one-armed general Phil Kearny went to McClellan’s tent and cussed him to his face, said withdrawal in the face of a numerically inferior, winded and barefoot enemy was evidence of “cowardice or treason.” Plenty of people at the time thought treason—Whitman, for one, always maintained McClellan “straddled”—but the panicky pants-wetting cables to Lincoln scream cowardice. As do McClellan’s letters to his wife, in which Catton finds “too much lingering on the adoration other man feel for him, on the wild enthusiasm he arouses, on the limitless power and responsibility that are his.” “What buried sense of personal inadequacy,” Catton asks, “was gnawing at this man that he had to see himself so constantly through the eyes of men and women who looked upon him as a hero out of legend and myth”?


Whatever the precise nature of his demons, McClellan’s first campaign set the pattern of clumsiness and deadly ineffectuality that would haunt the Army of the Potomac until Grant came along and started swinging it like a sledgehammer. It was a hard-luck army, an immensely powerful industrial juggernaut steered, in its early years, by bumblers and sleepwalkers and lightweight braggarts; baffled on the road to victory, constantly running off into the ditch. I’m deep into Glory Road, the second volume of the trilogy, and there are more fumbled battles, more cheap hotels—les poètes maudits, les soldats maudits. Catton quotes countless letters home that describe the army’s malaise, but none of their writers, eloquent as they so often are, captures the mood of helpless nightmare quite like the German soldier turned anarchist playwright Ernst Toller, who recalled World War One thus: “We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why.”


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Reading Progress

01/27/2011 ""A sergeant, veteran of the Crimea and Algiers, ruffled his Gallic mustachios and spoke soothingly. 'Bah!' he said. 'This is but to season the conscripts. We shall see many worse days than this.'""
01/29/2011
70.0% ""From one end of the army to the other, bivouacs were littered with discarded decks of cards. Card games were held sinful in that generation, and most men who were about to fight preferred not to have these tangible evidences of evil on their persons when they went out to face death.""

Comments (showing 1-7)




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message 7: by Kent (new)

Kent Interesting comments. I know hardly anything about the GAR, having spent most of my time on the Army of Northern Virginia in which (I can't help but say) the older view of warfare never lost currency, and in which there was never a divide between effective military leadership and (to use an old-fashioned word) romance.

The impression I have gathered from reading the Southern side of things is that the best military men in the North ultimately proved to be the tough and pragmatic westerners, not the cultured easterners. If that's true it's an interesting contrast to the Army of Northern Virginia, where most of the best leaders were either "to the manor born", or else aspired to that status.

I have wondered before what people find compelling in the story of the Grand Army. It's a story of repeated failure, and eventual victory through only technological and economical superiority subserving sheer pragmatic political goals. There is little honor or glory in that story, and devoid of those two things war is nothing but wretchedness and horror.


message 6: by Eric (last edited Feb 08, 2011 04:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric There is little honor or glory in that story, and devoid of those two things war is nothing but wretchedness and horror.

There's little honor and glory in any war; it is mostly wretchedness and horror. And I think you're falling into (or have always been in) the old Robots vs. Cavaliers myth; the cold Philistine Yankee workshop vs. the perfumed veranda, with darkie banjos sweetening the dusk. The regimental histories and letters home show men just as passionate and idealistic as any. They were patriots, you know. Edmund Wilson makes the same mistake of using the Union men of the 1860s as a proxy for all that he hated about modern America and the Levithan state. Picturing the Federals as faceless Star Wars stormtroopers is just as unfair as seeing the rebel rank and file as a rabble of human foxhounds ignorantly fighting for an aristocracy they would never emerge from their dirt-floored hovels to join. And I think there's as much "honor and glory," if we must seek it out, in perserving the nation as in trying to sunder it; as much in liberating slaves as in fighting to keep them in bonds.


I have wondered before what people find compelling in the story of the Grand Army. It's a story of repeated failure...

For me, the repeated failure is exactly what makes it so compelling. Such fine troops, such dashing batteries, so many brilliant mid-level commanders. And then, until Gettysburg, bumbler after bumbler in the very top spot. (The resilience, patience and professional pluck that set in among the Army of the Potomac's men attracts me.) And even that division isn't quite correct: Hooker was a superb divison and corps commander, a real cutthroat, especially at Antietam; but he went to pieces in the big job. The Army of Northern Virginia, like you say, seized on its best men from the start. Catton leaves one open-mouthed at the audacity of Lee and Jackson. The Hills! And Stuart! There's enough dash and heroism there to consol any number of sighing later generations. I see the appeal.


...and eventual victory through only technological and economical superiority subserving sheer pragmatic political goals.

And the preservation and expansion of slavery aren't sheer pragmatic goals? Confederate independence isn't a pragmatic political goal? I think the Southern leaders were a little more pragmatic and political than such moonlight-and-magnolias mythmaking allows. The "romance" of the "old south" is a literary trope.

And "technological and economic superioity" didn't exempt the Federal solider from the dirty work of shooting, clubbing and stabbing rebels. It's not like the North builds a factory and by some rule Lee has to remove a few chessmen from the board. Lee's army had to be destroyed by other men. All the economic might in the world would have been worthless if the Federals in the firing line couldn't dish it out, and take it.

...the best military men in the North ultimately proved to be the tough and pragmatic westerners, not the cultured easterners.

Well, effete coast vs. tough hinterland is an easy, and eternally popular, cartoon. Many of the eastern-born commanders weren't terribly genteel: Sheridan, after all, was a New Yorker. And some of the best generals in the Army of the Potomac, like Reynolds and Hancock and Meade were "cultured" easterners. Phil Kearny, a driving war lover if there ever was one, who "went into battle with a smile on his lips"," was a wealthy Manhattanite, and carried a headquarters baggage that included a stock of fine wines and brandies, plus a French chef. McClellan's problem wasn't that he spoke impeccable French, but that he was a coward.

...the Army of Northern Virgina in which (I can't help but say) the older view of warfare never lost currency

As Pickett's and Pettigrew's men discovered.


message 5: by Kent (new)

Kent I don't believe it's not necessary to subscribe to some washed-out, sentimentalist theory of the South to believe that there was honor in Lee's battle to defend his home state against invasion--nor need one cast the rank-and-file Federal soldiers as stormtroopers to believe there was little glory in the coercion and defeat of an underdog. That's all I was a-sayin'.

I eschew as strongly as anybody the Tin Pan Alley caricatures of the "Olde" South. But I do believe, as did many careful scholars before me, that they were one of the final embodiments in Western history of certain traditions that the revolutionary spirit of Jacobin France and of New England destroyed in their wars of centralization and modernization. There is a vast difference in the characters of Lee and Sherman, and I am not convinced that it was to our benefit that the war ended with Sherman ascendant


message 4: by Kent (new)

Kent But my purpose is not so much to argue politics with you as to get a thoughtful opinion on an aspect of history I know little about. You gave me that, and it is much appreciated.


message 3: by Eric (last edited Feb 08, 2011 05:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric nor need one cast the rank-and-file Federal soldiers as stormtroopers to believe there was little glory in the coercion and defeat of an underdog.

Nor do I need to cast the rank-and-file Rebels as dupes and human foxhounds to believe there was little glory in treason and the defense of slaveholding.


There is a vast difference in the characters of Lee and Sherman...

Probably less than you'd like to think. Sherman was deeply racist, probably more so than Lee, or perhaps less genteel in his expression of white supremacy*; but unlike Lee, he never owned another man.


...and I am not convinced that it was to our benefit that the war ended with Sherman ascendant.

Well, as a descendant of the helots of the South, Sherman ascendant was definitely to my benefit. I enjoy being able to read, without fear of social sanction, or the lash of the "nigger-breaker." But such is politics: my people, my group grrrr!! I've appreciated your thoughful opinions as well. Can you suggest a good Lee biography? There's a collection of his letters that I have my eye on, but I want some biographical-military-political detail.


...that they were one of the final embodiments in Western history of certain traditions that the revolutionary spirit of Jacobin France and of New England destroyed in their wars of centralization and modernization.

And I agree. But don't mourn too much. It's only been two centuries since 1789, a blink of an eye in the scheme of things, and modernity has prepared its own environmental rebuke...


* How bland and suave he sounds!

The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy.

Now that's culture, and manners! The mailed fist fully gloved in velvet!


message 2: by Kent (new)

Kent Lee once said that the real test of a gentleman is how he uses power when he gets it. He was raised in the Christian tradition of limited war, self restraint, and protection of the weak. When he had command of a hard-fighting army in enemy country he enforced a strict code of conduct toward civilians. Sherman, on the other hand, turned his bummers loose on women, children, slaves, and Indian tribes, because it got results. This is the difference between Lee's and Sherman's characters, and the fact that the latter has become the dominant ethos of our country, not only in war, but in business, finance, politics, and traffic, is nothing to celebrate.

All of your property, in principle, belongs to the federal government, whether through taxation or eminent domain. Every time you go to the airport you submit to unwarranted search and seizure. You can't teach your child at home without permission. You can't build a house without permission. You can't take your baby home from the hospital without permission. If this happened on a plantation, we would all know what to call it. And lest we forget, all of this has its roots in the centralizing tendency unleashed with the victory of the North.

So no, I don't think you're better off. I think you simply exchanged slavery for slavery, at the same time that white men exchanged freedom for slavery.

I find nothing objectionable in Lee's statement, for exactly the same reasons I would find nothing objectionable if, instead of "blacks" he had said "Germanic tribes." Under Providence, humans are always put under strict discipline until they have learned the hard lesson of disciplining themselves--precisely the lesson that the Christian gospel produces. Ask anybody.


message 1: by Kent (new)

Kent The seminal Lee biography is Douglas Southall Freeman's "R. E. Lee." (There's a one-volume abridged version out there, but you wanna stick with the real thing for sure.)


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