Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac

Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac

by Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr.


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Fair Oaks, the Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg—the list of significant battles fought by the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, is a long and distinguished one. This absorbing history of the Second Corps follows the unit's creation and rise to prominence, the battles that earned it a reputation for hard fighting, and the legacy its veterans sought to maintain in the years after the Civil War. More than an account of battles, Defeating Lee gets to the heart of what motivated these men, why they fought so hard, and how they sustained a spirited defense of cause and country long after the guns had fallen silent.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006172
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/29/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,074,637
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr., is Associate Professor of History at Stillman College and author (with Ray B. Browne) of Voices of Civil War America: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life.

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Defeating Lee

A History of the Second Corps ? Army of the Potomac ?

By Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr.

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Lawrence A. Kreiser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00617-2




The Second Corps officially came into existence on March 8, 1862, when President Lincoln ordered the creation of the first four Union army corps. Yet the history of the Second Corps dates back to the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Over the intervening eleven months, the Union high command debated when to create army corps, how they should be organized, and who should command them. All the while, the soldiers who first served in the Second Corps received their introduction into military life and discussed why they fought. The events that occurred across the Union in 1861 and early 1862 had a significant influence on the Second Corps, and any analysis of its history most properly begins with them.


Major General George McClellan remembered seeing only an armed rabble when he arrived in late July 1861 to take command of the Union forces stationed in and around Washington, D.C. The Union army had suffered a near-rout around Bull Run, Virginia, only a few days earlier, after going into battle for the first time. The results still told when McClellan arrived. Stragglers skulked through the streets of Washington, while their officers found shelter in nearby barrooms. Soldiers who had enlisted for three-month terms of service in the spring, as long as many northerners expected the fighting to last at the time, began to stream home. Everything appeared in disarray. An exasperated McClellan later claimed that he had no army to command, "only a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac."

McClellan certainly believed himself capable of bringing order from confusion. McClellan was vain and, often, petulant. But he had reason to express pride in his professional accomplishments. Graduating second in his class from West Point in 1846, McClellan had served with distinction as an engineer in the Mexican War. He traveled to Europe in 1855, as part of a commission appointed by the War Department to study military organization and development there. McClellan resigned from the army two years later, to accept a job as chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. Success also came quickly in the civilian world, and by 1861 McClellan served as president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. With the start of the Civil War, McClellan received appointment as the second-ranking officer in the Union army. Assigned to protect the strongly pro-Union residents of western Virginia, McClellan won battlefield victories at Rich Mountain and Corrick's Ford. The two battles marked some of the few Union military successes to date and won McClellan praise across the Union as a "young Napoleon."

The laurels continued outside Washington, where, displaying superb organizational and administrative skills, McClellan built the newly named Army of the Potomac from the ground up. Regiments enlisted for two- and three-year terms of service arrived daily. Regiments fielded ten companies, each with an authorized strength of one hundred officers and enlisted men. McClellan grouped three to four regiments into brigades, a tactical formation most recently employed by Americans during the Mexican War. McClellan brigaded together regiments as they arrived in Washington, a practice with some drawbacks. The battlefield experience varied widely between brigades. Some brigades fielded regiments that all had participated in the Bull Run Campaign. In other brigades, the regiments had only recently arrived in Washington. Soldiers in these units had yet to experience life in the field, let alone the sounds and sights of battle. The payoff to the quick organization of brigades came with the army soon ready to take the field. This was no small consideration to McClellan, who feared that a quick Confederate strike northward might capture Washington. The worry exaggerated Confederate offensive capacities at the time, but McClellan correctly recognized the disaster that such a blow would deal the Union war effort.

Grouping brigades into divisions was the next organizational task to occupy McClellan. He determined assignments by the geographic proximity of brigades in camp to create as little disruption to his deployments as possible. The three brigades that served in Brigadier General Charles Stone's division—and that later fought in the Second Corps—all were stationed along the upper Potomac River when brought together in early October. Stone's command numbered about 11,140 men as created, nearly as large as the American army that had captured Mexico City in 1847. The numbers of men in Stone's division were similar to the other divisions created by McClellan, an indication of the magnitude of the Union war effort in the East. The ten divisions assembled by the late fall of 1861 ranged from the largest (Brigadier General Nathaniel Banks's) at 14,882 men to the smallest (Brigadier General Joseph Hooker's) at 8,342 men.

McClellan began to think about organizing his divisions into army corps by the late summer. First created in the early 1800s by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, army corps had dramatically altered the conduct of war in Europe. Armies to that time had attempted to maneuver massive numbers of men and equipment, sometimes nearing 200,000 soldiers and hundreds of guns, as a single unit. Seeking a war-winning advantage, Napoleon grouped his infantry, cavalry, and artillery into corps that numbered between 20,000 and 40,000 men. These forces maneuvered independently of one another, greatly increasing the French army's operational mobility. Napoleon boasted that, with good leadership, one of his corps "could go anywhere." Napoleon brought his corps back together when battle loomed, thereby gaining the twin benefits of concentration of force and tactical maneuverability. The corps system helped the French to win smashing victories over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, the Prussians at Jena in 1806, and the Russians again the next year at Friedland. The defeated European powers quickly learned the lesson. Between 1809 and 1815, the Allied nations organized their armies into corps. Campaigns now emphasized material and endurance, rather than decisive battle. By the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the use of corps had helped European armies evolve into modern fighting forces.

McClellan recognized the benefit of organizing corps within the Army of the Potomac. He was in uncharted territory, because no previous American army had been large enough to warrant their creation. Not everyone recognized the need for army corps, even as the Union forces swelled in strength. General Winfield Scott, the general in chief of the Union army and the chief military advisor to President Lincoln, argued that the Army of the Potomac need only take the field organized into brigades. Scott was not someone to discount lightly. A veteran of every American war since 1812, Scott had achieved national fame for his bravery and leadership in the Mexican War. McClellan could not see it. Privately he grumbled that Scott "understands nothing, appreciates nothing, and is ever in my way." In meetings with Scott, McClellan correctly pointed out that fighting forces "all the world over" were organized into armies, corps, and divisions. McClellan hardly helped his cause, however, by reminding Scott that the Mexican War was "a very small affair" by comparison to the Civil War. Scott remained unconvinced, perhaps not surprisingly in the face of a perceived professional attack.

The split with Scott became increasingly acrimonious, fueled largely by McClellan. Believing that two generals was one too many to command the Union army, McClellan was determined to come out on top. Here he found unlikely political allies. McClellan was a conservative Democrat, and he fought primarily to preserve the Union. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, called for a no-holds barred struggle to smash the South and destroy slavery. Many Radical congressmen believed Scott too old and feeble to lead a war of conquest. McClellan captured their support by publicly offering that the Army of the Potomac should march quickly and "crush the rebellion at one blow." McClellan could afford such boasts because, at the moment, the military decision making was Scott's. But the Radicals believed that in McClellan they had found their man. Under mounting pressure from Radical leaders, Lincoln allowed Scott to retire for health reasons in late October. McClellan now carried a dual job, as both commander-in-chief of the Union army and commander of the Army of the Potomac. When Lincoln worried whether the burdens and responsibilities of leadership might be too great for any one man, McClellan replied otherwise. "I can do it all," he guaranteed.

The pressures of command cowed many Civil War generals, but none, arguably, as much as McClellan. With Scott gone, McClellan had his way clear to organize army corps, but now he cautioned delay. He maintained that the best time to introduce corps was after the army had gone into battle; only then would he know who among his top generals were "best fitted to exercise these important commands." The argument held some validity, but the problem was that McClellan gave no indication of when he might take the army into a campaign. As commander-in-chief, McClellan imagined swarms of Confederates in northern Virginia. And not only were these conjured-up Confederate battalions present in large number, they were, in McClellan's mind, preparing to launch a full-scale attack on Washington. Boasts of a swift campaign to end the war in Union victory disappeared with the fall leaves.

The delay in organizing army corps doomed McClellan with the Radicals. The congressmen saw nothing good in the failure to organize the army's divisions into higher formations. The Radicals feared that McClellan might use the lack of corps as an excuse to continue to delay launching a campaign to capture Richmond. Or, perhaps worse from their perspective, McClellan might advance the army into the field still organized into divisions. Away from Washington and any Radical influence, McClellan might consult only with subordinate officers sympathetic to his political viewpoints. Democratic generals would wage the war according to their political philosophies, as well as reap any of the martial glories.

The Radicals attempted to regain the upper hand in their standoff with McClellan by creating the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in December 1861. Members of the Joint Committee had the authority to investigate any aspect of the Union war effort, and they quickly took up the question of whether the Army of the Potomac should be organized into corps. The one-sided debate featured a procession of star-studded witnesses. Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Bull Run and a former instructor of tactics at West Point, argued that corps needed to be created before the army could launch a war-winning offensive. Each corps should number up to 30,000 men, and once in the field, they should maneuver parallel to one another. That way, if one corps suffered attack, "there would be one on each side to come to its assistance." Brigadier General Silas Casey, who had recently penned a manual on infantry tactics widely read throughout the Union army, agreed. Casey instructed that all of the "great generals" since Napoleon had found army corps necessary to effectively operate "large bodies of men in the field." The only resistance continued to come from McClellan. The general reminded members of the Joint Committee that appointing officers to command army corps was a tricky business. These men "could not be stowed away in a pigeonhole" if they proved incompetent. Best for the Union cause to wait and see, rather than guess and be wrong.

President Lincoln ultimately ordered the creation of army corps and broke the deadlock. He did so in part for military reasons. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and members of the Joint Committee repeatedly pressed upon Lincoln the point that the creation of corps was vital to winning the war. Otherwise the Union army "would not be efficient." Stanton's argument in favor of army corps likely carried special weight with the president. Stanton had taken over the office from the corrupt Simon Cameron in January. A brilliant administrator, Stanton was also a Democrat. That he agreed with the Radical Republicans about the necessity of creating army corps kept the matter in a military light. This is not to say that politics did not come into play. Lincoln, too, feared the specter of a Democratic clique dominating the high command of the army. Lincoln avoided the possibility by appointing McDowell to the First Corps, Brigadier General Edwin Sumner to the Second Corps, Brigadier General Samuel Heintzelman to the Third Corps, and Brigadier General Erasmus Keyes to the Fourth Corps. The four generals were the senior-most division commanders in the army, as well as Republicans. If need be, the new corps commanders might serve as a counterbalance to the political intrigues of McClellan.

Lincoln has received some present-day criticism for his decision to advance the army's senior-ranking division commanders to corps command. Doing so "cursed" the army for much of its early career with "hidebound" officers. And, in truth, none of the four initial Union corps commanders went on to win an independent command. Yet it is hard to see what Lincoln might have done otherwise. Advancing generals based on battlefield talent would have been tricky, because few battles had yet been fought. Additionally, Lincoln wanted generals who were, if not openly supportive of his Republican administration, at least politically neutral. Bumping forward younger officers would only have opened Lincoln to charges of political favoritism. Going with the senior-ranking generals was the easiest option, and filled the otherwise vacant leadership positions.

For an officer generally not widely remembered today, Edwin Sumner provoked strong response from his contemporaries when he assumed command of the Second Corps. No one would deny that Sumner had perhaps the greatest range of military experience of any high-ranking officer by the late winter of 1862. Born in Boston in 1797, Sumner had joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1819. He had served continuously over the next forty-three years, including fighting Indians and Mexicans while serving in the 1st Cavalry. The wear and tear had taken its toll. By the outbreak of the Civil War, fellow Union officers claimed that Sumner was increasingly short-tempered. McClellan thought worse. The army commander publicly praised his top-ranking subordinate as "an ideal soldier." In private, however, McClellan was scathing. Sumner was a "fool," barely fit to command a regiment, let alone an army corps.

McClellan seemingly had a point. Other observers in the Army of the Potomac believed Sumner was in over his head as commander of the Second Corps. In fairness, however, Sumner was the best of the four newly appointed officers. The career of Irvin McDowell was on the wane when he assumed command of the First Corps, after the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run. McDowell held command in the East only through the end of the summer, when he received transfer to a succession of backwater departments. In the Third Corps, Samuel Heintzelman had compiled nearly as many years in the regular army as Sumner. Heintzelman was a thorough soldier. Subordinates whispered, however, that he lacked dash and, worse, imagination. Erasmus Keyes, the Fourth Corps commander, owed his seniority in rank to his prewar friendship with Winfield Scott. Keyes was more widely known throughout the army in 1861 and early 1862 for his vocal support of the Republican Party than for his leadership skills. McDowell, Heintzelman, and Keyes all were brave. But none possessed the charisma to inspire the men, and no contemporaries considered their subsequent departures a great loss to the army.


Excerpted from Defeating Lee by Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr.. Copyright © 2011 Lawrence A. Kreiser. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Beginnings: The Organization of the Second Corps
2. Apprenticeship: The Peninsula and Maryland Campaigns
3. Defeat: The Fredericksburg Campaign
4. Pinnacle: The Winter Encampment of 1863 through the Gettysburg Campaign
5. Rebuilding: Bristoe Station to Stevensburg
6. Carnage: The Overland Campaign
7. Victory: The Petersburg and Appomattox Campaigns
8. Memories: The Postwar Era

What People are Saying About This

"Kreiser breathes new life into this most important of Union Army units. . . . A remarkably well-written and superbly researched account."

David E. Long]]>

Kreiser breathes new life into this most important of Union Army units. . . . A remarkably well-written and superbly researched account.

David E. Long

Kreiser breathes new life into this most important of Union Army units. . . . A remarkably well-written and superbly researched account.

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