From Cedar Mountain to Antietam

Scott Hartwig updated and revised this second edition of the classic by Edward Stackpole for its 1993 reissue, correcting many errors and tweaking the interpretation. As a result, even though the original was published in 1959, the book matches up pretty well with current scholarship.

This is a pure military history of these campaigns. Those looking for a social or political history tie-in should look elsewhere. Those who want to find out what happened between the two union armies, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Virginia, and the confederate Army of Northern Virginia between the end of the Seven Days Campaign and the end of the Battle of Antietam can find it here.

After the Seven Days, the Army of the Potomac was encamped around Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. Bringing Major General John Pope east from the Western Theater, President Abraham Lincoln and Major General Henry W. Halleck formed a new army with Pope as its commander, the Army of Virginia. Stackpole tells us how this came about: “It had become quite clear that the Federal troops in the East, other than the Army of the Potomac, needed two things and needed them desperately: unified command and a commander who could make unification work. Even as Lee was pushing McClellan back from Richmond, the latter had taken time fro the operations to write Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urging him to combine the troops in the Valley with those in front of Washington, under a single commander. As Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, the defense of Washington was not McClellan’s concern, but that made little difference to the self-sufficient general. As it happened, Lincoln had independently reached the same conclusion and had already selected the man for the job of heading the new army about to be created. The solution was to organize a second army by putting together the separate corps of Banks, McDowell, and Fremont, under a new commander. This army would have the same mission as the separate commands of the three corps commanders, viz, to protect Washington, control the Shenandoah Valley, and draw Confederate troops from Richmond. this time, however, a single general would head the heretofore uncoordinated fighting teams, which was a step in the right direction.” [pp. 8-9]

The original plan was for the two armies to coordinate their movements against Lee. The problem, according to Stackpole, was Halleck, who refused to act as a commander and instead acted solely as an adviser. “Halleck’s inability to reach a firm decision on how to employ the two separate armies under his command was a keen disappointment to the President, who had plenty of problems of his own without having to solve those of the military as well. It finally became apparent that, if there was to be a solution, Lincoln himself would have to dictate it. Despairing of offensive action by McClellan, and knowing of no other general to whom he could safely entrust the job after Burnside declined to take it, Lincoln reluctantly discarded his nutcracker project, that is, to attack Lee at Richmond from two directions, and directed Halleck to call the Army of the Potomac back north with a view to operations in conjunction with the newly formed second army on the line of the Rappahannock River. Despite McCelllan’s strenuous objections, the order stuck. Further operations against Richmond were suspended for the time being. McClellan was directed to withdraw his forces from the Peninsula forthwith.” [p. 10] This, I believe, is the source of the often repeated error that George McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac after the Seven Days Campaign. He was not. He remained the commander of the Army of the Potomac, but several troops belonging to him were attached to the Army of Virginia, commanded by John Pope. When Pope eventually was moved to Minnesota, the units of the Army of Virginia were absorbed into the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was not placed back in command. He had remained in command of that army all the way through. Unfortunately, Stackpole falls into this trap, telling us on page 291 that McClellan resumed command.

The battle descriptions are very straightforward, following the standard interpretations we’ve seen for these actions. Students will be able to understand the battles and how the armies moved from one battle to another after reading this work. A major strength is the detailed maps in the book–38 of them–produced by Colonel Wilbur S. Nye. They provide both good overviews of the areas of operations and close-in views of the battlefields.

The book does have some weaknesses. The view of McClellan is in the Stephen Sears tradition of McClellan as villain and in addition, extremely slow, even in his pursuit of Lee during the Maryland Campaign. Stackpole blames Lieutenant General James Longstreet for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. On page 306, Stackpole confuses Colonel John Farnsworth, commander of the Second Brigade of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry at Antietam, with Capt, later Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth, who died at Gettysburg.

Even with the minor errors in fact and interpretation, this is a valuable book for students who wish to understand the movements and battles of the armies in the Second Bull Run and Antietam campaigns. I can recommend it.


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