The Sword of Lincoln is the first authoritative single-volume history of the Army of the Potomac in many years.
From Bull Run to Gettysburg to Appomattox, the Army of the Potomac repeatedly fought -- and eventually defeated -- Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Jeffry D. Wert, one of our finest Civil War historians, brings to life the battles, the generals, and the common soldiers who fought for the Union and ultimately prevailed. The obligation throughout the Civil War to defend the capital, Washington, D.C., infused a defensive mentality in the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. They began ignominiously with defeat at Bull Run. Suffering under a succession of flawed commanders -- McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker -- they endured a string of losses until at last they won a decisive battle at Gettysburg under a brand-new commander, General George Meade. Within a year, the Army of the Potomac would come under the overall leadership of the Union's new general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant. Under Grant, the army marched through the Virginia countryside, stalking Lee and finally trapping him and the remnants of his army at Appomattox.
Wert takes us into the heart of the action with the ordinary soldiers of the Irish Brigade, the Iron Brigade, the Excelsior Brigade, and other units, contrasting their experiences with those of their Confederate adversaries. He draws on letters and diaries, some of them previously unpublished, to show us what army life was like. Throughout his history, Wert shows how Lincoln carefully oversaw the operations of the Army of the Potomac, learning as the war progressed, until he found in Grant the commander he'd long sought.
With a swiftly moving narrative style and perceptive analysis, The Sword of Lincoln is destined to become the modern account of the army that was so central to the history of the Civil War.
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Simon & Schuster
April 11, 2005
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Excerpt from The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert
Chapter 6: "If We Were Defeated, the Army and the Country Would Be Lost"
The sound was eerie -- many men who heard it described it as "infernal," as if it came from the bowels of hell. A high-pitched "ki-i," the yell was emitted from the throats of Confederate soldiers on the attack. During the final week of June 1862, this fearsome screech rolled across the woodlots and bottomlands of the Virginia Peninsula, heralding the rise of Southern arms in the East. When the Seven Days Campaign ended on July 1, the "Rebel Yell" echoed across a changed landscape of war.
Ironically, after weeks of slow, methodical Union steps toward Richmond, the overdue reckoning began with an advance by the Federals on June 25. With Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps north of the Chickahominy, isolated from the rest of the army, George McClellan wanted to shorten the distance to Porter by seizing Old Tavern, a crossroads village. If the Yankees occupied the intersection, they could also move heavy cannon closer to the enemy works.
Joseph Hooker's Third Corps division led the reconnaissance-in-force, colliding with Major General Benjamin Huger's Confederate brigades. The Rebels resisted stubbornly, and Philip Kearny's troops and units from the Second and Fourth corps joined Hooker's men. A Union lieutenant described the enemy as "wretches...with their tall hats and brown coats, looking as if they would like to cut our livers out." The fighting at Oak Grove lasted until sunset. In the end, Huger's men held their works. Before the combat had ended, McClellan learned of an approaching whirlwind.
McClellan sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at 6:15 P.M., June 25, stating that several runaway slaves or "contrabands" had reported that Stonewall Jackson's command was at Hanover Court House, north and west of Porter's position near Mechanicsville. He estimated enemy strength around Richmond at 200,000, and remarked, "I am inclined that Jackson will attack my right and rear." If that were to occur, "this army will do all in the power of men to hold their position and repulse any attack." But if the outcome resulted in "a disaster" for the army, "the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders. It must rest where it belongs," with the administration in Washington.
Stanton forwarded the telegram to Abraham Lincoln. The president was surely tired of reading another such dispatch from McClellan. He replied the next day, noting that the general's assertion as to being overwhelmed by superior numbers and as to the responsibility for it "pains me very much." Continuing, "I give you all I can, and act on the presumption that you will do the best you can with what you have, while you continue, ungenerously I think, to assume that I could give you more if I would. I have omitted and shall omit no opportunity to send you re-enforcements whenever I possibly can."