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  • Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen W. Sears
  • George C. Rable (bio)
Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. By Stephen W. Sears. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. Pp. 884 Cloth, $38.00.)

Stephen Sears has appropriately dedicated his latest book to Bruce Catton. In terms of both content and style, Lincoln's Lieutenants will remind many readers of their early encounter with Civil War history in Catton's classic Army of the Potomac trilogy. This is good old-fashioned narrative history replete with human drama; it is unabashedly great-man history with an emphasis on military decision making at the highest levels. In Sears's view, command decisions mattered most in determining the course and outcome of the Civil War, and so he pays little attention to other issues aside from the ways in which politics influenced the Army of the Potomac. In these pages, even the commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln, is usually offstage.

Sears begins with some excellent material on the creation of the Army of the Potomac, and a great strength of the volume is how he handles the myriad changes in the army's personnel and order of battle. That he describes organizational details in both a clear and interesting manner is a real tribute to his writing skills. In addition, he wields a sharp pen in both portraying and assessing a host of generals. A good example is Irvin McDowell: "a tall, overstuffed figure lacking any grace of movement or presence" (40). As George McClellan's best and certainly most critical biographer, Sears not only makes Little Mac one of the central figures in the entire book but, aside from a de rigueur acknowledgment of the general's organizational skills, paints an almost unrelievedly negative picture of the man. Nor does he care much for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, "a chameleon-like figure" (140) who receives little praise in this volume. Like the historians of Catton's generation, Sears often refers to the so-called Radical Republicans in Congress as "Jacobins" and takes a jaundiced view toward the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

As a follow-up to Sears's earlier books on the Peninsula campaign, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, this volume offers more compact but uniformly strong and enlightening accounts of those and other major campaigns. The battle narratives focus on the high command usually down to the division level; the author often concludes these sections with tart commentary on the performance of various generals. For example, in his discussion of Second Bull Run, Sears insightfully analyzes Henry Halleck and John Pope's shortcomings but also probes the personalities and performances of more secondary figures such as the aggressive and tactless Philip Kearny. [End Page 337]

Simply by describing the condition of disparate corps and divisions, Sears shows how skillfully and quickly McClellan remodeled the Army of the Potomac at the beginning of the Maryland campaign. Ambrose Burnside does not come off well at all in these pages, in Sears's view hardly fit for much beyond a brigade command, despite the acknowledgment that the hapless Burnside was badly undermined by a cabal of generals. By the time Joseph Hooker took over, the West Point influences were waning and many citizen-soldier officers were coming into their own. But like Burnside, Hooker was badly served by subordinates, and Sears gives the corps commanders low marks for their performance at Chancellorsville.

Sears presents a quite favorable account of George Gordon Meade's generalship not only at Gettysburg but through the remainder of the war. He consistently defends Meade against critics, including Lincoln; and in these pages Meade does not merely operate in Ulysses S. Grant's shadow. Sears deserves credit for giving proper attention to the vital importance of reenlistments as the Overland campaign began, and he never makes the eventual Union triumph appear inevitable. Indeed, the bloody battles in the spring and summer of 1864, hot-tempered exchanges among various generals, and even problems with Franz Sigel and Benjamin F. Butler all illustrate why the fate of the Union remained very much up in the...


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pp. 337-339
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