- Evangelizing for Union, 1863The Army of the Potomac, Its Enemies at Home, and a New Solidarity
In late January 1863, Joseph Hooker took command of an Army of the Potomac still muttering at army commander’s George McClellan’s November 1862 removal, still stung by the disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg in December, deeply conflicted by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and still cleaning its boots after the drudgery of Burnside’s infamous Mud March. Hooker deserved and received much credit for the rehabilitation of the army that followed his appointment; the transformation in mood, food, health, and routine started almost immediately. But, like McClellan after Second Bull Run (when Lee electrified a demoralized Union army by crossing the Potomac into Maryland), Hooker benefitted immensely from an outside force over which he had no control—not Lee this time, but rather a threat from the home front: the Copperheads.
The burgeoning clamor for war’s end among northern Peace Democrats that winter and spring not only challenged the will of the Army of the Potomac’s soldiers to continue the war but also the value of all the army had sacrificed and accomplished to this point. As it had against Lee in September, the army rose to this emergency in noisy response. The springtime battle of words and sentiment between the army and Copperheads at home would be an unexpected turning point.
The army had long been a pot boiling with internal dispute over the nature and purpose of the Union war effort—officers and men alike had dispensed scattershot opinions in public and private on everything from slavery to southern civilians to Washington politicians. In early 1863, the convergence of the Emancipation Proclamation and the rise of the Copperheads brought focus to everyman’s opinion, permitting easy classification on a suddenly oversimplified political landscape: for the war or against it? Opinions thoughtlessly dispensed in 1862 carried important labels in early 1863, forcing officers and soldiers to choose their words and express their sentiments carefully. At a tumultuous time when one might expect challenges from the outside to provoke greater unrest within an [End Page 533] army beaten, discouraged, and internally conflicted, the opposite, in fact, happened: the army largely coalesced around a collective determination to dispute the Copperheads and see the war through to victory. The public involvement by officers in the debate over war aims and the wisdom of the administration waned. The army recognized in itself a political voice and political power precisely at the moment when the question of soldiers voting was bubbling up as an issue of consequence in Union states. In many ways, the overwhelming support among soldiers for Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 was forged in the spring of 1863, during its rhetorical war with the Copperheads.
Prior to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s appointment on January 26, 1863, few armies in American history had had a more contentious relationship with the government it served than did the Army of the Potomac. The army of 1862 was emphatically McClellan’s army, an emerging organization dominated by Democratic-leaning officers in a still-young republic, where the boundaries of civil-military discourse still stood fuzzy. By proxy and direct action, the army’s leaders—notably McClellan and Fitz John Porter—leapt into the debate over the nature and purpose of the war, relentlessly arguing for a war largely confined to the clash of armies, sparing southern civilians and, except incidentally, southern slavery. All the while, the government edged toward harsher war. Congress authorized the confiscation of slaves and other property integral to sustaining the Confederate war effort. Maj. Gen. John Pope arrived in Virginia flashing novel (for Virginia) general orders that would bring war’s hardships to southern civilians (though by late-war standards, in a decidedly gentle way). Most importantly and most provocatively, in late July President Lincoln set upon a policy of formal, legal emancipation of slaves in the southern states still in rebellion. The war for the Union would also be a war for freedom. In 1862, the North— including many officers and soldiers—saw the transformation in a less dreamy light.1