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  • The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War by John H. Matsui
  • Robert Hunt
The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War. John H. Matsui. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8139-3927-8. 240 pp., cloth, $39.50.

As all students of the Civil War know, the Jacksonian age had universalized a white male democratic political culture. When thousands of volunteers joined the military in 1861, the newly enlisted soldiers refused to surrender what they saw as their rights as citizens. In the face of this, West Point officers like George B. McClellan had no chance to control the war with their exclusive expertise. This is the starting point for John Matsui's The First Republican Army. As Matsui argues it, in John Pope's Army of Virginia the soldiery's desire to make the war its own was combined with the congressional Republican urgency to construct a radical army as a counterweight to McClellan. The result, Matsui insists, was a Republican army from the privates up to Pope—the first radicalized military organization of the war, the author insists.

Unfortunately, Matsui pursues his thesis with more enthusiasm than judgment. Specifically, the author creates a simple binary. In his portrait, McClellan and his Army of the Potomac pursued a Democratic conservative war. They were particularly unwilling to tangle with slavery. At the other pole, Matsui insists that the Army of Virginia from top to bottom embraced the congressional Republican vision. However, to create his dualism Matsui turns the Republican worldview, antislavery, and hard war into interchangeable parts. When these elements are separated properly, Pope's army looks quite different from what Matsui intends.

Of course, congressional Republicans intended to make a partisan instrument of Pope's army. Moreover, as Matsui contends, the force had a sizeable contingent of Germans, a few midwestern regiments, and some abolitionist officers like Abner Doubleday. However, despite Matsui's insistence, this did not make the army Republican. If the term has meaning, then a majority of the officers and men had to share that party's faith in the globalization of free labor. And Matsui produces a few quotations to this effect (14–15, 112). But the bulk of the sources go elsewhere. As well, Matsui demonstrates that a few soldiers were sympathetic to the plight of slave [End Page 427] refugees (102–4). One would expect this, of course, but such incidents did not make the army Republican, radical, or ideologically antislavery.

Judging by the author's quoted sources, the Army of Virginia's soldiery wanted hard war. This desire was created by contact; very early in their campaigning the North's soldiery rejected the folly of reunion war. Confronting recalcitrant southern civilians along with guerillas, northern soldiers were readily convinced that the entire white South was in rebellion. Add in the citizen volunteer's notorious resistance to any form of West Point discipline, and you had soldiers willing to use looting as a weapon and eager to use slaves to help prosecute the war. For page after page in Matsui's text, the sources describe this turn toward hard war.

The result of this, however, was not a conversion to Republicanism but a citizen-soldier strategy to deconstruct the Confederacy. Every white American alive at the time knew how the South's economy had been created. Regardless of their politics, every soldier understood that building the country, North and South, had depended on labor, private property, and transportation and communication links. Thus, the Union army could destroy the Confederate rebellion simply by reversing the process described in Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013). Without question, such a war was destructive, but it was not necessarily antislavery in principle or radical in some Republican sense. Democrats as well as Lincolnites embraced it. Moreover, there was nothing exclusive to the Army of Virginia in this turn toward hard war. Soldiers in the western armies subverted the so-called rosewater policy at the same time the Virginians did, and for the same reasons. Rejecting McClellan was no different than...


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pp. 427-428
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