- The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War by John H. Matsui
With The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War, John H. Matsui delivers a useful addition to the rapidly burgeoning field of Civil War guerrilla studies. Matsui contends that the short-lived Union Army of Virginia—which existed for only three months, from June 1862 until it was absorbed into the Army of the Potomac in September 1862—performed a pivotal role in ushering in a more "pro-emancipation and punitive turn of the overall Union war effort" (p. 3). Major General John Pope's leadership, a Republican-dominated officers' corps, and an enlisted rank and file made up largely of men who also identified with the Republican Party fashioned a force whose attitudes toward the conduct of the war contrasted markedly with those of Major General George B. McClellan's heavily Democratic Army of the Potomac.
Matsui argues that Pope's elevation to command in the summer of 1862 marked a transitional moment for Union war aims. Up to this point, the primary Union force in the East, McClellan's Army of the Potomac, had adhered to conservative, Democratic policies when handling Confederate civilians and [End Page 169] property, including slaves. Radical congressional Republicans chafed at this solicitude and sought to impose tougher measures regarding rebel civilians and slavery. Pope, an antislavery Republican who had implemented such policies when dealing with Confederate guerrillas in Missouri, "was an instrument in congressional radicals' hands to destroy slavery and punish Democratic Confederates" (p. 31). Here, Matsui treads familiar ground that historians like Michael Fellman, Mark Grimsley, and Daniel E. Sutherland, among others, have explored. Matsui's more significant and substantial contribution lies in his analysis of the men of and the mission of the Army of Virginia. He rightly notes that the Army of Virginia—which, in its makeup and purpose, differed drastically from the better-studied Army of the Potomac—has drawn little scholarly attention. In contrast to the Army of the Potomac, one-third of Pope's troops hailed from western and border states, including a substantial number of Unionists. Additionally, a greater proportion of senior officers in Pope's Army of Virginia espoused Republican or antislavery values compared with the overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning Army of the Potomac. Finally, in the Army of Virginia's area of operations—central and western Virginia—Union forces contended with far higher levels of Confederate guerrilla activity and civilian harassment. All these factors, Matsui asserts, "radicalized" the Army of Virginia and made its officers and especially its enlisted men willing and eager to enact more stringent measures in support of emancipation (p. 48).
Ultimately, Matsui notes, battlefield losses doomed the Army of Virginia and temporarily blunted radicals' more expansive war aims. Nonetheless, by "consuming" the Army of Virginia into its ranks, "the Army of the Potomac also digested a spreading anti-slavery sentiment and the conviction that white southern civilians must be treated harshly if the war was to be won" (p. 152). This contention, while perhaps likely, merits further analysis to assess to what extent the Republican, antislavery Army of Virginia veterans espoused their attitudes within the revamped Army of the Potomac. On the whole, The First Republican Army offers a well-written, concise analysis of the political tensions within Federal forces at a crucial strategic moment that should prove of interest to Civil War scholars.