Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The First Republican Army

As Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began ferociously attacking Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, pushing the behemoth Union force away from the Confederate capital city of Richmond, a new Yankee army was created via General Orders 103. The Army of Virginia was birthed by combining four departments into three corps. Commanded by Gen. John Pope, who experienced a measure of early success in the western theater, the Army of Virginia's life would prove short. However, as John H. Matsui explains in The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War, its brief existence had a definite impact on the war's goals.

When studying Civil War military history it is important to remember that other factors, such as politics and economics, and social aspects, too, were all interwoven into how an army operated. And while Matsui focuses largely on the politics of the Army of Virginia, it ultimately manifested itself in enormous social change aims for the Union cause.

The Army of Virginia's story is told here over an engaging introduction, seven well-developed chapters, and an epilogue. To help chronicle this fighting force's brief life, and provide supporting evidence for his central argument, Matsui draws upon a deep research base into the primary sources of 25 brigadier and major generals and 250 commissioned officers and enlisted men. Doing so provides a thorough sample which allows us to get an overall sense of the army's sentiments.

It almost goes without saying that an army's leadership often determines its policies. And while the Army of the Potomac largely followed the lead of the conservative Democrat McClellan, the politics of many of the commanders (a number of whom were originally from foreign nations) in the Army of Virginia fell more in line with the Republican Party's thinking. In fact, many took the more radical stance in seeing the military necessity of making war on slavery and the Southern civilian population too (a hard war), in effort to end the conflict. Gen. Pope's bombastic statements and harsh policies earned him the label of miscreant from Gen. Lee (and also by a few of his own men), but to many soldiers in the Army of Virginia, who had heard much about McClellan's lack of success in waging a "rose water war," saw a turn toward a more aggressive war as the key to bringing the Union back together without the stain of slavery.

One of the Army of Virginia's main obstacles was its short existence. Unlike the Army of the Potomac, Pope's force had little time to develop a chemistry. The Army of Virginia contained some of the best fighting brigades in the eastern theater, but forming and coordinating them into effective divisions and corps in a short amount of time proved to be too high of a hurdle to overcome. However, the Army of Virginia's practice of waging war ultimately became the Union's overall policy.

This relatively slim volume (157 pages of text) packs a lot of scholarship between its covers. Those readers who enjoy getting the thoughts of the soldiers via their own words will be especially pleased with this book. The First Republican Army makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this critical period in the eastern theater of the conflict. I highly recommend it!

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