Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Review - Terrible Swift Sword by Bruce Catton
Short review: McClellan takes command of the Army of the Potomac and transforms it into a capable fighting force, but he doesn't know what to do with it. Lee takes command of the Army of Northern Virginia, but only after the Confederate cause has been essentially lost.
After First Bull Run
States learn the harshness of war
Full review: This is the second volume in Bruce Catton's three part Centennial History of the Civil War, detailing the events following the First Battle of Bull Run through to the aftermath of the horrifically bloody Battle of Antietam, including the final removal of McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. While the first volume was dominated by the politics of the era, this second volume takes place after open hostilities have broken out between the United States and the Confederacy, and as a result substantial attention is given to the military strategies and how they interacted with the politics of both warring nations.
The book covers, for the most part, the period of time that McClellan held command of the Army of the Potomac, and by quoting his arrogant and somewhat delusional letters extensively, demonstrates just how damaging McClellan was to the Union cause in Virginia. To be fair to McClellan, the book also shows how he was instrumental in transforming the chaotic and disorganized Union forces in the Eastern theater into the disciplined and competent Army of the Potomac. In addition, the book demonstrates quite clearly that McClellan's shortcomings as a field commander were not really too severely damaging to the Union cause overall.
For all the press Lee gets as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, this book makes clear (even if that is not what Catton intended) that by the time he took command of that army in June 1862, the Confederate cause was likely hopeless. One can make an argument that the Confederate cause was hopeless from the start (a position argued quite well by Richard N. Current in his essay in the book Why the North Won the Civil War), but by June 1862, it is pretty clear that the cause was completely lost. The Union had seized Port Royal and the Carolina Outer Banks, closing down most of the Carolina ports, and had taken New Orleans. West Virginia had been carved away from Virginia. In the west, the Confederacy's chance to turn Missouri into a Confederate state had been lost, and their chance to do the same to Kentucky had also slipped away. The Union controlled both the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, and held all of the Mississippi save for that portion of the river around Vicksburg. While the South had been basking in the glory of their victory at Bull Run and found a hero in Robert E. Lee, the North had been busy winning the war.
Catton lays this out step by step, following the course of the war, showing the political realities that drove the men involved, and demonstrating the fates of those who did not recognize, or chose to ignore those political realities (chief among those with a tin ear was McClellan). It also shows how the war transformed from a clash of eager, disorganized militia into a struggle between hardened armies, including showing how McClellan and other commanders were instrumental in transforming the Union forces into professional fighting forces, and how McClellan misused what he had created, as well as showing how Lee was able to take a much less impressive army and bamboozle the ineffectual McClellan. However, the book also gives one the sense that, even though Lee was by nature an aggressive military commander, the risks he took, seen now as brilliant innovative maneuvers, were driven in large part by the fact that he was playing a losing hand, and had to take the extreme long shot gambles he did just to give the Confederacy any chance to win a conflict that it had essentially already lost.
This is a clear, well-written and reasonably comprehensive history of the early years of the central event in U.S. history, and it is a must read for anyone who wants to even begin to consider themselves well-versed on the subject. To a certain extent, this book could be subtitled "The Rise of McClellan and Lee, and the Fall of McClellan", but it also a book about how the enthusiasm and eagerness of the first few months of the war was replaced by a realization of just how hard this war would be, and the effects that this realization engendered. All modern conversations about the Civil War either start with, or are influenced by, Catton's work, and as a result being familiar with this book is almost a necessity.
Previous book in the series: The Coming Fury
Subsequent book in the series: Never Call Retreat
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