In the summer of 1862, following the Second Battle of Bull Run, General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, boasted to his wife that his enemies had been crushed, silenced, and disarmed. McClellan, John H. Matsui reminds us, was not referring to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. His barb was directed at his fellow Union general John Pope, commander of the Army of Virginia. In The First Republican Army, Matsui draws on hundreds of letters and diaries of generals, volunteer officers, and enlisted men to provide an in-depth examination of the ethnic and regional composition, unit organization, lived experiences, and political perceptions of the field commanders and rank-and-file soldiers of the Army of Virginia. In sharp contrast to the Army of the Potomac, the short-lived Army of Virginia, he argues, was “anti-slavery from top to bottom.” A veritable Republican Party in arms, Pope’s forces constituted “the vanguard of the pro-emancipation and punitive turn” of the Union’s war effort (3–4). Matsui’s smoking guns, so to speak, are Pope’s proclamations. General Order No. 13, the most controversial among them, stipulated that the soldiers under his command no longer waste their “force and energy” protecting the private property of men and women who were hostile to the government of the United States (49). Pope also banished from their homes and beyond the army’s lines those who refused to take an oath of allegiance. Republican officers tacitly approved of Pope’s decrees, Matsui claims, which many enlisted men construed as authorizing punishment and the wholesale plunder of the countryside (32–33). Democrats, West-Pointers, and McClellan allies, all of whom hoped for a quick end to the conflict and a return of the status quo ante, deemed Pope’s orders a violation of the principles of modern warfare. Whereas opposition to slavery and admiration for contrabands (slaves who escaped or were brought to Union territory) was not much in evidence in the Army of the Potomac, Matsui claims that the Army of Virginia was a magnet for runaway slaves. A substantial number of Pope’s officers and enlisted men, many of them citizens of the states of the Old Northwest Territory, favored emancipation. A few wanted to allow African Americans to take up arms in the fight for their freedom. The First Republican Army provides substantial support for the proposition, embraced by virtually all Civil War historians, that Union officers and enlisted men did not agree on war aims. Matsui may well go beyond his evidence, however, in claiming that from “John Pope to the lowest private,” a majority of the soldiers in the Army of Virginia “identified with the antebellum ideology of the Republican Party and radically opposed both slavery and pro-Confederate white civilians” (4). “Liberal foraging” often proved necessary during the war, Matsui acknowledges. Ambrose Burnside, a close friend of McClellan, allowed the soldiers in his command to “[take] up the practices of the Army of Virginia, with a will, especially the confiscation of property” (139). Republicans, of course, were not necessarily abolitionists. It is by no means certain, moreover, that secession had rendered abolitionists “prophets worthy of honor in northern public opinion in the summer of 1862” (41). Nor does sympathy for abolitionism emerge from more than a handful of the letters and diaries of the soldiers of the Army of Virginia. Indeed, Matsui indicates that the attitudes of these men toward slaves “could be complex and inconsistent, changing according to circumstance,” with many finding it difficult to accept the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts passed by a Republican Congress, making it possible for contrabands to serve in the Union Army (104). According to a Massachusetts chaplain quoted by Matsui, some of Pope’s men wanted a proclamation ending slavery, others wanted to leave the peculiar institution as it was, while “the drifting is toward emancipation” (113). Participation in the Civil War certainly made some soldiers more interested in politics than they had been when they were civilians. That said, What They Fought For, 1861–1865 (1995), James M. McPherson’s careful study of a large sample of soldiers, sets a context relevant to an assessment of Matsui’s claims. McPherson found that a substantial percentage of officers and enlisted men were motivated to join the armed forces by a love of country. A much smaller percentage, however, discussed ideological issues. Matsui’s splendidly detailed study demonstrates that while General McClellan and his allies resisted and, at times, subverted the evolving military and political priorities of the Republican Party, the Army of Virginia tried to advance. He reminds us well that the relationship between political generals and frustrated enlisted men can be mutually reinforcing in a democratic society. In the end, however, events (including General McClellan’s tactical and strategic battlefield failures) far more than Pope’s divisions, stimulated the radicalization of the Civil War. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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