America's Civil War


Loyalty was the byword of the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers in the ranks, the junior officers above them, and generals at headquarters all professed political obedience as the imperative of a citizen-army in time of civil war. The main source of frustration and intrigue within this fractious field army lay in debating the ultimate object of that loyalty. Was it devotion to the Lincoln administration, to the policies of hard war against the Confederacy, to the Constitution, or perhaps even to the young general whose charismatic leadership inspired the ranks?

Beginning with his meteoric rise to command in 1861, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan inspired the devotion of thousands in Union blue. Early war patriotic imagery capitalized on “Little Mac,” a Napoleonic figure of such dash and zeal that he eclipsed Abraham Lincoln in the mind of the average soldier. By the middle of the war, however, the tides had shifted. McClellan’s failed 1862 Peninsula Campaign frustrated the army’s thousands of political novices and prodded them to call for greater commitment from the home front, as well as fierce resolve in the face of political intrigues that might harm the war effort. McClellan’s dismissal as Army of the Potomac field commander in November 1862 stunned and saddened the army, which believed—somewhat naively, they were later to learn—that Little Mac was their greatest bulwark against political schemes.

As dramatic as McClellan’s downfall was, the rise of an antiwar “Copperhead” movement in late 1862 and early 1863 was an even greater shock to the army. Led by ambitious, politically active junior officers, the ranks of the Army of the Potomac initiated a war of words with the Democratic Party in the spring of 1863. Dozens of regiments drafted official political resolutions to denounce their own home-front politicians for failing to support the war and President Abraham Lincoln’s policies. Some regiments threatened to march home and exterminate draft dodgers, expel partisan Democrats, and even disown weak-willed family members. Soldiers were livid at anyone who seemed to be insulting the sacrifice witnessed at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and in countless hard marches and skirmishes in between.

Following more bloodletting at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, the depleted ranks of the Army of the Potomac voted overwhelmingly against Democrats in the 1863 gubernatorial contests. A critical mass of Republican-leaning junior officers had successfully pulled the survivors into Lincoln’s political camp. In fact, on election day in Pennsylvania, McClellan himself, eager for a future in the Democratic Party, endorsed a notorious peace candidate for governor. The army expressed horror

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