Catton’s Army of the Potomac Trilogy

by Eric Byrd

648531b4a78faafc5427a41f71a1a276Cyril Connolly was depressed by biographies of unlucky poets. Reading yet another life of Baudelaire “we know, with each move into a cheap hotel, exactly how many cheap hotels lie ahead of him.” Mr. Lincoln's Army (1951) made me feel that way about armies – in this case the Army of the Potomac, the shield of Washington and the main army in the highly politicized, closely-covered Virginia theater of the American Civil War, in which the national and rebel capitals lay 100 miles apart. Catton at his best puts you in the field –

the skirmish lines went down the slope, each man in the line separated from his fellows by half a dozen paces, holding his musket as if he were a quail hunter with a shotgun, moving ahead step by step, dropping to one knee to shoot when he found a target, pausing to reload, and then moving on again, feeling the army's way into the danger zone

– but he never allows you to forget that the battle being recounted – a perfect apocalypse while you're reading – is but one of the early clashes of a long war. There will more dying. This battle will decide nothing; that general will blunder; these men will die in vain. Mr. Lincoln's Army ends in November 1862. Eighteen months later, in spring 1864, Sherman wrote his wife: “the worst of the war is not yet begun.”

Petomek, Algonquian, means “trading place.” Patawomeke on Capt. John Smith's 1612 map. Patowmack in the correspondence of the Founding Fathers, as they discuss the location of the Federal seat. Potomac by 1861, when in camps along its banks the tens of thousands of volunteers who flocked to defend the nation's capitol and smite the rebellion drill as a real army, blue and brass. “The manhood of the eastern states,” a southern officer called this army, though there were Hoosiers and Badgers and Minnesotans among its Boston Brahmins and Maine lumberjacks, its Pennsylvania Germans and Connecticut farmhands, its colorful New York levee of Brooklyn firemen, well-heeled Whartonians in tailored tunics, and French immigrants who sang the Marseillaise on parade and relished the giant bullfrogs found in the Virginia swamps. The Army of the Potomac, “an army of legend” Catton calls it, “with a great name that still clangs when you touch it.”

695706Rummaging in the attics of national memory you come across tokens of George B. McClellan, the Army's first and beloved commander. McClellan was yet another Man of Destiny who popped and fizzled out. Walt Whitman called him the idol of an alternate universe. In 1861, when he took command (aged thirty-four), the northern press paradoxically proclaimed him both “Savior of the Republic” and “Young Napoleon.” The power brokers who whispered in his ear that the times called for a military dictator at least understood what Napoleon had been about.

McClellan didn't simply train the men – he made them “feel like soldiers,” a mysterious and histrionic process. The men were rewarded for long weeks on the parade ground under the drillmaster's abuse with elaborate brigade and division reviews, at the end of which their young commander, astride a massive black charger, and followed by an entourage as splendidly mounted and uniformed as himself, shot galloping down the lines of hurrahing troops, turning to acknowledge their cheers with a gesture one witness described as something beyond a formal salute – a courtly twirl of his cap “which with his bow and smile seemed to carry a little of good personal fellowship even to the humblest private soldier.”

From McClellan's performance of the Dashing Young General I step back and note the innocence of the audience that applauds him, tears in their eyes and cheers on their lips. I usually cringe when any generation of Americans gets called “innocent” – this has been a hard-souled lot from the beginning – but “innocent” must be the word for the ecstatic faith, shared by both sides, that the war would be a brief, flashing, grandly decisive “affair of esprit de corps and hero worship and the élan of high-hearted volunteer fighters.” McClellan's superb martial airs and stagy proclamations are mementos of a society that paraded gaily, pleased with its get up, toward an abyss:

Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac! I have fulfilled at least part of my promise to you. You are now face to face with the Rebels, who are held at bay in front of their capital. The final and decisive battle is at hand. Unless you belie your past history, the result cannot for a moment be doubtful.

I think of McClellan as a dealer in fine First Empire goods, a luxury brand promoted by the nephew and emulator, Louis. French Army fashions were the must-haves of martial ardor. Numerous regiments, especially those made up of New York and Philadelphia firemen, joined the Army of the Potomac costumed in the fezzes and baggy red pantaloons made famous by the Zouaves, France's North African light infantry. McClellan made his redesign of the French Army's kepi the standard headgear. He's wearing one in this portrait, which looks like an actor's carte de visite.


The irony is that McClellan failed on battlefield. Bella figura, beau ideal, bust. “The final and decisive battle” – big talk. Lee drove McClellan back from the doorstep of Richmond not by winning victories or inflicting massive casualties or menacing the supply lines, but simply by showing a superior aggression, a relentless passion for the attack that left McClellan cowed. (Lee assumed that McClellan's men were as hollow as their commander, a mistake he didn't really have to pay for until Gettysburg.) After the Seven Days battles before Richmond, McClellan issued an order to abandon this first of many campaigns for the rebel capital. The fiery one-armed General Phil Kearny – Kearny le Magnifique as he was dubbed by the Chasseurs d'Afrique with whom he had served in Algeria and Italy – confronted McClellan in his tent, said withdrawal in the face of a numerically inferior, winded and barefoot enemy was evidence of “cowardice or treason.” Plenty of people at the time thought treason – Whitman always maintained McClellan “straddled” – but the panicky cables to Lincoln scream cowardice. As do McClellan's letters to his wife, in which Catton finds “too much lingering on the adoration other men feel for him, on the wild enthusiasm he arouses, on the limitless power and responsibility that are his.” “What buried sense of personal inadequacy,” Catton asks, “was gnawing at this man that he had to see himself so constantly through the eyes of men and women who looked upon him as a hero out of legend and myth?”

Whatever his demons, McClellan's first campaign set the pattern of clumsiness and bafflement that would haunt the Army of the Potomac until Grant came along and started swinging it like a sledgehammer. It was a hard-luck army, an immensely powerful industrial juggernaut steered, in its early years, by the unready, at best, and by bumblers and lightweight braggarts, at worst; its soldiers were superb, but its high officer corps was riddled with personal and political rivalry; it was baffled on the road to victory, constantly running off into the ditch. In Glory Road, the second volume of the trilogy, there are more fumbled battles, more cheap hotels – les poètes maudits, les soldats maudits. Catton quotes countless letters home that describe the army's malaise, but none of their writers, eloquent as they so often are, captures the mood of helplessness quite like the German soldier turned anarchist playwright Ernst Toller, who recalled World War I this way: “We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why.”

Glory-roadThis passage from Catton's Glory Road (1952) –

Wendell Phillips, the gadfly of abolition, was on the rostrum that spring of 1863 crying out that the power which dwelt [in Emancipation] must be used as a telling weapon. He saw the war between North and South as something infinitely portentous, not confined to one continent: 'Wherever caste lives, wherever class power exists, whether it be on the Thames or on the Seine, whether on the Ganges or on the Danube, there the South has an ally…Never until we welcome the Negro, the foreigner, all races as equals, and melted together in a common nationality, hurl them against all despotism, will the North deserve triumph or earn it at the hands of a just God.

Made me think of Dominic Lieven's Empire

But had the United States and its ability to project its power worldwide been critically weakened in the 1860s the twentieth century world would have been a very different and probably much nastier place. It is of course impossible to speak with any certainty of the long-range consequences of Confederate victory. But the emergence on North American soil of a nation rooted in populist racialism and ruled by an agrarian semi-aristocracy might well have changed the whole balance of geopolitical and ideological forces in the world. It might, for instance, have impeded the construction of the Anglo-American alliance. A consequence of Confederate independence could also easily have been an attempt by the North to seize Canada to make up for the loss of the Confederacy. Even without this, lasting Anglo-American enmity could have resulted from the manner in which Confederate independence was gained and internationally recognized, or indeed from the way in which the break-up of the Union encouraged London to pursue its traditional policy of trying to maintain a balance of power in North America rather than—as actually happened after 1865—accepting the hegemony of the United States in its hemisphere and appeasing American leaders. Since Anglo-American solidarity was crucial to the victory of democracy in the twentieth century, the possibility that it could have been compromised by the long-term consequences of the American Civil War is of great significance.

Which reminded me of Richard Slotkin's Lost Battalions: The Great War and Crisis of American Nationality

It was not simply that Jim Crow undermined propaganda for the war against Germany and Japan. The war itself, and the revelation of what Nazi and Japanese racism were capable of, convinced [New Deal liberals] that putting an end to racialist ideology and Jim Crow practices was a moral necessity. One of the key elements in that transformation was the role of Hollywood, whose films would shape the myth of World War II as “the Good War,” in which multiracial American democracy defeated two evil empires based on racist fanaticism…Since 1943 [and the release of Bataan] the “ethnic platoon” has become a cliché of American war movies, a standard formula for the representation of the nation and the American people. We see it not only in combat films, but in other genres that dramatize the activities of the state, ranging from police precinct dramas to science-fiction fantasies: a uniformed unit representing the significant racial, ethnic, class and now gender differences must put those differences aside to save the unit, and the nation it represents, from an enemy who threatens annihilation or enslavement. But in 1943 it was a radical innovation in the way war movies were conceived and in the way American society was to be represented.

2108008In A Stillness at Appomattox (1953) Catton calls Appomattox Court House one of “the homely American place-names made dreadful by war.” Appomattox has a homeliness, but Wilderness Tavern, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor – the Virginia killing fields of Grant's overland push – sound entirely sinister. And then you have the fight-grounds and sites of massacre from three centuries of Indian Wars, which seem to fall on either side of a fine line separating the comical (Tippecanoe, Little Big Horn) from the weirdly resonant (Fallen Timbers, Wounded Knee).

I could read about this war indefinitely – especially the final twelvemonth scourge. Every new narrative makes me a rapt listener at the Homeric campfire. Tell me again how it went. Next to chant is Melville, with dark little poems on Shiloh and ghostly guerrillas, and Whitman with his army hospital recollections and painterly, Winslow Homer-ish vignettes – “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” – in Drum Taps. “Up-to-date” is idle praise for a book on this war, because it's the original, partial accounts that make one's flesh creep, and they are rediscovered and rearranged to varying effect by later writers. Every American generation beginning with the one that fought has done some kind of literary justice to this transformative conflict – the United States' Great War, as Gertrude Stein saw it. Catton, writing in the early 1950s about black troops at the Battle of the Crater, is less sociologically comprehensive but just as affecting as Richard Slotkin, a dedicated scholar of race relations, writing about the battle in 2009.

As a storyteller, Catton makes particularly his own the weariness of the men. They hiked rough country blindly at night, during the day launched and repelled savage assaults, all for an entire Somme-like month – May to early June 1864 – at the end of which everyone who hadn't been shot was mad or nearly so with shell-shocked fatigue. Catton is also very eloquent on the disappearance of celebrated units under the wheels of war. This or that decimated regiment, brigade, division or even corps (two were wrecked at Gettysburg) would be struck from the army's rolls, and the disbanded survivors scattered to other formations whose commanders sometimes indulged the pride of the exiles and allowed them to continue carrying their old bullet-riddled banners, on which the names of old battles were sewn – various burgs and villes, and the Indian names of rivers.