August 17, 1861: Birth of the Army of the Potomac

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On August 17, 1861 the Union military departments of the Shenandoah, Washington, and Northeastern Virginia were merged, and  the Army of the Potomac formed, the hard luck Army that experienced defeat after defeat until its great victory at Gettysburg, endured the meat grinder Overland Campaign of 1864 , carried out the siege of Petersburg of 1864-65 and ultimately triumphed with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomatox.  Stephen Vincent Benet  in his epic poem John Brown’s Body  pays tribute to the Army:

Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,
Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come!  Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.



Good stallion,
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily–
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast.


And, after that, the chunky man from the West,
Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved
As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,
Takes you and uses you as you could be used,
Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.
You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,
But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you
But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor
They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,
But you have had other butchers who did not win
And this man wins in the end.


You see him standing,
Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.
You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer
But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.
Ulysses is all right.  He can finish the job.”
And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review
And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever.

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  1. In terms of services rendered to and sacrifice for the nation, next to Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army in the Southern colonies, the AotP is easily the least-appreciated army in American history.

    A lot like Muhammad Ali, the boys in the Potomac could take a lot of punches but still remain standing. I’d argue its greatest victory was the Wilderness, when it kept advancing after absorbing a Chancellorsville-like hammer blow from the indomitable Marse Robert.

    In many ways, it was the mirror-image of the even more hard-luck CSA Army of Tennessee: brave men cursed with bad luck, worse timing and mostly indifferent-to-awful commanders.

    I’m glad Bruce Catton had a chance to talk with those Michigan Potomac vets growing up–his trilogy was brilliant.

  2. These laid the world away; poured out the red
    Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
    Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
    That men call age; and those who would have been,
    Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

    Blow, bugles, blow! — Rupert Brooke

    DP: Do you imagine Catton talked with some of Custer’s cavalry veterans? He/they were victorious from the third day at Gettysburg (beat J.E.B. Stuart) to Appomattox.

  3. T. Shaw:

    Quite possibly so–I remember an intro to one of his books explaining how the AotP veterans who lived in his stretch of rural Michigan were the catalyst for his interest in the history of the War. It’s not impossible that at least one of them might have been one of Custer’s Wolverines.

    Good catch, too–not too many people remember the cavalry battle of the third day, and its significance. Though I don’t know that the Union cavalry was quite that dominant. Yellow Tavern and the thrashing of Dahlgren’s raid showed the Rebel cavalry was still pretty solid.

    The Union was lucky that Forrest wasn’t transferred to the East, I’ll say that. The Devil on Horseback was a menace until late March 1865, when he was finally defeated by a Union cavalry force that had learned all the lessons he’d taught them for three years.

  4. DP: See if you can find in your library a book called Custer Victorious. I don’t have the author’s name here. I re-read it in the past year or so.

    Before Gettysburg Union infantry would taunt, “I never saw a dead cavalryman.” Until Sheridan and Custer, the Union infantry generals were (if that’s possible) worse than the infantry generals.

    Custer’s immediate (for a time) superior Kilpatrick, nicknamed Killcavalry, on several occasions nearly got Custer and his entire division killed or captured.

    Anyways, I’m eagerly awaiting Rick Atkinson’s third book on the ETO. I’m no judge, but the first two were (to me) excellent. This 7 December it will be 70 years . . .

  5. T. Shaw:

    I’ll look it up–sounds good. Custer also had some pretty high casualties, but he led from the front, so the Wolverines didn’t grumble so much.

    In the West, James H. Wilson was the Union cavalry commander who finally digested all the “memos” Forrest sent the Yankees. His raid through the industrial centers of Alabama in 1865 was described by a modern historian as “the Yankee Blitzkrieg.” Even Forrest couldn’t stop him, though in fairness to the Confederate commander his forces were rag, tag and bobtail by that point.

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