Any student of the American Civil War will be well acquainted with the dismal record of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to mid 1863. Throughout this time period, the army was beset by defeat and a constant stream of new lackluster and border line incompetent commanders. One has to question how the most powerful army the United States had yet fielded could be defeated at every turn by a force with half their strength and a quarter of their resources. While many focus on the ineptitude of the commanders, the blame for the failure falls squarely on Lincoln. After examination of various sources it appears the principal reason for the failure of the Army of the Potomac was President Lincoln’s poor choices for overall command.
At the outbreak of hostilities President Lincoln had as the head of the army General Winfield Scott, a man who was in his seventies and unfit to take the field for any extended period of time. Lincoln therefore was forced to rely on the recommendations of others to choose the field commander for the persecution of the war. The fallacy of this decision is derived from the type of man he chose to serve in the role of Commanding General in the field. While virtually all the senior officers in both armies had served in the War with Mexico, the men chosen by Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac up through 1863 had virtually no experience actually leading troops in the field. When reviewing their service records one sees that McDowell, McClellan, Hooker, and Mead served in staff positions within General Zachery Taylors force but other than being on the field during a battle they had virtually no experienced actually leading men. None of these officers served as company, regimental, brigade, or division officers in the regular army. Additionally, After the Mexican War, all of the initial commanders of the Army of the Potomac worked in engineering or teaching positions. They all had extensive experience with administrative and educational tasks but no troop leading experience. As the say – those who can’t, teach!!
Contrast this with both the command staff of the Army of Northern Virginia and the western Federal officers who would eventually win the war. In the Army of Northern Virginia, both Longstreet and Jackson served as line officers actually leading men in combat. In fact, Longstreet was wounded carrying the regimental colors up the ramparts of Chapultepec. Robert E. Lee E., although attached to Taylor’s staff, was in charge of positioning both troops and batteries prior to and during actions. As for the Federal officers, Grant, Sherman, and Thomas actually led troops in combat during the various actions of the Mexican War.
The reason this difference in experience becomes an issue is the men Lincoln chosen to lead the Army of the Potomac up until Grant have vast experience with logistics and organizing an army but little in fighting a battle. Some, such as Burnside and McClellan, actually had more experience running railroads than actually commanding troops in the field. The battlefield is a dynamic environment which requires the unit commander to be able to think on his feet and react to the changing situation. The most glaring example of the ability to organize well but being unable or unwilling to make battlefield decisions is George McClellan. While no one can deny the McClellan’s reorganization of the Army the Potomac was critical to its eventual success, his anxiety about the unknowns of committing troops to battle handicapped him. Indeed, I would speculate that McClellan suffered from a mental disorder (but I will save that for another post)
There were several other factors that affected Lincoln’s choices for field command. One of the greatest mistakes Lincoln made with his field commanders, with the exception of George McClellan (who should have been fired within days due to his complete lack or respect for the Office of Commander and Chief), was his tendency to relieve them of command following a single engagement such as McDowell after first Bull Run, Burnside after Fredericksburg (although the army was in mutiny when he suggested trying to cross the Rappahannock again), and Hooker after Chancellorsville. The constant turnover in the command of the army destroyed any continuity. While brigade, division and corps commanders typically remained in their positions, the constant stream of new overall commanders did not allow for the development of any one central strategy. It should be noted however, many of these decisions were forced upon Lincoln by the political pressure being applied not only by Congress but by the State’s as well.
An additional problem that would plague Lincoln in the early part of the war was one of political appointees. Many field grade officers were forced upon Lincoln by State Governments. These appointees were not necessarily the most qualified for command. With these appointees often came the different vision of the purpose of the war. Many of the field grade officers in the army of the Potomac in the early part of the war had strong abolitionist ties. It was therefore important to them to captured territory and secure freedom for the slaves with the restoration of the union being a secondary goal.
There is possibly one additional fatal mistake made by Lincoln that is worthy of discussion. That mistake stems from taking a larger role in the daily operations of the army, and not clearly conveying his strategy for the persecution of the war to his field commanders. General Irvin McDowell’s march towards the Manassas Junction in July 1861 was against his better judgment. In many conversations, he informed President Lincoln the Army of the Potomac was not ready to take the field. The troops were green, undisciplined, and unskilled. Once the army suffered catastrophic failure at first Bull Run, Lincoln began to scrutinize and micromanage the operations of the army. This level of intense scrutiny undoubtedly led to the trepidation of commander such as Hooker and Mead, and the disastrous dynamic action of Burnside at Fredericksburg. It is not until Grant takes over that Lincoln finds a General who shares his vision of the persecution of the war and is independent enough that Lincoln does not feel the need to apply the personal touch.
For the first three years of the war the Federal army in the east was beset with failure. While it is easy to point out the shortcomings of various field commanders, the real blame for the failure of the army ultimately lies with Lincoln. The poor choices made by Lincoln for overall field command haunted him until Grant came east. While it should be noted that Lincoln acted on the advice of others, he should have made sure the Officers were fully vetted and conducted a full review of their service records. For a General to be effective in the field he must have more than academic or staff credentials. He must be able to lead troops and adapt to the changing situation on the battlefield.
Detzer, David. DonnyBrook: The Battle of First Bull Run, 1861. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2004.
Sears, Stephen W. WIth My Face To the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War. Edited by Robert Cowley. New York: The Birkley Publishing Group, 2001.
Unknown. "Mexican War Generals." Sons Of The South, 2003. http://www.somsofthesouth.net/mexican-war/mexican-war-generals.htm. (accessed July 30, 2010).
 Unknown, "Mexican War Generals," Sons of the South, 2003, http://www.somsofthesouth.net/mexican-war/mexican-war-generals.htm. (Accessed July 30, 2010).
 According to Sears, McClellan completely lost his nerve before the battle of Malvern Hill. He left the field and virtually abdicated the command of the army. He was 30 miles away checking on new fall back positions preparing to completely abandon the Peninsula. As cited in Stephen W. Sears, WIth My Face To the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, ed. Robert Cowley (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2001), 124.
 David Detzer, DonnyBrook: The Battle of First Bull Run, 1861 (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2004), 84-89.