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Lawrence A. Kreiser Jr.
  1. Army of the Potomac
  2. Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac
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Although a gifted organizer and morale builder, McClellan proved a failure as a field commander. There he confronted a small garrison whose strength he greatly overestimated. Surprised and cowed, he spent a month laying siege to the port village. On May 3, just as his laboriously erected siege batteries prepared to open fire, the Confederates evacuated, heading for Richmond.

McClellan launched a ponderous pursuit, slowed further by a delaying action at Williamsburg. By late May most of his army was finally in position to attack or invest the enemy capital, but his ranking opponent, Joseph E. Although the fighting ended with Johnston's withdrawal, it had exposed McClellan's faulty dispositions astride the Chickahominy River. Robert E. Lee, who replaced the wounded Johnston on June 1, was quick to take advantage.

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A raid by Stuart around the rear of the Army of the Potomac, weakly opposed by the fragmented and scattered Union cavalry, gave Lee the information he needed to launch a week-long series of attacks aimed at pushing his opponent as far from Richmond as possible. Almost all of the subsequent Seven Days' Battles ended in a draw or a tactical victory for the Army of the Potomac, which nevertheless retreated at McClellan's order. When the last Confederate assault was repulsed at Malvern Hill on July 1, thanks largely to the devastating power of Hunt's cannons, the flustered and intimidated McClellan was ensconced at Harrison's Landing on the James River , twenty miles from his unattained objective.

Although he had outnumbered Lee handily, McClellan accused the Lincoln administration of failing to provide him with sufficient manpower. After Malvern Hill he refused to reassume the offensive unless reinforced to an exorbitant extent. Unwilling to comply, Lincoln's newly assigned general-in-chief, Henry W.

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Halleck, ordered that most of the army return to Washington, D. The two Union armies failed to mesh, helping to bring about Pope's decisive defeat on August 29—30 on the fringes of the old Manassas battlefield. The botched campaign ended with a general withdrawal to Washington and in Pope's relief. Fitz-John Porter, a political rival of Pope's, became a scapegoat for the debacle; subsequently court-martialed, he was dismissed from the service for alleged disobedience of orders.

Meanwhile, Pope's survivors were absorbed into the Army of the Potomac, which McClellan continued to lead. Obliged to pursue, McClellan moved at his customary glacial pace. In mid-September he finally caught up with his opponent along Antietam Creek. The battle fought there on September 17, , the bloodiest day in American history, inflicted 12, Union and more than 13, Confederate casualties.

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Lee's precarious position, McClellan's strength advantage and his capture of a copy of Lee's invasion plan should have produced a clear-cut Union victory. But Little Mac squandered his advantage through disjointed assaults, and he failed to ensure that subordinates performed capably. The primary underachiever, Major General Ambrose E.

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Burnside , commander of the newly acquired Ninth Corps, spent several hours trying to cross the creek in the face of a much smaller enemy and turn the Confederate right. When finally across, Burnside was stymied by late-arriving reinforcements. The Army of the Potomac gained a strategic victory when, late on September 18, Lee ended his invasion and returned to Virginia.

As though content to let him go, for six weeks McClellan remained in Maryland, resting and reorganizing. When Lincoln visited the stationary army, he described it as "McClellan's bodyguard. To replace him, Lincoln unwisely chose Burnside, a soldier known more for stubbornness and inflexibility than for proficiency in combat.

Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac

Lincoln was encouraged when Burnside developed a seemingly viable plan to outflank Lee on the road to Richmond by crossing the bridgeless Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Burnside's army—which now consisted of eight corps divided into four "Grand Divisions"—stole a march on its enemy, but errant pontoon trains stranded it on the north bank near Falmouth.

Before the bridges arrived, Lee took up nearly impenetrable positions south and west of Fredericksburg. Refusing to reconsider his strategy, on the frigid morning of December 13 Burnside commenced a series of gallant but doomed assaults, many directed toward a well-defended stone wall at the base of Marye's Heights. Although the Union troops briefly gained a foothold along Lee's right, by day's end 13, had been killed or wounded compared to fewer than 5, Confederates. Late in January Burnside tried to salvage his campaign via a turning movement beyond Lee's western flank.

Soon after the army got underway, rain, snow, and impassable roads brought an ignominious end to the "Mud March. A caustic but relatively discreet critic of his deposed superior, "Fighting Joe" overflowed with self-confidence bordering on hubris; he once boasted that "God Almighty could not prevent" him from besting Lee. For all his faults, however, Hooker was a talented organizer and motivator. By dismantling the unwieldy Grand Division structure and consolidating his cavalry, he made the army more mobile and powerful. By ensuring that the men were better fed, supplied, and armed, he won their gratitude and respect.

And by holding regular reviews and issuing corps badges, he bolstered morale and unit pride. Like his predecessor, Hooker devised a complicated but promising plan to turn Lee out of his defenses below Fredericksburg. Late in April he led about one third of his ,man army across the Rappahannock and into the rear of the Army of Northern Virginia. Another third was held in reserve; the rest remained near Falmouth to divert Lee's attention.

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Hooker's advance achieved surprise, but once across the river he made faulty dispositions, trapping his troops inside the dark and clotted Virginia Wilderness. More critically, at the eleventh hour he displayed moral infirmity—with success seemingly within his grasp, he went over to the defensive. At last aware of the danger to the rear, Lee turned about and attacked from two directions. The crucial blow was delivered on May 2 by 26, troops under Jackson who demolished Hooker's unanchored right flank near the Chancellorsville crossroads.

Four days of ferocious but confused fighting ended when Hooker, thoroughly demoralized and dazed by a shell burst, withdrew the army to Falmouth.

Robert E. Lee refuses command of the Union Army

In the aftermath of its latest humiliation, the Army of the Potomac marked time on the Rappahannock even as Lee completed plans for his second invasion. He began moving west and north on June 3, heading for Maryland via the Shenandoah Valley. Thanks partially to reconnaissance lapses by the Union cavalry, now led by Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, Hooker did not discover his opponent's departure until mid-month. Only after the president vetoed Hooker's proposal to advance on Richmond a move Lincoln and Halleck feared would uncover Washington , did the Army of the Potomac move north in strength.

For two weeks, however, it remained in northern Virginia while the Confederates pushed into Pennsylvania. Sensing that he had lost the confidence of his superiors, Hooker forced a showdown by demanding that the garrison of Harpers Ferry , Virginia, be added to his field force. When Halleck refused, Hooker tendered his resignation, which was quickly accepted. Meade , a competent but prickly soldier who could be counted on to defend his home state of Pennsylvania. With mixed emotions, Meade assumed command on June 28, three days before his advance overtook Lee's army outside Gettysburg and brought on one of the war's pivotal battles.


On July 1, during the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, Lee's vanguard—a full division of infantry—was held at bay by John Buford's outnumbered but tenacious cavalry. In classic dragoon tradition, Buford's troopers who had first distinguished themselves in battle against J. Stuart the previous month at Brandy Station fought in the saddle and afoot, as conditions dictated. The delaying action enabled the lead elements of the army's advance wing, under the able Major General John F. Reynolds, to reach the field. Overwhelmed by faster-arriving Confederate reinforcements and demoralized by the mortal wounding of Reynolds, late in the afternoon cavalry and infantry withdrew through Gettysburg. On high ground south of town they withstood further pressure until nightfall ended the fighting.

On July 2, the Army of the Potomac, now on the field in full strength, turned back offensives against both of its flanks. It gained an especially critical victory on the far left, where a desperate defensive effort secured strategic Little Round Top. On the third, Hunt's artillery helped break up a climactic assault by 12, Confederates Pickett's Charge against the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.