Despair in the Army of the Potomac (Article)

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First Sergeant
Feb 20, 2005
Evansville, Indiana
Winter of Union discontent, desertions

By Michael Schellhammer

Union Army Pvt. Daniel Foote had experienced plenty of hardship in the Civil War, but what he saw in the conflict's second winter was something new and frightening.
During the previous year, the spirits of Foote and his fellow soldiers had remained high even though they had witnessed appalling death and destruction as the Union's Army of the Potomac had lost battle after battle to the Confederates. In early 1863, however, for the first time in the war, Foote saw the men break down and give in to the despair brought by a year of terrible losses.
The Army of the Potomac, the main force that stood between the Confederates and Washington, was on the verge of collapse and had entered a crisis that became known as "the Valley Forge of the Civil War."
This was a far cry from how Foote had begun his military service. His regiment had joined the Army of the Potomac a year and a half earlier and had spent the previous winter training under the Army's first commander, Maj. Gen. George McClellan.
McClellan's months-long training program instilled a strong sense of discipline throughout the Army, and when they opened their first campaign against the Confederates in the spring of 1862, Foote and his fellow soldiers were healthy, proficient troops who expected a quick victory.
However, the Union generals showed little proficiency on the battlefield. Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederates defeated McClellan's Union forces near Richmond in the summer of 1862 and caused more than 15,000 Federal casualties.
Maj. Gen. John Pope commanded the Federal troops for a brief time that August, but he misused them in futile frontal assaults against the Confederates at the the battle of Second Manassas, where more than 16,000 Northerners fell.
The Federal Army lost another 12,000 soldiers at the battle of Antietam in September.
In six months of fighting, bungling Northern generals cost the Union more than 46,000 men killed or wounded — more casualties than the nation had suffered in all its previous wars combined — but gained no Confederate territory.
President Lincoln replaced McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, but the soldiers experienced even more horror. In December 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederates were entrenched on the heights overlooking Fredericksburg, Va., and Burnside planned to destroy them with a massed frontal assault. But the long, barren slopes that the Federal soldiers had to cross to reach the Rebel positions made open killing grounds.
The Confederates fired mercilessly into the attacking Yankee ranks. The carnage was so horrible that one veteran Federal officer likened the scene to a demon of war, "devouring and crunching the bones of a thousand victims at a time." Nearly 13,000 Union men fell at Fredericksburg.
Knowing that their lives were wasted in foolhardy attacks crushed the Union troops' spirit. Oliver Norton, another private in Foote's regiment, wrote home, "I'm sick of such useless slaughter." In late December, a shattered Army of the Potomac limped into camps near the Rappahannock River in Virginia.
The year's death toll from inept generalship weighed heavily on the soldiers, and despair began to take hold of the Army in early 1863. Suddenly dozens of men bolted from regiments that previously had suffered very few desertions. Fighting, drinking and insubordination also increased. Then came the Mud March.
Burnside planned another offensive to push the Confederates away from the Rappahannock, and the troops began moving along the river on Jan. 20. Two days of freezing rains turned the roads into mud that hopelessly mired the Army.
Movement became impossible, and Burnside canceled the operation. The troops returned to their camps angrier than ever and named the event the "Great Mud March."
Frank O'Reilly, a historian at the Fredericksburg National Battlefield Park, says: "Most armies disintegrate when they continually lose, and these guys had known nothing but a series of defeats. They just lost hope."
Camp conditions further darkened theArmy's spirits. Most soldiers lived in leaky, makeshift huts with log walls and canvas roofs. Temperatures were not exceedingly low, but the rains and wet snow continued and kept the men soaked. Corrupt commissary officers held back the soldiers' rations, and the troops subsisted on salted meat and hard Army crackers. Drinking and fighting increased, and the Army's courts heard cases of insubordination, theft, assault and murder. As many as 200 men deserted the Army every day.
At the end of January, barely half the soldiers on the rolls of the Army of the Potomac were present for duty. Foote, who had been home in Pennsylvania on medical furlough, wrote after he returned to duty in February, "There has been more tears shed in the Army than there was in the North all the time I was there." Only the discipline learned under McClellan kept the Army from disintegrating into a mob.
The change the Army needed was under way even as Foote lamented. At the end of January, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a flamboyant, cocksure officer with a solid combat record. Hooker knew how to get the Army back into shape.
He fired corrupt commissary officers so the men received plenty of fresh food. He ordered the medical department to improve camp sanitation to cut down on disease. Idleness brews discontent, so Hooker sent the men out to repair roads and bridges. To cut down on desertions, he established a liberal policy for furloughs and ensured that the soldiers received their back pay.
More important, Hooker's confidence inspired the soldiers to believe in their ultimate victory over the Confederates. Mr. O'Reilly, the historian, comments, "Hooker fired these boys up. He said, 'You guys are the best, and you will prevail.' "
Morale soared. In mid-March, Foote wrote home, "Gen. Hooker is good ... he certainly has got the army under much better discipline than it was." The same month, Union signal officer Lt. Israel Thickstun said that "a feeling of confidence is growing rapidly." At the end of March, Hooker told his officers, "I have the finest army that sun has ever shone on." According to Mr. O'Reilly, "he was not that far off."
The soldier's reason for fighting also changed that spring. Lincoln's original war objective was to suppress secession in Southern states. But Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January and redefined the war as a conflict that would end slavery and destroy the Confederacy by striking at its very fabric.
Union soldiers initially viewed the proclamation with mixed feelings, but as spring arrived in 1863, many of them began to accept Lincoln's cause as their own, and they would fight with newfound conviction.
By April 1863, the Army of the Potomac was healthy and confident again. At the end of the month, Gen. Hooker took the troops to field, faced the Rebels at the Battle of Chancellorsville — and lost, like his predecessors. Lincoln replaced Hooker with Maj. Gen. George Meade.
Nevertheless, the cycle of defeat and demoralization that had almost destroyed the Army was broken.
McClellan had lost in battle, but his discipline formed the foundation for building an army. The soldiers who survived the combat of 1862 had become expert fighters. In the spring of 1863, the confidence gained from Hooker, combined with the moral goal set by the Emancipation Proclamation, completed the process of making the Army of the Potomac into a truly formidable group of men. Meade was a tough officer, and he led the Army to victory at Gettysburg.
The war was not over. Foote and the Army of the Potomac would face still more hardship over the next two years. However, they would never experience despair as they did in the winter of 1862-63, and that was the last time that Foote ever wrote about the Army shedding tears.
Michael Schellhammer is an intelligence specialist with the Defense Department and writes from Arlington. He is the author of "The 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War" (2003, McFarland and Co.).

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