Bruce Catton is still the dean of American military historians and the Civil War. He tells his story with wit, verve, accuracy, and the feeling of having been there. Unfortunately, like other great American historians who have passed on, such as John R. Elting, Frederick P. Todd, H. Charles McBarron, and Anne Brown, we won't see his like again.
In this marvelous first volume of his trilogy of the great, luckless, and hard-used Army of the Potomac, Catton tells the story of an army in search of a commander that can win with it. After the first botched attempt at First Bull Run, the army gets a commander who knows how to organize and train them, Goerge McClellan. What he cannot do, however, is lead them in combat. McClellan doesn't have the killer instinct of a true independent commander, nor does he have the requisite moral character to send the army into the fire, accept the losses needed to win, and be done with it. What he condemns his beloved army to is three years of defeats and heavy losses, punctuated by the few glorious moments, such as Gettysburg, where, despite the deficiencies of its many commanders, it fights on until final victory.
This volume tells of the growing and training of the Army of the Potomac, the heartbreak of the Peninsular Campaign, and the thrown away opportunity at Second Bull Run. We meet famous units, such as the 5th New Hampshire, the immortal Iron Brigade of western regiments, the Irish Brigade under such regimental and brigade commanders as John Gibbon, Israel Richardson, Francis Barlow, Phil Kearney, and Grimes Davis.
Grimly enduring, faithful to the Republic, stolid in the defense and gallant in the attack, the Army of the Potomac, repeatedly defeated and badly led at the army level, comes back time and again to face its foe. It is probably the worst led army in American history, but none have been more glorious in the sense that it never quit and gained enduring fame as the outfit that finally defeated Robert E. Lee. This book can stand alone, or with its two companion volumes, Glory Road and A Stillness at Appomattox. This is military history at its best. All are highly recommended.