Author Interview--Zachery A. Fry (A Republic in the Ranks)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Zachery A. Fry to talk about his new book A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Zachery Fry is an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He received his Ph.D. from the Ohio State University. He has published articles in Civil War History and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Zachery, how did you come to write a book about political ideology in the Army of the Potomac?

ZAF: I’ve always found the army’s reverence for George McClellan interesting given what we know about the general’s politics. Like many scholars who examine the Union Army, I wondered how soldiers in the Army of the Potomac went from loving a Democrat like Little Mac to voting against him in 1864. Of course, a lot of superb historians have examined the army’s political complexion at the high command level, and plenty of other scholars have written on soldier attitudes toward specific policies such as emancipation. But I really wanted to bridge these two topics—the army’s internal politics and its view of wider national policy--to convey the breadth of experience in the ranks and provide an interpretive synthesis of the army’s political story. 

What do you argue in A Republic in the Ranks?

ZAF: I argue the war was a political awakening for Union soldiers in the ranks. Most enlisted soldiers did not sign up in 1861 or 1862 as true ideologues. Instead, junior officers were the ones really prodding the enlisted men into policy awareness, a process that at times was acrimonious but relied implicitly on the soldiers’ trust in their lower-level leaders. These officers had the most direct contact with the troops and also had the state-level connections necessary to mobilize their units in defense of the administration. The result of this education in the ranks was an army that argued vehemently and earnestly for loyalty to the Lincoln administration. By 1863, the troops capitalized widely on opinion pieces in newspapers and, eventually, absentee voting to set the terms of debate in the North. 

With the advantage of hindsight, Lincoln’s 1864 reelection and ultimate popularity with the troops might seem inevitable. But I argue the army experienced numerous “crisis points” that collectively pushed soldiers into the arms of the Republican Party. The most important of these was the army’s widespread denunciation of Copperhead Democrats in the spring of 1863. When McClellan emerged later that year as a partisan political figure who violated the army’s new pro-Republican understanding of loyalty, many in the ranks vowed never to forgive him. That’s the story I try to tell.

Are there other reasons why you used the Army of the Potomac and why this army makes for such a great subject to study, especially in contrast to say the Army of the Tennessee or the Army of the Cumberland?

ZAF: The Army of the Potomac was unique for a few reasons. First and foremost, its once-beloved commander secured the nomination of the opposition party in the 1864 presidential election. That in itself made the army a crucial arena for soldiers to debate wartime loyalty. Also of critical importance, of course, was its proximity to Washington, which, when coupled with McClellan’s coterie of conservatives in high command, made the army a natural target for the administration and Republicans in the halls of Congress. But equally as important to that well-covered story, I think, is the lesser known tale of soldiers’ interactions with Northern newspapers. Army of the Potomac officers and men were exceptionally well-connected to the big city editors and small-town journals back home, and officers of every political stripe used those connections to influence army-wide sentiment and home front politics alike.

None of that is to denigrate how significant the western armies were toward mobilizing the ranks for the Republican Party. And to be fair, a few superb scholars have contributed to our understanding of that phenomenon. The Army of the Cumberland under William Rosecrans witnessed similar anti-Copperhead messaging in the spring of 1863, especially after antiwar voices took hold in the Midwest. Likewise, I came across dozens of political resolutions from the Army of the Tennessee over the course of my research. But the Army of the Potomac received the lion’s share of press coverage and, because of McClellan’s legacy, its ranks formed a unique political battleground for Republicans and Democrats to make their case. 

That sort of leads over to the other questions, why was John Pope’s Army of Virginia so much more Republican than the Army of the Potomac? And based on your tracing of units, how does the integration of the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac change attitudes, especially once you see the disestablishment of Corps?

ZAF: The topic of John Pope’s 1862 army is a fascinating one. As John Matsui showed in his excellent work The First Republican Army, the Army of Virginia was a much broader cross-section of the Republican-voting North, and the army’s experience featured much more support for “hard war” policy from a radical-friendly high command. 

Another way to get at the problem, though, is to wonder why McClellan’s army was so much more Democratic in 1862. The heavier concentration of West Point graduates in Army of the Potomac high command played a role, but so did Little Mac’s efforts to limit political (by which he meant Republican) interference from Washington. The average citizen-soldier revered McClellan for all sorts of reasons, and part of the allure stemmed from a rather naïve belief that he was shielding the army from political meddling. In reality, he limited mostly Republican rhetoric from entering camp on the belief that it would radicalize the men and thus poison the army’s discipline. McClellan and his supporters at headquarters also denigrated the effects of a state commissioning process for field-grade officers which, for much of the war, yielded fruit primarily for Republicans. 

The troops who left Pope’s army to form the First, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac remained, as a whole, the most earnest Republicans in the ranks. Units like the Iron Brigade voted almost unanimously in the field for hard war candidates. The Eleventh Corps, as far as my research indicated, actually ignited the army’s vehement opposition campaign against Copperheads in the spring of 1863, and the Twelfth Corps contributed more opinion pieces and resolutions than any other corps of the army. That attitude spread widely to the rest of the army and helped prime the ranks to renounce McClellan once he sided openly with the opposition party in the fall of 1863.

Considering the high level of politicization in the army and considering the performance of the army and its corps commanders, how much did political consideration contribute to some of the failures of the Army of the Potomac?

ZAF: Politics paralyzed the army’s high command. Tension between army headquarters and Washington, coupled with squabbling among the corps commanders themselves, hurt Union combat effectiveness in the Eastern Theater. The backstabbing grew especially heated in the fallout of major battles like Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, when the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War inserted itself into the high-command politics in an effort to police loyalty and energize the army’s operations. 

At the lower level, though, I argue that the success Republican junior officers had in politicizing the ranks ended up yielding a more ideologically committed rank and file. The army outgrew its personal reverence for McClellan by embracing a view of loyalty that prioritized support for the administration and hard war policies. This sense of purpose crystallized at just the right time—spring 1863—to rescue the army’s morale and boost its combat effectiveness. George Meade, as Union commander at Gettysburg, benefitted from that change.

It seems like there was an odd relationship between the soldiers and their home communities. In part, I am thinking here about some of the policing of political attitudes you mention in the book, where soldiers used violence. In the modern army, and despite some recent occurrence to the contrary, soldiers are not supposed to show political affiliation. How dangerous did communities think a politicized army could be for the future of the country?

ZAF: It would depend on whom you asked. Democrats, including many newspaper editors, politicians, and George B. McClellan himself, believed the mass citizen-army of the United States in the Civil War should mirror the outwardly anti-partisan professionalism of the prewar regular army. In that sense, mobilizing soldiers to police an exacting standard of loyalty violated proper civil-military relations and put the very fabric of the republic in peril. Republicans, on the other hand, embraced a view of the citizen-army that encouraged political messaging. Proadministration newspapers, including both the big East Coast journals and the small-town opinion papers, applauded soldiers who were willing to take a stand against Copperheads. They found this reaction particularly appropriate given the constraints Democratic state legislatures had placed on absentee-voting for soldiers.

The actual incidence of soldiers attacking Copperheads on the home front was not as high as the soldiers’ rhetoric might indicate. It did happen in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which were two hotly-contested states in the 1863 gubernatorial elections, and some of the units sent to New York City to put down the draft riots after Gettysburg found, disappointingly, that most of the unrest had fizzled by the time they arrived. The rhetoric of violence prevalent in anti-Copperhead literature was mostly just that—threatening language meant to intimidate and promote an administration-centric understanding of wartime loyalty. In that sense it was incredibly effective, both on the home front and in its drive to solidify support within the ranks.

Going beyond the policing aspect, the other aspect that strikes as very contemporary is absentee voting. Why did states not support allowing soldiers to vote, which seems more like something to expect in the southern states? How much fraud did this cause?

ZAF: Generally speaking, Democrats in certain state legislatures distrusted Republican officers to oversee fair elections in camp. They believed, with a good deal of support, that the army’s junior officer class teemed with proadministration men who owed their commissions to Republican governors. So they found specific technicalities in state constitutions to deny soldiers the vote.

Men at the front found this sort of politicking disgusting. As far as they were concerned, their sacrifices in combat and on campaign meant they deserved the franchise far more than anyone on the home front, and it fed the notion that Democrats were schemers out to disrespect the army’s service. Consistent campaigning in the press and pressure on home front politicians forced most state legislatures to relent by 1864, though some, such as New York, still made voting harder than soldiers would have liked. The unintended consequence of all this back-and-forth was that, rather than limiting Republican influence in the army and on the home front, Democrats ended up energizing the army’s embrace of the president’s party and its message.

Fraud is a tough topic to address. As scholars like Richard Bensel and Mark Summers have both noted [Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century and Summers, The Plundering Generation: Corruption and the Crisis of the Union, 1849-1861], the American political process in the mid-1800s by its very nature featured widespread corruption and social pressure. Balloting in the Union Army provided opportunities to mitigate fraud and corruption because of military discipline. On the other hand, as Democrats warned, this same presence of hierarchy and discipline raised the possibility of strong-arming when it came time to vote. I did find isolated episodes of fraud by both Republicans and Democrats—pranks against party agents and some fellow soldiers, for instance, which were amplified in the partisan newspapers of the day. But what struck me about the army vote in general was how earnestly officers and men respected the sanctity of this newly-won franchise. As an officer in the Sixth New Hampshire declared, “if any man is entitled to vote as he pleases, it is the soldier who has fought three years for the old flag” [Jackman and Hadley, History of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment, 342].

How did this politicization of the armies play out after the war during the Reconstruction and in the work of the Grand Army of the Republic?

ZAF: The role of the veteran in postwar partisanship was slightly more difficult to interpret just because much of the evidence base—letters home from the front—largely vanishes. Based on the published minutes of veterans’ groups, newspaper accounts of political activity, and collections of campaign material, it was still abundantly clear to me that many Union soldiers did not return home to a “hibernation” period. Instead of turning away from their wartime experiences, veterans of the Army of the Potomac contributed earnestly to the raucous partisan dynamics of Reconstruction. 
To some extent, the focus on the Grand Army of the Republic, which emerged in the Midwest and eventually came to dominate the Union veteran scene, has led to a neglect of other early groups that proliferated on the East Coast, which is also where many Potomac veterans resided. Almost as soon as the guns fell silent and the Grand Review dispersed to muster out the ranks, Republican veterans formed the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ National Union League, which agitated for strong retaliation against ex-Confederates (especially the army’s old nemesis Lee) and for early protection of radical measures such as civil rights. Likewise, the Boys in Blue organization supported Republican candidates and rallied during the 1866 midterms to condemn Andrew Johnson. As the men aged, these groups eventually coalesced with the GAR to form the most powerful interest group in the Republican Party.

To be fair, Republicans did not have a monopoly on the political landscape for veterans. Pennsylvania veterans formed their own clubs to denounce John W. Geary’s 1866 gubernatorial candidacy, and in the Midwest, some Potomac veterans formed the “White Boys in Blue” as a direct attack on their old Republican-minded comrades. So all in all, the role of the veteran in immediate postwar politics has been woefully neglected. I try to correct that and offer some thoughts on further areas of research in the epilogue to my book.

To close, how do you hope your book will alter the political and military narrative of the Civil War? What are your future plans?

ZAF: I hope the story of the Army of the Potomac and its politics shifts from the longstanding emphasis on the high command. The role junior officers played in shaping and molding political opinion in the ranks is slowly emerging, and I would like to see this trend continue. The current “dark turn” in Civil War studies certainly left a place for a book on harsh political discord and backstabbing in the army, and perhaps my work can fill some of that purpose. But just as important, I think, is to recognize how earnestly the average Northern soldier fought for positive ideals, especially when we consider the hard luck and enormous bloodletting endured by the Army of the Potomac.

My next book is under advance contract, and it will be a new history of the 1864 presidential election.