Review: A Republic in the Ranks

a republic in the ranks

A Republic in the RanksZachery A. Fry. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of political loyalties in the Army of the Potomac, and the influence of junior officers and the experience of war among enlisted men, resulting in Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 to a second term.

At one point, it was not at all certain that Abraham Lincoln would win re-election. The Army of the Potomac suffered defeats or at best partial victories against the Confederacy. There was a growing Copperhead movement of Peace Democrats pressing for a settlement that would restore the Union without resolving the issue of slavery–a return to the status quo. This was further complicated after Lincoln cashiered General George McClellan, a popular leader among his men despite his lackluster record. Eventually, he became the Democratic presidential candidate on the Copperhead platform. Many in the senior command of the Army of the Potomac still supported him. Yet in the end, the Army of the Potomac overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln.

In this work, Zachery A. Fry explores the hotbed of political discussion that was the Army of the Potomac, and how their votes ended up solidly in the Lincoln column. The Army was united by loyalty in its commitment to defeat the Confederacy and restore the Union. But there were two different ideas of loyalty. One group was loyal to the constitution, wanting to restore the Union, but without enforcing abolition and the emancipation of slaves. They favored a negotiated settlement and supported the Democrats. The other group was loyal to the Republican administration and its commitment to emancipation and hard war.

Fry traces the evolution of the political views in the ranks as the war progressed. At the beginning, most didn’t have strong political views as much as a rage militaire response to Southern secession. The initial battle experiences, both defeats and victories, and the dashing figure of McClellan led to a divided Army, during the Peninsula Campaign, and especially after he was relieved during the extended pause after the Maryland campaign. Things began to shift as Joseph Hooker took command as more and more junior officers led their men in loyalty to the administration. A combination of being excluded from voting by many Democrat-led states and the realities of what they saw in the South fostered support for the administration. Democrat generals in the upper ranks continued to advocate for the constitution and peace with the South. While a number of veterans refused to re-enlist, tired of war, they continued to advocate back home for Lincoln. The endorsement by McClellan of the Copperhead platform cemented the loyalty to the Republican/Union ticket leading to their overwhelming support of Lincoln.

Fry takes us from the big picture to the unit level, citing unit resolutions and the advocacy of individual officers. What is clearly apparent is that junior officers closest to the men had much greater influence that the senior officers who inclined toward McClellan. He offers a chronological bibliography of unit resolutions that document the political evolution in units. He also provides an appendix with unit-by-unit election returns beginning with 1863 gubernatorial races.

This is a valuable work for all Civil War buffs and scholars as well as those who study the impact of political beliefs inside the military and how those beliefs are formed. The role of junior officers is especially important. It seems that, equally, the alignment between battlefield realities and administration policy was significant. Soldiers would not accept politics that undermined the significance of their efforts or rolled them back. Fry helps us understand the political dynamics within the Army of the Potomac, and why Lincoln was re-elected despite the efforts of Peace Democrats.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: A Republic in the Ranks

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2020 | Bob on Books

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