Voices of the Army of the Potomac by Vincent L. Burns

Vincent Burns brings readers a unique history of the Army of the Potomac: part battle narrative, part oral history, and part commemoration in his Voices of the Army of the Potomac. Burns uses a retrospective technique to begin his story, describing how the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment Association celebrated its eighteenth reunion in Boston, Massachusetts in 1889. The reunion’s details are fascinating in and of themselves as they are an illustration of how 19th century American veterans viewed their service and remembered their fallen friends. Burns uses the discussion of the 1st Maine’s reunion to introduce larger ideas of how Civil War veterans preserved their stories in the years after 1865. He goes into detail about how regimental associations formed committees to draft written histories and raised funds through subscriptions or donations to publish volumes for their members. Burns demonstrates how the authors of these histories relied on their comrades’ stories, the contents of saved letters and journals, and their own memories to create these histories. From this beginning, he then turns to examining the experiences of the soldiers as they occurred during the war.

Burns uses the history of the Army of the Potomac to provide structure to his narrative. He follows the most famous Union army of the Civil War from its combat debut on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862 through the surrender of the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Burns effectively uses quotes from soldiers’ diaries and letters, contemporary newspaper accounts and regimental histories to illustrate what the men of the Army of the Potomac thought of their commanders, campaigns, and everyday life in camp and on campaign. His narrative provides little new information about the operations of the Army of the Potomac, but it does provide an immediacy to events which many readers will find familiar. The most interesting parts of the book are the sections where Burns periodically links the events of the 1862-1865 to later efforts to memorialize the war, provide for veterans or the families of the fallen with pensions, and create national parks on the sites where soldiers once fought.

Burns makes it clear to his readers in the opening author’s note that this is not a combat history of the Army of the Potomac, but rather an attempt to let its soldiers tell their own stories.  He succeeds admirably in sharing the voices of the men who fought, but also provides some level of discussion of how combat unfolded in some of the more famous battle of the war. As it is not an operational history, Burns does not provide maps that illustrate any of the maneuvering or fighting conducted by the Army of the Potomac. The book could benefit from some simple maps that allow readers to better understand the relative positions of units on the various battlefields mentioned by Burns. Readers, especially those new to the subject, are encouraged to keep a Civil War atlas nearby as they read. The book contains some excellent black and white photographs, thorough endnotes, and an extensive bibliography. Not all of Burns’ descriptions of combat are not accurate, such as his representation of the Union First Corps withdrawal from Seminary Ridge on 1 July 1863. A Union cavalry brigade under Colonel William Gamble covered the retreat, fighting dismounted with single shot, breech loading Sharps carbines. Burns suggests Gamble’s brigade, armed only with sabers and pistols, relied on a slow mounted approach toward the advancing Confederates to make them form defensive squares. I could find no evidence in a brief survey of some standard references of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg (Coddington, Pfanz, and Sears) to support this narrative. This observation aside, Burns does an overall excellent job sharing the tale of the Army of the Potomac.

Vincent Burns is no stranger to the American Civil War. He previously authored  a history of the 5th New York Cavalry Regiment and is very experienced in researching primary sources. I recommend Voices of the Army of the Potomac to readers interested in how veterans of war make sense of their experiences through contemporary recordings and subsequent attempts at remembrance.

This book is available at Casemate Publishers.