"The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac" by Jeffry D. Wert Simon & Schuster, 534 pp., $30 "Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes...

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“The Sword of Lincoln: The Army

of the Potomac”

by Jeffry D. Wert

Simon & Schuster, 534 pp., $30

“Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes Command”

by Russel H. Beatie

Da Capo, 612 pp., $45

Ever valiant but always poorly led, it was an army that lost more battles than it won. But the Union Army of the Potomac finally managed to win the single battle that mattered most: the last one.

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Long a fertile field of study for Civil War historians, the Potomac Army and its star-crossed leadership have inspired many volumes, notably Bruce Catton’s elegant trilogy (“Lincoln’s Army,” “Glory Road,” “A Stillness at Appomattox”) written in the 1950s. Now two contemporary writers have come forward with new interpretations of the army’s history.

One of these, Jeffry D. Wert, is already a familiar figure among Civil War historians by virtue of his earlier works. “The Sword of Lincoln,” his new single-volume examination of the Army of the Potomac, “is not a detailed account of battles and campaigns,” he explains, but more a study of the army’s leadership and the attitudes of the common soldiers who served in its ranks.

“The men who led the army remain some of the most controversial generals in American history,” Wert writes. “In the hands of Irvin McDowell, George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker and George G. Meade, the army compiled a record of more defeats than victories. The army’s senior leadership was cursed with internal dissension, political intrigue, and ineptness at times.”

McClellan comes in for the closest look. “He forged the army, gave it an identity, instilled in the men a belief in themselves that would go deep into the marrow of the army, and possessed its soul,” Wert says. But once the army was ready to fight, McClellan was reluctant to use it. Wert joins other historians in faulting him for this and other failings: exaggerating the size of forces arrayed against him, being timid and slow, avoiding responsibility for his own mistakes, and behaving with incredible petulance toward his superiors, especially Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln eventually replaced McClellan with the inept Burnside, the enigmatic Hooker and the deliberate Meade, and all three come in for probing examinations in this book. But Wert makes it clear the real backbone of the Army of the Potomac was always the men in the ranks, whose courage and bravery repeatedly transcended the failures of their commanders. Lincoln’s Sword, as Wert calls the army, was always sharp, but those who wielded it — the generals — were nearly always dull.

Wert offers a fast-paced narrative spiced with just the right amount of detail, and it’s no criticism to say his prose falls short of Bruce Catton’s eloquence. Few writers have ever been able to achieve that level, although Wert sometimes comes close.

Russel H. Beatie’s “Army of the Potomac,” one of a projected multi-volume series, covers the period from September 1861 to February 1862, when McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac. Not surprisingly, McClellan is the central figure of the book.

Beatie is an attorney, not a historian, and it shows. He argues McClellan deserves more of a fair shake than he’s gotten from most historians, and while that might be true, Beatie ignores massive evidence to the contrary when he asserts McClellan clearly saw the solution to most military problems and was simply misunderstood by those who criticized him.

But he doesn’t portray McClellan as a hero, either. Beatie chides him for favoring “form over substance,” for being “childish and immature” and for having a “cavalier attitude toward orders that conflicted with his judgment.” These contradictory observations make it difficult for readers to tell just exactly where Beatie stands on the issue of McClellan’s generalship.

The text is hampered by numerous distracting footnotes; it would have been far better for these to have been placed at the back of the book. A zealous editor also could have helped by cutting through reams of barely relevant material. Nevertheless, readers willing to wade through all this stuff will eventually be rewarded with accounts of several of the Army of the Potomac’s minor actions usually overlooked by historians.