Book Review: A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac


by Zachery A. Fry

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 320. Illus., tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 1469654458

The Political Life of the Army of the Potomac

In A Republic in the Ranks Prof. Fry (U.S. Army Command & Staff College) examines how the evolution of a common political outlook in the Army of the Potomac a during the early part of the Civil War. This reflected the differences between the Republican Party, as represent by President Abraham Lincoln, and the Democratic Party, supported by the Commanding General, George McClellan, each seeking to influence the thinking and voting of the army’s officers and soldiers.

Fry argues that the Republican Party won this fight for the loyalty of the Army of the Potomac for several important reasons. The belief by many in constitutional principle that the elected civilian President was the Commander-in-Chief, the need to preserve the Union, and an evolving pragmatic view that the end of slavery would lead to victories and the winning of the war. Fry makes a good case that the troops saw supporting the administration and the Republican Party would help the fight against the Confederacy, strengthening the war effort. Finally, supporting Republican war time measures allowed greater opportunity for soldiers to vote in elections and be active citizens.

Fry asserts that Democrats were too strictly constructionist about the Constitution, while actively seeking to politically influence military matters and the Army. In sharp contrast to the slave owning plantation owners from the South and Southern-sympathizing elements among the northern Democrats, the army saw Republicans as concerned about free labor and free soil. Fry contends that the new Republican Party differed significantly from the Democrats in holding that the men of the volunteer army were custodians of the public good, for the benefit of the many voices in the Republic. Additionally, he points out that the volunteer army allowed relatively junior officers to make a significant difference in helping remake the Army of the Potomac and assisting enlisted soldiers realize that they were of importance to the party that favored neither the permanent separation of the Confederacy nor reconciliation at all costs. Even years after the end of the war, veterans remained loyal and active in the political affairs the United States.

This is a new and interesting perspective on the history of the war, a study of the ideological side of the war rather than the military side. In his wide-ranging analysis of the armies, politics, and the war, Fry has offered us a new window on understanding old questions, problems, and even answers.

A volume in the UNC Press series “Civil War America”, A Republic in the Ranks is likely to be of great interest to students of the Civil War, whether academics, armchair historians, and buffs. Highly recommended.

 Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, and The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation.



Note: A Republic in the Ranks is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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