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Reading Book Guide

Army of the Potomac, Volume 3, McClellan's First Campaign, by Russel H. Beatie

McClellan's First Campaign covers the pivotal early months of General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign through the siege of Yorktown, the pursuit toward Richmond, and the fighting at Williamsburg. We hope these thought-provoking questions lead to a deeper inquiry of this groundbreaking study.

  1. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes and from the perspective of high-ranking officers, staff officers, and politicians. Does this method of presentation offer readers any particular advantages (or disadvantages)? If so, what are they?
  2. McClellan's First Campaign is based upon decades of original research and many previously unused and unpublished sources-and avoids in most cases any reliance upon secondary sources. Is this a wise course of action when attempting to produce a scholarly work of this magnitude? Why or why not?
  3. According to Beatie, the sources he discovered and utilized in McClellan's First Campaign offer readers a significantly different perspective of General McClellan, President Lincoln, and the Yorktown Campaign. Can you identify one or more major interpretive differences between Beatie's conclusions and previously published studies?
  4. The traditional school of thought has long been that McClellan was an outstanding organizer but well beyond his depth as a field commander; that he despised Lincoln and treated him disrespectfully; and that he was woefully slow in moving up the Peninsula to engage the Confederates. Is this the general belief you held before reading this book? Has your view changed at all now that you have finished reading? How and why has it changed?
  5. Do you think Beatie convincingly demonstrates that President Abraham Lincoln's political and military interference made it more difficult for McClellan to succeed in the field? Why or why not?
  6. President Lincoln took it upon himself to devise the corps command structure of McClellan's army. What effect, if any, do you think that had on the Peninsula Campaign?
  7. The role of the U.S. Navy in the Peninsula Campaign is either thinly covered or ignored by most historians. Did Beatie's treatment of the Navy's role and refusal to execute on its promises change the way in which you look at McClellan's success or failure during the initial weeks of the campaign?
  8. What role do you think the weather played on McClellan's ability to move quickly up the Peninsula?
  9. What firsthand sources that Beatie relies upon are the most interesting to you, and why?
  10. How would you describe the relationship between McClellan and Lincoln immediately before the landing at Fort Monroe, and immediately after the fighting at Williamsburg?
  11. Has reading McClellan's First Campaign increased your interest in the Army of the Potomac's early war operations? Has your interest in the Peninsula Campaign increased?
  12. What posed the most significant obstacle McClellan and the Army of the Potomac had to overcome on Virginia's Peninsula: the Confederate defenders, the terrain/geography, or political intrigue from Washington D.C. How did you reach this conclusion, and what evidence do you have to support it?
  13. Who do you think was McClellan's most capable corps commander during the Peninsula campaign? Why do you believe this?