Russel Beatie's Williamsburg

Civil War historians have, up until now, had major problems understanding Williamsburg. With self-control, I may be able to keep this list of their errors short.

(1) The battle is given a dozen pages or fewer in the general run of accounts of McClellan's first Richmond campaign. And yet the battle is complex and enormously illuminating. In his Army of the Potomac, Vol. III, Russel Beatie gives Williamsburg the space it deserves, about 112 pages, and he centers its "message" on the incapacity of Lincoln's hand-picked corps commanders. (Let the date-of-rank sticklers remember that Lincoln created those dates of rank with help from the various generals' friends in Congress.)

(2) Most Civil War history, obsessed with narrative, is dependent on contemporary sources to sustain the storytelling momentum: thus, that part of the battle offering the greatest number of eyewitness accounts and the greatest amount of derring-do gets the most retelling. At Williamsburg, this places attention on Hooker thereby annihilating understanding. The places where the least is happening (the Union center and the Union right) are the most important in assessing what was failing and what was succeeding. Beatie understands this and saves the reader from getting caught up analytically in the Hooker trap. The action on the Union left was a gaudy, gory, irrelevant circus - and yet exactly the kind of material writers love. Beatie innoculates his readers against the Hooker/Kearny notion that "It must be impotant - it's the part of the battle I am fighting." Nor does he promote the historian's worse mistake, "The point of commotion denotes the point of decision."

(3) Most historians treat McClellan's absence from the battlefield as a lapse in judgement or evidence of misplaced priorities. But McClellan was overseeing the knock-out blow to the Rebel retreat, loadings leading to landings in the skedaddlers' rear that would cut them off from Richmond. In modern parlance, Williamsburg, a meeting engagement, fixed the enemy where West Point landings would have f [inish] ed them. I am not clear whether Beatie agrees that McClellan needed to supervise these loadings, but he does not allow his readers to misinterpret GBM's absence.

(4) The ACW writer often regards Mac's appearance on the battlefield at the end of the day as irrelevant. Beatie correctly views it as decisive. The reader is long overdue an accurate account of GBM at Williamsburg: the essential data collection in failing daylight; the stream of on-the-money orders that followed; and his personal visit to what he decided was the point of decision, Hancock's do-it-yourself breach of Confederate fortifications (a breach invalidating all of Longstreet's dispositions). Hancock refused to be recalled by Sumner: in that alone he was magnificent. McClellan upheld Hancock's judgements and he stayed in Hancock's exposed position until reinforced by Smith, also magnificent. GBM won the battle by reinforcing the point of decision after rapid analysis. This was an exciting end of the day and Beatie handles it well indeed.

(5) Historians pass over the errors of Lincoln's corps commanders that day, excepting Sumner's errors. Beatie recounts them all in the flow of events and they are heartbreaking, standing out like drumbeats in the course of events. The corps commanders, being revealed for what they are, the reader sees a pall cast over the future of the campaign.

(6) Hooker's stand is burnished by many writers into a paradigm - the fighting general versus the strategy-minded McClellan. Beatie takes down Hooker the braggart but rather delicately, I think, allows Kearny only one (powerful) anti-Hooker quote, one in which PK observes the arrangement of dead in Hookers lines showed that Hooker did not know what he was doing nor what he wanted to do. I would have added material from Kearny's letters published by William Styple's Belle Grove Press. In at least two of these, Kearny says Hooker had lost it emotionally by the time he arrived; that Hooker was unstable generally; and that put under similar pressure, Hooker would collapse again.

There is much more to say about Beatie's excellent account of Williamsburg but I worry that my views and the author's are so strange to the common understanding that I had better first allow the book to come out, to be bought, and to be read before discussing the topic more deeply.