Zachery A. Fry: A Political Scandal in the Union Army

Today we welcome a guest post from Zachery A. Fry, author of A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomacout now from UNC Press.

The Army of the Potomac was a hotbed of political activity during the Civil War. As a source of dissent widely understood as a frustration for Abraham Lincoln, its onetime commander, George B. McClellan, even secured the Democratic nomination for president in 1864. But in this comprehensive reassessment of the army’s politics, Zachery A. Fry argues that the war was an intense political education for its common soldiers. Fry examines several key crisis points to show how enlisted men developed political awareness that went beyond personal loyalties. By studying the struggle between Republicans and Democrats for political allegiance among the army’s rank and file, Fry reveals how captains, majors, and colonels spurred a pro-Republican political awakening among the enlisted men, culminating in the army’s resounding Republican voice in state and national elections in 1864.

A Republic in the Ranks is available in hardcover and ebook editions.


A Political Scandal in the Union Army

The name George B. McClellan often calls to mind a cautious, conniving, arrogant general who ran afoul of Abraham Lincoln. McClellan’s inaction as commander and frequent private attacks on Lincoln’s war policy made him a military and political liability for the administration. Undeniable, however, is that McClellan’s soldiers in the Army of the Potomac revered him for much of the war. His removal from command in November 1862 stunned and disheartened many in the ranks. They looked to “Little Mac” as the man who protected them from political machinations and trained them to fight Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Rebels to a standstill. The year 1863 changed that perception.

By September of that year, with McClellan long gone as commander and a Democratic antiwar presence menacing the home front, veteran Army of the Potomac soldiers had learned to approach the war with hard-hearted purpose. Their blood had stained southern battlefields, and their public words had spearheaded the outcry earlier that year toward “Copperhead” peace activists on the home front who refused to support the Lincoln administration.

Against this political backdrop, the Army of the Potomac high command, loyal as ever to McClellan’s legacy, embarked on an ill-fated attempt to honor their hero. Using funds raised from the ranks, the generals sought to present Little Mac with a “testimonial” to remind him of the esteem in which his old soldiers still held him. They expected every enlisted man in the army to contribute a certain amount. The problem for McClellan holdovers in the army was that Little Mac himself was a proud Democrat, and the war’s passions had blurred any distinction between moderate Democrats and traitorous Copperheads.

The testimonial proved a political powder keg. As soon as high-level army staffers started to raise funds, stiff Republican resistance from the junior officer corps punched back. The officers of the 60th New York, for example, surmised that McClellan was positioning himself for a presidential run in 1864 and insisted the testimonial would embarrass the administration to serve Little Mac’s “political aggrandizement.”[1] The 119th Pennsylvania was even more forceful, insisting the gift was an “ingenious political scheme” foisted on the army for “unholy purposes.”[2] Both regiments published their rebuttals in pro-administration newspapers. A handful of high command Republicans refused to comply with the testimonial and alerted the Lincoln administration that all was not well with the Army of the Potomac that September. With military setbacks elsewhere causing alarm, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton quickly called army commander George G. Meade to Washington and halted the testimonial in its tracks.

The whole affair might have blown over with relatively little fallout had it not been for the 1863 election season looming in Pennsylvania. A fierce gubernatorial race between Andrew Curtin, “the soldier’s friend,” and his Copperhead rival George Woodward grabbed the army’s attention. At the eleventh hour, perhaps seeking to solidify his position as a Democratic frontrunner for the presidential nomination the next year, McClellan shocked the army’s ranks by publicly endorsing Woodward. The same soldiers who had revered him expressed disgust with his partisan maneuvering. “We worship[p]ed him,” a private in the 59th New York wrote soon after the bombshell, “but since we have lernt better.” Who would stand against the Lincoln administration and endorse Democrats? “None but Tra[i]tors,” the soldier fumed.[3] McClellan’s move may have helped his future with Democratic Party leaders, but it insulted many in the army’s ranks who would be voting the next year.

[1] Richard Eddy, History of the Sixtieth Regiment New York State Volunteers: From the Commencement of Its Organization in July, 1861, to Its Public Reception at Ogdensburgh as a Veteran Command, January 7th, 1864 (Philadelphia: Published by the Author, 1864), 281-85.

[2] “The McClellan Testimonial,” Philadelphia Press, September 30, 1863.

[3] Jacob L. Bechtel to Candis Hannawalt, October 28, 1863, in Jacob L. Bechtel Collection, Gettysburg National Military Park.


Zachery A. Fry
Photo by Emily Fry

Zachery A. Fry is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.