December 4, 2007

Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac

I’ve had my eye on a copy of William Swinton’s Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac for awhile now. It was first published in 1866 and is considered the first comprehensive treatment of that army’s fabled operations. Swinton, a former scholar, was there for part of the AOP’s history, serving as a correspondent for the New York Times during the action. In the introduction to his book, Swinton remarks how he was given important source information even while in the field when the participants realized his ultimate intentions. "It soon came about that, respecting every important action of the Army of the Potomac, there were brought to my hand, not only the manuscript official reports of its corps, division, and brigade commanders, but, for the illustration of its inner life and history, a prodigious mass of memoirs, private note-books, dispatches, letter-books, etc. In addition, I have had the benefit of the memory and judgment of most of the chief officers."

Of course, not all approved of Swinton’s information gathering tactics. At one point he was accused of eavesdropping on Generals Grant and Meade’s conversations. Instead of shooting him, which other generals would have gladly done, Grant let Swinton off with a reprimand. The next week, Ambrose Burnside asked Meade "that this man immediately receive the justice which was so justly meted out to another libeler of the press a day or two since, or that I be allowed to arrest and punish him myself." Burnside was incensed over a report Swinton wrote about his corps. "Grant got the impression that Burnside intended to shoot the reporter, and immediately ordered Swinton’s expulsion instead. [source]

His post-war efforts in trying to get the Southern story also bore fruit. "For the elucidation of the deeds of the Army of Northern Virginia, the mighty rival of the Army of the Potomac, my sources of information have been scarcely less ample,” wrote Swinton. “These embrace the complete 'Reports of the Army of Northern Virginia,' and many manuscript reports and documents kindly forwarded to me. I have also had the advantage of full conversations with most of the chief commanders of the Confederate army.”

Considering the mountain of scholarship that has emerged over the past several generations, the book today has more value as a historical artifact than as a viable twenty-first century resource. Allan Nevins in his Civil War Books described it as “perspicacious and wordy, but invaluable interpretation.” More recently, David Eicher’s The Civil War in Books (#1030) considered it “an important early work that, among other things, contains the first discussion in print of the dissension between Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg,” based on discussions between Longstreet and the author. A, not surprisingly, glowing 1866 review of the book in Swinton’s own paper, the New York Times, predicted the controversy to follow, noting how “Swinton tilts with a free lance and has pricked a score of full-blown reputations.”

The book was first published in spring 1866 by the Charles B. Richardson press of New York, less than a year after the war ended. It was a hefty 640 pages long and bound in brown cloth with gilt lettering on the spine. Considering that the work is now close to 150 years old, first edition copies in premium condition are hard to come by. Collectors should expect to pay several hundred dollars for a copy in collectible condition. Beat up ones are far more prevalent and if the price is right, these can be good candidates for rebinding in some type of fine leather as long as there are no dog-eared, missing or torn pages, maps, etc.


Harry said...

I've labored under the impression tha Swinton had two editions of this book, and that the more controversial Longstreet interviews were not in the 1866 edition. Set me straight.

Paul Taylor said...


Good question. I'm not familiar with a second edition, though I believe page 358 of the first printing may address the issue. In a footnote, the author writes "In the absence of Pickett's division the day before made General Longstreet very loth to make the attack, but Lee, thinking the Union force was up would not wait. Longstreet urged in reply that this advantage (or supposed advantage, for the Union force was all up) was countervailed by the fact that he was not all up either: but the Confederate commander was not minded to delay. My authority is again General Longstreet."

I'd say this statement on Swinton's part clearly implies disagreement between Longstreet and Lee, but as I mentioned before, I do not know if a second edition goes into more depth.

Paul Taylor said...


Broadfoot's Civil War Books: A Priced Checklist 5th edition, shows that there were 4 early editions of this book - 1866, 1867, 1871, and 1882.