Zachery Fry is Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This interview is based on his new book, A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write A Republic in the Ranks?
ZF: I’ve always been fascinated by the history of political debate. There’s a great deal of literature out there already on how intense the partisan divide was among the Union Army’s high command during the Civil War, and I grew up reading a lot of that. As I waded into the army’s story myself, though, what I found more and more intriguing was the heated political divide further down the chain of command at the level of captains, majors, and colonels. This was especially true in the Army of the Potomac, the army that hardly ever fought more than several days’ march from Washington. What made the Army of the Potomac such an intriguing topic was that its soldiers went from worshiping George B. McClellan as commander in 1862 to voting against him for president in 1864.
Most historians have examined this political debate in the army by prioritizing diaries and letters home to family as the best evidence. What I found engrossing, though, was the tremendous number of letters and opinion pieces from soldiers at the front to newspapers back home. It was clear to me that newspaper editors, many of whom were intensely partisan, were capitalizing on the army’s role as conscience of the nation to influence the political dialogue. And soldiers were willing and eager to lead the nation’s political debate because they were convinced the importance of the moment demanded it.
The result of all this research is, I hope, a much richer picture of Civil War soldier ideology than readers have previously had.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Republic in the Ranks?
ZF: The Civil War was a political awakening for thousands of young soldiers serving in the Union Army of the Potomac, and the men who guided that process were the junior officers who had received their commissions from home front politicians. The result of this awakening, much of it acrimonious and heavy-handed, was an army that led the national dialogue by shunning antiwar protesters and earnestly supporting Lincoln’s policies.
JF: Why do we need to read A Republic in the Ranks?
ZF: It’s important to understand why soldiers fought in the Civil War. My book offers something genuinely new to that topic by examining how extensively Union soldiers, led by their officers, set the terms of debate in national politics. The angry words of Union officers and men against the “Copperhead” Democratic peace movement—truly a language of revenge and even extermination—are genuinely chilling to read. But it’s also fascinating to see how earnestly these soldiers supported Abraham Lincoln and the policies that won the Civil War. For the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, rallying behind the Republican message gave downtrodden men an inspiring sense of purpose to continue the fight.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ZF: What’s interesting to me as a military historian is how many scholars in our field can trace their professional interest back to childhood. I’m no different. I’ve wanted to write and teach history since I was in elementary school. I saw Civil War movies, read anything I could find on the conflict, and started touring battlefields at age seven. My parents were incredibly indulging, and I was able to meet some gifted historians as a youngster who inspired me to pursue a similar path. I also had some supportive high school teachers and, later, professors who expanded my interests well beyond those four years of “The War of the Rebellion.” Now I put that training to work everyday teaching military history to Army officers, and it’s the most rewarding career I could ever imagine.
JF: What is your next project?
ZF: I’m currently at work on a study of the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and McClellan, almost certainly the most important election in our nation’s history. It’s been a while since readers have seen a new account of this event, so I’m excited to finish it.
JF: Thanks, Zachery!
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.