CONNER & MACKOWSKI: Seizing Destiny (2016)

Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge” and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union by Albert Z. Conner, Jr., with Chris Mackowski. Savas Beatie, 2016. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1-61121-156-6. $34.95.

In Seizing Destiny, Albert Z. Conner, Jr., and Chris Mackowski explore how the Army of the Potomac transformed from a command that endured a string of humiliating losses into the military force that achieved victory at Gettysburg.  Conner and Mackowski attribute this transformation to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s holistic reforms, implemented while the Army of the Potomac encamped in Stafford County, Virginia during the winter of 1862-1863.  Conner and Mackowski perceive this seven-month encampment as a “non-battle turning point” for the Army of the Potomac, and thus as an experience that largely resembled Gen. George Washington’s famous Valley Forge encampment during the winter of 1777-1778 (xi).  Conner and Mackowski conclude that Hooker’s reforms ultimately saved the Army of the Potomac and “rescued America’s future” as a world power in the twentieth century (xiii).

Following Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous “Mud March” in January 1863, Gen. Hooker assumed command of the beleaguered Army of the Potomac.  Conner and Mackowski thoroughly examine the different issues confronting the army at this time, including decreased morale among soldiers, increased desertion rates, weakened leadership, and depleted regimental rosters from death and disease.  Hooker immediately attempted to combat these problems by making changes that would improve the Army of the Potomac’s military efficiency, organization, leadership, and soldiers’ morale. Conner and Mackowski identify the reorganization of the army (and implementation of corps and division badges) as one of Hooker’s most important reforms.  The badges increased the soldiers’ confidence and unit pride while also providing better military organization, communication, and discipline.  Conner and Mackowski argue that Hooker’s changes slowly took hold as desertion rates began to decrease, morale improved, and the army received better logistical support.  Although other historians, including Jeffry D. Wert, Eric J. Wittenberg, and Bruce Catton, have briefly discussed Hooker’s reforms, their works did not fully analyze the long-term effects of these changes.  Conner and Mackowski suggest that these historians ignored Hooker’s reforms, as his military loss at Chancellorsville detracted from his organizational improvements.

Conner and Mackowski contend that although twenty thousand soldiers declined to re-enlist in the Army of the Potomac in late April 1863, these actions did not contradict Hooker’s efforts.  Instead, Conner and Mackowski suggest that those who decided not to re-enlist felt that draft dodgers and Copperheads should be compelled to serve in the army before the volunteers re-enlisted. This assertion merits further examination; Conner and Mackowski do not convincingly argue why these numbers do not detract from their thesis.

Although Conner and Mackowski assert that there exist parallels between the Army of the Potomac’s time in Stafford County and Gen. George Washington’s Valley Forge encampment, the authors do not provide sufficient comparisons between the two events.  While the authors contend that over 1,000 Civil War soldiers made references and comparisons to Valley Forge within their writings, specific citations of these soldiers’ letters are lacking within the text.  Even Conner and Mackowski themselves raise questions about these historical connections, as they readily admit that the parallels between Valley Forge and the 1862-1863 winter encampment likely require an additional book to convince the reader (xiv).

Indeed, while Conner and Mackowski seek to make connections between Valley Forge and the 1862-1863 winter encampment, their work needs to include an extended discussion of the conditions faced by Gen. Washington.  Instead, the authors assume that the reader possesses an in-depth understanding of the difficult circumstances that the American army encountered at Valley Forge.

Another puzzling component of the manuscript relates to the inclusion of biographical sketches within the appendix of several women who assisted the Army of the Potomac while encamped in Stafford County. While Conner and Mackowski acknowledge the important role that these women provided to the army, Conner and Mackowski do not mention these women within the text.  By relegating the discussion of these women to the appendix, these sketches read as an afterthought, rather than providing an inclusive perspective of the Union encampment. Conner and Mackowski do a disservice to these women and their efforts, rather than adding “another dimension to the book’s thesis” as they contend (325).

The strength of Seizing Destiny lies within the authors’ description of how Hooker’s reforms transformed the Army of the Potomac. Those interested in studying the Army of the Potomac’s command structure and implementation of military policies will find value within the detailed and well-researched discussion of these topics. To reaffirm this point, Conner and Mackowski provide a detailed recap of all the different military improvements made by Hooker in the epilogue.  Conner and Mackowski also discuss the important themes of logistical support and intelligence gathering that do not always receive attention within scholarly monographs.


Ryan Bixby is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Akron.  He currently serves as an adjunct instructor at Allegany College of Maryland.

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