Open main menu

Wikipedia β

The Army of the Potomac was the principal Union Army in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War. It was created in July 1861 shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run and was disbanded in June 1865 following the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in April.

Army of the Potomac
Potomac Staff.jpg
Commanders of the Army of the Potomac at Culpeper, Virginia, 1863. From the left: Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, George G. Meade, Henry J. Hunt, Andrew A. Humphreys, George Sykes
Active July 26, 1861–June 28, 1865
Country  United States
Branch Seal of the United States Board of War and Ordnance.png United States Army
Type Field army
Role Primary Union Army in Eastern Theater
Part of Union Army
Garrison/HQ Washington, D.C.
Engagements American Civil War
George B. McClellan
Ambrose Burnside
Joseph Hooker
George G. Meade



The Army of the Potomac was created in 1861, but was then only the size of a corps (relative to the size of Union armies later in the war). Its nucleus was called the Army of Northeastern Virginia, under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, and it was the army that fought (and lost) the war's first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run. The arrival in Washington, D.C., of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan dramatically changed the makeup of that army. McClellan's original assignment was to command the Division of the Potomac, which included the Department of Northeast Virginia under McDowell and the Department of Washington under Brig. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield. On July 26, 1861, the Department of the Shenandoah, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, was merged with McClellan's departments and on that day, McClellan formed the Army of the Potomac, which was composed of all military forces in the former Departments of Northeastern Virginia, Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Shenandoah. The men under Banks's command became an infantry division in the Army of the Potomac.[1] The army started with four corps, but these were divided during the Peninsula Campaign to produce two more. After the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Army of the Potomac absorbed the units that had served under Maj. Gen. John Pope.

It is a popular, but mistaken, belief that John Pope commanded the Army of the Potomac in the summer of 1862 after McClellan's unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign. On the contrary, Pope's army consisted of different units, and was named the Army of Virginia. During the time that the Army of Virginia existed, the Army of the Potomac was headquartered on the Virginia Peninsula, and then outside Washington, D.C., with McClellan still in command, although three corps of the Army of the Potomac were sent to northern Virginia and were under Pope's operational control during the Northern Virginia Campaign.

The Army of the Potomac – Our Outlying Picket in the Woods, 1862

The Army of the Potomac underwent many structural changes during its existence. The army was divided by Ambrose Burnside into three grand divisions of two corps each with a Reserve composed of two more. Hooker abolished the grand divisions. Thereafter the individual corps, seven of which remained in Virginia, reported directly to army headquarters. Hooker also created a Cavalry Corps by combining units that previously had served as smaller formations. In late 1863, two corps were sent West, and—in 1864—the remaining five corps were recombined into three. Burnside's IX Corps, which accompanied the army at the start of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign, rejoined the army later. For more detail, see the section Corps below.

The Army of the Potomac fought in most of the Eastern Theater campaigns, primarily in (Eastern) Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. After the end of the war, it was disbanded on June 28, 1865, shortly following its participation in the Grand Review of the Armies.

The Army of the Potomac was also the name given to General P. G. T. Beauregard's Confederate army during the early stages of the war (namely, First Bull Run; thus, the losing Union Army ended up adopting the name of the winning Confederate army). However, the name was eventually changed to the Army of Northern Virginia, which became famous under General Robert E. Lee.

In 1869 the Society of the Army of the Potomac was formed as a veterans association. It had its last reunion in 1929.

Famous unitsEdit

Saint Patrick's Day celebration in the Army of the Potomac, depicting a steeplechase race among the Irish Brigade, March 17, 1863, by Edwin Forbes

Because of its proximity to the large cities of the North, such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City, the Army of the Potomac received more contemporary media coverage than the other Union field armies. Such coverage produced fame for a number of this army's units. Individual brigades, such as the Irish Brigade, the Philadelphia Brigade, the First New Jersey Brigade, the Vermont Brigade, and the Iron Brigade, all became well known to the general public, both during the Civil War and afterward.


Scouts and guides, Army of the Potomac, Mathew Brady

The army originally consisted of fourteen divisions commanded by Edwin Sumner, William B. Franklin, Louis Blenker, Nathaniel Banks, Frederick W. Lander, Silas Casey, Irvin McDowell, Fitz-John Porter, Samuel Heintzelman, Erasmus Keyes, William F. Smith, Charles P. Stone (replaced by John Sedgwick in February 1862), and George McCall. Because this arrangement would be too hard to control in battle, President Lincoln issued an order on March 13, 1862 dividing the army into six corps headed by Sumner, Banks (despite being in the Shenandoah Valley and not part of the main army), McDowell, Heintzelman, and Keyes, the highest ranking officers. McClellan was not happy with this, as he had intended to wait until the army had been tested in battle before judging which generals were suitable for corps command.

After the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, McClellan requested and obtained permission to create two additions corps; these became the V Corps, headed by Brig. Gen Fitz-John Porter, and the VI Corps, headed by Brig. Gen William B. Franklin, both personal favorites of his. After the Battle of Kernstown in the Valley on March 23, the administration became paranoid about "Stonewall" Jackson's activities there and the potential danger they posed to Washington D.C., and to McClellan's displeasure, detached Blenker's division from the II Corps and sent it to West Virginia to serve under John C. Fremont's command. McDowell's corps was detached as well and stationed in the Rappahannock area.

In June 1862, George McCall's division from McDowell's corps (the Pennsylvania Reserves Division) was sent down to the Peninsula and temporarily attached to the V Corps. In the Seven Days Battles, the V Corps was heavily engaged. The Pennsylvania Reserves in particular suffered heavy losses including its division commander, who was captured by the Confederates, and two of its three brigadiers (John Reynolds, also captured, and George Meade, who was wounded). The III Corps fought at Glendale, however the rest of the army was not heavily engaged in the week-long fight aside from Slocum's division of the VI Corps, which was sent to reinforce the V Corps at Gaines Mill.

The Army of the Potomac remained on the Virginia Peninsula until August, when it was recalled back to Washington D.C. Keyes and one of the two IV Corps divisions were left behind permanently as part of the newly-created Department of the James, while the other division, commanded by Brig. Gen Darius Couch, was attached to the VI Corps.

During the Second Battle of Bull Run, the III Corps joined with John Pope's Army of Virginia, suffering major losses in the battle. It was left behind in Washington during the Maryland Campaign to rest and refit. The rest of Pope's army was also added to the Army of the Potomac.

In the Maryland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac had six corps. These were the I Corps, commanded by Joe Hooker after Irvin McDowell was removed from command, the II Corps, commanded by Edwin Sumner, the V Corps, headed by Fitz-John Porter, the VI Corps, headed by William Franklin, the IX Corps, headed by Ambrose Burnside and formerly the Department of North Carolina, and the XII Corps, headed by Nathaniel Banks until September 12, and given to Joseph K. Mansfield just two days prior to Antietam, where he was killed in action.

For the remainder of the war, corps were added and subtracted from the army. IV Corps was broken up after the Peninsula Campaign, with its headquarters and 2nd Division left behind in Yorktown, while its 1st Division moved north, attached to the VI Corps, in the Maryland Campaign. Those parts of the IV Corps that remained on the Peninsula were reassigned to the Department of Virginia and disbanded on October 1, 1863.[2] Those added to the Army of the Potomac were IX Corps, XI Corps (Sigel's I Corps in the former Army of Virginia), XII Corps (Banks's II Corps from the Army of Virginia ), added in 1862; and the Cavalry Corps, created in 1863. Eight of these corps (seven infantry, one cavalry) served in the army during 1863, but due to attrition and transfers, the army was reorganized in March 1864 with only four corps: II, V, VI, and Cavalry. Of the original eight, I and III Corps were disbanded due to heavy casualties and their units combined into other corps. The XI and XII Corps were ordered to the West in late 1863 to support the Chattanooga Campaign, and while there were combined into the XX Corps, never returning to the East.

The IX Corps returned to the army in 1864, after being assigned to the West in 1863 and then serving alongside, but not as part of, the Army of the Potomac from March to May 24, 1864. On that latter date, IX Corps was formally added to the Army of the Potomac.[3] Two divisions of the Cavalry Corps were transferred in August 1864 to Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah, and the 2nd Division alone remained under Meade's command. On March 26, 1865, that division was also assigned to Sheridan for the closing campaigns of the war.[4]


  • Brigadier General Irvin McDowell: Commander of the Army and Department of Northeastern Virginia (May 27 – July 25, 1861)
  • Major General George B. McClellan: Commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, and later, the Army and Department of the Potomac (July 26, 1861 – November 9, 1862)
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside: Commander of the Army of the Potomac (November 9, 1862 – January 26, 1863)
  • Major General Joseph Hooker: Commander of the Army and Department of the Potomac (January 26 – June 28, 1863)
  • Major General George G. Meade: Commander of the Army of the Potomac (June 28, 1863 – June 28, 1865)

Major General John G. Parke took brief temporary command during Meade's absences on four occasions during this period)

Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all Union armies, located his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac and provided operational direction to Meade from May 1864 to April 1865, but Meade retained formal command.

Major battles and campaignsEdit


  1. ^ Beatie, p. 480.
  2. ^ Welcher, pp. 361–62.
  3. ^ Welcher, pp. 428, 431.
  4. ^ Welcher, pp. 536, 540.


  • Beatie, Russel H. Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860 – September 1861. New York: Da Capo Press, 2002. ISBN 0-306-81141-3.
  • Beatie, Russel H. Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes Command, September 1861 – February 1862. New York: Da Capo Press, 2004. ISBN 0-306-81252-5.
  • Beatie, Russel H. Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March – May 1862. New York: Savas Beatie, 2007. ISBN 978-1-932714-25-8.
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Welcher, Frank J. The Union Army, 1861–1865 Organization and Operations. Vol. 1, The Eastern Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-253-36453-1.

Further readingEdit

  • Chamberlain, Joshua L. The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. ISBN 0-553-29992-1. First published 1915 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Sears, Stephen W. Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), xii, 884 pp.
  • Taaffe, Stephen R. Commanding the Army of the Potomac. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006. ISBN 0-7006-1451-6.

External linksEdit