The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac

The Grand Review at Bailey's Crossroads, November 20, 1861

This Sunday, November 20, will mark the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review at Bailey’s Crossroads outside Arlington, Virginia. Many a Civil War buff knows about the Grand Review that closed out the war when the Union armies paraded through Washington. But lesser known is the Bailey’s Crossroads review early in the war, a colossal event that essentially inaugurated the Army of the Potomac.

I first came across mention of this event in reading the regimental history of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry, the unit which I and my reenactor compatriots represent. A soldier from the 22nd Massachusetts wrote in his diary,

This is a day long to be remembered by thousands of people as one of the most eventful of their lives. Never before in this country has there been assembled together such an immense body of armed men as were reviewed to-day….[by] Gen. McClellan and staff, accompanied by President Lincoln and Secretaries Cameron and Seward on horseback…followed by several regiments of cavalry, with a mounted brass band. The immense throng cheered the President as he passed along.

To this, the regimental historian added, “This review, although a severe test to the endurance of the men, was long a subject of talk in the regiment; and, to this day, the soldier refers with pride to the big review at Bailey’s Crossroads.”

In the months preceding the Grand Review, Major General George McClellan had carefully organized the largest fighting force ever gathered in the western hemisphere. Beginning in August 1861, several smaller armies operating in northern and western Virginia were consolidated to form the Army of the Potomac. Their numbers quickly swelled with new units of fresh volunteers streaming in from all over the North. By November, McClellan’s army numbered roughly 150,000 men. Over the course of the fall they drilled and drilled and built numerous fortifications around Washington.

The morning of November 20, 1861 was cold and windy. Patches of snow stood here and there on the ground. A total of seven divisions had been selected to participate in the Grand Review, consisting of 76 infantry regiments, 17 artillery batteries and 7 cavalry regiments…in all, about 75,000 men. Roughly half of the Army of the Potomac. They were encamped all around the outskirts of Arlington.

The 22nd Massachusetts was camped at Hall’s Hill, now a neighborhood in Arlington known as High View (coincidentally, a modern street known as 22nd Street today runs very near Hall’s Hill). They had about five miles to march to reach the Grand Review.

The ground selected for the review was a broad plain between Bailey’s Crossroads and Munson’s Hill in Fairfax County. The largely treeless landscape allowed an expansive view of the thousands upon thousands of soldiers. All the divisions formed up in a massive semi-circle spanning roughly two miles. It must have been a sight to behold.

About 20,000 or more spectators from Washington and the vicinity had gathered to view the pageant. Among them was Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and poet. The notion of penning new lyrics to a popular soldier’s marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” had already occurred to her during an earlier visit to Union camps. The spectacle of the Grand Review so inspired her that she finished writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that night at the Willard Hotel in Washington. “Mine eyes have seen the glory…I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel…”

When the men were finally formed up, they stood for hours and waited for General-in-chief and the President to arrive. McClellan and Lincoln finally came around 1:30 with their huge escort of cavalry and, as noted above, a mounted brass band…which is a new concept to me (can one play a tuba on horseback?). It took about an hour for the General and the President to ride before the entire assembly, inspecting the troops. Many men noted that the tall President looked somewhat absurd and uncomfortable on horseback. Wrote one lieutenant, “He looked as though he were determined to go through with it if it killed him, but he would be most almighty glad when it was over.”

As soon as the President had traversed the full formation, the men commenced their pass and review, marching in a massive column of two companies side by side. It took hours for the divisions to march by. The entire thing was not done until after dark.

Today, the Lincoln at the Crossroads Alliance is actively working to commemorate this event on a ongoing basis. Apparently they had broad plans for a large reenactment of the event at Bailey’s Crossroads, which is now a built-up suburban area. The plans had to be scaled back somewhat, but they did mount a commemorative event at nearby Fort McNair a week ago. I think this is a fantastic effort and I applaud the group for pursuing their goals.

This was a formative moment in the war. Something that the soldiers would forever remember with pride. For most, it was the first time they got a look at the massive force of which they were a part. It was the first time they had a real sense of the enormity of this war…even if just the pomp and circumstance side of it. From that point forward, soldiers and civilians alike had a vivid concept of what the Army of the Potomac was, and looked to the future eagerly, anticipating the day that McClellan’s grand army would take the field and, no doubt, quickly crush the rebellion.

[Sources: John Parker, Henry Wilson’s Regiment, (1887), 55; Jeffry Wert, The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac, (2005), 50; Evelyn Haught, “The Grand Review of November 20, 1861,” (2007)]

2 responses to “The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac

  • Evelyn L. Haught

    The author might like to know that the Arlington neighborhood where the 22nd Mass. regiment encamped, Hall’s Hill, was formed as one of the early freed men’s villages. Subsequent residents up to the present have been proud of this heritage. I lived very near Hall’s Hill for many years.

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