George McClellan: An Essay, Part 3

by James Durney on April 29, 2009 · 0 comments

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a three-part essay on George B. McClellan.  If you haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2, do so now!

The men in the ranks hold varied views.  For the AoNV, this was the first great bloodletting, the price of victory has been high and some of the price is questionable.  Lee’s position is secure the men have found their commander.  For the Federals, the men have lost what many see as a battle won; military terms cannot conceal the retreat or sugar coat the sense of defeat.  This is the start of the very real sense of inferiority that the AOP feels and causes problems until Grant took them in hand.

The Northern Virginia Campaign of 1862 saves McClellan’s command.  The western hero John Pope darling of the Washington radicals, given to overstatements and an outright lies manages to suffer a worse defeat than McClellan does.  His mismanagement is responsible for his army after being routed for the second time at Manassas.  Badly defeated, the army flees into the ring of forts guarding Washington.  Lincoln, once more, watches a defeated leaderless army slump past the White House windows.  McClellan’s role in this defeat is an open question.  Was he slow in forwarding units to Pope or was this unavoidable?  Did some of his men seem less than willing to fight under another general or was this Pope alienating almost everyone?  Questions that had no answered during the war and have no answer today.  Both sides have arguments supporting their position but neither side can prove their position.

Lee seeing a chance for a quick victory over a demoralized disorganized foe invades Maryland.  In what may be the most contentious cabinet meeting of the Lincoln administration, over the objections of several members of the cabinet, McClellan is place in command of the reconstituted Army of the Potomac.  For the second time in less than a year, he inherits a disaster.  As word spreads, men cheered, spines stiffened and a beaten-armed mob becomes an army again.

Bad decisions by the Federal high command cause the loss of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry.  This is the largest surrender of American troops until the Philippians surrenders in 1942.  McClellan moves with dispatch gets the army organized and out of Washington City.  At Frederick, the famous “Lost Order” is found in a field and given to Headquarters.  This order gave the dispositions of the major elements of Lee’s army.  The order does not contain numbers and is a few days old when received.  “Taken at the Flood” contains the best modern discussion of the order and its’ value to McClellan.  The order shows Lee has sufficient men to feel comfortable in dividing the AoNV into three major groups.  One of the groups is outside of reasonable support range.

Once more, the numbers game starts.  Estimates have a range from the Maryland area commander, General Wool’s 75,000 to 200,000 from Gov. Curtin of Pennsylvania.  Other civilian and Calvary estimates are within this range and 120,000 AoNV is accepted as the best estimate.  Not unreasonable considering how Lee has split his army.  Pinkerton, with no agents in the area cannot furnish any input to these estimates.  This counters the augment that Pinkerton changed estimates to meet McClellan’s fears.  Additionally, it shows that an over estimation of CSA numbers is standard at this stage of the war.  A 120,000 AoNV means the AOP fighting on the offensive is outnumbered about three to two.  Late in the day on September 17, this estimate decides the battle when McCelland stops attacking after Porter reminds him that they have almost no men in good order between the AoNV and Washington City.

At South Mountain on September 14, Lee’s army is hard pressed and forced to withdraw to Sharpsburg.  Problems in the AOP command stop the army from pressing forward.  On the 15th, Harper’s Ferry surrenders and most of CSA units there forced march to the main body of the army.  On the 15th and 16th the AOP closed on Sharpsburg.  A number of long-range guns are emplaced to cover an attack or, if needed, defend the position.

The battle plan of the 17th, calls for the right to attack south under cover of the long-range guns into a more open area.  What follows is a series of miss queues, blunders and bad timing committing individual units in the wrong direction.  Lee’s good luck hold, in that reinforcements always arrive just when his line is breaking.  In the most furious day in American history, the armies suffered almost 23,000 casualties; one man in five and Antietam is forever burned into our history.  On the 18th, the armies sit, appalled at the field and the results of battle.  On the 19th, Lee starts south.  The first invasion of the North is over, all the victories since May have not produced European recognition or a Northern offer to end the war.  Lincoln, sizing Antietam as a victory, issues the Emancipation Proclamation and the war changes forever.

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McClellan did not pursue Lee to the administration’s liking, a problem that another Union General will have in July of 1863.  In addition, he makes several political statements that upset Washington.  The result of Washington’s dissatisfaction with the escape of the AoNV and the upset over his remarks results in his removed from command a second time.  This time, he will never command an army again.

The war in 1861 and 1862 was different from the war from 1863 to 1865.  A negotiated settlement was an option that many people expected and worked for.  The idea of fighting to the bitter end, the destruction of cities and regions is not acceptable.  McClellan and many others were part of a movement that believed a negotiated settlement was possible.  They felt that after one big battle the defeated side would seek a settlement.  This forced an army commander to make sure everything was ready.  McDowell’s experience told them that allowing the government to force another battle could lose the war for the North.  As the war went on and the price of victory rose, this idea dies.  The men who lead the AOP in 1862 belong to a different group than the men who won the war.  This time, for the AOP, is a search for commanders at all levels; the record of McClellan’s Corps Commanders, appointed by Lincoln without his recommendations, illustrates the problem.

Hentzelman is removed from command in October and spends the balance of the war as commander of Washington City and serving on court-martial boards.

Keyes is moved to a less active command and resigned in 1864 after being accused of abandoning his position.  Keyes was the secretary and aid to General Scott in the pre-war army.

Mansfield died of wounds on September 17, 1862.

Sunmer, born in 1797, is the oldest man to hold active corps command in the war.  He serves well and dies in 1863 of natural causes.

Hooker loses his nerve at Chancellorsville.  Sent west he does well, unable to command an army he is an excellent corps commander.

Burnside, always prone to bad communications and poor tactical thinking blunders from one command to another through out the war.  He is considered one of the poorest general officers in the union army.

Franklin has his position saved when Lincoln refuses to remove him from the army.

Porter dismissed from the army in 1863, many say, for his support of McClellan.  In 1886, a hearing reinstates his rank determining the dismissal was an error.

George B. McClellan to the men in the ranks of the AOP is always “Little Mac”.  They love him and for good reason, he never sent them into hopeless battle and he never lost his nerve in front of them.  They felt he was careful of their lives and looked out for their welfare.  That is more than Burnside and Hooker could say.

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