Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 2

In Part 1 of my review of Ethan Rafuse’s recent McClellan bio, we left off after Chapter 4. With the nation teetering on the brink of war, McClellan supported Stephen Douglas’s successful Senate reelection campaign against Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln went on to win the presidency in 1860 due to the split of the Democrats, and Chapter 4 ends with the commencement of the war and McClellan’s strong support for the Union.

From the war’s inception to April 1862, McClellan effectively displays his impressive administrative abilities in the West while also successfully conducting a campaign in Western Virginia. When McClellan is called to Washington amid much fanfare and the total deference of the Administration, he continues to assert his administrative skills while discussing grand Union strategy. When Washington politicians and public yearning for increased activity begin to put pressure on the Administration, McClellan’s political ideology and professional West Point training lead him to ignore it as little more than a nuisance that shouldn’t get in the way of military expertise. By the end of January 1862 however, McClellan realizes (and bemoans) the fact that he can’t entirely avoid the political pressure.

This review covers more in depth up to the touch down of elements of the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Chapter 5: “To Kill Secession”

Like many others, McClellan frowned upon the fact that it came to Civil War, but he was adamant that the Union must be preserved, breaking down the two sides into “patriots” and “traitors.”

Hailing from Pennsylvania, and realizing that his military pedigree would obviously be desirable, McClellan initially hoped for command of Pennsylvania troops. But on his way east to Harrisburg, Ohio’s Governor offered command of Ohio’s troops to McClellan, who accepted the offer days before receiving similar offers from New York and Pennsylvania.

From the beginning, McClellan’s exceptional administrative abilities would shine. Given a lack of experienced officers, McClellan micromanaged every aspect of the troops under his command, from training them to requisitioning supplies.

At the same time, McClellan offered strong insight into how grand strategy should be conducted, both for his Department and in general, to Winfield Scott, now commanding all armies from Washington. Given his political ideology and belief in conciliation, McClellan was particularly acute in perceiving the importance of Union sentiment in the border states and West Virginia, which would obviously play a role in his subsequent campaign. Within a month of the firing on Fort Sumter, McClellan’s responsibility grew to include oversight of a military Department consisting of Indiana and Illinois, as well as having to handle the situation of the neutral but crucial border states in the West.

McClellan eventually conducts a successful campaign in western parts of Virginia that were strongly Unionist, bolstering his reputation as a general and reinforcing his belief in conciliation and moderation. With that said, debate remains over how much credit should be given McClellan for the West Virginia campaign from a tactical standpoint (as opposed to some of his subordinates).

Regardless, given his military success and his ability to successfully manage his constantly evolving responsibilities, it’s understandable why, in the wake of Bull Run, Chapter 5 ends with McClellan headed to Washington.

Chapter 6: “A New and Strange Position”

Though McClellan came to Washington receiving the deference of all the bigwigs on military matters, some of his previous proclamations and speeches had already been too conciliatory for some Republicans. And anyone familiar with the McClellan story knows that a heavy dose of political intrigue is forthcoming, starting with this chapter.

With the deference to McClellan and the defeat at Bull Run, Scott was feeling squeezed out of his role as Congressmen and Lincoln communicated directly with McClellan. The McClellan-Scott relationship has been viewed in the Centennial/Consensus history as McClellan intriguing to have Scott removed. By August, McClellan was telling his wife that Scott was a “dotard or traitor” and that Scott was his strongest antagonist. Rafuse notes that McClellan could come across as “petulant” and arrogant, which wasn’t beneficial to his dealings and relationships. However, it seems likely that Scott was on his way out regardless of any role McClellan could have or could not have played, once the Anaconda plan had no chance at fruition.

Of course, McClellan had to deal with reforming the Department, reshaping what would become the Army of the Potomac, and discussing grand strategy in all theaters. Even before Pinkerton’s estimates, McClellan vastly overestimated Beauregard’s forces at 150,000, which further justified his meticulous and moderate manner in preparing the Army of the Potomac for a grand campaign.

Rafuse reminds readers that McClellan was conducting minor operations around Washington, but Ball’s Bluff and mounting public pressure on an aggressive campaign begin to put the Administration in a corner. McClellan’s embracing of reasoning and order, not to mention his professional military training, leads him to acknowledge but ignore public pressure in terms of formulating strategy.

Chapter 7: Supreme Command

By Fall of 1861, McClellan is virtually guaranteed to replace Scott as general in chief, although Radical Republicans have already begun to criticize the perceived inactivity in the East. Lincoln still defers to McClellan, although he does point out to McClellan that political issues such as public pressure were “realities.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of War Cameron was viewed within the Administration as corrupt and inefficient, but his political connections made him tough to dislodge. Edwin Stanton enters the text as a willing and helpful connection for McClellan, marking the beginning of Stanton’s intrigue for the Secretary of War position. When McClellan is given Scott’s position upon his retirement, it merely makes official McClellan’s previous military standing in the East while allowing McClellan to coordinate strategy in the West.

Despite McClellan’s adamance for operations into Eastern Tennessee, conciliatory policy and coordination among Western forces, he is all but helpless as Buell is too cautious to advance and Halleck is too ambitious to accede to McClellan’s suggestions of cooperation. Ironically, Halleck ignores McClellan’s suggestions by focusing forces on the Mississippi River, and when Grant’s men take Donelson and Henry, Halleck takes the credit and continues to lobby for a comprehensive new Department of the West with Halleck in charge.

In addition to the Army of the Potomac’s operations, McClellan stayed involved in coastal operations and possibilities. It’s clear that McClellan strongly believed in joint operations, although it seems he eventually put too much faith in the ability of the Navy to coordinate with the Army.

Although Lincoln still deferred to McClellan by the end of 1861, McClellan was referring to Lincoln as a coward in correspondences and there was the well known incident in which McClellan ignored Lincoln and went straight to bed after the latter had called upon him at his house. At the same time, Republican disenchantment (particularly among the Radicals) with McClellan was steadily growing.

Chapter 8: “You Have No Idea of the Pressure Brought to Bear Here”

Despite his deference, Lincoln was growing more restless and by January began pressing McClellan on when the Army of the Potomac would move en masse. As the chapter title suggests, it seems that McClellan was only beginning to fully recognize how influential political pressure would be on his position, having regarded it as a mere nuisance beforehand. The notorious Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had been created by Congress only weeks earlier, and it had a decidedly Radical Republican influence.

McClellan was struck by typhoid fever, leading Lincoln to assume more direct responsibility regarding military operations (which he would not entirely step away from). In mid January, Stanton was appointed Secretary of War. To ensure his appointment, he cultivated his relationship with the Joint Committee, and would continue to espouse more Radical Republican views over time, though McClellan welcomed the appointment.

Even before his illness, McClellan had been entertaining the idea of using coastal operations to move the Army of the Potomac toward Richmond, instead of the overland route, which would effectively turn the Confederate forces in front of Washington.

Chapter 9: “What Do You Think of the Science of Generalship?”

Politically, Stanton aligned further with the Joint Committee while pressure eventually induced McClellan to begin preparation for the Peninsula Campaign. Politics also began to play an influential role in the shaping of power within the Army of the Potomac itself, with the introduction of corps commanders (all of whom were Republican). McClellan is eventually removed from the general in chief position as he nears assuming a role in the field for the campaign.

Initially, McClellan hoped to begin the campaign at Urbanna, but Navy incompetence and Administration concern about Washington’s security (and subsequent dragging of feet) doomed that option. Subsequently, McClellan embarks for Fort Monroe on the tip of the Peninsula, which is covered in the upcoming chapter.


Here are some of the major points made by the past few chapters, comparing traditionalist/Sears type portrayals of Sears to the Rafuse bio.

* The one aspect of McClellan that is about universally agreed upon is that he was an effective administrator who was particularly good with logistics and reforming and training armies. In Rafuse’s book, McClellan’s keen eye for sound military strategy is also pronounced.

* In traditional portrayals, McClellan is viewed as one of the principal figures engaging in political intrigue in 1861 and 1862, forcing Scott out and lobbying for position and power. Conversely, McClellan is portrayed in Rafuse’s biography as a general who, understanding his popularity and given deference from the Administration, tries to ignore political influence on the military situation, which he realizes is ultimately doomed to fail in early 1862.

* McClellan’s views on conciliation and traditional warfare are seen as an ignorant weakness in most narratives, but Rafuse argues that initially the conciliation policy worked in the border states. It remains to be seen how Rafuse treats McClellan’s ideology and views on conciliation in the following chapters.

Though it hasn’t reached the Peninsula Campaign, the book is already more than half finished. If the previous chapters are any indication, it appears that Rafuse sympathizes with McClellan based on the restraints given to him by the Administration regarding troop management during the Peninsula Campaign.

However, McClellan still comes across as aloof regarding the importance of political pressure. In a vacuum, his reluctance to wait until everything is in perfect order makes sound military sense (though Rafuse is unable to completely explain or justify McClellan’s estimates of enemy strength), and since McClellan was a prodigious West Point cadet with a liking of military history, it seems as though he was unprepared for the political issues that come with managing a military under democratic government. In addition, McClellan seems taken aback when his plans or ideas are thwarted by the inabilities of others, from the Navy to the Halleck/Buell relationship.

His personal correspondences and opinions of individuals are extremely harsh and do come across as exceedingly arrogant, although it’s hard to blame McClellan for having a big head in 1861. However, it’s clear that his demeanor didn’t work to his advantage in cultivating strong relationships with political figures.

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