Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 3

Part 2 of my review of Rafuse’s McClellan bio left off with the Army of the Potomac landing at Fort Monroe to begin the Peninsula Campaign.

McClellan had already faced a number of issues in planning the campaign even before reaching the jumpoff point. The first option for the landing spot (Urbana) had been scrapped, and there was bickering over the amount of troops left around Washington without the Army of the Potomac fighting on the Overland line.

That would only be the start of McClellan’s problems for the Peninsula Campaign.

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Chapter 10: “The Peninsula Campaign”

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign has been analyzed meticulously and is considered one of the grandest failures of the Union war effort, with McClellan made the scapegoat. Having read a number of military histories, including Sears’s narrative on the Peninsula Campaign, I’m familiar with the indictment against McClellan for the delays in front of Yorktown, and his absence from the battlefield on more than one occasion during the Seven Days Battles.

Rafuse puts a considerable onus of blame on the Administration for oscillating on where to deploy certain divisions, paranoia about Washington’s safety due to Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and indecision about what to do with other commands near that theater. Stanton’s decision to shut down recruiting stations in early 1862, combined with the Confederacy concentrating all their troops with Johnston/Lee eventually leads to the Army of the Potomac being outnumbered in front of Richmond.

At the same time, the Navy was too tentative to test shore batteries along the prominent rivers like the James, frustrating any possible joint operations between the Army and Navy. This haunts Union efforts to force Yorktown’s capitulation, since McClellan’s style minimizes potential casualties.

When McClellan is forced to extend his line North to link up with troops that are expected to be sent overland to him, Johnston (and subsequently Lee) have a chance to strike at both flanks, and Rafuse argues that McClellan’s decision to extricate the Army of the Potomac to the James is a sound one.

Rafuse calls McClellan’s absence from the battlefield inexplicable and inexcusable, leaving the Army of the Potomac leaderless during pitched battle, but Lee’s attacks are repulsed regardless. As pointed out throughout this book, McClellan often behaved cooly under fire, so it is likely not a question of McClellan’s personal courage. Once the Army of the Potomac secures its flanks on the James, the Administration’s bureaucratic incompetence left McClellan’s army pigeonholed along the James, and McClellan refused to recommence an advance without reinforcements. Ultimately, the lack of activity freed Lee to go operate against Pope’s Army of Virginia.

As Rafuse notes near the end of this chapter, McClellan’s inability to take Richmond, along with problems in Western border states, led to the Northern public’s repudiation of conciliatory policy and a hardening of the war.

Chapter 11: “I Do Not Like the…Turn That Affairs Are Taking”

After weeks of indecision, the Army of the Potomac is finally ordered to evacuate the Peninsula and link up with Pope’s army, as the Administration was more comfortable having their forces fighting on one line instead of exterior lines. Moreover, Pope was handpicked by the Republicans after his victory at Island #10 and quickly made proclamations implicitly and explicitly insulting the way Eastern armies had conducted the war to that point, as well as the conciliatory policy.

Most of this chapter deals with the conflicting ideologies of conciliation and hardening war between McClellan and Washington/Pope, including proclamations by both McClellan and Pope that contradict war aims and behavior.

When Lee decided to strike at Pope, McClellan is unable to lobby the Administration to give him another chance to advance, despite the fact that possible resistance would have been very light. The chapter ends with the Army of the Potomac’s evacuation of the Peninsula around August 18, as the Second Manassas campaign is getting underway.

Chapter 12: “He Has Acted Badly”

This chapter deals with Pope’s Army being handily defeated in the Second Manassas campaign. The ultimate issue, being a McClellan bio, is in what way McClellan should be held responsible for delaying elements of his army from reinforcing Pope.

What is unmistakable is that McClellan would feel vindicated if/when Pope was embarassed, at one point mentioning that one possibility for the campaign is to let Pope attempt to get out of “his scrape.” And, as the title of the chapter suggests, Rafuse acknowledges that McClellan eventually does act in bad faith in regards to helping Pope.

However, Rafuse points out that the evacuation of the Army of the Potomac was conducted as quickly as could be expected, and the inability to open communications between Pope’s army and McClellan’s army lead to some of the well known problems, especially the controversy over Porter’s reserves.

Near the end of the campaign, McClellan lobbies Halleck and the Administration to delay sending elements from the Army of the Potomac to Pope’s aid due to the risks it would incur his own men, conveniently hurting Pope and his opposing ideolog. Even more conveniently, it all but forces the restoration of McClellan to commanding all forces around Washington, despite Lincoln’s assertion that McClellan had “acted badly.”

The next review will cover the restoration of McClellan to command through the Maryland campaign.

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