Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 4

Although McClellan had largely stayed out of the political fray through 1862, Rafuse argued that McClellan’s most ardent supporters could not deny that McClellan actively worked to delay reinforcing Pope during the Second Manassas campaign once the Army of the Potomac was evacuated from the Peninsula.

McClellan ultimately got what he wanted out of Pope’s misfortune. Lincoln, although noting that McClellan “had acted badly,” restored McClellan to command, as McClellan was the only administrator who could reform the army satisfiably.

McClellan didn’t have much time to reorganize the mob after Ox Hill, with Lee’s army crossing the Potomac in early September. In the next few chapters, Rafuse recounts how McClellan’s possibly most impressive 3 weeks of generalship became his most maligned.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Chapter 12: “He Has Acted Badly”

This relatively short chapter focuses on the immediate aftermath of the Second Manassas Campaign, when McClellan was once again restored to command. Though there is some debate on the order of events that led to McClellan taking command, Rafuse cites a letter to his wife in which McClellan writes that “Everything…is under my command.”

Naturally, McClellan’s ascension to command of the armies around Washington outraged the Republican segment of the Administration, making it even more ironic that McClellan’s campaign into Maryland during the next few weeks would bring about the release of the Emancipation Proclamation and the hardening of the war, which Rafuse subsequently focuses on throughout the last quarter of the book.

First though, McClellan had to reform the various army units and get them on the march, many of which were completely raw regiments. McClellan also had to decide on command changes, such as Hooker for McDowell, during reorganization.

Chapter 13: To Meet the Necessities of the Moment

Once again, McClellan correctly predicted Lee’s movements, and now realized that Lee was not the timid, indecisive general McClellan initially thought. Though it was clear Lee had crossed the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia decided to use ridges and cavalry to screen their movements. McClellan believed the most realistic goal was to drive the Confederates out of Maryland.

The Army of the Potomac understandably moved conservatively into Maryland during the early portion of the campaign while still dealing with logistics. Meanwhile, a Pleasanton report reaching McClellan estimated the Rebel force at 100,000, and other reports couldn’t ascertain the nature of the ANV’s movements or motives. McClellan told the Administration on the 10th that the estimates of the Rebel force put it somewhere between 80,000-150,000, which would obviously have a huge effect on the campaign.

The entire strategic outlook of the campaign changed on September 13, when Lee’s “Special Orders 191,” which divided his army throughout Maryland, were discovered by Union soldiers. McClellan is usually faulted for not acting quickly enough on these orders, but Rafuse points out that much of the instructions are vague and seemingly contradicted recent Rebel movements. Of course, there was also a concern that the orders could be false. Regardless, by noon of that day, McClellan was confident of success and told Lincoln that he would “send…trophies.” Ironically, the Orders may have reinforced McClellan’s belief that the ANV had a significant advantage in manpower through its vague wording of “commands.”

Again, there has been argument over the importance of the discovery. Generally, the consensus view has been that McClellan didn’t act rapdily enough to take advantage of the most golden opportunity of the war. The McClellan Society’s page argues that the Lost Orders were merely the 5th time in 26 days that marching orders were discovered by the enemy. Arguing that the orders were 5 days old when discovered, the McClellan Society page argues that the “window of opportunity” had “expired.”

It seems to me that reality could be found inbetween those two views. As Rafuse argues later, the “indecisiveness” was more easily attributable to McClellan’s subordinates. At the same time, the window of opportunity clearly had not expired, as the orders suggested that Lee’s army would still be divided with Jackson’s command at Harper’s Ferry (which McClellan knew had not yet capitulated). On the 13th, McClellan stated that his goal was to “cut the enemy in two” and defeat the ANV in detail, but he was less sanguine about that possibility than earlier in the day, and by the night of September 13, Lee was aware that McClellan had his orders. Still, I think it unquestionable that these orders created the conditions for the best opportunity to bag an army.

On the 14th, the Army of the Potomac attempted to drive a wedge into the ANV through mountain passes at Crampton’s Gap, Turner’s Gap, Fox Gap and South Mountain. Though they would carry the gaps, the Confederate rear guard was able to hold out for a crucial day as the ANV retreated toward Sharpsburg.

Chapter 14: “The Most Terrible Battle”

On September 15, with the ANV’s main body retreating, Jackson and Hill taking the high ground around Harper’s Ferry and the Army of the Potomac fast pursuing, Rafuse notes that Lee was considering the terrain west of the Antietam as suitable for a defensive posture while waiting to link up the army, and then perhaps the ANV could remain in Maryland.

The Army of the Potomac moved rapidly with the exception of the left wing (under Burnside). The IX Corps, which was swelling with green units and suffering leadership issues with Reno’s mortal wounding during the fighting the day before, broke ranks to take care of burial detail, and Burnside (as wing commander) let them remain in bivouac despite McClellan’s urging. Meanwhile, Harper’s Ferry capitulated before Franklin even attempted to get between the separate parts of the ANV.

McClellan has often been criticized for not attacking on the 16th, but heavy fog shrouded Lee’s position until the late morning, and McClellan devised his plan of attack the following day. Jackson of course would link back up with Longstreet, while Hill’s “Light Division” took care of the surrender of Harper’s Ferry. McClellan personally oversaw the deployment on the left during the 16th, and preparations were made to start the 17th with an attack on the Confederate left by Hooker’s I Corps.

The battle itself has been analyzed thoroughly of course, but Rafuse believes that McClellan did a commendable job, all things considered. Sears argued that McClellan yet again remained miles away, but this time McClellan stayed in regions where he could oversee the fighting, and eventually rode over to the right during the battle.

Rafuse credits Hill’s appearance and Hood’s division for staving off a disaster for the ANV on the 17th. McClellan, keeping those overestimated troop strengths in mind, decided not to use reserves on the right, which had gotten as good as it gave. On the left, Burnside had trouble crossing the bridge, and these days he is much maligned for the fact that the Antietam could be waded there. Rafuse points out that the Confederate forces didn’t know that fact any more than the Union forces based on their deployment.

The sun went down with the ANV still in one piece, but McClellan eventually accomplished the goal he originally started out the campaign with: the departure of the ANV from Maryland. McClellan has been criticized for letting Lee remain across the Potomac on the 18th, but again Rafuse argues that critics have not taken into account how shaken and bruised the Army of the Potomac was at the same time.

While Rafuse does a good job of displaying positives from McClellan’s tactical performance on the 17th, and he does a good job of pointing out how well McClellan managed the battle, given his conservativism and his troop estimates of the ANV in mind. I have the advantage of hindsight, but there is a telling quote from the very capable Union railroad guru Herman Haupt, who after being told by McClellan in the subsequent campaign that a potential movement using railroads for supplies might be risky, told McClellan that he thought risks were inherent in military matters. Having read the battle accounts from differing standpoints, it’s hard for me to picture the right possibly collapsing even if the reserve force was repulsed.

That point aside, the argument that McClellan was too slow to react should probably focus on the left, which had its authority delegated to Burnside, and Cox’s IX Corps had problems during the campaign as well. McClellan did have the best opportunity of the war to bag an army given those orders, even 5 days after they had been issued, but incompetent leadership and inexperienced troops cost him in the days leading up to September 17th.

In the next and final part of the review, I’ll review the events leading up to McClellan’s dismissal and then offer some of my own general analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

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4 responses to “Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 4”

  1. Harry Avatar


    One of the few problems I had with Rafuse’s fine book is that he failed to take into account recent scholarship which pretty conclusively proves that the “trophies” telegram was sent not at noon on the 13th, but at mignight on the 13th/14th (see Tim Reese’s website). This makes the 9/13 timeline much more reasonable.


  2. Johnny Whitewater Avatar
    Johnny Whitewater

    I’ll assume that comment was more directed at me, since it was my entry.

    I was unaware that Rafuse got the timing of that telegraph wrong, but in that chapter Rafuse notes that McClellan took a much more conservative stance toward the orders after analyzing them, and moreover he kept his September 13th marching orders the same anyway.

    I guess the point is that regardless of whether or not Rafuse got the time of that telegram wrong, his coverage of McClellan’s actions on the 13th was still sound. That does seem like a weird thing Rafuse would get wrong, considering how comprehensive the book was.

  3. Harry Avatar


    Sorry about the confusion.

    As I said, it was one of the few problems I had, and the scholarship I mentioned is relatively recent. I think Rafuse’s analysis of Mac’s actions after receipt of the stale dated SO 191 is generally sound, though some might disagree, particularly where Franklin is concerned.

    Here’s a link to a write-up by Tim Reese, which includes a link to an image of the telegram as received in Washington.


  4. Harry Avatar

    I will also add that SO 191 did not tell McClellan that “Lee’s army would still be divided with Jackson’s command at Harper’s Ferry”. While this is a common thought, SO 191 sent Jackson only to Martinsburg. Only McLaws and Walker were directed to HF…Lee apparently never anticipated that the garrison would hold out or that a siege would be necessary.


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