Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 5

After staring each other down on the 18th, with both catching a much needed breather, Lee finally withdrew his army from Sharpsburg and was able to cross the Potomac during September 19-20. Though McClellan did try to strike at Lee, most notably at Shepherdstown, Lee’s rear guard was formidable enough that officers throughout the Army of the Potomac concurred with McClellan’s actions. Lee’s army then moved toward the Shenandoah Valley while the Army of the Potomac hovered around Sharpsburg.

Thus, after achieving his initial aims and performing well enough for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the stage had been set for McClellan to make his final exit.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Chapter 15: “It Is My Duty To Submit To The President’s Proclamation…”

The Emancipation Proclamation is credited for being perhaps the biggest turning point in the Union’s shift from the warfare McClellan preferred to the warfare that was unleashed by the likes of Grant and Sherman, not to mention of course the varying changes in stated war aims.

Obviously, the previous 300+ pages made it clear that McClellan would have a negative opinion of the Emancipation Proclamation, not to mention it completely rebuffed his notion that his victory at Antietam would allow him to reshape the theater and the type of warfare in the manner he wished. Moreover, McClellan noted that abolition was naturally occurring in war zones, which he believed made the Emancipation Proclamation as constituted all out obsolete anyway.

Just as important, McClellen still had to deal with the logistical reorganization of his army and the rehabilitation after having suffered about 10,000 casualties in one day. As Rafuse begins to cover extensively in the last few chapters, McClellan had to deal with army logistics, a depleted cavalry, and contigency plans to cover Potomac crossings against the Confederate forces.

Rafuse rehashes some of the well known Lincoln quips in which the Army of the Potomac is called “McClellan’s bodyguard,” and his questioning of McClellan as to just what the cavalry had done since Antietam that would have tired them out. Rafuse points out that these comments were unfair.

As Lincoln grew more disenchanted with McClellan, specifically the state of inertia along the Potomac, Jeb Stuart rode around McClellan’s army for the second time in early October, displaying just how unable the Union forces were to cover the Potomac crossings. McClellan also faced growing public pressure and pressure from the Administration to advance before the midterm elections.

Chapter 16: The Last Campaign

McClellan wished to wait until Spring of 1863 to resume active campaigning, hoping once again to use the Peninsula, but he was compelled to move by mid October. McClellan saw the campaign as merely a temporary way of placating the Administration before positioning his army around Fredericksburg to plan for the following Spring.

Rafuse goes on to narrate McClellan’s marching orders, noting that McClellan was once again performing a strategically sound campaign, and the Army of the Potomac was moving as quickly and as well as should have been expected. However, Lincoln had determined that if the ANV positioned itself between McClellan and Richmond, he would pull the plug on the general. Waiting until after the elections, Lincoln drafted an order on November 5th, removing McClellan from head of the army.

Ironically, when McClellan was removed, the army was at a highpoint in terms of morale, and McClellan was starting to understand that if the Administration wouldn’t allow a transfer of his army onto the Peninsula, he would have to continue sliding east along the overland route using available railroads, which is similar in scope to Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign. But it was not to be for another 2 years, as McClellan was replaced by Burnside on November 7th, one of the subordinates most responsible for the shortcomings of the Maryland campaign.


In a short epilogue, Rafuse basically reiterates his main points: that McClellan’s political views were shaped by his background and environment, and that these views shaped how he conducted military campaigning.

Rafuse’s book is very valuable as a sort of political primer. But throughout the book on numerous occasions, Rafuse tries to tie McClellan’s strategic decisions on his Whig mentality. I think this is an unnecessary extrapolation of McClellan’s conservative nature.

Having read this book, I think it seems that McClellan’s actions are more easily interpreted through looking at his West Point years, his engineering aptitude, his studies of military history and his tour in Europe during the Crimean War. In those cases of warfare, politics were separated from military planning. McClellan was certainly a political conservative, but his specialty as an engineer predisposed him to careful planning and a fondness for siege type tactics.

Ultimately, when dealing with perception and McClellan history, the questions we want the book to answer is whether or not McClellan deserve his current bad rap, and to what extent his reputation should be considered. Rafuse generally commends McClellan’s actions and sympathizes with all McClellan had to face. At the same time Rafuse believes McClellan was derelict in his duty during important times in the Peninsula Campaign and Second Manassas Campaign without really delving into it.

While I came away from the reading much more sympathetic about McClellan’s position, I had trouble understanding a few matters. Notably, McClellan seemed totally unprepared for the unique situation that fighting under a civilian government entailed in 1861, despite having witnessed political intriguing in the Mexican War. While I can sympathize with McClellan for having to deal with that issue, it seems relatively clear at the same time that McClellan didn’t consider the political pressure brought to bear on the Administration, especially Lincoln.

Second, if the pendulum currently resides with the consensus view of McClellan as a totally inept commander, while the McClellan Society is certain McClellan would have won the war in 1862 without Administration interference, how does this book affect the pendulum’s swing historiographically speaking? Clearly this book is more sympathetic regarding the Peninsula Campaign and Maryland Campaign than the consensus view, and Rafuse points out that Grant’s eventually successful plan in the East was to reach the James. What is certain is that suggestions that McClellan lacked personal courage is strongly refuted, while the suggestion that McClellan had “the slows” is discouraged.

To answer whether or not McClellan could have been successful in 1862, the constant overestimation of enemy troop strengths in his front has to be discussed. Clearly, in commending McClellan’s tactics at Antietam, Rafuse considers the general’s belief that he was outnumbered, without delving into who was responsible for the wildly exaggerated numbers. McClellan (and Pinkerton) often get the blame on this matter, but Rafuse doesn’t get into it too much during the course of the book. Since Lee did outnumber McClellan on the Peninsula and had struck a strong blow on Pope’s Army (leading many soldiers in the ranks to overestimate the ANV’s strength), Rafuse argues that the General’s belief that Lee outnumbered him at Antietam was justifiable. Seeing as how the ANV was about 40,000 strong at Antietam, I’ll need more convincing on the justification of the 80,000-150,000 estimate.

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Usually the winners do write the history, which is one major reason for McClellan’s low standing today. And while Rafuse makes it clear that the consensus view is way too extreme in its negativity, McClellan historiography has a long way to go to reach a middle ground between the consensus view / McClellan Society view.

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6 responses to “Ethan Rafuse – McClellan’s War, Part 5”

  1. Mitch H. Avatar

    Have you read Harsh’s Taken at the Flood? I was a doubter before on the subject of the threat posed by the ANV in early September, but Harsh makes a pretty good case for the ANV being a large army in the 70,000-80,000 range well into the Maryland campaign. This distinction makes the effective division of the ANV on Sept. 14 and the resulting forced-march reunion at Sharpsburg far more important than it would otherwise be, and thus greatly improves the picture of McClellan’s Maryland campaign generalship. Essentially, he attrited the enemy force almost by half by forced straggling, and then kicked the heck out of the remnant.

    Personally, I find the need to rehabilitate or revile generals to be somewhat distracting. Rafuse’s book was riveting because of its political angle, and the picture he paints of a terribly unpolitic man trying to fight a war with essentially political tactics – reconciliation and moderation.

  2. Brett Schulte Avatar


    Just in case you didn’t notice, I thought I’d let you know that this series of posts is by Johnny Whitewater. Although I didn’t post the initial entry, I’ve always been intrigued about how the PFD strength of the ANV could have gone from slightly over 75,000 men on Sept. 2 (according to John Owen Allen’s Thesis at George Mason University, 1993) to the generally accepted PFD strentgh of between 35,000-40,000 men on September 17. I need to pick up all of Harsh’s books. Would you recommend _Taken At the Flood_ first, and in what overall order would you read them?


  3. Johnny Whitewater Avatar
    Johnny Whitewater

    If I remember correctly, Sears argues that some ANV soldiers refused to leave Virginia, but obviously if true that could only account for a small % of that.

    Citizens in places like Frederick noticed the poor condition of Confederate soldiers, so of course the PFD doesn’t indicate every Confederate in Maryland those few weeks.

    Lee’s army peaked at around 100,000 in May/June, and obviously took casualties from June-September. Yet the Pinkerton/McClellan estimates always threw out a figure like 150,000.

    Accountability for overestimates has to lie somewhere, especially when it made such a critical impact on McClellan holding the reserves that very likely would have destroyed the ANV on the 17th

  4. Stephen Graham Avatar
    Stephen Graham


    Harsh should definitely be read in chronological order: Confederate Tide Rising, Taken at the Flood, and then Sounding the Shallows if you wish to be thorough.

  5. Mitch H. Avatar

    To be honest, I’ve only read Taken at the Flood – I haven’t gotten into the other two yet, although I plan on someday reading Confederate Tide Rising and Tim Reese’s High Water Mark together.

    Johnny: the troops of the ANV being in poor shape through the Frederick phase of the campaign is still consistent with a heavy attrition by straggling during the post-South-Mountain phase, since it meant that the men had already been over-marched and thus were already vulnerable to such temporary losses if forced to make long, quick marches on top of their overstressed physical condition.

    The interesting thing that Harsh goes over is how the participants of the campaign on both sides reported hot, dusty, miserable conditions during the key march days, and yet the weather records for those days in the Frederick area were contradictory – an Edenic series of late summer days in the mid-70s. Either there was some sort of atypical microclimatic situation in the uplands west of Frederick on that week, or else something else was going on physiologically with the men in motion.

  6. Dave Kelly Avatar
    Dave Kelly

    On the subject of McClellan:

    Russell Beattie found a quote from one of GBM’s associates on the Illinois RR. He observed McClellan’s total lack of moral courage regards making a decision and seeing thru his vision.

    Even without throwing in Sears overall negativism that is a pretty damning indictment of a man who thought he was destiny’s child.

    As General in Chief McClellan had the reigns of power in his hands. All he had to do was plan, communicate, and delegate to his lieutenants. In the end he failed to plan the resources necessary to accomplish the tasks of the Army; he refused to talk to his political superiors when he realized he couldn’t deliver what he promised; and he anally couldn’t cope with the notion of having to depend on subordinates to protect his good reputation.

    GBM had personal demons which made him ineffective. Excusing his narrow mindedness by blaming others for fueling his insecurity is disingenuous. Read McClellan’s final report and count how many times he reluctantly admits he personally screwed up…

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