George McClellan: An Essay, Part 2

by James Durney on April 22, 2009 · 1 comment

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

Next, CSA Major General John B. Magruder does an outstanding job convincing everyone that Pinkerton’s estimates are correct.  Historians dismiss Magruder’s work as poor performance by McClellan.  However, using entrenchments, bugle calls, drum rolls, campfires and marching Magruder stops an army of over 140,000 for about a month.  In this time, fighting takes place at Lee’s Mill and Dam No. 1.  On May 3, Magruder pulled his army back and started retreating toward Richmond.  On May 5, 7, and 15 the AOP fight a series of battles with the rear guard or units holding positions that protect the retreating CSA’s line of march and suffer about 2,500 causalities.  Magruder is acting against all military logic and convinces everyone that he has sufficient troops to conduct an in-depth defense of the area.

A major problem, unrecognized during planning is the Peninsula, an undeveloped area with few roads, many swamps and numerous rivers.  Heavy rains, deepen rivers, widen swamps and turn roads into creeks.  The maps that existed are inadequate and/or incorrect.  Supply and movement become very difficult as the few roads turn into bogs.  Outnumbered, facing a determined enemy in a hostile environment each step the army takes must be carefully prepared and undertaken only when everything is in place.

The last major question is replacements and what we now call troop levels.  At the start of the campaign, the administration closes all requiting offices.  This is the first blow the army suffers as it moves toward the expected climatic battle of the war.  This action signals the idea that the war is being fought with the forces on hand and new regiments are no longer needed.  Jackson’s Valley Campaign stops any reinforcements from existing units in the Washington area.  The administration fear for the capital produces an overreaction to setbacks in a minor theater.  This overreaction produces one of the most spectacular victories of the war as Washington strips McClellan of promised reinforcements.  The action army is position outside of Richmond to begin siege operations after an expected rendezvous with reinforcements marching from Fredericksburg.

This position provided Johnston with the opportunity to attack the smaller portion of the army on May 31.  The two-day battle of Seven Pines hits the Union IV Corps falling on Casey’s 6,000-man division, one of the smallest and least experienced units in the army.  To this day, disagreement exists on how well they did and how well they should have done.  The smaller Confederate force breaks two Union lines and almost breaks a third.  At the end of two days fighting, McClellan has all the “proof” needed of Pinkerton’s estimates and the necessity of “protecting” and “saving” his army.  The other major outcome of this battle Robert E. Lee assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston is wounded.  The Federals suffered about 5,000 causalities, reform their line and start to prepare for the siege of Richmond.

J.E.B. Stuart in a prolonged scouting mission confirms the Federal right is “in the air”.  In the famous “Ride around McClellan”, Stuart provides Lee with all the intelligence needed to formulate a plan to relieve Richmond while destroying the Federals.  McClellan is proceeding with plans to gain high ground for his siege guns, attacking on June 25 at Oak Grove.  At day’s end, about 600 yards are been gained against a stubborn foe in a confused battle, in the last offensive against Richmond of the campaign.

On June 26, leaving Magruder facing the majority of the Union army, Lee launches the AoNV against the V Corps on the right flank.  Beaver Dam Creek exposed problems in both armies; Jackson is unable to get into position and A.P. Hill attacks without him at about 3 PM.  The Union lines hold and inflicted substantial casualties.  With Jackson found on the right flank the position is questionable.  Magruder launches a series of limited attacks and probes on the center and left of the armies’ lines too.  For McClellan this is the argument that convinces him that it is impossible to go forward and the only course of action is to save the army.  On the night of June 26-27, he starts a withdrawal to the Southeast; the attack on Richmond is over the race for the James River has started.  The AOP is now in the process of extracting the Army and its supplies from the “trap” they are in.

The war is entering a new and deadly phase, most of the big battles have not yet occurred.  In the East, only First Manassas produced casualties in the thousands.  Pea Ridge, Ft. Donnellson and Shiloh are all in the West and somewhat hidden from public view.  When Seven Pines produces 5,000 US casualties, it became the biggest battle in the East.  Gains Mill fought on the 27th, with almost 7,000 US causalities and Garnett & Golding’s Farms, on the 27th and 28th have a substantial impact.  With over 10,000 causalities, the army and the public are stunned and shocked.  The AOP could not know the number of CSA casualties but they knew they were heavy and had not deterred the attacks.  At this point in the campaign, hard numbers are impossible to find.  Many historians are rethinking the accepted version of a badly outnumbered Lee attacking and inept McClellan.  Brain Burton in “Extraordinary Circumstances” estimates the difference in effective numbers to be about ten thousand men in McClellan’s favor, well under the normal 3 to 1 needed to conduct offensive operations.  This is not to excuse McClellan’s performance but it reduces the “look at the numbers” argument that is used to damn him.  In fact, CSA causalities are consistently higher during these battles.  In terms of casualties and keeping an opponent from attaining objectives, most of the Seven Days battles are draws or Union victories on the field.  These tactical or operational victories do not offset the strategic defeat of the AOP at the hands of the AoNV.

McClellan’s state of mind shows in a telegram to Stanton on June 28.  It begins with a recap of the day’s battle and the army’s position.  The next paragraphs explain why it is necessary to retreat and a justification of his actions.  The last two lines are, “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other person in Washington.  You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”  A clerk deletes these lines and Washington never sees them but McClellan thinks they read them.

On June 30, at the battles of Glendale and White Oak Swamp the Federals hold the line and keep the road to the James open.  The AoNV’s command structure is under server strain and their maps are no better than the Federals.  In these battles who is the victor, who is the vanquished and the person responsible for winning or losing still undetermined.

On July 1, at Malvern Hill Lee has one more chance to stop McClellan from getting away.  What takes place is one of the most ill advised attacks of the war, continued poor staff work and communication problems result in unsupported infantry charging massed guns with full infantry support.  Confederate causalities are almost twice Union losses.  The clear Union victory at Malvern Hill, allows the army to reach safety sheltered under the heavy guns of the fleet with a secure supply line.

By July 3 the Federal, army is out of danger at Harrison’s Landing and Richmond saved.  The Federals have lost almost 16,000 men and the Confederates more than 20,000.  The Lincoln administration sees the campaign and the Seven Days as a total disaster.  Richmond sees a great victory.  McClellan feels that he has saved the army.  Lee reports to President Jefferson Davis that the army could not obey “my orders”.  He says, “Under ordinary circumstances, the Federal army, should have been destroyed”.  An interesting point of discussion is that the problems exposed, by the Seven Days not addressed and continue for most of the war.  During the Overland Campaign of 1864, Robert E. Lee starts to address the issues found in 1862.

Look for part three on Wednesday, April 29!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bryn June 27, 2010 at 8:27 am

I’m curious by what measure McClellan has 140,000 men? His reports and those of his Surgeon-General place his strength at closer to 70,000 (including his sick and non-combatants).


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