|The view from McClellan's headquarters of Antietam Battlefield|
- Jim Rosebrock
- I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
On the McClellan "Roller Coaster"
Harry Smeltzer’s great blog post over at Bull Runnings is entitled Your Grandpa’s Maryland Campaign –NOT!!!. Equally informative and instructive are the comments to this post that offer in a microcosm the range of different reactions to General George B. McClellan.
I usually do not reply in the depth that I did to Harry’s post. As a guide and volunteer at Antietam, I hear all sorts of reactions to George B. McClellan. I happen to agree with the current interpretation on the general that is advocated by our rangers and codified in the works of Joseph Harsh, Ethan Rafuse, Tom Clemens and Vince Armstrong. My own thoughts "On the McClellan Merry Go-Round" as Harsh once called it, have been fermenting for some time.
I am not an academic historian but merely an avid amateur who reads everything I can find about the battle and the men who fought there. I am fortunate to volunteer at Antietam Battlefield nearly every weekend and have been a guide there for the past four years as well. I have studied the terrain and have the advantage of knowing all the rangers who make the study and interpretation their life's work. And finally my perspective as a retired soldier gives me some additional useful perspective.
I am not an apologist for McClellan. I agree that he made mistakes. There was an arrogance and snobbery imbued into his personality that came from his blue blood Philadelphia origins. He let that get the better of him sometimes. His political instincts were not highly evolved. Unlike Lee, he failed to cultivate and maintain a good relationship with his commander in chief. He didn't appreciate the power of the radicals in Congress. He tended to try to do too much himself. He could have learned more from General Scott but viewed him as an obstacle. He didn’t try to bring all his corps commanders into the inner circle preferring to rely on the recommendations of his “pets” Fitz Porter and William Franklin, men with similar conservative political and military perspectives. A terrible error was McClellan’s inclination to “leave Pope to get out of his scrape.” Instead of truly extending himself to help Pope, a man he detested, McClellan merely followed Halleck’s orders to the letter. This mean spirited attitude truly appalled Lincoln.
McClellan was a brilliant trainer, organizer, logistician, and strategic planner. As Army commander-in-chief in early 1862, his strategic concept to attack on all fronts and his understanding and inclination to employ Army-Navy joint operations (Burnside’s Carolina and Butler’s New Orleans expeditions) preceded Grant's successful implementation of similar plans two years later. His overall concept to advance up the Peninsula was a good one that was similar to part of Grant’s own final approach to Richmond after the Overland Campaign failed to achieve decisive results.
Despite their deteriorating relationship, Lincoln decided that McClellan was the only man capable to assume command during that harrowing first week of September. His decision was over almost total opposition of his cabinet. This decision to restore McClellan was one of the most important acts of his presidency. Lincoln knew his general's limitations but he also recognized that McClellan’s strengths were what the country needed then.
Operationally, McClellan had a different mission in Maryland than he did in front of Richmond. He learned from his experiences on the Peninsula. He had the example/specter of Second Manassas less than a week after resuming command to consider as well. I'm sure that he and Porter had some discussions about that battle in the days before Antietam. McClellan intensely felt the weight of responsibility at Antietam and frequently made reference to it in his writings.
Lincoln's faith was not in vain. In the space of several days, McClellan restored the army's flagging morale, He reshuffled some senior commanders, incorporated new regiments into the ranks, absorbed Reno's Ninth Corp, the Kanawha Division, and two corps from the Army of Virginia into his command and began straightening out logistics (an action which is often overlooked in the Maryland campaign.)
McClellan had a primitive intelligence service and he erred on the side of extreme caution when evaluating and accepting the intelligence estimates of detective Pinkerton. His cavalry was still learning and was just then being concentrated into a single division under Pleasanton during the campaign. His artillery was still principally dispersed though it to was moving in the direction of more consolidation as well. Two corps commanders (Hooker and Mansfield) were new to that level of command.
He advanced northwest from D.C. protecting both Baltimore and Washington. On September 12th, just days after being restored to command, McClellan's right wing under Burnside entered Frederick from the east as the last elements of Lee's cavalry abandoned the town and headed west. Lee's operational planning and issuance of Special Order 191 to open his supply line through Harpers Ferry was based partly on the assumption that whoever commanded the pursuing Federal army would take much longer to reach western Maryland.
McClellan’s response to Special Order 191 was not a timid one. He prudently spent the afternoon of Saturday September 13th validating the authenticity of the order. But when convinced of its validity, he ordered an attack by his divided army on several fronts to relieve Harpers Ferry on one end of the line and to attack Longstreet’s “main body” on the other. Admittedly, he could have pressed Franklin forward that afternoon instead of delaying the Sixth Corps advance until the next day. Franklin took all day to arrive at Crampton’s Gap and overwhelm the Confederate defenders shortly before sundown. Franklin’s slowness on Sunday afternoon and subsequent failure to attack McLaws and relieve Harper’s Ferry on Monday morning was perhaps the greatest failure of the campaign
On the battlefield, McClellan was without question a careful, methodical, tactician. He believed in maintaining a large reserve and his tolerance for taking risk was much lower than many other army commanders. Whatever his exact understanding of the size of the rebel army confronting him, McClellan developed a sound offensive plan. It called for attacks first in the north at daybreak and later in the south to force Lee to commit his reserves and enable a final attack by Porter in the center. Unfortunately there was no written plan and McClellan did not meet together with all his commanders before the battle to put them all in the picture.
But the plan was working. The brutal fighting in the north indeed caused Lee’s characteristically bold reaction around 8:30 AM to commit ALL his reserves to the shattered left flank. Yet, from McClellan's perspective at the Pry House, Lee forcefully met and repulsed every attack launched by the Federal commanders:
· Hooker’s First Corps counterattacked by Hood’s division
· Mansfield’s Twelfth Corps attack engaged by three brigades of D.H. Hill’s division.
· Sedgwick’s division flanked by McLaws and other Confederate troops in the West Woods
· French and Richardson’s divisions met by Richard Anderson’s reinforcing division in the Sunken Road, and Manning’s brigade attack on their right.
This had the effect of causing McClellan to reassess the full commitment of Porter’s corps and the cavalry in the center. Often overlooked in the “old interpretation” of the battle is the fact that Porter's regulars were in fact advancing toward the heights of Sharpsburg when they were recalled. When A.P. Hill struck Burnside's left flank at nearly the moment that his right was entering Sharpsburg that confirmed in McClellan's mind that Lee was still a very dangerous enemy. It justified and rationalized his decision not to hazard an attack by the Fifth or Sixth Corps. This thinking carried on to next day in his decision to keep a strong reserve and not attack preferring to wait until the 19th. By then, Lee was gone.
I believe that the shadow of Second Manassas hung over McClellan (and Porter). They saw in every counter-stroke by Lee a smashing potentially battle-ending attack like that suffered by Porter only 18 days earlier.
Grant lost at Belmont; He had a tough time at Shiloh. It took him a long time to figure out how to capture Vicksburg. But he was far enough down the chain of command and far enough from the flagpole to recover, learn and advance. Sherman had what amounted to a nervous breakdown early in the war. Again, he was far enough away from the flagpole and the interfering Washington chain of command and had a mentor the likes of Grant to shield him and permit his recovery. Both men had time to get better. McClellan did not get the benefit of a learning curve like Grant, and Sherman. He had the entire Lincoln administration, the Congress, and the national media following his every move from fifty miles away. Again, this is not an excuse but a reality. Grant had two years of additional time to figure out how to deal more successfully with this poisoned environment.
Since I have heard a lot about Grant and Lee in this string of comments, let’s recall what they later said about McClellan.
Grant on his round the world tour from 1877-1879 said this of him: "McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war. As a young man he was always a mystery. He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. Then he is a man of unusual accomplishments, a student, and a well-read man. I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. I have entire confidence in McClellan’s loyalty and patriotism. But the test that was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major general at the beginning of the war. It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility—the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.” From Around the World with General Grant: A Narrative of the Visit of General U.S. Grant, Ex-President of the United States, to Various Countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, in 1877, 1878, 1879; To Which Are Added Certain Conversations with General Grant on Questions Connected with American Politics and History, by John Russell Young.
Lee’s cousin Cassius Lee recalled a conversation that he had with the general on February 15, 1870. "I asked him which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and he answered most emphatically "McClellan by all odds." From Recollections and Letters by Robert E. Lee. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.
Victorian niceties aside, these are two heavy hitters whose perspective can't be ignored.