About Me

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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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Another Round with George McClellan

George McClellan Equestrian Statue in Washington DC
Brooks Simpson over at his blog Crossroads had a great post yesterday titled "Give George McClellan a Break".  I am glad there is a touch of this sentiment now.  Brooks has gotten a range of comments to his post.  Some are supportive of McClellan but others are the predictable replies that one would expect.  

Like I did here replying to a post at Harry Smeltzer’s Bull Runnings back in October about the rehabilitation of Little Mac , I felt compelled to weigh in with Brooks.  The following is my reply/comment to his blog post:

My own perspective on McClellan comes from 28 years as an Army officer but perhaps more importantly from five years of volunteering and interpreting at Antietam National Battlefield.  I am currently the head of Antietam Battlefield Guides, the guide service at the park under the Western Maryland Interpretive Association.  I walk the ground every week. I have studied McClellan for many years.  I hear the usual McClellan view frequently when I welcome visitors to the park.  Usually I am able to present enough of a perspective that folks are willing to give the man another look, an objective look this time.

I believe McClellan as a strategist was hard to beat.  I think the nation would have been better served if Lincoln had disagreed with McClellan’s early assertion that he could “do it all” and left him as commander in chief of the army upon the retirement of Winfield Scott and placed someone else in command of the Army of the Potomac.  McClellan’s indirect approach to Richmond was not understood and even feared by the politicians but if he had remained in Washington as CINC (an idea he would have abhorred) while the Army of Potomac advanced on Richmond… While personally a very brave and cool man under fire, McClellan seemed less fearless the further back he was.  By that I mean there were others who could have lead the operational battles better than he.  At least in the beginning.  And I would assert that he learned and improved after every campaign.

Read Rowena Reed’s Combined Operations in the Civil War and you will see McClellan’s flair for this aspect of the military art.  Even the McClellan bashers agree that he was a superb organizer and planner.  But operationally, it was under his watch that Burnside successfully invaded the North Carolina coastline and Farragut captured New Orleans, the South’s largest city.  Little Mac was in synch with Lincoln regarding the slow moving Buell and the political need of the administration to liberate eastern Tennessee. 

But he could be petty and he was ambitious.  His characterizations of Lincoln and his undermining of Scott are outrageous.  There is no excuse for his sentiments toward John Pope during the Second Manassas Campaign.  There is not a doubt that the attention and accolades of that heady summer of 1861 upon his arrival in Washington did him harm in the long run.  There is a touch of George McClellan in Douglas McArthur in the respect.  It is unfortunate that much of how we cast McClellan was based on his personal letters to his wife.  I dare say that few of us would care to have publicly revealed what we say in the privacy of our own families. 

There is no doubt that McClellan improved operationally as a battlefield commander as the war progressed.  I can’t address the Peninsula Campaign but McClellan definitely took his lumps there and learned from the experience.

In the crisis of the first week of September 1862, he was called upon by Lincoln to weld defeated and demoralized from five different elements (Army of the Potomac, Army of Virginia, Burnside’s North Carolina command, Cox’s Kanawha Division and thousands of green troops) into an effective command.  Who of McClellan’s detractors can suggest anyone better for that job?  In a week they were on the road moving northwest from Washington covering that city and Baltimore seeking out Lee’s Army.  In the second week, they reached Frederick, engaged parts of Lee’s army at South Mountain and defeated it, and set the stage for the final confrontation at Antietam.

Remember that McClellan is in the role of the attacker at Antietam essentially for the first time.  As an operational commander on the battlefield, he was careful and orthodox.  He preferred to keep a very large reserve and was unwilling to commit it unless and until he was sure that the risk was worth the investment. McClellan’s plan for assaults on the Confederate right and then left forced the early commitment of all of Lee’s reserves weakening the Sunken Road and Middle and Lower Bridge positions.  And despite the mantra of 20,000 troops dozing in the center and never engaged, the facts speak otherwise.  Pleasanton’s cavalry division and its horse artillery crossed the Middle Bridge and the artillery engaged Lee’s weakened center.  In the so-called “uncommitted” Fifth Corps, Porter pushed a brigade of regulars across the Middle Bridge and sent Warren’s brigade to the Ninth Corps.  He dispatched two brigades of Morell’s Fifth Corps division to Sumner.  I freely acknowledge that there were several times that day that McClellan’s forces could have broken through. Lee’s aggressive counterattacks after every Union offensive caused McClellan to hesitate to commit his remaining available troops at the end of the day and achieve a decisive operational victory.  Lee’s aggressive use of A.P. Hill’s arriving troops validated in McClellan’s mind this approach. This so-called operational “draw” so ravaged Lee’s Army that it took all the offensive starch out of the Army of Northern Virginia for many months. 

Too many people hang their hats on 150 years of homogenized interpretation done by others with various motives, not just about McClellan but about all aspects of the Civil War.  For the Maryland Campaign, it is necessary to read OR 19 AND OR 51 to get the full picture.  Murfin and Sears in their Antietam monographs did not use Carmen’s manuscript very much. It is arguably the best source of information on that battle.  Just jumping on the McClellan Merry Go Round as Joseph Harsh used to say, and re-parlaying the usual assertions about McClellan without exploring for yourself the first person accounts does not do a great service to your own understanding.  There is a lot of important new material coming out this year.  Tom Clemens completed edition of Volume 2 of the Carmen Papers at last makes that important historical document available to the public in a read-able form.  Students of the Antietam also eagerly anticipate Scott Hartwig’s long awaited epic account of the Maryland Campaign. That is a lot of good new material and a lot to read.  Dig in but also do yourself a favor this summer and come to Antietam and walk a mile in McClellan’s shoes.

In conclusion, McClellan learned from Antietam as well.  He conducted a careful campaign that began on October 26 1862 that was slowly pushing Lee back.  He realized the political realities in Washington.  But he refused to move until he was ready.  We seem to want to some how make preparation a vice in McClellan’s case  when elsewhere it is a virtue. Careful deliberate planning is usually the rule in American military operations.  Scott in Mexico, and Pershing in France, Eisenhower in various places in Europe, McArthur in the Pacific, and Schwartzkopf in Saudi Arabia; all prepared, planned, and provisioned before beginning their military operations. See Dmitri Rotov’s recent post  "In Praise of Slow Marching" here

I fully expect that for every point I make here, there will be an intelligent, well crafted counterpoint excavated from the mass of interpretation over the years. I often hear it on the battlefield.  Standing by here at Sharpsburg.

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