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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.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Antietam Commanders: Part 2 George B. McClellan

Note: This is the second of two biographies I am posting here on the Antietam Commanders. They are part of a presentation that I have made on a number of occasions to senior federal government managers. It is part of a leadership development program that looks at the words and deeds of senior Antietam commanders and how they relate to leadership competencies that are part of today's Federal government Senior Executive Service (SES). Today is General McClellan's story. The narrative ends as the sun rises on the morning of September 17, 1862.

George Britton McClellan commanded the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam. McClellan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 3, 1826, the son of a prominent physician. Raised in the upper classes of Philadelphia society, young McClellan received an excellent education and at the age of 15, gained admission to West Point. Graduating in 1846 and ranking second in his class, he selected the elite Corps of Engineers for his military branch. Among his classmates was Thomas Jackson, known in the Civil War as “Stonewall” Jackson. War with Mexico was underway when McClellan graduated. He was immediately sent to join the staff of General Winfield Scott in his campaign to capture Mexico City. McClellan performed dangerous scouting missions and placed siege artillery in several battles. He received two honorary promotions known as brevets up to the rank of captain for his actions. After the war, this young and upcoming officer wrote a manual for the bayonet, designed a cavalry saddle (that was used into the 20th century), and was a military observer in Europe during the Crimean War between Russia and England and France. While there, McClellan learned Russian in three months and translated a Russian army manual into English. However, he had grown bored with the slow promotions and lack of challenging assignments in the peacetime army and resigned in 1857. His last assignment was with the First Cavalry Regiment then commanded by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner. Sumner would one day work for McClellan as one of his corps commanders. McClellan was hired as chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. He proved to be a successful railroad executive, and by the start of the Civil War had risen to President of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. When
Fort Sumter was fired on, McClellan, a soldier at heart eagerly returned to the Army. Such was his reputation that the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio all offered him command of their troops. Accepting the offer from Ohio, McClellan led a campaign into West Virginia defeating a small Confederate Army there in June of 1861. While not present on the battlefield, McClellan nevertheless got credit for one of the earliest Union victories of the war. In the moment of great crisis following the Union defeat at Bull Run in July of 1861, Lincoln ordered McClellan to Washington and gave him command of the forces defending the capital. His promotion to Major General in the Regular Army at the tender age of 34 made him the second highest-ranking officer in the United States Army after old General Scott, his former commander in Mexico. McClellan quickly demonstrated his organizational genius by building the powerful Army of the Potomac out of the green Union troops flooding into Washington. He was the hero of the hour. His officers and men loved him. But typical of McClellan throughout his life, he could never get along with his superiors. He and Scott soon clashed on a wide range of issues. McClellan’s youth, energy, enthusiasm and a fair amount of political scheming, soon wore down the old general. Finally, Scott, America’s preeminent soldier for the last 50 years retired late in 1861 and was replaced by George McClellan, now General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Through the fall and winter of 1861, the Army remained around Washington despite increasing demands for action from Congress and Lincoln’s cabinet; demands which McClellan flatly ignored. While beloved by his men, McClellan continued to be a difficult man for his superiors to deal with as General Scott could attest to. He viewed politicians in general and the President in particular as social and intellectual inferiors. He was a War Democrat, not a Republican. He opposed a “hard war” against the people of the south longing for the nation’s return to status quo ante bellum – the way things were before the civil war. McClellan disliked slavery but did not think emancipation should be government policy. His fundamental policy disagreements with the administration and Congress, penchant for secrecy, and continued refusals to take to the field made him many powerful enemies in Washington. Lincoln patiently stood by the general but counseled him in increasingly urgent terms to “strike a blow”. In the spring of 1862, McClellan was finally ready to move. Instead of advancing directly south toward Richmond and protecting Washington as the President clearly preferred, McClellan took an indirect approach. Known as the Peninsular Campaign, he transported the Army of the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and landed it on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, threatening Richmond from the east. Had McClellan moved quickly, this strategy might have been successful. However, he believed himself outnumbered and conducted a cautious campaign that ground slowly toward the Confederate capital. The Confederates under McClellan’s friend Joseph avoided battle until five miles from Richmond. At Fair Oaks, Johnston finally attacked McClellan on May 31, 1862. During this battle, Johnston was seriously wounded. Jefferson Davis who was on the battlefield “temporarily” replaced Johnston with Robert E. Lee. At the end of June, Lee launched a series of bloody attacks known as the Seven Days Battles which drove McClellan away from Richmond. Frustrated with McClellan’s lack of success and fearing for the safety of the capital, Lincoln ordered the Army transported back to Washington in early August 1862. Many of McClellan’s troops were funneled to the Army of Virginia commanded by John Pope. By the time he returned to the Washington area at the end of August, McClellan was essentially a commander without an army. Meanwhile, with the threat to Richmond gone, Lee advanced rapidly north, and in a brilliant campaign crushed Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30-31, 1862. Maintaining the initiative and momentum Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Maryland on September 4, 1862. Again, in a moment of crisis, Lincoln turned to McClellan, despite the universal opposition of his cabinet. He ordered McClellan to pursue and destroy the Rebel Army which was now deep in Maryland. McClellan, to his credit quickly reorganized and revitalized his demoralized forces. But in typical fashion believing himself heavily outnumbered, he conducted a slow and cautious pursuit of Lee. McClellan’s fortunes dramatically improved upon the discovery of a lost copy of Lees operational plans at Frederick on September 13, 1862. They showed the Rebel Army to be divided and widely dispersed. Pushing aside weak Confederate forces at South Mountain on September 14th, McClellan found Lee with Longstreet’s command of 18,000 men boldly standing on the banks of Antietam creek. Believing that the rolling hills across the Antietam hid an army nearly as large as his 87,000 man force, McClellan spent the next two days perfecting his battle plans while Stonewall Jackson’s command, flush with victory at Harpers Ferry arrived at Sharpsburg and doubled the size of Lee’s Army. He established his headquarters at the Pry House and though nearly two miles away, had a clear view of the Union center and right. McClellan’s plan was to strike both of Lee’s flanks and force him to commit his reserves to one or both of the threatened sides of his line. McClellan would then launch his reserves against the weakened Confederate center and achieve a decisive breakthrough that would destroy Lee’s Army. As the sun rose on the morning of September 17, 1862, McClellan could observe his plan unfold as Hooker’s First Corps began its attack on the Union right. The bloodiest day in American history had begun.

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