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.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

To Useful to Sacrifice

There has been a great need for an objective analysis of the leadership of General George B. McClellan during the Maryland Campaign.  While Joseph Harsh in his seminal work Taken at the Flood (Kent State University Press, 1999) treats McClellan objectively, the focus is on Robert E. Lee.  McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005) by Ethan Rafuse is an outstanding biography of the Union commander but space does not permit a detailed treatment of the many assertions that have sprung up in the past 150 years about McClellan’s leadership and command ability, especially during the Maryland Campaign.

Historians almost unanimously grant McClellan a level of brilliance as an organizer.  Having gotten that out of the way, they immediately launch into the usual gratuitous criticisms of the general that we hear so often.  He had the slows.  Special Order 191 was a great intelligence coup that McClellan failed to capitalize on.  McClellan’s minor victory at South Mountain is merely a prequel to the gigantic and bloody “draw “at Antietam three days later.  For that matter, why didn't McClellan attack on the 15th or 16th of September?  What about those thousands of reserves timidly held by Fitz-John Porter in the center of the Union line that should have been put in to crush Robert E. Lee once and for all?  Why didn’t McClellan totally destroy the rebel army the next day?  Finally, there are almost six weeks of inactivity when McClellan did nothing but whine about the lack of supplies.  The litany goes on and on.  As a battlefield guide at Antietam, I continually encounter visitors who harbor at least one of these notions about George B. McClellan.  

Steve Stotelmyer takes on all of these assertions and more.  He gives us an opportunity to rethink our assessment of this controversial Union commander in his new book To Useful to Sacrifice – Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam (Savas Beatie 2019).

This is not a comprehensive treatment of the Maryland Campaign.  For that you should read The Maryland Campaign of 1862, (Savas Beatie 2010, 2012,2017), Ezra Carmen’s magnificent three volume history of the campaign edited by Tom Clemens.  Another great treatment is Scott Hartwig’s To Antietam Creek (Johns Hopkins 2012).  What Steve offers are five thought-provoking essays each about 50 pages in length.  Each essay addresses a major theme of the campaign.  They are chronological beginning with the September 13 discovery of the Lost Orders to the relief of McClellan by the Lincoln administration on November 7, 1862.  Fifteen excellent maps by Brad Gottfried accompany the narrative and numerous photographs and sketches appear throughout the book.  There are over 150 primary and 100 secondary sources used by the author to support his positions.   

Stotelmyer’s approach is clear and easy to follow.  For each issue, he states the perspectives or concept that are generally accepted by the Civil War community. Then and this is important, he provides the source of that idea.  What is the basis or foundation for this belief? It is not surprising that much of the stuff comes from the superheated rhetoric of the 1864 presidential campaign when Little Mac stood for election to the presidency against the tall rail-splitter from Illinois.  Then using primary sources, Stotelmyer offers solid facts and logical summaries that should prompt us to at least reconsider our own belief in the validity of the original assertion.  

The essay titles alone should motivate you to read this book. Chapter 1 is titled “Fallacies Regarding the Lost Orders.” Chapter 2 is “Antietam The Sequel of South Mountain.”  Chapter 3 is “All the Injury Possible the True ‘Prelude’ to Antietam.” Chapter 4 is “General John Pope at Antietam and the Politics of General Fitz-John Porter’s Reserves.”  Lastly, Chapter 5 is “Supplies and Demand: The Demise of General McClellan.”  

In the following paragraphs, I will only attempt to relate one or two key takeaways from each essay.  In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the detail and authority that Steve uses to make his points.   

In Chapter 1, Stotelmyer addresses the discovery of the Lost Orders.  He paints a vivid picture of the chaotic scene as the Second and Ninth Corps converged on Fredericktown on September 13, 1862 and the ensuing huge traffic jam in the center of town.  It is against this hectic backdrop that Sergeant John Bloss and Private Barton Mitchell discover a copy of Lee’s orders.  It is important to understand this perspective as we consider this important moment.  Stotelmyer convincingly asserts that the finding of the Lost Orders was not the singular event it is made out to be and in fact the discovery coincided with other events already set in motion by McClellan that reversed Lee’s fortunes.  The author demonstrates through primary sources that McClellan’s movements during the campaign were not slow and the discovery of the orders in no way hastened the advance of Little Mac’s army.  There is much more here.  Stotelmyer authenticates the fact that within one hour after receiving Special Order 191, he had a copy of the order transcribed and sent to Pleasonton, his cavalry commander, with orders to determine its validity. Just 35 minutes later, orders were on the way to General Jacob Cox’s infantry division to support Pleasonton.  I am just scratching the surface.   

Chapter 2 is largely a treatment of the events of September 14 and the Battle of South Mountain.   One key takeaway for me was the effect of Henry Halleck’s orders of September 12, 1862 for McClellan to assume command of the garrison at Harpers Ferry.  Both Halleck and General Wool previously forbade Colonel Dixon Miles, the hapless Harpers Ferry commander from withdrawing or moving to Maryland Heights.  McClellan received the order too late and had no flexibility to move Miles command for now Stonewall Jackson’s columns had already converged on the doomed garrison.  Halleck’s order complicated McClellan’s campaign objective of preventing the invasion of Pennsylvania for now he had to mount an effort to relieve the beleaguered garrison.  The result was McClellan’s two column movement toward Rohrersville and Boonsboro by way of Crampton’s and Turner’s gap which resulted in the Battle of South Mountain.  Stotelmyer is one of the foremost experts on the South Mountain battlefield.  The remainder of the chapter presents a concise and informative account of the fighting there.  He ends by suggesting that perhaps “South Mountain should be considered more catalyst than antecedent, and the battle of Antietam more of a consequence.”  That is something to think about.

Chapter 3 is an account of the September 15 pursuit of Robert E. Lee by the Union Army, after its victory at South Mountain.  Stotelmyer uses a style reminiscent of Joe Harsh’s treatment of Robert E. Lee in Taken at the Flood.  On this usually overlooked day, the reader accompanies the Young Napoleon over South Mountain through Boonsboro to Keedysville to his final stop at his forward command post at the Pry House.  Dispatches from Alfred Pleasonton, Joe Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, Fitz-John Porter and William Franklin paint a vivid picture of the events along the way.  Not all his corps or wing commanders perform as he hopes. The day that began with a feeling that the rebels were fleeing ignonimously ends with the realization that Lee has made a stand in the hills across the Antietam.  Not only is this a very powerful account but it is full of details of the movements and decision made by the Union commander that set up the events of the battle two days later.  We see a McClellan here that is rarely portrayed in other accounts.  

I have often maintained that the shadow of Second Manassas hung over the battlefield of Antietam and the leadership of both armies.  Stotelmyer writes in chapter 4 “the memory of Pope and the Federal defeat hung over the field of Antietam.  Popular historians and professional historians usually overlook this or give it short shrift, but it goes a long way toward explaining the mythology surrounding McClellan and Porter and the supposed last reserves of the last army of the Republic.”  Stotelmyer uses this essay to illustrate the influence of political beliefs and party affiliation on the events of the Maryland Campaign.  There is much to say here about the vehement Cabinet opposition and intrigue surrounding McClellan’s appointment to command the defenses of Washington and the subsequent order by Lincoln placing the general in command of the forces in the field.  There is a fascinating discussion of the actual numbers of troops brought by the Fifth Corps to Antietam.  Like the six mile a day march rate in chapter 1, a number of 20,000 Fifth Corps troops becomes a part of the record.  The number is used by the Joint Committee, found in Republican campaign literature in 1864, and subsequently cited by generations of historians as the number of troops the Fifth Corps had on the field on September 17.  We learn about the genesis of the term “the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.”  Once again, Stotelmyer deconstructs the mythology and, using primary sources reconstructs the actual events leading up to the decision to suspend the advance of the Fifth Corps.  The final association with Second Bull Run is the situation facing the Union command when A.P. Hill’s division appeared on the left flank of the Ninth Corps.  Stotelmyer writes “when Burnside’s left began to crumble, the tactical situation took a nosedive.  John Pope’s devastating experience at Second Bull Run stared the Union high command squarely in the face.  Porter had been there, and the events of August 30 seemed to be repeating themselves.”

Chapter 5 addresses the two standard themes that McClellan had no plans or intentions for another campaign after Antietam and he claimed his army was not receiving supplies to sustain another campaign.  Steve goes to great length in this chapter to explore the Lincoln-Stanton-Halleck triumvirate and the motivations of each of these individuals in the aftermath of Antietam.  He uses multiple primary sources from veterans of the battle to paint the picture of the sorry condition of the Union fighting men after Antietam.  He spends several pages on Lincoln’s visit to the army in early October and the real motivation behind it.  We learn about the role of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and McClellan’s quartermaster Rufus Ingalls in the logistics controversy.  Responding to McClellan’s complaints about lack of supplies, Lincoln orders Stanton to investigate it.  Read about the results of this “investigation.” We learn where all those supplies supposedly sent on the Army actually ended up.  Steve provides evidence for you to judge whether the supply holdup was intentional or just plain mismanagement.  Finally, Steve delves into Lincoln’s thought process after the midterm elections in reaching the decision to relieve McClellan of command even as the general is leading a promising field campaign against Lee’s Army.  

In just 250 pages of narrative, Steve Stotelmyer provides the reader with a lot to think about.  While there will be some who will never accept the evidence, (and I have seen their rants on social media) the book should be read by anyone receptive and open minded enough to new evidence on the leadership of General George B. McClellan in the Maryland Campaign. I hope you count yourself in that group.