McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union

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Bold, brash, and full of ambition, George Brinton McClellan seemed destined for greatness when he assumed command of all the Union armies before he was 35. It was not to be. Ultimately deemed a failure on the battlefield by Abraham Lincoln, he was finally dismissed from command following the bloody battle of Antietam. To better understand this fascinating, however flawed, character, Ethan S. Rafuse considers the broad and complicated political climate of the earlier 19th century. Rather than blaming McClellan for the Union's military losses, Rafuse attempts to understand his political thinking as it affected his wartime strategy. As a result, Rafuse sheds light not only on McClellan's conduct on the battlefields of 1861-62 but also on United States politics and culture in the years leading up to the Civil War.

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1. “Traditions and Associations … Were All on the Side of the Old Whig Party”

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December 1826 was a time of anxiety and excitement in the American republic. Only a few months earlier, the country had celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. All Americans agreed that their ability to preserve their experiment in republican government for so long was cause for much celebration; yet it was also clear that profound changes were taking place in their economy, society, and politics that were generating deep anxieties regarding the republic’s future. Only six years after James Monroe had run unopposed for his second term as president, these anxieties had produced great divisions in the country, symbolized by the continuing uproar over the outcome of the 1824 presidential election. Depending on one’s point of view, John Quincy Adams and his supporters either stole the election from Andrew Jackson in defiance of the popular will or saved the republic from the dangers of unfettered “mob rule.”1 Out of the passions stirred by this controversy and the divisions in American society it reflected would emerge the political culture in which George Brinton McClellan spent his formative years.

 

2. “I Can Do As Well As Anyone in Both My Studies and My Military Duties”

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By the time the ink was dry on his first letter home from West Point on June 28, 1842, 15-year-old conditional cadet George Brinton McClellan had already learned that gaining admission to the United States Military Academy was but the first hurdle he had to clear in order to obtain a commission in the U.S. Army. As he started his letter, thirty prospective members of the class of 1846 had already been rejected by surgeons, and, although homesickness and a pair of sore feet that had rendered him awkward at drill did not make the prospect all that unappealing at the time, McClellan was concerned he might be “‘found’ on account of my age” and sent back home. He was not, and, four years later, after an intensive experience of professional and personal socialization, he obtained his commission and with it formal entrance into the subculture of the Army officer corps.1

 

During the Early National Period, the structure of the U.S. Army and its place in American society reflected the popular suspicion of centralized power and formal institutions that characterized the agrarian republic of loosely connected rural communities. For land defense, the country relied primarily upon state militias composed of citizen-soldiers, whose patriotism and natural common sense were presumed to be all the qualities needed to defend the country, led by untrained officers who owed their positions to political influence. Few perceived a need for a systematic process for recruiting and training officers for the regular army, and popular fear of the threat a standing army could pose to political liberty precluded providing it with the infrastructure necessary for it to be an efficient institution.2

 

3. Political Realignment

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During the three years McClellan spent at West Point after the Mexican War, he found great pleasure in the company of a clique of junior officers stationed at the academy that included future Civil War notables William B. Franklin, Dabney H. Maury, Fitz John Porter, and Edmund Kirby Smith. McClellan was also able to indulge his interest in military history at West Point, both through private study and as a member of the Napoleon Club, an informal organization composed of officers stationed at the academy, presided over by Professor Mahan, that studied the great Corsican’s campaigns. McClellan presented lengthy papers to the group on the Wagram Campaign of 1809 and the Russian Campaign of 1812. On his own, McClellan carefully studied the writings of the eighteenth-century French marshal Maurice, Comte de Saxe, the “quintessential” practitioner of limited war during the Age of Reason, whose operational methods during the War of the Austrian Succession almost exactly anticipated McClellan’s in the Civil War. In his campaigns in Flanders and the Low Countries in 1745–1747, Saxe advanced cautiously and methodically along rivers to ensure secure logistics for his army, preferred to maneuver for position rather than seek battle, avoided rash attacks and fought defensively behind fortifications whenever possible to spare soldiers’ lives, and relied on siege operations to overcome enemy positions when maneuver was not possible. Saxe also endeavored to spare civilians the hardships of war in order to avoid stirring up popular passions, and to preserve a political and cultural environment that would allow professional officers to conduct military affairs purely on the basis of “scientific” principles.1

 

4. “A Strong Democrat of the Stephen A. Douglas School”

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The first months of 1857 suggested a bright future lay ahead for the Union. Federal troops had restored a semblance of peace to Kansas and there was hope that the incoming president, James Buchanan, who had run as the candidate of sectional conciliation, would bring the territory into the Union without further strife. Although the strength of the Republican Party remained a source of concern for those who wished the sectional conflict would go away, with peace in Kansas the party appeared to have lost its greatest propaganda weapon. Some even ventured to hope that Frémont’s defeat marked the beginning of their end, which would help blunt the appeal of secession in the South. After all, the past decade had seen the Liberty, Free-Soil, Whig, and Know-Nothing Parties disappear from the scene—who was to say the Republicans would not follow them into the ash bin of history?1

The months between the 1856 elections and Buchanan’s inauguration in March 1857 also marked a turning point in George B. McClellan’s life. On November 26, 1856, he tendered his resignation from the army to the War Department, “with the request that it may take effect 15th Jany 1857.” It was accepted on January 17, 1857, to take effect the previous day.2

 

5. To Kill Secession

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To restore our country to harmony by taking positions which will check anarchy and rule the elements which will soon be brought into action,” Fitz John Porter informed McClellan on April 15, 1861, “[s]uch men as you and Cump Sherman and Burnside are required.” Although Porter’s letter undoubtedly gratified his ego, McClellan already knew where his duty lay in April 1861. But he did not rush to the colors precipitously. He was well aware that a man of his talents was a valued commodity in the North and would have considerable control over where and how he employed them, which he fully intended to take advantage of. And his first choice was not the post of commander of Ohio Volunteer Militia he accepted a little over a week after Fort Sumter.1

In his reply to Porter’s letter, McClellan reported hearing “that I have been proposed as the Comdr of the Penna Reserves . . . though I am told I can have a position with Ohio troops I much prefer the Penna service.” But when a formal offer did not arrive and confusion arose over whether the offer involved overall command of troops or merely serving as chief military engineer, McClellan decided to travel to Harrisburg. As he set out on his journey on April 23, he also decided to stop in Columbus at the request of Ohio Governor William Dennison.2

 

6. “A New and Strange Position”

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Circumstances make your presence here necessary,” the July 22 telegram from Washington read, “come hither without delay.” It was the call of destiny, and McClellan knew it. Immediately upon receiving the telegram, he replied from his headquarters at Beverly, “I will make the necessary arrangements for the security of W. Va. and proceed without delay to Washington.” He immediately turned command of the Department of the Ohio over to Rosecrans and, on July 23, boarded a train bound for Wheeling. The trip from there to Washington was an incredible experience. His arrival in Pittsburgh on July 24 was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm by the citizenry of that city. When he arrived in his native Philadelphia the next evening a massive crowd compelled him to make a speech from the balcony of his brother’s home, where he spent the evening before proceeding to Washington.1

McClellan arrived in Washington on July 26 and immediately called upon General Scott. Scott retained him all afternoon, in part to preclude his responding to an invitation to attend a meeting at the executive mansion that had not been extended to Scott. The following day McClellan met with Lincoln and formally assumed command of the new Military Division of the Potomac, which combined McDowell’s Department of Northeastern Virginia and Joseph K. Mansfield’s Department of Washington.2

 

7. Supreme Command

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Although the defeat at Ball’s Bluff reinforced McClellan’s belief in the virtues of restraint, it did not have the same effect on the Radical Republicans. On October 25, Senator Benjamin F. Wade informed his wife that he planned to work his fellow Radicals to “frighten” the administration “into a fight.” That day he, Chandler, and Lyman Trumbull decided to visit Montgomery Blair, who had previously been their most dependable ally in pushing the administration to action. Blair responded to their visit by arranging a conference between the three men and McClellan that evening.1

During their meeting, Wade urged McClellan to attack immediately, even at the risk of a defeat, which he said was preferable to delay because it “could be easily repaired by the swarming recruits.” McClellan replied that “he would rather have a few recruits before a victory, than a good many after a defeat,” but did not challenge their call for action. Instead, he enlisted them in his campaign against the commanding general by suggesting Scott would have to go before any significant fighting could take place. As historian Mark Grimsley has observed, “This was duplicity of the most transparent sort. McClellan no more advocated prompt action against the Rebels than he advocated the devil, and the Radicals undoubtedly suspected it.” Nonetheless, after they departed, McClellan reported to his wife that the senators had pledged to “make a desperate effort tomorrow to have Genl Scott retired at once.”2

 

8. “You Have No Idea of the Pressure Brought to Bear Here”

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If Lincoln was willing to defer to McClellan’s professional judgment at the end of his first month in office, he was nonetheless curious as to his plans for the Army of the Potomac. Thus, on December 1 he addressed a memorandum to McClellan asking, “If it were determined to make a forward movement of the Army of the Potomac, without awaiting further increase of numbers, or better drill or discipline, how long would it require to actually get in motion?” Lincoln then proposed having fifty thousand men menace Centreville while a second column marched south from Alexandria. After crossing the Occoquan River, the latter force would link up with a third column crossing the Potomac south of Washington. Together they would then move up the south bank of the Occoquan to seize the communications of the rebel army at Manassas and Centreville.1

The first week of December was an extremely busy one for McClellan and he was unable to prepare a response to Lincoln’s memorandum until the tenth. (One of his undertakings was a trip to Baltimore to be reunited with his wife and meet his daughter, who were finally able to travel to Washington to be with him.) McClellan advised Lincoln that if bridge trains were ready by December 15, the operation he proposed could begin by Christmas. But he also advised Lincoln that his mind was “actively turned toward another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy nor by many of our people.”2

 

9. “What Do You Think of the Science of Generalship?”

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The morning after his meeting with Ives, a still pale and thin George B. McClellan made his long-awaited appearance before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. “If I escape alive I will report when I get through,” he advised Lincoln before heading over to the Capitol. After meeting with the committee, McClellan told Ives its members had been surprisingly cordial. Wade, McClellan reported, “said to him that the committee had no desire to embarrass him” and were “exceedingly anxious to sustain him, and to cooperate.” McClellan assured the committee that he appreciated the problems caused by delay and that he had decided an immediate advance was necessary in Kentucky, which he promised would “soon be a field of action.” The interview closed on a satisfactory note, according to McClellan, with Wade thanking him for “his frankness and courtesy.”1

The committee’s journal only noted that its interview with McClellan consisted of “a full and free conference . . . in relation to various matters connected with the conduct of the present war.” A postwar biography of Chandler, however, gives a very different impression of the interview from the one McClellan gave Ives. When McClellan responded to demands for explanations for why he did not attack by stating that he needed more bridges across the Potomac to secure his line of retreat, an exasperated Chandler reportedly responded, “If I understand you correctly, before you strike the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so that you can run in case they strike back?” Wade immediately chimed in, “Or in case you get scared.” McClellan then “proceeded at length to explain the art of war and the science of generalship, laying special stress upon the necessity of having lines of retreat, as well as lines of communication and supply.” Wade had no use for this. All the people wanted, he informed the general, was “a short and decisive campaign.” After McClellan left, Wade asked Chandler, “[W]hat do you think of the science of generalship?” “I don’t know much about war,” Chandler replied, “but it seems to me that this is infernal, unmitigated cowardice.”2

 

10. The Peninsula Campaign

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On march 17, 1862, the first units of the Army of the Potomac began boarding ships bound for Fort Monroe. If what he had seen and experienced during the previous eight months in Washington had confirmed his distaste for politics, now that McClellan was with his army and confident that things with Lincoln were, despite all the tensions of the past few weeks, “all right,” he began to exude confidence. “Rely upon it,” he advised Stanton on March 18, “that I will carry this thing through handsomely.”1

Exactly how the general planned to “carry this thing through” was a matter of some concern to Stanton, who had accepted, although he did not agree with, the plan to operate from the Peninsula. He did, however, make a point of insisting that McClellan lay out his specific intentions in writing. Although relations between McClellan and Stanton had been severely strained by recent events, the former was, as the campaign started, “anxious for the good opinion of everyone,” according to John Hay. So, on March 19, McClellan sent a lengthy letter to Stanton laying out his initial plan of operations.2

 

11. “I Do Not Like the … Turn That Affairs Are Taking”

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At four in the afternoon of July 8, Abraham Lincoln arrived at Harrison’s Landing to visit the Army of the Potomac. For nearly a week a stream of telegrams had passed between Lincoln and McClellan. Although he expressed confidence and satisfaction with how he had handled Robert E. Lee’s offensive in letters to his wife, in the aftermath of the Seven Days’ Battles the dominant theme in McClellan’s correspondence with Washington was the need for massive reinforcements. On July 1, he insisted that he needed “50,000 more men. . . . More would be well, but that number sent at once, will I think enable me to assume the offensive.”1

Lincoln wrote back the next day to tell the general he had accepted a 300,000-man levy Northern governors had just offered, but the notion of immediately sending 50,000 men was “simply absurd.” “I have not,” the president protested, “outside your Army, seventy five thousand men East of the mountains. . . . If you think you are not strong enough to take Richmond just now, I do not ask you to try just now.” On July 3, Lincoln advised McClellan that Burnside and Hunter had been ordered to send all the forces they could spare from the Carolinas to him. McClellan, however, advised Stanton he needed “rather much over than much less than 100,000 men. . . . [W]e require action on a gigantic scale—one commensurate with the view I expressed in a memorandum to the Presdt . . . last August.” Lincoln might have decided to visit the army in any case, but the tone of McClellan’s letters undoubtedly persuaded him that a trip to Harrison’s Landing was imperative.2

 

12. “He Has Acted Badly”

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McClellan reached Williamsburg shortly before 5 P.M. on August 18 and informed Halleck that the movement from Harrison’s Landing had been “a perfect success.” All but the Second and Third Corps, he reported, were “at Fort Monroe and Newport News, probably embarking now.” The following day, as Pope retreated behind the Rappahannock, Halleck reminded McClellan that “It is of vital importance that you send forward troops as rapidly as possible.” McClellan immediately replied that Sumner was at Williamsburg, while Keyes was between that place and Yorktown. Heintzelman’s and Franklin’s corps were at Yorktown, McClellan reported, with the former under orders to “make use of every vessel that arrives at Yorktown, both during the night and day, to embark your troops.” While Heintzelman embarked, Franklin was to proceed to Newport News, where Porter was already “embarking as rapidly as possible” and, McClellan told Halleck, would be en route to Aquia by the morning of the twentieth.1

 

13. “To Meet the Necessities of the Moment”

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It was perhaps the saddest episode in the history of the Union war effort. Late in the afternoon on September 2, 1862, General Pope and his staff were riding eastward toward the fortifications of Washington. After licking his wounds at Centreville for a day, Pope had ordered his forces to fall back to the Washington defenses the previous day. Once his battered, beaten troops reached the capital’s outer fortifications, Pope hoped they could find sanctuary from a Confederate army that seemed capable of almost anything.1

Pope reached the city’s outer works near Upton’s Hill a little after 4 P.M. and saw a group of officers placing the lead elements of his army on either side of the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpike. Upon catching sight of Pope, one of the officers, whose fine uniform and barely contained glee seemed out of place at a moment that marked the nadir of Union fortunes so far in the war, immediately rode over to meet him. Pope immediately recognized that this was none other than George McClellan.2

 

14. “The Most Terrible Battle”

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McClellan spent the night of September 14–15 anticipating that Lee would fall back from South Mountain and make a stand at Boonsboro. When news of success at Crampton’s Gap finally reached headquarters shortly after midnight McClellan sent a message to Franklin directing him to occupy “the road from Rohrersville to Harpers Ferry, placing a sufficient force at Rohrersville to hold that position in case it should be attacked by the enemy from Boonsborough. Endeavor to open communication with . . . Harpers Ferry, attacking and destroying such of the enemy as you might find in Pleasant Valley.” After making contact with Miles, Franklin was to join their two commands and proceed to Boonsboro. “Should you find, however, that the enemy have retreated from Boonsborough toward Sharpsburg,” McClellan told Franklin he was to “to fall upon him and cut off his retreat.”1

Meanwhile, Hooker, with Richardson’s division in the lead, followed by the First Corps, the rest of Sumner’s corps, and Mansfield’s corps (Mansfield had just arrived at the front and assumed command), would advance from Turner’s Gap to Boonsboro, “pushing the enemy as hard as possible.” “Should you find [Boonsboro] to be deserted,” McClellan instructed Sumner, “occupy the town or take up some strong position in its vicinity. Should you find the enemy in force there, you will dispose your men for attack and report for further orders to the commanding general.”2

 

15. “It Is My Duty to Submit to the Presdt’s Proclamation & Quietly Continue Doing My Duty”

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Although he took great satisfaction in the fact that he had thwarted Lee’s grand bid to win the war north of the Potomac, McClellan went to bed on the evening of September 20 in a sour mood. That afternoon a note had arrived from Halleck complaining that Washington was “entirely in the dark in regard to your own movements and those of the enemy. This should not be so. You should keep me advised of both.” Having just led the Army of the Potomac through some of the most anxious moments of the war, and still feeling the effects of dysentery, McClellan was in no mood to be lectured to by a man who had done little to vindicate the administration’s decision to elevate him to the exalted post of general-in-chief. “I regret that you find it necessary to couch every dispatch,” McClellan lashed back, “in a spirit of fault-finding. . . . I telegraphed you yesterday all that I knew, and had nothing more to inform you of until this evening.” He then reported that the Twelfth Corps had just occupied Maryland Heights and Couch’s division was pushing the rebels out of Williamsport. The rest of the army, he informed Halleck, remained concentrated at Sharpsburg watching the rebels, who were reportedly falling back in the direction of Winchester. McClellan closed by complaining that Halleck had “not yet found leisure to say one word in commendation of the recent achievements of this army.”1

 

16. The Last Campaign

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On october 22, McClellan finally committed to moving “upon the line indicated by the Presdt in his letter of the 13th.” The General did so in part out of a desire to placate Washington at a time when he was keenly aware of the precariousness of his position as commander of the Army of the Potomac—and to gain the larger number of reinforcements Lincoln promised would be available if he operated between Washington and the Blue Ridge. McClellan was also confident that by early November potential problems associated with abandoning the Upper Potomac would be sufficiently mitigated so that the Army of the Potomac could securely operate east of the Blue Ridge. McClellan especially hoped the change of season would produce sufficient rains to cause the Potomac to rise enough to eliminate any threat of the rebels attempting to reenter Maryland in force. This would also enable McClellan to diminish the forces protecting the river and free up cavalry to support operations in Virginia. “Have accordingly taken steps to execute the movement,” McClellan assured Halleck. “I will inform you from time to time of the occupation of Leesburg, Hillsboro, Snickersville & c. I shall need all the cavalry & other reinforcements you can send.” Halleck wrote back the following day to advise McClellan that the twenty thousand reinforcements promised would consist of Franz Sigel’s Eleventh and Samuel Heintzelman’s Third Corps, which would march from Washington to Thoroughfare Gap and link up with the Army of the Potomac when it reached the Manassas Gap Railroad.1

 

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