Answering Some Criticisms of General George B. McClellan
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
who wants to fairly and accurately judge George B. McClellan as a combat commander
must understand that Civil War history has been heavily politicized almost
since the day the war ended. For quite some time now, most historians have
largely adhered to the Radical Republican version of the war, and that version
has always included a misleading, distorted portrayal of McClellan.
Radical Republicans disliked McClellan because he opposed inflicting wanton
destruction on the South, because he opposed waging war on Southern civilians,
because he opposed shutting down Northern newspapers that criticized the war,
and because he opposed key Republican economic and spending policies.
commanded the Army of the Potomac from
November 1861 to November 1862. McClellan entered West
Point in 1842 at the age of 15 and placed second in his class. He
wrote studies on the Crimean War and bayonet tactics. He served with
distinction during the Mexican War. After the Civil War, he was elected
governor of New Jersey
criticisms answered in this paper are some of the common complaints against
General McClellan that one will often find in most books on the Civil War. I
took these criticisms from a few online articles on McClellan. I have altered
their wording. The criticisms will be answered under the following topics:
-- McClellan and the Nature of War
-- The Manassas-Centreville Line and Inflated Enemy Numbers
-- The Siege of Yorktown
-- Washington’s Defenses and Withholding Troops from McClellan
-- The Battle of Seven Pines
-- The Seven Days Battles and Harrison’s Landing
-- Did McClellan Undermine Pope at Second Bull Run?
-- Lee’s Lost Order and the Battle of Antietam
-- Tragic Blunder: Relieving McClellan After Antietam
-- McClellan’s Relationship with Lincoln
and the Nature of War
Criticism: McClellan never came to grips with the
fact that an army inherently faces risks and at times must suffer loss to
Response: This speculation has no foundation in
fact. McClellan frequently ordered fierce attacks. On several occasions he reversed
his subordinate officers’ orders to retreat. On some occasions he ordered
objectives to be taken “at any cost” and “regardless of
loss.” At Antietam he repeatedly ordered
ferocious attacks; indeed, at one point he told a subordinate commander that if
he couldn’t take a key bridge with a regular assault, he was to launch a
bayonet charge. And barely 24 hours later, after the single bloodiest day of
fighting of the entire war, McClellan ordered another attack against
Lee’s army to be carried out early the next morning. During the Seven
Days Battles, instead of playing it safe and moving back to the Pamunkey River
or Williamsburg, McClellan carried out a
dangerous move to Harrison’s Landing on the James
River. Those actions, and many others that could be cited, are not
the actions of a general who “never came to grips with the fact that an
army inherently faces risks” or who did not understand that an army must
“suffer loss to achieve success.”
a big difference between being cautious and careful and being timid and
indecisive. McClellan was cautious and careful, but he was not timid or
indecisive. Unlike some other Civil War generals, McClellan did not waste
thousands of lives by needlessly hurling his troops against strong defensive
positions. If there was a viable way to achieve his objective that would
involve less loss of life, McClellan would opt for that alternative whenever
possible and militarily feasible, as any good general should. McClellan never
sent thousands of troops to their deaths by ordering senseless—and
unsuccessful—frontal assaults the way Grant did at Cold Harbor and
Petersburg and Vicksburg, or the way Lee did at Gettysburg and Malvern Hill, or
the way Burnside did at Fredericksburg, or the way Hood did at Franklin, or the
way Sherman did at Chickasaw Bluffs.
won every major battle he fought, with the sole exception of the Battle of
Gaines Mill, and he never suffered a major defeat. And although Gaines Mill,
one of the six Seven Days Battles, was a victory for Lee, McClellan inflicted
severe casualties on Lee’s army—to the point that the victory was
arguably a “ruinous victory.” McClellan won four of the other five
battles of the Seven Days Battles (one of those battles—Savage Station—can
be considered a draw).
was the only general to inflict more casualties than he suffered when battling
Robert E. Lee. Perhaps this was part of the reason that Lee said after the war
that McClellan had been his toughest opponent. When asked who had been his most
formidable opponent, Lee replied, “McClellan, by all odds” (Douglas
Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography,
Volume IV, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934, p. 475).
Manassas-Centreville Line and Inflated Enemy Numbers
Criticism: The army that McClellan faced on the
Manassas-Centreville line was commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston. The
Confederate position ran from the mouth of the Occoquan
River on the Potomac to Centreville, Virginia,
a distance of some 20 miles. To cover this distance, Johnston had about 50,000 men. The
Confederates were spread thin. President Lincoln did not know the size of the
Confederate force, but he recognized the opportunity and pressed McClellan to
attack. The press and public also clamored for action. McClellan, however,
refused to attack.
was blind to the prospect that the Confederates would retreat from their
Manassas-Centreville position with minimal provocation. When Johnston evacuated in February, McClellan was
more surprised than anybody.
Response: The facts do not support this
portrayal. For one thing, McClellan’s army simply was not ready to attack
Johnston’s army, and McClellan’s
chief engineer, General John Barnard, argued against attacking Johnston’s Manassas-Centreville
position. McClellan wisely opted not to attack Johnston
at Manassas and Centreville because he knew that
Johnston would be compelled to hurry back to Richmond when the Army of the Potomac moved on Richmond.
turned out, Johnston evacuated Centreville and Manassas after McClellan moved to secure key rail lines
north of Johnston’s
position and made preparations to turn his right flank (Russel Beatie, Army of the Potomac, Volume 3, New York:
Savas Beatie, 2007, p. 89). Johnston later claimed that McClellan’s
movements did not influence his decision to evacuate his Manassas-Centreville
position, and that he had already decided to evacuate. However, the huge amount
of supplies that Johnston
left behind suggests that he left in some haste, even if he had already planned
on leaving before McClellan’s movements (Beatie, Army of the Potomac, Volume 3, p. 91). In either case, it seems odd
to fault McClellan for not attacking a position that the enemy was going to
evacuate without a fight anyway.
firing a shot, McClellan achieved what the Union army had failed to achieve a
year earlier at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), namely, forcing
the Confederate army to leave the Manassas
area. In July 1861, General Irvin McDowell, at the urging of Washington
authorities, took an inadequately trained Union army to Manassas
to try to force the Confederates to evacuate Manassas
and to fall back to the Rappahannock
River. However, McDowell
was routed and the Confederates remained in Manassas
and Centreville until Johnston withdrew
southward after McClellan secured key rail lines to the north and prepared to
critics minimize or deny the significance of McClellan’s capture of the
Manassas-Centreville area, many at the time viewed it as an important
achievement, such as Colonel William Averell:
The abandonment of this
line of the Potomac by the enemy ought to be
regarded as one of the greatest victories of the war, though a bloodless one.
By retiring they have ruined their cause in Europe.
They have demoralized their army at home and lost millions of dollars in
materials. All this has been achieved for us by McClellan without a battle.
(Beatie, Army of the Potomac, Volume
3, p. 89)
Criticism: McClellan conspired with Allan Pinkerton
to inflate the numbers and, when Pinkerton’s estimates were too low,
McClellan raised them.
Response: I would suggest reading
Pinkerton’s memoir The Spy of the
Rebellion. Pinkerton, far from complaining that McClellan doctored his
numbers, ardently defended McClellan and blamed President Abraham Lincoln and
his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for repeatedly withholding troops from
McClellan and for interfering with McClellan’s operations (see, for
example, pp. 458-461, 463-464, and 542-543).
sometimes chose the median point between the intelligence estimates he
received, and sometimes McClellan arrived at accurate estimates. He did not
just make up numbers; he based his estimates on the estimates he was given by
his intelligence sources. It is fair to point out that McClellan’s
enemies frequently understated the
size of the Confederate armies that McClellan battled and the losses that they
suffered, although most books on the war say nothing about this.
well documented, McClellan certainly was not the only Civil War general to fall
victim to inaccurate intelligence. As just one example of many that could be
cited, Grant vastly overestimated the size of the Confederate force at the
Battle of Shiloh, and continued to insist on his errant figure after the
battle. General William Halleck was convinced that the Confederate force
opposite him at Corinth
was at least as large as his own, when in fact the enemy force was half the
size of his army. On the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Joseph
Hooker advised Washington that Lee’s
army had received reinforcements and now outnumbered the Army of the Potomac, when in fact Lee had received no reinforcements
and his army was considerably smaller than Hooker’s. For that matter, Lincoln
himself estimated that Stonewall Jackson had 30,000 troops in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, when in fact he only had
16,000 at the time. Stanton
estimated that Jubal Early had 35,000 troops in 1864, when in fact he only had
and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s blunders in analyzing enemy
intentions, especially towards the capital, were far more egregious than
McClellan’s mistakes in estimating enemy troop strength, as were
Stanton’s claims about enemy intentions and the capital’s defenses.
Criticism: McClellan relied on Pinkerton, who
obtained his information from a limited number of poorly trained spies,
deserters from Johnston’s
army, and Confederate newspapers.
Response: Well of course McClellan relied on
Pinkerton, because Pinkerton was the chief of the Union Intelligence Service at
the time. Lincoln and Stanton also relied heavily on Pinkerton and in fact
asked Pinkerton to stay on after they relieved McClellan for the final time.
Also, for a more complete description of Pinkerton’s sources and methods,
I recommend reading Pinkerton’s memoir. Here is some of what Pinkerton
had to say about the impact of the blunders of Washington authorities on McClellan’s
that has been said and written upon this subject, I have no hesitation in
expressing the opinion, that had not the President and his advisors stood in
such ungrounded fear for the safety of Washington, and had not withheld
McDowell's forces at a time when their absence was a most serious blow to the
plans of General McClellan, the close of the year would have seen the Rebellion
crushed, and the war ended. . . .
The Union army was
before Yorktown. McClellan had already
sustained two serious disappointments, and both of them at the hands of the
government at Washington.
In the first place, on his arrival at Fort Monroe,
he had ascertained that the promised assistance of the navy could not be relied
upon in the least, and that their efficient cooperation with him would be an
utter impossibility. This interference with his plans might have been overcome,
although the loss of the naval support was a serious misfortune to him; but a
more surprising and disheartening act of the authorities was yet in store for
him. A few days later, he was thunderstruck at the unexpected information that
General McDowell’s entire corps, upon whose assistance he had confidently
relied, was detached from his command, and had been ordered to remain in front
for the protection of the capital, which was erroneously believed to be in
imminent danger of capture by the rebels. . . . (The Spy of the Rebellion, University of Nebraska Press, 1989,
reprint of 1883 edition, pp. 542-543)
Criticism: McClellan’s tendency to be overly
cautious became paralyzing in the hopes of attaining his manpower goal of
273,000 for the Army of the Potomac. Colonel
Oliver Spaulding observed that McClellan was never satisfied with what he had
and was unwilling to do the best he could with an imperfect tool.
Response: There is no factual basis for this
claim. McClellan repeatedly proved he was willing to take action even when he
did not have all the forces and supplies that his superiors had promised he
would have. This fact is documented in McClellan’s correspondence with Lincoln,
Stanton, and Halleck; in his letters to his wife; and in the accounts of some
of his corps and division commanders. Indeed, the record shows that after the
Seven Days Battles, McClellan repeatedly requested permission to advance on Richmond.
worth mentioning that when Ulysses S. Grant was preparing for his own Peninsula
campaign two years later, he asked Lincoln
for 300,000 troops, even though he was facing a Confederate army that was
weaker than the one McClellan had faced. General Sherman once requested 200,000
troops for his operations in the Union state of Kentucky, even though he was facing a rather
small enemy force. Nevertheless, McClellan’s critics assail him for
asking for more reinforcements after the Seven Days Battles. If McClellan had
been given all the reinforcements he requested after those battles, his total
number of troops would have been far less than the number of troops that Grant
requested, and also less than the number of troops that Sherman requested.
do McClellan’s critics fault him for wanting to be as prepared as
possible before attacking the enemy, but most of them heap praise on generals
who lost thousands of troops in ill-advised, unsuccessful frontal attacks.
McClellan’s critics tend to follow the lead of McClellan’s original
critics—the Radical Republicans. The Radicals were constantly clamoring
for “action,” i.e., aggressive attacks, regardless of the cost.
Most of them knew little if anything about military strategy and tactics, and
they never took any responsibility when the “aggressive” attacks
that they were always demanding ended in defeat with thousands of lives wasted.
Siege of Yorktown
Criticism: McClellan finally directed a
reconnaissance in force against the Yorktown
defenses. The recon force quickly captured key ground and, had McClellan
reinforced the initial assaults, could have defeated the only Confederate force
between his own and Richmond.
McClellan stopped the advance and opted for a siege. Johnston, who was not with
his forces on the Peninsula, would later
claim, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”
Before Johnston arrived at Yorktown,
the position was defended only by General Jeb Magruder’s small army of
about 13,000 soldiers. McClellan could have easily smashed through the Yorktown
defenses and would have had a clear path to Richmond.
Response: Once again, the facts tell a different
story. One, General Magruder’s force at Yorktown was not the only
Confederate force between McClellan and Richmond.
In addition, even if McClellan had broken through at Yorktown at that point in
time, both of his flanks would have been vulnerable to naval bombardment
because the Confederates still controlled the James River and the York River in
that area. General Erasmus Keyes pointed this out in a letter to Senator Ira
Harris on April 7, 1862, days after the army arrived on the Peninsula:
Independent of the
strength of the lines in front of us, and of the force of the enemy behind
them, we cannot advance until we get command of either York River or James River. . . .
If we break through and
advance, both of our flanks will be assailed from two great water-courses in
the hands of the enemy. (Letter from General Erasmus Keyes to Senator Ira
Harris, April 7, 1862; George B. McClellan, McClellan’s
Own Story, edited by W. C. Prime, New York: Charles L. Webster and Company,
1887, p. 269)
McClellan conducted several reconnaissance operations, not just one, and some
of those recons suffered casualties.
the April 16 recon in force managed to capture key ground—a small amount
of key ground—partly because the Confederate soldiers in the immediate
area had been involved in a work detail when the attack began. The fighting
occurred at Dam Number 1 near Lee’s Mill. Once the attack was underway,
the Confederates quickly massed at the point of penetration and began to
inflict heavy casualties on the recon force. Another assault was made, but
after the second attack began, the commander on the scene saw that the enemy
fire was even more intense than it had been during the first attempt because
the Confederates had called up reinforcements. At that point, McClellan decided
against further attempts. However, the operation did achieve its main
objective, which was to stop the Confederates from making improvements to their
defenses in that area.
McClellan was by no means alone in concluding that a siege was the best option
to take Yorktown after Lincoln
withheld McDowell’s corps and after the Navy reneged on their promised
support. McClellan’s chief of engineering, General Barnard, argued
strongly against a frontal assault and concluded that a siege would be the best
course of action. The vast majority of McClellan’s corps and division
commanders, even including some of those who were Republicans, such as General
Keyes, likewise agreed that a siege was the best option. McClellan had hoped to
take Yorktown by performing a flanking movement up the York River with
McDowell’s corps and by naval action against Yorktown and Gloucester, not by siege, but Lincoln’s
decision, made at Stanton’s
urging, to withhold McDowell’s corps, along with the Navy’s
inexcusable refusal to provide the promised naval support, made a siege the
most viable option.
An entire paper could
be written on the Navy’s failure to provide the support it promised to
McClellan and his corps commanders. Incredibly, Commodore Louis Goldsborough,
the commander of the naval forces assigned to assist McClellan, refused to take
orders from McClellan, refused to shell Yorktown,
and then refused to attack the Confederate batteries at Gloucester Point.
Equally incredibly, Goldsborough justified his refusal to attack Gloucester
Point with the claim that an attack would be too dangerous for his large ships,
even though recent naval assaults elsewhere had proven that the odds of losing
large ships in attacks against ground positions were minimal. Stanton could have ordered Goldsborough to
support McClellan as Navy officials had promised. But Stanton, who was quick to
condemn McClellan for the slightest perceived delay or supposed act of
timidity, did nothing to censure Goldsborough for his refusal to provide
McClellan with the needed and promised naval support.
Navy officials later
claimed that they did not know what kind of naval support McClellan expected
and never promised him that the Navy would shell the Confederates out of Yorktown.
That was not how General Keyes remembered it. In his previously
mentioned letter to Senator Harris, Keyes complained bitterly about the
Navy’s lack of support at Yorktown and said that he had agreed to
McClellan’s operational plan in March, before the campaign began, only
after Navy officials assured him that the Navy would shell the Confederates out
of Yorktown, if necessary (see also Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War, Naval Institute Press, 1978,
pp. 125-130). Furthermore, the third precondition of the agreement signed by
McClellan’s corps commanders to support McClellan’s Peninsula plan
was “that a naval auxiliary force can be had to silence, or aid in
silencing, the enemy’s batteries on the York River” (War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, serial 05,
Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901, p. 0055, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/005/0055;
hereafter cited as Official Records).
Critics note that
before Johnston arrived to reinforce Magruder at
Yorktown, Magruder told Confederate officials that
he did not believe he would be able to stop an assault by McClellan’s
army. However, Magruder may have been somewhat overstating his situation in
order to get Richmond
to send him maximum reinforcements. General Lee told Magruder that he could
hold Yorktown for a long time, and possibly
even repel McClellan’s advance, as long as his flanks were not turned
(John Quarstein and J. Michael Moore, Yorktown’s Civil War Siege: Drums
Along the Warwick, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012, p. 78).
In any case, at that
point McClellan and his subordinate commanders did not know how many troops
Magruder had, and the Yorktown defenses were
very formidable. Captain Louis Albert, one of McClellan’s staff officers:
But at that critical
moment no information was received either from spies or from other sources to
convey to him the faintest idea of their [the Confederates’] weakness.
The line of defense they had adopted rendered it impossible for him [General
McClellan] to feel his way before assaulting them seriously. He could not
compel them to show themselves except by crossing the narrow dams which
River. To attempt this
operation he had deemed it proper to wait for the arrival of McDowell's three
divisions, which were to turn the enemy's line by the left flank of York River. But on the very evening he reconnoitered the
positions of his adversaries he was apprised of the deplorable decision by
which the President withdrew from him this entire army corps. (History of the Civil War in America, Volume
2, Philadelphia: Joseph H. Coates & Co., 1876, pp. 8-9)
carried out deception operations that made his army seem larger than it really
was. This was by no means the only time the Confederates used deception. At Charleston Harbor in June 1864, General Ulysses
Grant delayed his attack and gave the Confederates time to get reinforcements
to the scene because they tricked him into believing that their defending force
was much larger than it really was. At Corinth
in May 1862, General Halleck delayed his attack and unwittingly allowed the
Confederates to escape because they tricked him into believing that their army
was as large as his army, if not larger, when in fact it was half the size.
through Magruder’s Yorktown defenses before Johnston arrived would have been very costly.
Yorktown was protected by bastioned works and
there were two defensive lines in front of the city. The first defensive line
was about 12 miles north of Fort
Monroe and contained
infantry outposts and artillery redoubts. The second defensive line was the
Warwick Line. It stretched from Yorktown to Mulberry Island
and included more redoubts, rifle pits, and strong fortifications by the river.
The area immediately beyond the Warwick
River on the Confederate
side consisted of dense forests and swamps. The area between the forests and Yorktown was a large open area, and there were only two
roads leading to the city. The Confederates had ranged this open area and the
two roads for artillery bombardment.
reading General Keyes’ letter to Senator Harris, written days after the
army arrived on the Peninsula, to get some idea of how strong the Confederate
defenses were (and how interference from Washington
was hampering McClellan’s operations—in his diary, Keyes called the
withholding of McDowell’s corps “infamous” and “a great
outrage”). He said that the Warwick Line was “strongly fortified by
breastworks, erected nearly the whole distance behind a stream or succession of
ponds, nowhere fordable.” After reaching Lee’s Mill on the other
side of the Warwick
River and encountering
fierce resistance from a small force there on April 5, Keyes reported to
Magruder is in a
strongly fortified position behind the Warwick River,
the fords to which have been destroyed by dams, and the approaches to which are
through dense forests, swamps, and marshes. No part of this line as discovered
can be taken without an enormous waste of life. (Quarstein
and Moore, Yorktown’s Civil War
Siege, p. 88)
the Revolutionary War, George Washington opted for a siege against Yorktown rather than launch a frontal assault against the
fortified British positions there. The Confederate positions at Yorktown included some of the defensive works that the
British built in 1781.
H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad argued that
McClellan’s decision not to launch a frontal attack on Yorktown
but to lay siege was sound given the strength of the city’s defenses:
might have forced the Confederate works at Yorktown
soon after his arrival, but only at great cost. After Johnston’s arrival, he could not have
stormed them at all. . . .
Ridicule has been
poured on McClellan for his delay at the Confederate lines [at Yorktown]. . . .
He is represented as being fobbed off by Magruder with a skeleton army
which he could have pushed aside without trouble. The facts are otherwise. The
Confederate defenses were, for those days, exceedingly formidable, especially
with the whole country more or less submerged. What McClellan did was to
conduct a campaign in a vast swamp, with every adverse weather condition,
losing thousands of men from sickness, and, on the whole, he did it admirably.
(George B. McClellan: The Man Who Saved
the Union, Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot
Publishing Company, 1987, reprint of original 1941 edition, pp. 50-51)
Criticism: McClellan demonstrated several serious
deficiencies as an operational commander. Despite legitimate operational
challenges, he failed to move a vastly superior army with deliberate speed in
the early days of the campaign, particularly at Yorktown.
Response: On the contrary, the record is clear that
McClellan moved his army as quickly as was prudent and necessary under the
circumstances. With minimal loss of life, McClellan caused the enemy to
evacuate two major positions on the Peninsula
and to leave behind huge amounts of supplies and weapons. And during the
campaign, he won at least six of the eight significant battles that he fought.
If McClellan had
ignored the advice of his chief engineer and of most of his subordinate
generals and had opted to launch a frontal assault on Yorktown,
he would have lost thousands of soldiers and might have been repulsed in spite
of his superior numbers. Yes, he probably would have eventually broken through
Magruder’s defenses with an all-out frontal assault, but military history
is full of cases where a smaller force defending a well-fortified position was
able to repulse a much larger attacking force. In any case, why should
McClellan be faulted for deciding against losing thousands of men in a frontal
assault on Yorktown when he ended up capturing
the city in only 30 days with a siege and with little loss of life?
forces abandoned their works at Yorktown on May 3 and retreated up the Peninsula. As with Johnston’s
withdrawal from Manassas,
McClellan viewed this retreat as an enormous victory, and once more his
opponent had fled and had taken no substantive losses.
Response: The virtually bloodless capture of Yorktown was an
enormous victory. Yorktown was a key objective in the advance toward Richmond.
McClellan’s troops were certainly grateful that he had opted for a siege;
they knew that in so doing, he had saved many thousands of their lives. When
Yorktown fell, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a
resolution praising McClellan for taking Yorktown
“with but little sacrifice.” Even many Republicans voted for the
reasoning was absolutely sound: Why hurl thousands of men to their deaths in a
frontal assault against a heavily fortified position when you can take it with
a siege and with far fewer lives lost?
should be repeated that McClellan had hoped to avoid a siege and only opted for
it after Lincoln
withheld McDowell’s corps and after the Navy refused to provide
sufficient naval support. Forced to choose between the two options of a costly
frontal assault and a siege, McClellan wisely opted for a siege.
siege took only 30 days to convince Johnston to
evacuate Yorktown. A year later, General
Grant’s siege of Vicksburg
took 40 days to take the city. Grant opted for a siege after he suffered over
4,000 casualties, including nearly 1,000 killed, in two unwise, unsuccessful
frontal assaults. Grant would have done well to have followed McClellan’s
example, instead of needlessly incurring thousands of casualties in frontal
it should be mentioned that Johnston had to
leave Yorktown and the nearby position of Gloucester
hastily because McClellan finished the siege preparations sooner than expected.
forced to leave behind 77 heavy guns, intact, and a large supply of ammo,
neither of which he could afford to lose. McClellan’s speed in completing
the siege preparations left Johnston
no time to bring up transports to move the heavy guns and all the ammo. Critics
make much of the fact that some “Quaker guns”—fake canons
made from logs—were found at Yorktown,
but they rarely mention that dozens of heavy guns were also found there.
diary entry dated May 5, 1862, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren disagreed with the
Radicals’ denigration of McClellan’s capture of Manassas
The Confederates would
not abide the assault [McClellan’s siege of Yorktown].
They fell back from Yorktown, which McClellan
entered. McClellan’s strategy
seems to be conclusive. He forced the Confederates to leave Manassas
without a blow, and now to abandon Yorktown. .
. . The extreme Republicans are, however, persistent in their attacks on
McClellan, as if nothing but a battle would content them. In reality, they
would dismount McClellan. . . . (Memoir
of John A. Dahlgren, University Press, 1882, p. 366)
Criticism: In the 10 months leading up to the
evacuation of Yorktown, McClellan had not
fought a battle and was no closer to concluding the conflict.
Response: During this period, McClellan fought
the Battle of Big Bethel, successfully fought to secure key rail lines, fought
numerous small battles to maintain his siege rifle pits at Yorktown (all of
which he won), conducted several reconnaissance operations (such as the one at
Dam Number 1), and engaged in numerous artillery duels with the enemy.
McClellan critics seem to think that victories won with little or no loss are
somehow not as valid or commendable as victories won with thousands of
casualties. In the space of a few months, McClellan caused the enemy to abandon
two major positions—the Manassas-Centreville line and Yorktown—and
to leave behind huge amounts of supplies and artillery with minimal losses to
his own forces. Yet, his critics fault him for not taking these places
sooner—with far more loss of life.
fall of Yorktown, McClellan most certainly was closer to concluding the conflict.
The fall of Yorktown was a critical step in the advance toward Richmond. And we know from Confederate
records that Confederate leaders were alarmed by McClellan’s capture of Yorktown.
when Johnston evacuated Yorktown, McClellan
pursued him quickly enough that Johnston had to
detach a large portion of his army to support his rear guard at the Battle at Williamsburg
to prevent McClellan from capturing his supply train.
Defenses and Withholding Troops from McClellan
Criticism: As McClellan and a large portion of his
army were moving down the Peninsula, Lincoln
discovered that McClellan had not kept his promise to leave enough troops
behind to defend the capital.
Response: This is an old myth that was refuted
soon after it was first circulated, and it has been debunked by a number of
scholars over the years. As many scholars have shown, and as a number of
generals pointed out at the time, McClellan left plenty of troops to defend Washington, and we know from Confederate records that Washington was in no
danger at that time.
Lincoln did not “discover” this
supposed deficiency: It was fed to him by Stanton
and by a Radical Republican general named James Wadsworth, who was in charge of
defenses. Stanton asked Wadsworth to determine if McClellan had
allotted enough troops to defend the capital. Just days after McClellan had
departed to begin his Peninsula Campaign, Wadsworth,
using some dubious math, reported back to Stanton
that he only had about 19,000 soldiers to defend the capital and claimed that
he needed 25,000, while General Lorenzo Thomas and General Ethan Hitchcock said
30,000 troops were necessary to secure the capital. Wadsworth did not bother to mention, as he
admitted later, that he did not think
the Confederates were going to attack the city.
also claimed that McClellan had not provided sufficient protection for Manassas
either, even though it was obvious to competent military officers that the
Confederates did not plan on returning to Manassas anytime soon since they had
destroyed the railroad lines leading to the city from the south when they had
evacuated Manassas and Centreville a few months earlier.
hoped to use Wadsworth’s report to persuade Lincoln that McClellan had
not kept his promise to provide adequate protection for the capital and then to
persuade him that he needed to withhold McDowell’s corps from McClellan
to keep the capital safe.
Wadsworth arrived at his 19,000
figure for Washington’s defense force by
counting only those troops who were in the immediate vicinity of Washington, which was a
ridiculous computation. General Banks’s army in the Shenandoah Valley
most certainly was in position to come to the capital’s defense if
necessary, and McClellan was perfectly justified in considering Bank’s
corps as part of Washington’s
defense force. When Grant launched his own campaign on the Peninsula two years
later, he, too, considered the Federal army in the Shenandoah
Valley to be part of the forces that could defend the capital. In fact,
he also considered troops stationed in southern Pennsylvania to be part of the
capital’s defense force (Thomas Rowland, George B. McClellan and Civil War History, Kent State University
Press, 1998, pp. 124-128).
Stanton assigned two generals
to assess Wadsworth’s
report: Generals Thomas and Hitchcock. Thomas and Hitchcock, using reasoning as
dubious as Wadsworth’s, supported Wadsworth’s position, although at least they stated
that it was unlikely the Confederates
would try to retake Manassas
because they had torn up the rail lines south of the city when they had
retreated from there weeks earlier. Equally oddly, Thomas and Hitchcock said
they declined to express an opinion on whether Banks’s corps in the
Shenandoah Valley should be counted as part of the forces available to defend Washington. However,
barely a week earlier, both men, along with Stanton, seemed to conclude in a March 27
report that those troops did in fact count as part of the capital’s
defenses (William Marvel, Lincoln’s
Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton, University of North Carolina Press,
2015, p. 184).
Alexander Webb, winner of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War and author of
one of the best histories of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, said Thomas and
Hitchcock were not the best people who could have been chosen and that Washington was not in danger:
It would have been
better had he [Lincoln] chosen men of more even temper and well balanced mind.
The resources of the country had not been drained—Washington was not in danger. (The Peninsula: McClellan’s Campaign of
1862, New York, 1881, p. 179)
on the basis of the alleged weakness of the capital’s defenses, Lincoln told Stanton
that he could withhold McDowell’s corps or Sumner’s corps from
chose to withhold McDowell’s corps, which was larger than Sumner’s
corps. Stanton did this even though he had
already persuaded Lincoln
to withhold General Blenker’s division and
General Wool’s garrison force from McClellan less than two weeks earlier.
Did Stanton really think that
the capital was in danger? Did he really believe that the tens of thousands of
Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley should
not be counted as part of the capital’s defense assets? Did he really
believe that Manassas
was in danger, even though the Confederates had torn up the rail lines south of
the city when they had left? Or did
he use the alleged shortage in the capital’s defenses as a phony excuse
to severely weaken McClellan’s army?
James Havelock Campbell pointed out that if the professed fear for Washington’s
safety had been genuine, and if this fear had been the real reason
McDowell’s corps was withheld, one would expect that the supposed
shortage of troops for the capital’s defense would have been filled
immediately from McDowell’s corps, but it was not:
It is not disputed that the retention of
McDowell's corps was the work of Stanton, and
the pretext for this crowning act of treachery was that a sufficient garrison
had not been left for the defense of Washington.
. . .
One of the surest and simplest methods
of detecting a false pretext is to assume its truth, carry the theory out to
its logical conclusion, and then compare that conclusion with the actual facts.
It is obviously a very serious matter
when a commander has started on a campaign, and is already in front of the
enemy, to deprive him of a third of his army. Only the clearest and most
pressing necessity could excuse such a course.
Such a necessity, we are told, existed
in the form of a dangerously insufficient garrison to utilize properly the
widely separated and extended fortifications of the National capital, some of
which, we are told, would have been entirely empty. So the corps of General
McDowell was retained. Apparently, the alleged shortage in the garrison was
about 11,000 men.
What was the sequel of that retention?
Logically and surely in theory it would have been this: that immediately after
the order detaining McDowell another order would have been issued, detaching
11,000 men from that corps and adding them to the force under General
Wadsworth, to make the garrison complete.
No such order was ever made. It does not
appear that a regiment, a company, or a man of that corps was ever added to the
garrison. This fact alone demonstrates beyond any doubt the insincerity and
falsity of Stanton's
But further demonstration is not
wanting. Mr. Stanton, being a zealous patriot and wishing to do what he could
to aid the cause of the Union, would have regretted the necessity of needlessly
detaining a single man from McClellan's command, and so would surely have kept
as few as possible; and as 11,000 at most were needed to bring the garrison up
to its full strength, then if this purpose were his only one, he would not have
detained 40,000 men to accomplish it. He would have withheld only the lacking
number and sent the rest on to Fortress Monroe.
. . .
Let us assume that in fact 11,000 more
troops were imperatively needed in Washington,
and that McDowell had gone to the Peninsula. Fremont had 35,000 men and
Banks had 15,000 or 20,000, and Dix 10,000. Is it not evident that rather than
enfeeble the main campaign, Banks's army should have been taken into Washington or kept so
near as to be always available? As was repeatedly proven later, the surest way
of securing Washington from annoyance by the
enemy was to put Richmond
in danger. This lesson should have been learned when without a shot having been
fired the mere anticipation of McClellan's advance by the coast route had cleared
the Potomac and the vicinity of Washington
of the enemy. . . .
It is clear that McDowell's corps was
needlessly withdrawn, and as the alleged reason was the weakness of the
garrison, and as the garrison was not enlarged, it is equally clear that Stanton knew that the
retention was needless. . . . (McClellan:
A Vindication of the Military Career of General George B. McClellan, New
York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1916, pp. 133-138)
Criticism: After leaving the capital, McClellan sent the
Adjutant General a letter outlining the dispositions of the 77,000 men assigned
to defend Washington.
But he had left only 50,000 and had manipulated the numbers to maximize the
forces he could take with him for his Peninsula Campaign.
Response: Leaving aside the questionable math, 50,000
troops was more than enough to defend Washington.
Even the Radical Wadsworth, commander of the capital’s defenses, said he
only needed 25,000 to defend the city, and
Thomas and Hitchcock said only 30,000 were needed to secure the capital.
Incidentally, Grant siphoned off even more troops from Washington’s
defenses to support his own advance up the Peninsula
two years later.
McClellan made some
honest mistakes in his list of the forces he had left behind for the
capital’s defense—and he did so in a document that he prepared
hastily during an all-night work session before he departed for the Peninsula. On the other hand, when McClellan prepared the
list, he might have assumed that new recruits would be sent to the capital,
since at that point he had no way of knowing that Stanton would soon make the
inexplicable decision to shut down recruiting operations. Civil War scholar and
former Army officer Russel Beatie, author of the widely acclaimed multivolume
work Army of the Potomac, argues that
report was unfair:
intentions and performance had received a judicious, intelligent, and unbiased
assessment, Wadsworth’s report to Stanton would have been different; and Lincoln would have done many things differently,
or not at all. (Army of the Potomac, Volume
3, p. 311)
Criticism: Therefore, Lincoln ordered General Irwin McDowell and
his First Corps to remain behind and not join with McClellan’s army. This
Response: And McClellan had every right to be
infuriated, because he knew that Washington
was perfectly safe and that there was no need to withhold McDowell’s
corps from his army. McClellan also suspected—for good reason—that
the professed fear for the capital’s safety was really just Stanton’s excuse
for withholding McDowell’s corps.
Franklin, one of McClellan’s corps commanders, argued that if McClellan
had been allowed to use McDowell’s corps as he had planned, the
Confederates would have been forced to evacuate Yorktown weeks earlier and
McClellan’s entire army would have been in front of Richmond in short
order and with minimal loss:
The result of carrying
out this plan [McClellan’s plan to use McDowell’s corps as an outflanking
column up the York River] would have been that Yorktown would have been
evacuated without a siege, the Williamsburg battle would not have taken place,
and the whole army would have concentrated in front of Richmond a few days
after McDowell’s corps would have joined—without serious loss.
(Warren Hassler, General George B.
McClellan: Shield of the Union, LSU Press, 1957, p. 87).
General Webb viewed the
withholding of McDowell’s corps as “inexcusable” and
That the withholding of
McDowell was a shock to McClellan is certain. The news reached him on the 5th,
conveyed in a brief telegram from the Adjutant-General, at the very moment when
the Warwick was
discovered to be a considerable obstruction; and when the necessity of a
flanking column was immediately obvious. Right in the emergency, that column
was withheld from his control; and we affirm, that, looking at the matter
irrespective of every political bias, no matter how far McClellan's alleged
disregard of instructions in leaving Washington unprotected, may have been true
— no matter what the alarm of the commander of the Washington defenses,
or of the President's military advisers — either McClellan should have
been relieved, or else every possible effort should have been made to keep his
force, now actively engaged in the field, at the full strength with which alone
he proposed to undertake his operations. Whether his own view was correct or
incorrect, in that view he was crippled. He proposed a plan with McDowell as a
principal actor in it. McDowell withdrawn, the plan was radically interfered
with. . . .
If McClellan was still
retained, one duty was incumbent upon the Government: it should have suffered
at least half of McDowell's corps to proceed to the Peninsula
at once, and then made every effort to reinforce the capital from other points.
To allow the General to remain in command and then cut off the very arm with
which he was about to strike, we hold to have been inexcusable and unmilitary
to the last degree. (The Peninsula: McClellan’s
Campaign of 1862, New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881, pp. 58-59).
The acclaimed Civil War
scholar William Swinton, an ardent admirer of Lincoln,
frankly conceded that withholding McDowell’s corps from McClellan was a
mistake that was “very unfortunate in its results,” and he blamed
the decision on Lincoln’s
lack of knowledge of military affairs. He also acknowledged that there were
plenty of troops close enough to Washington
(“within call”) that could be summoned to defend the capital:
That this measure was
faulty in principle and very unfortunate in its results can now be readily
acknowledged without imputing any really unworthy motive to President Lincoln.
When Mr. Lincoln saw the Army of the Potomac carried away in ships out of his
sight, and learnt that hardly twenty thousand men had been left in the works of
Washington (though above thrice that number was within call), it is not
difficult to understand how he should have become nervous as to the safety of
the national capital, and, so feeling, should have retained the corps of
McDowell to guard it. In this he acted from what may be called the common-sense
view of the matter.
But in war, as in the
domain of science, the truth often transcends, and even contradicts, common
sense. It required more than common sense, it required the intuition of the
true secret of war, to know that the . . . men under General McDowell would
really avail more for the defense of the capital, if added to the Army of the
Potomac on the Peninsula, thus enabling that army to push vigorously its
offensive intent, than if actually held in front of Washington. This Mr.
Lincoln neither knew nor could be expected to know; and it is precisely because
the principles that govern military affairs are peculiar and of a professional
nature, that the interference of civilians in the war-councils of a nation must
commonly be disastrous. (Campaigns of the
Army of the Potomac, New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882, pp. 104-105)
Criticism: McDowell's 40,000 men sat on the Rappahannock River
opposite Fredericksburg, north of Richmond. The presence of
such a large Federal force on the Rappahannock
River, only a short march from Richmond, threatened Johnston's
strategy. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee viewed McDowell's men as a serious
Response: The facts tell a different story. Davis and
Lee viewed McDowell’s corps as a minor threat as long as it did not join
McClellan’s army. They wanted to keep McDowell from joining McClellan at
all costs. Why? Because, as
Confederate testimony makes clear, Davis and Lee and other senior Confederates
believed that if McDowell joined McClellan, Richmond would be doomed and the war might
very well be lost.
Criticism: McDowell's movement to join McClellan was
suspended again, in response to the actions of Jackson
in the Shenandoah Valley, and a portion of
First Corps was sent to reinforce Federal troops in the West. At the time,
McDowell was only 25 miles from General Porter at Hanover Court House. He was
ordered to the Shenandoah to fight Jackson, and
never made it to the Peninsula to support McClellan because he was needed in
the Shenandoah Valley.
Response: As McDowell himself pointed out, his corps was
not “needed” to chase Jackson. McDowell noted that
his corps could do much more good by joining McClellan’s force than by
trying to catch Jackson in the Shenandoah
Lincoln’s decision, made
at Stanton’s urging, to send McDowell to
chase Jackson in the Shenandoah
Valley was a blunder of gigantic proportions. It has long been
known that Lee sent Jackson into the Shenandoah
Valley for the express purpose of trying to scare Lincoln into not sending McDowell to join
McClellan. Tragically, Stanton persuaded Lincoln to take the bait.
Several Union generals, including McDowell himself, strongly objected to this
decision and warned that Jackson’s
incursion was designed to scare Washington
into not reinforcing McClellan, but Lincoln and Stanton ignored their advice,
kept McDowell from joining McClellan, and sent part of McDowell’s force
on a pointless search for Jackson.
Prolific Civil War scholar Clifford Dowdey argued
that Lincoln and Stanton were just about the only people fooled by Jackson’s bluff in the Shenandoah
When news of this [Jackson’s actions against General Banks’ force
in the Shenandoah Valley] reached Lincoln, he
immediately wired McDowell to suspend his movement on Richmond and to return Shields to the Valley.
McDowell, perceiving this order to be the purpose of Jackson’s
movement, protested to Lincoln
and pointed out that it was to late to save Banks. It
was. On the 25th [of May], Banks was defeated at Winchester and fled northward in disorder.
His loss in wagons was so heavy that he became endeared to the lean-rationed
Confederates under the sobriquet of “Commissary” Banks. . . .
At this point, Jackson had only achieved
a local success that need not have been of military significance. However,
acting on Lee’s suggestion of creating the impression that he intended to
threaten the Potomac line, Jackson
put his hard-marched troops down the Valley Pike to Harpers Ferry. This
hazardous move was more dangerous to his own army than to the Federals. His
combined infantry had numbered no more than 16,000 before losses from
casualties and straggling, and he was placing tired troops in a pocket which
the enemy could close on all sides.
For all the risk,
moreover, the only persons deceived by this threat were Lincoln and Stanton . .
. . these were the only two who counted. At that point Lincoln and Stanton had
assumed complete direction of the strategy and tactics of the Federal forces in
Virginia. . .
Stanton again turned poltroon
[a total coward] and sent panic-stricken messages to governors all over the
Unites States. Infected by his partner’s terror, Lincoln
wired McClellan that he believed Jackson’s
offense was a “general and concerted” move that would not have been
undertaken if the Confederates were determined to make “a very desperate
defense of Richmond.”
He then ordered McClellan either “to attack Richmond
or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington. Let me hear from you
As McDowell had
earlier, McClellan knew the Confederates had succeeded in imposing on Lincoln, and he was
angered by the President’s preemptory order written out of that
deception. . . . To Lincoln he sent an
exasperated telegram, stating that Jackson’s
movement was designed to prevent reinforcements being sent to him, and
correctly reported, “The mass of the rebel troops are still in the immediate
vicinity, ready to defend it.” (The
Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee, Bison Book Edition, 1993, pp. 79-80)
It is especially sad,
and rather amazing, that when Lee repeated this ploy just a few weeks later, Stanton got Lincoln
to fall for it again. On June 8, Lincoln and Stanton allowed McDowell to start
to move toward McClellan. Three days later, Lee sent a small force to join Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in the hope of scaring Lincoln into keeping
McDowell’s corps from joining McClellan. When the two Federal generals in
the Valley—Fremont and Banks—reported increased Confederate
activity, Lincoln, at Stanton’s urging, ordered McDowell to
halt his movement toward McClellan. Historian Thomas Rowland:
At about the same time
McDowell was ordered to mobilize, Lee had decided that a concerted attack on
Porter’s Fifth Corps [the force that McClellan placed on the other side
of the Chickahominy to meet McDowell], while holding the Federal left wing in
check, could relieve the pressure on Richmond and force McClellan to fight to
preserve his supply line or retreat across the surging Chickahominy. . . .
Prior to launching his attack on the Federal right, he had to make certain that
McDowell’s large force was neutralized; it could not effect
its merger with Porter. To wit, Lee removed a small force from the Richmond defenses on June 11 and forwarded them to Jackson’s command
in the Valley to frighten the Union government into withholding the release of
McDowell’s corps. The ruse succeeded. When Fremont and Banks reported a
resurgence of activity in Confederate quarters, McDowell’s forward
progress was checked. . . .
Meanwhile, on the Peninsula, McClellan was growing quite exasperated. . . .
With his army divided by the unpredictable Chickahominy, McClellan continued to
hope that McDowell would arrive to shore up his right wing. He had, after all,
extended Porter’s to the northwest as far and as thinly as he dared in
order to link up with McDowell. On June 12, he expressed his concerns to Stanton about throwing
Porter’s force across the Chickahominy to effect the linkage with
McDowell. (George B. McClellan and Civil
War History, pp. 116-117)
warning turned out to be correct. Lee attacked Porter’s corps on June 26;
this was Lee’s first attack of the Seven Days Battles, a battle that
would not have occurred if McDowell’s corps had not been withheld.
Criticism: At the Battle of Hanover Court House on May
27, General Fitz John Porter defeated the Confederates and, in doing so created
an opportunity that could have ended the war. By defeating the only Confederate
force between Fredericksburg and Richmond, the door was open for either a direct assault by
McDowell and Porter on Richmond
or, at the least, to unite McDowell’s men with McClellan. McClellan was
content with the territory gained rather than the initiative lost.
Response: The Confederate force at Hanover Court House
most certainly was not “the
only Confederate force between Fredericksburg
It is a matter of historical fact that the bulk of Johnston’s
army was at Richmond
at this time. Johnston's defensive positions
were concentrated north and east of the city, and Hanover Court House was
directly north of Richmond.
The Confederate force
at Hanover Court House consisted merely of L.O. Branch’s brigade and J.R.
Anderson’s brigade, which had been sent there by Lee. Furthermore, over
90 percent of those two brigades managed to retreat after the battle and then
rejoined Johnston’s army in Richmond. So the idea
that McClellan somehow squandered a chance for victory because the only
Confederate force between him and Richmond
had been defeated at Hanover Court House is unfounded.
Porter’s position at Hanover Court House was not tenable unless McDowell
came to join McClellan’s army. But Lincoln
had “suspended” McDowell’s movement toward McClellan three
days earlier. McClellan, knowing that McDowell’s movement toward him had
been delayed, was entirely justified and judicious in moving Porter’s
force from Hanover Court House to a stronger position.
Battle of Seven
Criticism: On 31 May Johnston launched his forces against the
Federals at Seven Pines south of the Chickahominy, taking advantage of the fact
the river was swollen by rain. The battle was a draw, but had two significant
products for McClellan: first, Johnston was
wounded and replaced by Lee; second, the Army of the Potomac
suffered more than 5,000 casualties, higher than any battle in the eastern
theater to date. Seven Pines nearly broke McClellan as a commander, as T. Harry
Response: There is no credible, rational basis for the
claim that Seven Pines nearly broke McClellan as a commander. The fact that
McClellan, in a letter to his wife, expressed remorse and heartbreak over the
sight of dead soldiers after the Battle of Seven Pines does not prove that the
battle nearly broke him as a commander. It merely proves that he was a decent,
normal human being. Grant broke down and cried after one of his battles because
he was distraught over the army’s heavy losses. Are we therefore to infer
that that battle nearly broke Grant as a commander? In his letters to home,
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the main subject of the award-winning movie Glory, and no shrinking flower when it
came to combat, expressed intense remorse and heartbreak over battle losses,
yet no one suggests that combat nearly broke Shaw as a commander. This is one
of many examples of McClellan being judged by a different standard than other
Civil War officers.
Criticism: Despite the draw at Seven Pines and a clear
picture of the army opposing him, McClellan was sure that the full might of the
Confederate Army was near, so he again hesitated. He implored the War
Department to send reinforcements, claiming that he could only put 80,000 in
the field against probably twice that number.
Response: Seven Pines was not a draw, but a Union
victory. Not only did the Confederates suffer more casualties and fail to
achieve their objective of driving McClellan’s army away from Richmond, but they were forced to retreat, in disorder,
back to Richmond.
One reason McClellan
“hesitated” after the Battle of Seven Pines was that heavy rains
had swelled the Chickahominy River to the point that it nearly flooded the valley,
and he had to rebuild numerous bridges across the river before he could even
hope to resume moving toward Richmond.
Plus, he was still expecting that McDowell’s corps would eventually be
sent to join him, as originally promised; in addition, the order to extend his
right flank to meet McDowell had not been rescinded.
And McClellan had every
rational, reasonable right to ask for reinforcements after suffering thousands
of casualties at the Battle of Seven Pines. Any other general would have asked
for reinforcements after incurring thousands of casualties in a significant
battle. This is a good example of how silly and extreme the attacks on
McClellan can be.
Criticism: By the end of June, just before the Seven Days
Battles, McClellan would pronounce that the enemy had 200,000. While the
campaign still had a very clear chance of success, taking the Union army to
within 5 miles of Richmond,
it was already lost in McClellan’s head.
Response: This is more unfounded speculation. Far from believing
that the Peninsula Campaign was lost after Seven Pines, McClellan repeatedly
expressed his intent to continue his advance on Richmond after the battle. This fact is
documented in McClellan’s correspondence with his wife and with Lincoln,
Stanton, and Halleck, and in the accounts of many of McClellan’s corps
and division commanders.
It is worth noting that
Lincoln wasted several weeks of McClellan’s time by leading him to
believe that he was going to send him McDowell’s corps and by not
revoking his order for McClellan to extend his right flank across the
Chickahominy River to meet McDowell. How was McClellan supposed to advance on Richmond when he was under
orders to keep his right flank extended across the river to meet McDowell?
Criticism: While McClellan’s campaign still had a
good chance of success, taking the Union army to within 5 miles of Richmond, it was already
lost in McClellan’s head. After Seven Pines, he believed that only a
siege was feasible.
Response: Again, McClellan most certainly did not believe that the campaign was
already lost. On the contrary, he was anxious
to resume his advance on Richmond, and, as
stated, was willing to move forward even with the minimal reinforcements that Lincoln had finally
agreed to send him. This fact is documented in the relevant primary sources.
McClellan did not think
that a siege of Richmond was the only option. Rather, he felt that it was the
best option, and for good reasons. I might add that we know that Confederate
leaders believed that they would lose Richmond
if McClellan got close enough to lay siege to it.
Seven Days Battles and Harrison’s Landing
Criticism: When General Lee, who replaced the injured
General Johnston, attacked McClellan on 26 June, even a siege fell off the
table as a possibility.
Response: Exactly how did a siege become unfeasible
after McClellan carried out his brilliant change-of-base movement to Harrison’s Landing during the Seven Days Battles?
In point of fact, McClellan’s force was in an excellent position to renew
the advance on Richmond,
and, by advancing along the river, McClellan’s force was now under the
protection of Union gunboats.
Two days after the
Seven Days Battles, McClellan sent a force across the James
River to clear out a Confederate force that had fired on his army
with 47 rifled guns on the previous day. Then, barely two weeks later,
McClellan deployed a reconnaissance in force in preparation for resuming his
advance and drove the Confederates from Malvern Hill.
Criticism: In a series of six battles over a span of
seven days—including three clear Union victories—McClellan
retreated to a safe base of support at Harrison Landing.
Response: McClellan had wanted to move his base of
operations to the James River several weeks before the Seven Days Battles began, and
he began to make the move several days before the Battle of Gaines Mill.
brilliant—and risky—move to Harrison’s
Landing baffled Lee for 24 crucial hours. Lee had assumed that McClellan would
either try to recapture his previous base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River
or retreat toward Williamsburg.
Confederate general D. H. Hill said McClellan showed “consummate
skill” in carrying out his move to the James River
(Robert P. Broadwater, The Battle of Fair
Oaks: Turning Point of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, McFarland
& Company, 2011, p. 158). McClellan masked his change-of-base move so well
that the Confederate forces under Magruder and Huger on the right bank of the
Chickahominy did not realize what McClellan was doing until it was too late to
do anything about it (Hassler, General
George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union, p. 155).
Also, the only battle
of the Seven Days Battles that McClellan viewed as a defeat was the Battle of
Gaines Mill, and even then McClellan noted that his force had inflicted severe
casualties on Lee’s army in that encounter and that the battle was a
“ruinous and barren victory” for Lee:
The battles which
continued day after day in the progress of our flank movement to the James River, with the exception of the one at Gaines's
Mill, were successes to our arms, and the closing engagement at Malvern Hill
was the most decisive of all. . . .
For me, now, it is
sufficient to say that my comrades were victors on every field save one, and there
the endurance of but little more than a single corps accomplished the object of
the fighting, and, by securing to the army its transit to the James, left to
the enemy a ruinous and barren victory. . . .
The seven days are
classical in American history; those days in which the noble soldiers of the
Union and Constitution fought an outnumbering enemy by day, and retreated from
successive victories by night, through a week of battle, closing the terrible
series of conflicts with the ever-memorable victory of Malvern, where they
drove back, beaten and shattered, the entire eastern army of the Confederacy,
and thus secured for themselves a place of rest and a point for a new advance
upon the capital from the banks of the James. (Report of Major-General George B. McClellan, August 4, 1863, pp.
and many others pointed out that there would have been no Seven Days Battles in
the first place if Lincoln and Stanton had not ordered him to extend his right
flank across the Chickahominy to facilitate McDowell’s promised arrival
and had not withheld McDowell’s corps.
Criticism: McClellan’s logic for retreating to Harrison’s Landing shows he was a poor combat
Response: How many commanders in the war, much less any
of the poor ones, carried out a tactical retreat, under repeated attack from
the enemy, (1) that put the retreating army in a stronger operational position,
(2) that forced the enemy to return to the location from which he came, (3)
that pinned the bulk of the enemy’s army to a location the enemy did not
want to have to defend, (4) that made the enemy’s operational situation
worse than it was before, and (5) that put the retreating army in a better
position to advance on the enemy’s capital? McClellan’s movement to
Harrison’s Landing accomplished all of
these things. The move also foiled Lee’s plan to cut off
McClellan’s army from its supply base at White House Landing.
McClellan’s change-of-base movement was a tactical retreat, he had
already planned on moving his base to the James River
anyway. Lee’s attacks gave McClellan the excuse he needed to violate Lincoln’s orders
not to move his base from White House Landing.
It is odd that so many
Civil War authors describe the Seven Days Battles as a defeat for McClellan and
a victory for Lee. Lee failed to achieve his main objective of destroying
McClellan’s army, failed to get McClellan’s army far enough away to
remove the danger to Richmond, lost at least four of the six battles, and
suffered far more casualties than McClellan did (in fact, Lee’s losses in
dead and wounded were nearly double McClellan’s). McClellan, on the other
hand, lost only one of the six battles, greatly improved his tactical position,
inflicted severe casualties on Lee’s army, emerged with a better
operational situation than Lee, and held the initiative because he still
performance in the Seven Days Battles is all the more impressive when we
consider that at the start of the battles, McClellan was still under orders to
straddle the Chickahominy River, which left his army divided and exposed to
attack in parts, and that Lee outnumbered McClellan. Lee had about 11,000 more
troops than McClellan did at the start of the battles (Ethan Rafuse, McClellan’s
War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union, Indiana
University Press, 2005, p. 221).
In reality, Lee’s
attacks in the Seven Days Battles merely pushed McClellan to execute a movement
that he had wanted to make weeks earlier but could not because of orders from
Washington. Ethan Rafuse, a professor of military
history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, notes that
McClellan’s army posed more of a threat to Richmond by operating on the
James River than on the Chickahominy River, and that the move to
Harrison’s Landing left the Confederates with a “terrible
operational quandary” and put Lee in a worse operational situation:
The glee in
McClellan’s 22 July letter to his wife was prompted by the efforts of Confederate
authorities to escape the terrible operational quandary they faced after the
Seven Days Battles. To be sure, the immediate threat to Richmond posed by McClellan’s presence
on the Chickahominy was eliminated. Lee, however, recognized that he was in a
worse situation operationally than he had been at the beginning of the Seven
Days Battles. Lee understood early in the Peninsula Campaign that the Federals
would pose a much greater threat to Richmond . .
. if they were operating on the James River than
they had on the Chickahominy. (McClellan’s
War, p. 240)
When Lincoln and
Stanton learned that McClellan’s advance guard had reached Harrison’s Landing on June 30, they did not think
that McClellan had lost the initiative; on the contrary, they viewed the move
as a positive development. Stanton even
privately told General John Wool that Richmond
now looked more likely to fall than ever before. Rowena Reed:
The administration did
not, as afterwards claimed, consider McClellan’s movement to a new line
of operations a strategic defeat. On the contrary, both Lincoln and Stanton now
believed the fall of Richmond
almost certain. . . . That same day [June 30], Stanton wrote Wool:
moved his whole force across the Chickahominy and rests on the James River, being supported by our gun boats. The
position is favorable, and looks more like taking Richmond than anytime
before.” (Combined Operations in
the Civil War, pp. 179-180)
On July 6, just five
days after the Seven Days Battles, Lincoln acknowledged to McClellan that the Richmond Examiner, a leading Southern
newspaper, had just expressed the view that the battles were a disappointment
for the South and that McClellan’s movement to Harrison’s Landing
was a “masterpiece of strategy” (William Starr Myers, General William Brinton McClellan, New
York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1934, p. 306).
Even the Navy’s
previously uncooperative commander in the area, Commodore Goldsborough,
believed that McClellan had put the army in a good position to take Richmond, and he strongly
urged that McClellan be allowed to continue his advance on the Confederate
capital (Reed, Combined Operations in the
Civil War, pp. 178-179).
As mentioned earlier,
the Seven Days Battles did not become a Confederate “victory” until
Lincoln ordered McClellan to withdraw his army
from Harrison’s Landing. Until that
withdrawal was completed, Richmond
was not out of danger and Lee had to keep the bulk of his army near the city to
defend it. If McClellan had been allowed to continue his advance, there would
have been no Second Bull Run and the war probably would have ended in late 1862
or fairly soon thereafter.
Criticism: Lacking empathy, the fact that Lee was
compelled to attack by reason of McClellan’s proximity to the capital,
the threat of a siege, and that McClellan had exposed a portion of his army to
a concentrated attack did not appear to register with him.
Response: Once again the facts paint a different
picture. McClellan had been ordered to
extend his right wing across the Chickahominy
River in order to
facilitate McDowell’s supposed, repeatedly promised arrival. Indeed,
McClellan warned his superiors that leaving part of his army across the river
was dangerous; this was another reason that he repeatedly urged that McDowell be
Criticism: In retrospect, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign clearly fell short of its strategic
design, and demonstrated McClellan’s intellectual frailties again.
Response: The facts refute this analysis. McClellan did
not take Richmond because Lincoln and Stanton (1) withheld nearly 60,000 troops
from McClellan’s army, (2) appointed corps commanders who opposed his
plans, (3) refused to allow him to establish his own command structure, (4)
ordered him to perform a deployment that invited enemy attack, (5) inexplicably
shut down recruiting operations, (6) failed to compel the Navy to provide the
promised naval support, and (7) ordered him to abandon his advance on Richmond
even though he was pleading to be allowed to advance and even though he had put
himself in an excellent position to take Richmond.
Criticism: Having lost the initiative, McClellan embarked
his army on naval transports back to Washington.
With free reign, after McClellan was ordered to evacuate Harrison’s Landing,
Lee initiated a campaign against General John Pope's newly created Army of
Virginia, which was positioned threateningly along the Rapidan
River between Richmond
Response: The idea that McClellan had “lost the
initiative” is a silly myth. Far from losing the initiative, McClellan
had greatly improved his tactical position, had forced Lee to return to Richmond, had just inflicted enormous casualties on
Lee’s army, and had put himself in an excellent position to take Richmond.
Some critics give the
impression that McClellan left Harrison’s Landing on his own initiative,
when in fact McClellan repeatedly argued to be allowed to continue his advance
from Harrison’s Landing but was ordered to evacuate.
Other critics state
that Lee “allowed” McClellan’s army to leave Harrison’s Landing “virtually
unmolested.” They usually fail to mention that Lee did not attack
McClellan at Harrison’s Landing because
Lee had personally surveyed the position and concluded that it was so strong
that an attack would be both costly and unsuccessful.
It is ironic that
McClellan’s critics complain that his move to Harrison’s Landing
took his army about 15 miles farther away from Richmond than it was before the Seven Days
Battles. Yet, they find no fault with Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck for sending
McClellan’s army to General Pope, who was over 50 miles from Richmond. Incidentally,
Harrison’s Landing was almost the same distance from Richmond as his previous base at White House
Landing, which McClellan was still under orders to use when the battles began.
Lee did not view
Pope’s army as a serious threat as long as it remained along the Rapidan River. Lee’s biggest fear was that
McClellan would resume his advance on Richmond
from Harrison’s Landing. Indeed, as McClellan
and others noted at the time, and as we know from Confederate accounts, Lee did
not dare move north against Pope as long as McClellan’s army was based on
the James River. It was only when Lee was
certain that McClellan was leaving Harrison’s Landing that he moved north
to reinforce Jackson
and attack Pope. Even a McClellan critic like Rudolph Schroder acknowledges
In fact, as soon as Lee
was sure that McClellan’s army was leaving Harrison’s
Landing, he took positive steps to attack the numerically inferior army of John
Pope. (Seven Days Before Richmond:
McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and Its Aftermath, New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2009, p. 444)
Schroeder goes on to
note that withdrawing McClellan from Harrison’s
Landing “freed Lee to pursue offensive opportunities elsewhere in the
East” (Seven Days Before Richmond,
McClellan Undermine Pope at Second Bull Run?
Criticism: Due in part to McClellan’s unwillingness
to support Pope, and Lee’s rapid move north, the Second Battle of Bull
Run was a resounding Confederate victory.
Response: This is another old myth that was debunked
soon after it was first circulated. When McClellan was ordered by Lincoln, via Halleck,
to send his army to Pope, he wrote to his wife that he did not have enough
transportation to move all of his troops to Pope as quickly as needed and that
he suspected he would be accused of delaying their movement:
The absurdity of
Halleck’s order in ordering the army away from here [Harrison’s
Landing] is that it cannot possibly reach Washington in time to do any good, but will
necessarily be too late. . . . I hope to be ready tomorrow to move in the
direction of Richmond.
I will try to catch or thrash Longstreet [Longstreet’s Confederate army]
and then if the chance offers follow in to Richmond while they are lamming away at Pope.
. . .
They are committing a
fatal error in withdrawing me from here, and the future will show it. I think
the result of their machination will be that Pope will be badly thrashed within
10 days. . . .
I presume Pope is
having his hands quite full today, is probably being hard pressed by Jackson. I cannot help
him in time, as I have not the means of transportation; but I foresee that the
government will try to throw upon me the blame of their own delays and
blunders. (Letters to Mary Ellen McClellan, August 10 and 11, 1862, in George
B. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story,
pp. 465-466, and Stephen Sears, editor, The
Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989, pp.
389-390; oddly, Sears omits the August 11 letter)
McClellan expedited the
sending of Porter’s corps to Pope on August 19, and that corps helped
keep Pope’s defeat at Second Bull Run from being worse than it would have
A short time later,
McClellan sent Franklin’s and Sumner’s corps toward Pope, but
transportation proved to be a major issue in moving enough artillery, ammo, and
other supplies northward to accompany the troops. Due in part to transportation
issues, these two corps did not move at the same time. With Halleck’s consent, Franklin's
corps halted and waited until Sumner's corps caught up with them before moving
Then, McClellan directed that the two corps should wait until their artillery
had arrived, since a brigade had just been badly mauled because it lacked
Franklin's troops reached the
vicinity of Manassas
a few hours after the battle had ended on August 30 and were able to serve as a
rallying point for Pope's defeated army. McClellan halted Franklin’s
corps in Annandale on August 29 because of
reports that there was a large Confederate force in Vienna and because the Confederates had
gotten into Pope’s rear twice in the preceding few days.
Soon after Second Bull
Run, Radical Republicans claimed that McClellan had abandoned Pope and had thus
contributed to Pope's defeat. This was untrue, as even Halleck initially
acknowledged at the time. Historian Jeffry Wert, though a McClellan critic,
agrees that McClellan "acted judiciously in not starting Franklin before Sumner arrived on 28
August,” and that “McClellan should not be blamed for the
consequences of Pope's woeful generalship at Second Bull Run" (The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the
Potomac, New York: Simon & Shuster, 2006, p. 136).
The Radicals charged
that McClellan’s decision to temporarily halt Franklin’s
corps at Annandale
on August 29 was inexcusable and that it contributed to Pope’s defeat.
But McClellan’s decision to halt Franklin’s
corps at Annandale
was perfectly rational and reasonable. Franklin’s
corps had only 40 rounds of ammo per soldier, had no reserve ammo, and had
virtually no wagons to transport supplies, and both McClellan and Halleck had
just received reports that a large Confederate force had arrived in Vienna and was moving
toward Chain Bridge. If Franklin’s
corps had kept moving on the 29th and had encountered serious resistance, it
would have been soundly beaten or at the very least forced to make a hasty
John Ropes, one of the
leading military historians of the nineteenth century, blamed Halleck for the
handling of Franklin’s
corps, and rejected the claim that McClellan undermined Pope or caused his
The fact is that
Halleck was in doubt what to do with Franklin
for some time, and that, for the delay of his corps and Sumner’s in and
Halleck is in the main responsible.
Too much has been made
of this matter. General Pope’s army was perfectly well able to take care of
itself. . . .
Very possibly the
presence of the corps of Sumner and Franklin might have might have prevented
the defeat of Bull Run; but it must be
remembered that Pope was not forced into this battle, but was the attacking
party. He lost the battle, not because he had not men enough, but because he
entirely misconceived the situation, supposing, as he did, that Longstreet had
not arrived in force, and, moreover, that the enemy was in full retreat. (Campaigns of the Civil War, Volume 4, New York: Charles
Scribner’s Son’s, 1882, pp. 164, 167).
In addition, when Lee
began to move forces north toward Pope, two weeks before the Battle of Second
Bull Run, McClellan made the eminently logical request that he be allowed to
attack the Confederate force that was still near Richmond. He correctly noted that such an
attack would force Lee to send troops back to Richmond and would reduce the danger to Pope.
McClellan made this request on August 12, over two weeks before Pope was routed
at Second Bull Run. But this tactically sound, rational request was denied.
However, that did not stop the Radical Republicans from blaming McClellan for
Lost Order and the Battle of Antietam
Criticism: While McClellan's 90,000 man Army of the Potomac was moving to intercept Lee, two Union soldiers
discovered a misplaced copy of Lee's detailed battle plans—Special Order
191. The order indicated that Lee had divided and dispersed his army, thus
making each subject to isolation and defeat if McClellan could move quickly
enough. But, incredibly, McClellan delayed for 18 critical hours, and in a
moment of poor operational security, told numerous local citizens, including a
southern sympathizer, that he knew Lee’s plans. This information made its
way to the Confederate cavalry.
Response: The claim that McClellan waited 18 hours
before acting on the finding of Lee’s lost order is a myth that was
conclusively debunked a few years ago with the discovery of Lincoln’s copy of McClellan’s
telegram to him regarding the lost order.
Moreover, many scholars
have pointed out that even before the discovery of Lincoln’s copy of McClellan’s
telegram, there was ample evidence that McClellan, far from wasting time, acted
swiftly and capably very soon after he received the order. In addition,
scholars like Joseph Harsh and Tom Clemens have shown that McClellan was
already moving swiftly before the lost order was discovered. General Emory
Upton, a respected nineteenth-century authority on military, noted that
McClellan wasted no time in acting on Lee’s lost order:
McClellan’s plan to punish Lee was formed the instant he received the
order disclosing the Confederate movements At 6:20 p.m. on the 13th, after
explaining in full the enemy’s intentions, he instructed General
“You will move
at daybreak in the morning. . . . My general idea is to cut the enemy in two
and beat him in detail. . . .”
The next day at 2 p.m.,
well knowing the value of time, he again sent orders to Franklin:
troops and carry Burkettsville at any cost.” (The Military Policy of the United States,
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1912, p. 380)
In his report on his Maryland operations,
General Lee himself acknowledged that McClellan acted quickly after receiving
the lost order:
A copy of the order
directing the movement of the army from Fredericktown had fallen into that
hands of General McClellan, and disclosed to him the disposition of our forces.
He immediately began to push forward rapidly, and on the afternoon of the 13th
was reported approaching the pass in South
Mountain, on the Boonsborough and Fredericktown road. (Official Records, serial 027, p. 0146, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/027/0146)
McClellan did not tell
“numerous local citizens” that he “knew Lee’s
plans.” Even Stephen Sears, a relentless McClellan critic, does not make
such a claim. On the contrary, Sears opines that the Southern sympathizer was
not told that McClellan now knew Lee’s plans but that the sympathizer
deduced from the increased activity after he saw the paper handed to McClellan
that McClellan had acquired important information about Lee’s army. In
fact, Sears makes the point that there is no evidence that Lee knew that
McClellan had a copy of Special Order 191 until after the battle.
sympathizer happened to be among a small delegation of local citizens who were
meeting with McClellan at his headquarters to discuss the army’s stay in Fredericksburg. During
the meeting, the lost order was brought to McClellan. McClellan did not say
anything directly to the sympathizer, and even Sears believes that McClellan
then politely ushered the delegation out of his presence. However, the sympathizer
saw McClellan “send couriers flying with orders to speed up the movement
of his various units” and so he logically deduced that McClellan had
received important intelligence about Lee’s army and that McClellan was
acting “to take advantage of the opportunity just offered”
(Hassler, George B. McClellan: Shield of
the Union, p. 247).
Criticism: The first two Union divisions arrived on the
afternoon of September 15 with the bulk of the remainder late that evening.
Although an immediate Union attack on the morning of September 16 would have
enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in numbers, McClellan's trademark caution and
his belief that Lee had over 100,000 men caused him to delay his attack until
the next day. In fact, Lee had only 43,000. McClellan’s delay gave the
Lee a full day to mass his forces and prepare defensive positions.
Response: This is a curious criticism. It is well known,
and thoroughly documented, that McClellan did not launch his main assault on
the morning of September 16 (1) because the ammunition trains were very late in
arriving, (2) because there was a dense fog that lasted until around noon, and
(3) because he had discovered that Lee had repositioned many of his units by
the morning of the 16th and therefore McClellan naturally had to do more
reconnaissance to determine Lee’s new positions and dispositions. No
sensible commander would have launched his main assault until there was
sufficient visibility and until he had a decent idea of the enemy’s new
locations and dispositions.
Furthermore, McClellan did attack on the afternoon of the 16th. He did not launch his main assault until the
following day, but he sent an entire corps forward on the Union
right, across Antietam Creek, and in heavy fighting that lasted until dark that
corps pushed the opposing Confederate force back to the Miller House.
The figure of 43,000
for Lee’s force is arguably off by at least 70%. Joseph Harsh and Gene
Thorp, among other scholars, have made a strong case that Lee had closer to 75,000
troops at Antietam (see, for example, Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the
Maryland Campaign of 1862, Kent State University Press, 1999, pp. 37-39). It has long been known that Confederate
commanders would sometimes deliberately under-report their troop strength after
a battle, especially if they lost the battle, so as to make their performance
casualty numbers for Antietam also deserve
another look. Most books on Antietam report that Lee’s total casualties
were 10,320, as opposed to 12,400 for McClellan, with Lee suffering 1,500
killed, 7,750 wounded, and 1,020 missing or captured. But Civil War veteran and
scholar Isaac Heysinger argued that Lee’s
supposed casualty numbers were far too low. Based on medical reports, unit
reports, burial accounts, and other period sources, Heysinger
concluded that Lee’s casualty numbers were more than double the
traditional figures. According to Heysinger,
Lee’s total casualties were 25,330, with 3,500 killed, 16,330 wounded,
and 6,000 missing or captured (Antietam
and the Maryland and Virginia
Campaigns of 1862, New York:
The Neale Publishing Company, 1912, pp. 132-141; Heysinger
served as a non-commissioned officer in McClellan’s army, fought at Antietam,
and later became a noted doctor who received 36 patents).
Another fact that must
be considered—and it is a fact McClellan fully understood—is that
going into this battle, Lee’s troops were much more experienced than
McClellan’s troops. A substantial number of McClellan’s
army—including about 20% of his infantry—consisted of new recruits
with minimal training, whereas most of Lee’s troops were veterans.
Criticism: The significance of the battle was not Lee's
withdrawal, but McClellan's inexplicable failure to pursue. On September 18,
the armies remained in their positions without fighting. Lee was highly
vulnerable. About one-fourth of his army had been lost in the previous day's
fighting, and he had no reserves. After weeks of marching, his men were tired
and low on supplies. McClellan, on the other hand, welcomed an additional
12,000 troops on September 18, and he had 24,000 troops who had seen little or
no action the day before. He outnumbered Lee by more than two to one. Yet,
McClellan refused to pursue Lee.
Response: Some of these criticisms are downright
ridiculous, and the troop numbers are based on the dubious assumption that Lee
arrived at Antietam with only 43,000 men. The
significance of the battle most certainly was Lee’s retreat, not McClellan’s
“failure” to immediately pursue Lee. McClellan’s victory over
Lee ended Lee’s Maryland campaign,
decimated Lee’s officer corps, restored Northern public confidence,
enabled Lincoln to issue his preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation, and prevented England from recognizing the
Not only did McClellan
win at Antietam, but he won the two key battles that led up to Antietam—the Battle of South Mountain and the
Battle of Campton’s Gap. McClellan’s critics either ignore or
minimize these victories because they resulted from smart decisions and rapid
action by McClellan.
The victories at South Mountain
and Crampton’s Gap would have ended Lee’s Maryland campaign if Lincoln and Halleck had
listened to McClellan when he repeatedly advised them to withdraw the 10,000
troops from Harpers Ferry and add them to his army. Even before McClellan left Washington, he urged
Halleck to withdraw the Harpers Ferry garrison and add that force to his army
while there was still time to do so (Ethan Rafuse, McClellan’s War, pp. 285-286; Harsh, Taken at the Flood, pp. 269-272,
315-316). Lincoln and Halleck rejected McClellan’s request. Their failure
to evacuate Harpers Ferry led to the largest surrender of U.S. troops in the war and convinced Lee not to
abandon his Maryland
After the battles at South Mountain
and Crampton’s Gap, Lee concluded that his Maryland
campaign was ruined and he began to prepare to return to Virginia. But, he changed his mind when
Stonewall Jackson informed him that he had captured Harpers Ferry, had taken
the 10,000 Federal troops there prisoner, and had
seized the garrison’s valuable supplies. When Lee heard this, he decided
to stay and give battle at Antietam.
McClellan’s decision not to attack on September 18, he had several good
reasons for not attacking. For one thing, he was somewhat low on small-arms
ammunition and extremely low on artillery ammunition. A large shipment of
artillery shells was supposed to reach McClellan early in the morning on the
18th, but for reasons that remain unknown, there was a six-hour delay between
Washington and Baltimore, and the shipment did not reach Hagerstown, over 6 miles from
McClellan’s camp, until 1:00 that afternoon (the small-arms ammunition
arrived even later). (The train carrying the artillery shells should have made
it to the Baltimore station in about 90-100
minutes, which would have enabled it to reach Hagerstown by about 5:30 or 6:00 that
morning, but on this occasion the trip took over six hours. To this day, no one
knows why this strange delay occurred. The train left Washington before midnight; the train had
absolute right of way; and the rail line was clear. Heysinger
discusses this strange incident in detail in Antietam and the Maryland and Virginia Campaigns of
1862, pp. 145-149.)
As for the issue
pursuit, this is a favorite complaint among amateur critics, and among
historians who should know better. In point of act, in several cases Civil War
generals did not pursue the defeated army. For example, Grant did not pursue
Beauregard’s defeated army as it fled to Corinth after the Battle of Shiloh, even
though Grant’s army, recently swelled with reinforcements, heavily
outnumbered the Confederate force. Similarly, General George G. Meade wisely
decided against attacking Lee’s defeated army immediately after the
Battle of Gettysburg. General James Longstreet, one of the South’s best
generals, said Lee would have liked nothing better than for Meade to have
attacked him soon after Gettysburg
because Lee likely would have inflicted the same kind of defeat on Meade that
Meade inflicted on Lee in Pickett’s Charge. There were cases in the war
when the winning army attacked the defeated army soon after the battle and
suffered a nasty repulse.
Furthermore, McClellan did pursue Lee on September 19 as soon
as he found out that Lee had retreated from Antietam, but he called off the
pursuit after he realized that Lee’s positions across the river were too
strong to be carried by the pursuit force and because his army was in no
condition to move en masse against Lee’s new
positions in Virginia, due to a severe lack of critical supplies.
McClellan’s reasons for not attacking Lee with his entire army
immediately after Antietam are just as valid and sound as Meade’s reasons
for not attacking Lee immediately after Gettysburg.
(For a good analysis of the soundness of Meade’s decision not to attack
Lee right after Gettysburg, see Tom Huntington, Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg,
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2013, pp. 185-202.)
McClellan might very
well have destroyed Lee’s army on September 17 if Lincoln and Halleck had
not needlessly kept tens of thousands of troops near Washington instead of letting McClellan have
most of them, as he requested. On September 10 and 11, McClellan requested that
every available soldier from the Washington
area be sent to his army. But Lincoln and Halleck sent him only one corps
(Porter’s corps of 13,000 men, which McClellan designated as his reserve
force). McClellan’s critics rarely mention this egregious blunder by
Lincoln and Halleck, while they are quick to condemn McClellan for not sending
in his reserve force during the battle (a move that even the aggressive Porter
argued against at the time). General Upton:
While General McClellan has been censured for not engaging the 13,000 men under the command of General Porter, justice requires that we should cast a glance at the situation around Washington. . . . On September 11, he . . . recommended . . . "that every available man" be added to his army. The same day he again telegraphed:
“Please send forward all the troops you can spare from Washington, particularly Porter, Heintzelman, Sigel, and all the other old troops. General Banks reports 72,500 troops in and about Washington”. . . .
The commander, as on
the Peninsula, sought to place the result of the battle beyond doubt, by asking
that every available man be sent forward; yet, at the critical moment when he
was censured for not employing his last reserve of 13,000 men, an army stood
idle at Washington aggregating present for duty 71,210; present and absent,
107,839. Had 60,000 of these men been sent forward, the raw troops placed in
reserve north of the Antietam, the old troops to have joined their veteran
comrades in battle, it is fair to infer that little would have been heard of
the Confederacy after the Maryland invasion. (The Military Policy of the United States, pp. 383-384)
Criticism: The president was amazed to discover that from
September 17 to October 26, despite his and Halleck’s repeated requests,
McClellan declined to pursue Lee across the Potomac,
claiming he was short of equipment and that his army needed rest. In fact,
despite repeated urging Lincoln and Halleck, McClellan did not move toward Virginia until five
weeks after the battle. McClellan was not short of supplies and his army was no
more exhausted than was Lee’s army.
Response: This is a mix of myth and distortion. For
starters, the fact that McClellan’s army was badly lacking in critical
supplies is abundantly documented in the relevant primary sources and has been
discussed in numerous analyses of the aftermath of Antietam
(see, for example, Rafuse, McClellan’s War, pp. 350-359; George Ticknor Curtis, McClellan’s Last Service to the
Republic, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1886, pp.
61-71; see also below).
General Meade, one of
McClellan’s subordinate commanders, went so far as to accuse the War
Department of deliberately withholding supplies from the army. Quite a few of
McClellan’s subordinate officers believed that Stanton delayed the
arrival of supplies so he could then blame McClellan for “excessive
never did provide a credible innocent explanation for the long delay in getting
supplies to McClellan’s army.
Stanton claimed that the tons
of supplies intended for McClellan’s army at Harpers Ferry had been
mistakenly, accidentally sent to the troops garrisoned around the capital. But Stanton, along with
everybody else in the War Department, knew that McClellan’s army was at Harpers
Ferry, over 60 miles away. For nearly three weeks, McClellan complained in his
dispatches to the War Department that he was not receiving the supplies he had
requested, yet Stanton and Halleck, along with Republican newspapers, kept
insisting that the supplies had been sent and that McClellan had all the
supplies he needed to pursue Lee in Virginia.
When confronted with an
eyewitness report from Colonel Thomas Scott that McClellan had not received the supplies, Stanton
and/or Halleck “suggested” that the supplies had been sent to the
garrison units around the capital, since those units were technically part of
the Army of the Potomac. No one ever explained
how the tons of supplies requested by McClellan for his army at Harpers Ferry
could have been “mistakenly” sent to the capital’s garrison
units when everyone in Washington
knew that McClellan’s army was over 60 miles away. In fact, upon further
investigation, train loads of the supplies that McClellan had requested “were found on the tracks at Washington,
where some of the cars had been for weeks” (William H. Powell, The Fifth Army Corps--Army of the Potomac: A
Record of Operations During the Civil War in the United States of America,
1861-1865, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893, p. 311, emphasis
Also, Lincoln had no
reason to be amazed that McClellan had to resupply his army before moving
against Lee in Virginia, because Lincoln soon became aware of the fact that the
supplies that Stanton had claimed had been sent to McClellan had not been delivered to him, and that
McClellan’s army was in fact suffering from a severe shortage of basic
supplies. As soon as those supplies were finally delivered, McClellan was only
too happy to begin his move against Lee in Virginia.
Part of the problem was
was virtually illiterate when it came to military matters. For all his good
did not understand even the basics of military operations. On many occasions,
he imposed faulty strategies and unsound deployments on his commanders,
especially on McClellan. Lincoln
also frequently pestered commanders for updates and offered baseless and
annoying comments on ongoing military operations. Lincoln should have
understood that McClellan’s army would be in great need of resupply after
fighting several intense battles during the preceding two weeks—including
the single bloodiest day of combat in the entire war—and given the fact
that McClellan’s “army” had been hastily thrown together
after Pope’s debacle at Second Bull Run just two weeks before Antietam.
Regarding the claim
that McClellan should not have taken five weeks to rest and resupply his army
after Antietam before going after Lee in Virginia,
we might want to consider what Colonel Robert Gould Shaw had to say on the
matter. Shaw was in McClellan's army at the time, and students of the Civil War
know that Shaw was no shrinking violet when it came to combat. In a letter to
his mother, dated September 25, 1862, barely a week after the battle, he made
it known that he strongly agreed with McClellan's decision to rest and resupply
the army after Antietam and not to move immediately to pursue Lee--he also provided
some insight into the supply shortage, the one that the Radicals claimed did
We are regularly
encamped up here now, and hope to stay some time, for the army certainly needs rest;
and Heaven preserve us from a winter campaign! If any newspaper talks of
"On to Richmond" after the middle of November, let the editors come
down and try it themselves; from what we experienced the first six weeks of
this campaign, I am certain only about half the army would live through it; the
wet and cold together are too much for men who can seldom change shoes or
clothing, and most of whom are without Indian rubber blankets. A wet overcoat,
and woolen blanket in the same condition, are very small protection. We have
four to six wagons per regiment now, so that no extra clothing can be carried.
(Russell Duncan, editor, Blue-Eyed Child
of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, University
of Georgia Press, 1992, p. 244)
Blunder: Relieving McClellan After Antietam
relieved McClellan of command on November 7 and thereby ended McClellan’s
career less than two months after the Battle of Antietam.
Response: To this day Lincoln’s reason for removing McClellan
on November 7 remains a subject of debate. Why? Because not only had McClellan just won
three important battles in a row, but Lincoln relieved McClellan just as he was
in the middle of carrying out what Edward Hagerman calls “one of the most
impressive strategic movements of the war” (The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare, Indiana
University Press, 1998, p. 64). McClellan had maneuvered Lee into dividing his
army and was in position to achieve a decisive victory. It was just at this point
relieved McClellan of command and turned the army over to General Ambrose
Burnside. Burnside then abandoned McClellan’s plan of operations, allowed
Lee to recombine his army, and soon led the Army of the Potomac
to a horrendous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he launched
foolish frontal assaults against strong defensive positions.
Lincoln once again, at Stanton’s urging,
snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, as James Havelock Campbell observed:
Once over the river and supplied as far
as could be expected at that time, the army [McClellan’s army] pushed
ahead vigorously. Jefferson Davis expressed his surprise at the speed of it. On
the 7th of November the army was massed at and about Warrenton. Lee and
Longstreet, with half the Rebel army, were at Culpeper, only six miles away
from McClellan's advance guard. Jackson, with
the other half, was beyond the Blue Ridge, at
least 125 miles away. Mr. Swinton speaks of this movement with warm praise:
southward toward Warrenton, he masked the movement by guarding the passes of
the Blue Ridge, and by threatening to issue through these, he compelled Lee to
retain Jackson in the valley. With such success was this movement managed that
on reaching Warrenton on the 9th, while Lee had sent half of his army forward
to Culpeper to oppose McClellan's advance in that direction, the other half was
still west of the Blue Ridge, scattered up and
down the valley, and separated from the other moiety by at least two days'
march. McClellan's next projected move was to strike across obliquely westward
and interpose between the severed divisions of the Confederate forces". .
The Confederate forces were split in
twain. Jackson was at Winchester,
125 miles away, and all the available gaps of the Blue Ridge by which Jackson might otherwise
join Lee—namely. Snicker's, Ashby's, Chester,
and Thornton's—were all "corked
up" and held in strong force, so that Jackson could bring no aid to Lee for the
Lee was therefore isolated, and the
preponderance of McClellan's forces left no doubt as to the result of the
coming battle. McClellan had 268 regiments of infantry, 18 regiments of
cavalry, and 73 batteries; while Lee had only 89 regiments of infantry, 15
regiments of cavalry, and 45 batteries. . . .
The peril to his army was so imminent,
the chance of escape so slight, that it is said Lee for the only time in the
war was bewildered. And his dispatches of November the 7th, the 8th, and the
9th seem to show that he was.
It will he
seen, therefore, that there was every likelihood that McClellan's now powerful
army, confident of its leader and full of courage because of that confidence,
would quickly fall with irresistible force on the isolated half of the Rebel
army under Lee. A complete Union victory was promised by every existing
condition. Nothing more desirable than the broad wall between the two parts of
the Confederate forces can be imagined. Yet it was made a pretext for
McClellan's removal, and we are earnestly and gravely assured by one of the
President's biographers that he had determined that if McClellan should permit
Lee to cross the Blue Ridge and place himself between Richmond and the Army of
the Potomac (a movement to be prayed for, not prevented) he would remove him
from command. The folly of such a resolution—oblivious as Lincoln must have been of the advantage to the Union of the very movement which he decided in advance
would be a calamity—is too evident to warrant any commentary. (McClellan: A Vindication of the Military
Career of General George B. McClellan, New York: The Neale Publishing
Company, 1916, pp. 399-401)
Relationship with Lincoln
Criticism: McClellan frequently treated Lincoln
in a rude, disrespectful, and insubordinate manner, whereas Lincoln usually dealt with McClellan in a
kind and professional manner. A prime example of this is McClellan’s
snubbing of Lincoln
on the night of November 13, 1861, when the president, along with William
Seward and John Hay, came to visit McClellan at his home to discuss strategy.
McClellan arrived, did not even speak with his guests, and went straight
upstairs to bed. Fortunately for McClellan, Lincoln chose not to take offense at the
snub. Hay rightly viewed McClellan’s conduct as “unparalleled
Response: For many people, McClellan’s alleged
disrespect and insubordination toward Lincoln
are a major reason they are inclined to believe the worst about him. However,
the traditional version of McClellan’s relationship with Lincoln does not do
justice to the facts.
Let us start with the
famous alleged snub on the night of November 13. As the story goes, Lincoln, along with
Secretary of State William Seward and presidential secretary John Hay, arrived
at McClellan’s home that night to discuss strategy. McClellan’s
porter informed Lincoln
that McClellan was at a wedding that night and would not be home until later. Lincoln decided to wait.
McClellan arrived an hour later but went straight upstairs, even though the
porter told him that the guests were waiting. Half an hour later, Lincoln reminded the
porter that they were still waiting to see the general. The porter went
upstairs to check with McClellan and then returned and informed the group that
McClellan had gone to bed for the night.
To those who have
studied McClellan’s life, this account does not sound anything like the
courteous and considerate Christian gentleman that McClellan’s friends
and family described him as being. Moreover, those who are not inclined to
assume the worst about McClellan can think of at least two ways to view this
alleged incident that do not require McClellan to be seen as rude and
However, did the
alleged snub really happen? Did Lincoln
even go to McClellan’s house that night? Some might be surprised to learn
that the one and only source for this story is John Hay, an avowed McClellan
hater who was determined to smear McClellan. Neither Lincoln, nor McClellan,
nor Seward ever said a word about this alleged event in any known writing or
conversation. J. G. Randall, one of the foremost Lincoln scholars of the modern era, doubted
Hay’s story, citing the absence of any corroborating evidence and
Hay’s known desire to discredit McClellan (Lincoln the President, Volume 2, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company,
1945, pp. 68-72). Rowland also questions Hay’s account. Says Rowland,
The strange thing about
that incident is that not one of the principals involved corroborated it in any
way. Beyond Hay’s assertion that Lincoln
made light of it, there is no mention of it in anything Lincoln wrote or said, and the same may be
said for Seward. (George McClellan and
Civil War History, p. 48)
McClellan wrote to his
wife the very next day but said nothing about any late-night visit from Lincoln
and Seward the day before. If the visit had occurred, McClellan likely would
have mentioned it, since he frequently wrote to his wife about his encounters
The subject of
McClellan’s relationship with Lincoln
would take many pages to fully discuss. Critics never tire of quoting the
unflattering things that McClellan said about Lincoln in letters to his wife, but they
rarely mention any of the good things that McClellan said about him. It is
certainly true that on some occasions McClellan became angry or frustrated with
Lincoln, and in
each of those cases he had good reason to feel the way he did. On the other
hand, it is also true that McClellan and Lincoln had several cordial
conversations, that McClellan came to have considerable respect for Lincoln as
a person, and that McClellan spoke kindly of Lincoln after the war.
As for Lincoln’s
conduct toward McClellan, Lincoln
usually treated McClellan in a kind and professional manner, but there were a
number of times when he did not. In any case, the record is clear that Lincoln had great respect for McClellan as a person and
came to understand that McClellan was totally loyal to the Union.
On several occasions, Lincoln expressed his
regret that he was unable to resist the pressure put on him by McClellan’s
enemies, and there is evidence that McClellan came to understand that many of Lincoln’s bad
decisions regarding his army and operations were the result of the influence of
Stanton and the Radical Republicans in Congress.
Sources for Further
For those who would
like to read more on “the other side of the story” on McClellan, I
recommend the following books:
Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering General George B.
McClellan’s Generalship from South Mountain to Antietam (Savas
Beatie, 2018), by Steven R. Stotelmyer. Stotelmyer is considered to be one of the leading living
authorities on the Maryland
campaign of 1862, especially the Battle of Antietam. His long-awaited book on
McClellan’s performance in the campaign will be released in October of
this year. In recent lectures, Stotelmyer has made it
clear that he believes McClellan performed well. The product introduction for
the book indicates that, among other things, Stotelmyer
will answer key criticisms made by leading McClellan critics Edward Bonekemper and Stephen Sears.
Army of the Potomac (Savas
Beatie and Da Capo Press, 2002-2007), three volumes, by Russel Beatie. Beatie
completed the draft of volume 4 before he passed away in 2013. The fourth
volume is now being prepared by a development editor and is supposed to be
published in 2017.
McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the
Struggle for the Union (Indiana University
Press, 2011, paperback edition), by Ethan Rafuse. Not
only does Rafuse defend McClellan’s performance
as a combat commander, but he tackles the myth that McClellan was pro-slavery. Rafuse is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army
Command and General Staff College.
George B. McClellan: The Man Who Saved the Union (Kessinger Press, 2006, reprint of University
of North Carolina Press 1941 edition), by H. J. Eckenrode
and Bryan Conrad. Eckenrode and Conrad were both
historians. Their book is a measured, balanced look at McClellan’s
performance as a Civil War general.
Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of
Southern Strategy, 1861-1862 (Kent State University Press, 1998) and Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and
Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign (Kent State University Press,
2013, paperback edition), by Joseph Harsh. Harsh was a professor of history and
a dean of the history department at George
Although these two books deal mainly with Robert E. Lee, they contain a great
deal of useful information and analysis on McClellan. Harsh concluded that the
traditional view of McClellan was simply baseless and that McClellan was a
capable, skillful combat commander.
General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union (Greenwood Press, 1974, reprint of LSU Press 1957 edition),
by Warren Hassler. Hassler was a professor of history at Penn State University. His book is one of the most
thorough defenses of McClellan ever written.
The Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare (Indiana University
Press, 1992), by Edward Hagerman. Hagerman was a professor of history at York University.
His book is a bit technical, but it contains some valuable analysis on
McClellan’s skill as a combat commander.
McClellan: A Vindication of the Military Career of General
George B. McClellan
(New York: The Neale
Publishing Company, 1916),
by James Havelock Campbell. Campbell
was the dean of the University
of Santa Clara’s
law school. He was also a methodical, meticulous scholar, and his defense of
McClellan is one of the best pro-McClellan works ever written. This
book can be read online at no cost.
General McClellan and the Conduct of the War (New York: Sheldon and
Company, 1864), by William Henry Hurlbert. This is an
excellent, detailed defense of McClellan’s performance as a combat
book can be read online at no cost.
Campaign of 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2010 and 2012), two volumes, by Ezra Carman,
edited by Tom Clemens. Dr. Clemens is a professor of history and earned his
doctorate in history at George
Dr. Clemens is widely viewed as a leading expert on the Battle of Antietam and
on the 1862 Maryland
campaign as a whole. In his extensive editorial notes to Carman’s
posthumously published book, Dr. Clemens answers the standard attacks on
McClellan relating to the Maryland
George B. McClellan and Civil War History (Kent State University
Press, 2008, paperback edition), by Thomas Rowland. Rowland’s book has
caused some historians to rethink their previous acceptance of the traditional
view of McClellan.
McClellan’s Own Story (Charles Webster &
Company, 1887), by George McClellan, edited and published by W. C. Prime after
McClellan died. McClellan was an excellent writer, and his book is a must-read
for anyone who wants to understand all the facts relating to McClellan’s
performance as a combat commander. This
can book can be read online at no cost.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a
Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a
Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military
University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College,
two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air
Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of
Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time graduate of the
Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air
Force Technical Training School in San
Angelo, Texas. He has
completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa
University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.
He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book
on the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Mike Griffith’s Civil War website
is now located at civilwar.miketgriffith.com.