Answering Some Criticisms of General George B. McClellan


Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Second Edition


Anyone 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.


The 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.


McClellan 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 in 1878.


The 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


McClellan 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 achieve success.


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.”


There is 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.


McClellan 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).


McClellan 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).


The 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.


McClellan 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.


As it 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.


Without 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 turn Johnston’s right flank.


Although 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).


McClellan 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.


As is 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 about 12,000.


Lincoln’s 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 operations:


Notwithstanding all 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 of Washington, 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.


It is 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.


Not only 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.


The 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)


Two, McClellan conducted several reconnaissance operations, not just one, and some of those recons suffered casualties.


Three, 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.


Four, 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,; 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 intersected Warwick 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)


Furthermore, Magruder 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.


Breaking 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.


I suggest 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 McClellan,


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)


During 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.


Historians 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:


McClellan, indeed, 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?


Criticism: Johnston’s 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 resolution.


McClellan’s 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?


And it 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.


McClellan’s 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 attacks.


Additionally, 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. Johnston was 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. 


In a diary entry dated May 5, 1862, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren disagreed with the Radicals’ denigration of McClellan’s capture of Manassas and Yorktown:


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.


Many 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.


With the 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.


Moreover, 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.


Washington’s 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.


Furthermore, 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 Washington’s 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.


Wadsworth 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.


Stanton 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).


General 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)


Tragically, 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 McClellan. Stanton 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 pretense.


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 Wadsworth’s report was unfair:


If McClellan’s 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 infuriated McClellan.


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.


General William 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 “unmilitary”:


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 threat.


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 Valley.


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 Valley:


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 immediately.”


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)


McClellan’s 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 and Richmond.” 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.


Additionally, 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.


The Battle of Seven Pines


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 Williams noted.


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.


The 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.


McClellan’s 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. 587, 653)


Additionally, McClellan 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 commander.


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.


Although 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 threatened Richmond.


McClellan’s 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:


“McClellan has 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 sent immediately.


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 and Washington.


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 this fact:


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, p. 449).


Did 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 been otherwise.


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 toward Manassas. 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 artillery.


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 retreat.


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 defeat:


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 about Alexandria, 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 Pope’s defeat.


Lee’s 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:


General 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 Franklin:


     “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:


     “Mass your 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,


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.


The Southern 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 look better.


The traditional 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 Confederacy.


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 campaign.


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.


Regarding 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 delay.” Stanton 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 added).


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 that Lincoln was virtually illiterate when it came to military matters. For all his good qualities, Lincoln 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 not exist:


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)


Tragic Blunder: Relieving McClellan After Antietam


Criticism: Lincoln 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 that Lincoln 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:


     "Advancing due 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 approaching battle.


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)


McClellan’s 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 insolence.”


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 disrespectful.


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 with Lincoln.


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 Study


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 Mason University. 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 commander. This book can be read online at no cost.


The Maryland 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 Mason University. 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 campaign.


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