Controversies and Commanders of the Civil War: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomacby Stephen W. Sears, Steven W. Sears
Controversies and Commanders of the Civil War might well be the most intriguing book ever published about the Civil War, for it focuses on the people and events that one of our best historians has found most fascinating, including: Professor Lowe's reconnaissance balloons; the court-martial of Fitz John Porter; the Lost Order at Antietam; press coverage of the… See more details below
Controversies and Commanders of the Civil War might well be the most intriguing book ever published about the Civil War, for it focuses on the people and events that one of our best historians has found most fascinating, including: Professor Lowe's reconnaissance balloons; the court-martial of Fitz John Porter; the Lost Order at Antietam; press coverage of the war; the looting of Fredericksburg; the Mud March; the roles of volunteers, conscripts, bounty jumpers, and foreign soldiers; the notorious General Dan Sickles, who shot his wife's lover outside the White House, and the much maligned Generals McClellan (justifiably) and Hooker (not so justifiably). The book follows the Army of the Potomac throughout the war, from 1861 to 1865, painting a remarkable portrait of the key incidents and personalities that influenced the course of our nation's greatest cataclysm.
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In the worst of timesespecially in the worst of times- General George B. McClellan had never a doubt that vindication would be his in the eyes of the Muse Clio. As he wrote his wife, on an occasion when he was feeling particularly scorned by the administration in Washington, "Well one of these days history will I trust do me justice in deciding that it was not my fault that the campaign of the Peninsula was not successful." After he was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, in November 1862, the Springfield Republican reported, "The McClellan excitement has wholly died out. He seems willing to await the decision of history as to his brief military career."
Since that time historians in some numbers have taken up McClellan's challenge. Being a latter-day biographer of the general, and the editor of his papers, I regard their findings as worthy of analysis. It seems that over the last century and a third, historians have come down on every side of the McClellan question concerning not only his Peninsula campaign but the rest of his remarkably varied wartime career as well.
To be sure, not all the McClellan biographers (including this one) and not all the more general commentators on his career have been professional historians. Yet at least some of the volunteers in the trade (including this one) have conscientiously applied accepted standards of historical analysis to their efforts and are entitled to seats alongside the regulars on what historian Joseph L. Harsh has labeled "the Mcclellan-Go-Round."
Oneway to attract biographers is to run for president. History is seldom served by these campaign biographies, however, and that is certainly true in McClellan's case. Of the half-dozen potboilers that appeared during the 1864 campaign, one only may be regarded as "authorized"a Life and Campaigns of ... effort by G. S. Hillard that was optimistically scheduled for publication one day before the Democratic convention would name its nominee. Hillard had been granted an interview by the prospective candidate, which provides the latter-day biographer with details of McClellan's early life not available elsewhere; otherwise Hillard slides back into the ruck of campaign-biography mediocrity.
During the 1864 campaign much of what was written about General McClellan (both for him and against him) in books, pamphlets, and newspapers drew inspiration from the general's Report on the Organization of the Army of the Potomac, and of Its Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, the 242-page official account of his time as army commander. McClellan designed the Report with some care to be his final draft for history. It is better described as a very rough first draft. The New York Times waxed sarcastic, calling it "nothing less than the Military Memoirs of George B. McClellan, printed at the expense of the government."
Buttressed with numerous, carefully selected documents, the Report leaves no doubt that everything untoward that happened during these months could not be blamed on the general commanding. As James Russell Lowell observed in the North American Review, General McClellan "makes affidavit in one volume octavo that he is a great military genius, after all." The Peninsula campaign, for one prime example, was lost to an enemy wielding vastly greater numbers vastly greater because the radical Republican administration in Washington adamantly scorned to support or to reinforce the Army of the Potomac and its commander. A New York publisher made the Report available to voters in a low-cost edition, and McClellan autographed a special oversized deluxe edition for friends and supporters. The still-lingering legend of George McClellan as savior of the Union has its origin in his Report.
During his time of command, the general had gone to some effort to preserve for his own use the raw materials of the history he was making. He sent copies of important documents to his wife, Ellen, which (as he told her) "I wish you to keep as my record." He explained why: "They will show, with the others you have, that I was true to my country, that I understood the state of affairs long ago, & that had my advice been followed we should not have been in our present difficulties .... "When relieved of command, he took away with him the entire headquarters archives of the Army of the Potomac for the period August 1861 to November 1862. The manuscript of his Report went to the War Department in August 1863 accompanied by the official reports of his subordinates -- and that was all. He retained everything else of the Potomac army's archives, numbering in the thousands of pieces, as his personal property. As he saw it, only reports written officially for the government, by him or by his lieutenants, belonged to the government. With the exception of a few papers relating to the western Virginia campaign of 1861 that he made available, and a few dispatch books loaned to the Official Records project after his death, the McClellan papers remained unseen in family hands until presented to the library of Congress in 1911 and 1916.
Following his defeat in the presidential election, McClellan resigned his commission and sailed for Europe. The Young Napoleon, said observers, was accepting exile as his fate. By the time he returned to America in 1868, wartime passions had cooled. He made a comfortable living as an engineering consultant and served as elder statesman of the Democratic party. But his determination to seek the vindication of history remained as strong as ever. During his European exile he had begun a memoir"the secret history," he called it, "of my connection with Lincoln, Stanton, Chase etc.; it may be valuable for history one of these days." By 1881 he had finished his memoir, but during a six-month stay in Europe the single copy, left in New York for safekeeping, was destroyed by fire. Undaunted, he began work anew on what would be published posthumously, in 1887, as McClellan's Own Story.
This book, which contrary to McClellan's intentions put a blight on his military reputation, would remain something of a puzzle to historians and biographers for more than a century. Here was a memoir presented as McClellan's considered and final testament on the Civil War and his role in it, yet it appeared that the general had simply ignored everything factual learned from the records of the war in the two decades between 1865 and his death in 1885. "Never was there a controversial work in which the other side was more calmly ignored," wrote John C. Ropes in a review of McClellan's Own Story. "... It is impossible to get up much sympathy for General McClellan. And we do not think that this book of his will raise him in the opinion of his countrymen." It was an accurate prophecy. Seventy years later, historian Allan Nevins would remark, "Students of history must always be grateful that McClellan so frankly exposed his own weaknesses in this posthumous book."
It is known now that in fact poor McClellan was betrayed by his literary executor, William C. Prime. Wartime editor of the rabidly pro-McClellan New York Journal of Commerce, Prime let his partisanship and his devotion to the general run away with him in seeing into print McClellan's side of the story. The general had left not even half a manuscript, with much of that only in early draft form and undergoing revision at the time of his sudden death. Prime took this as it was, undid some of the revisions, and patched together the balance of the book from McClellan writings that went back twenty years and more, much of it from the 1864 Report. Not content with this hodgepodge, he then added excerpts from some 250 of McClellan's wartime letters to his wife. In these letters to Ellen it had been the general's habit to pour out his innermost feelings and opinions in unbridled fashion; at their publication McClellan surely turned over in his grave. Although Prime deleted or censored the most inflammatory of McClellan's views, enough remained, writes Joseph Harsh, that historians, "finding the letters offensive, ... read them as candid glimpses of the character flaws which foredoomed the General's military career."
The general's death, and the subsequent publication of McClellan's Own Story, inspired several of McClellan's contemporaries to prepare articles of reminiscence and analysis. For The Century General James B. Fry wrote "McClellan and His `Mission,'" a commentary on the general's messianic vision of saving the Union, a vision mentioned frequently in the letters to Ellen printed in Story. Former staff officer William F. Biddle furnished more admiring "Recollections of McClellan" for the professional military journal United Service Magazine. George Ticknor Curtis, a staunch friend and political adviser of McClellan's, wrote uncritically of his generalship in McCellan's Last Service to the Republic (1886), appropriately subtitled "A Tribute to His Memory."
The first true biography of the general was not published until 1901 Peter S. Michie's General McClellan, in Appleton's "Great Commanders" series. Michie had been a respected engineering officer during the war, and his is the only in-depth appraisal of McClellan the soldier written by a fellow soldier. It is especially valuable on that score. Michie coolly evaluated the claims in the Report and McClellan's Own Story against the realities in the Official Records. While finding enough of value in McClellan's overall war record to fit him in among the Great Commanders, Michie could be unsparing as well. He delivered a stinging soldier's verdict, for example, on General McClellan's conduct at Glendale and Malvern Hill during the Seven Days. On June 30 and July 1, 1862, the general commanding literally fled these two Peninsula battlefields, boarding the gunboat Galena for useless excursions on the James and each day leaving his army to get out of its scrape (to use a favorite expression of his) as best it could. The term Michie used for the general's actions in these battles was "astounding." Michie concluded his account of Glendale and Malvern Hill with words of caution for future McClellan biographers: "every explanation ... put forward by his defenders must ever be in the nature of an unsatisfactory apology."
An oddity among McClellan biographies is James Havelock Campbell's bravely titled McClellan: A Vindication of the Military Career of General George B. McClellan (1916). Campbell, a law school dean, described his work as a lawyer's brief, and it is all of that a defense lawyer's brief. If General McClellan turned over in his grave after what William Prime inflicted on his memoir, then probably he again rested peacefully when Campbell's book appeared. Turning to Campbell's account of Glendale and Malvern Hill, we find that General McClellan on these battlefields was "wise, prudent, brave, skilful, with a mind which grasped everything down to the minutest detail and with an energy which governed all."
William Starr Myers, a Princeton historian, was the first to mount a scholarly biographical effort to capture the general's life between covers and the first to utilize the McClellan papers deposited in the Library of Congress. Myers titled his 1934 work General George Brinton McClellan: A Study in Personality. In his preface he confessed to slighting the military side of McClellan's story (Myers identified himself as a professor of politics), "for I am fully aware of my own limitations in technical knowledge in this field." This indeed proved a handicap in writing the biography of a general. Nevertheless, Myers found the McClellan papers a rich source for exploring the personality of his subject. The figure that emerges from this effort is morally upright, stainlessly honorable, and politically naivé. Surprisingly for a professor of politics, Myers exhibited a naiveté of his own in his depiction of George McClellan, presidential candidate, as a feckless innocent.
Two biographies published on the eve of World War II contributed nothing in particular to a clearer understanding of the general. Clarence E. Macartney's Little Mac (1940), thinly researched, is wholly unexceptional. H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, authors of the forthrightly titled George B. McClellan: The Man Who Saved the Union (1941), set out to prove, they write in their foreword, that their subject "was a great general and that he has been underestimated by historians." Their technique was in all cases to take McClellan's word for it: Nothing that happened was his fault; it was all a plot against him directed by his enemies in Washington.
Starting around 1950, as Civil War scholarship was stimulated by the approaching centennial, most authors of general histories of the war or of the campaigns diverged sharply from the McClellan biographers in their handling of the general's role in the conflict. This was hardly a new trend James Ford Rhodes, in his History of the Civil War (1917), was one of those historians targeted as underappreciating the general by biographers Eckenrode and Conrad but it now accelerated. In his Lincoln Finds a General, for example, Kenneth P. Williams apparently decided not to take McClellan's word on anything. "McClellan was not a real general," came his final accounting. "... McClellan was merely an attractive but vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be President." T. Harry Williams reached a similar if less colorful conclusion: "McClellan was not a fighting man," he wrote in Lincoln and His Generals. "In Lincoln's mind, McClellan stood for strategy, preparation, delay, and at the best, barren victories." In Bruce Catton's Mr. Lincoln's Army, the first volume of a trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, the story told of McClellan is a self-induced tragedy of one missed opportunity after another until, finally, "his part was finished." Catton, in his subsequent Centennial History of the Civil War, and Allan Nevins, in The War for the Union, both of them major multivolume works employing extensive original-source research, made affirmation of these negative findings concerning General McClellan.
In 1957, in the midst of this trend and apparently in reaction to it, Penn State historian Warren W. Hassler, Jr., published a new military biography, General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union. Attended by full scholarly apparatus, with the imprint of a university press, it purported to be a balanced and objective accounting -- by inference, the first such. In reality, the work falls squarely within the friendly and forgiving tradition of McClellan biography. The general's word is taken on all controverted issues and occasions; fault lies wholly with his subordinates, with his intelligence service, with his radical Republican opponents in Washington who delude Mr. Lincoln and undermine the president's faith in the general. George McClellan is revealed, in summary, as "a soldier of superior strategic and tactical ability.... Political enmity toward him was largely his undoing."
Hassler achieved this effect by careful and very selective use of sources and documents, especially the McClellan papers, in apparent emulation of the writings by the general himself. Nothing untoward is disclosed from the contents of McClellan's letters to his wife, for example; William Prime's sanitized versions are quoted instead. Nothing is found amiss in the general's flight from the Glendale and Malvern Hill battlefields, as if this were conduct expected of an army commander. The depths of all the major controversies at which level in truth General McClellan is invariably to be found as one of the perpetrators are never plumbed. Instead, the causes and the blame remain just where McClellan long ago assigned them. James Russell Lowell could as easily have said of this work, as he said of McClellan's 1864 Report, that its author "makes affidavit in one volume octavo" that General McClellan "is a great military genius, after all."
This widening gap in interpretation between McClellan's biographers and the historians writing general accounts and studies of the war was investigated in Joseph Harsh's 1973 article "On the McClellan-Go-Round." Harsh argued that there must be a middle ground between the two camps, a pathway that would lead to a better and truer understanding of the general, if only historians would pay "serious attention to McClellan's ideas, beliefs and expressed intentions" and then recognize "the fact that these do help explain his behavior. Taking up this challenge, and following where the original sources and their investigations led, the present writer published George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon in 1988 and soon thereafter a companion volume of documents, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan. This new depiction of the general differs substantially from that offered at least by previous biographers, and the contents of the Papers in particular seem to have inspired historians to fresh efforts to decipher little Mac's military character.
Ironically, the McClellan papers, which the general assiduously preserved so as to assure himself the rewards of history, have brought him precious few of these. His own words have betrayed him. If the "Great Commanders" series of the turn of the century were revived today, General McClellan would no longer make the list. These papers the documents from the Army of the Potomac archives, his correspondence with colleagues and supporters, and most particularly his revealing (and uncensored) letters to his wife offer an opportunity for analysis of a Civil War general that is unique. One of the historian's tasks, once the facts and the sequences are established, is to ask "why." In McClellan's case, with this mass of material from his own pen, there has been a temptation among some historians to couch the answers in the language of psychology.
Ever since they first appeared (in censored form) in McClellan's Own Story, the wartime letters to Mrs. McClellan have been scrutinized to explain both his thinking and his actions. The historian J. G. Randall, perhaps the strongest of McClellan apologists outside the ranks of the general's earlier biographers, dismissed these letters as "a kind of unstudied release, not to be taken too seriously." Yet in writing that, Randall had looked no deeper than the letters as printed in Story. The fact of the matter is that McClellan expressed the same views and opinions that he wrote to Ellen, sometimes even more forcefully, in his letters to leaders of the Democratic opposition, and he most certainly meant them to be taken seriously. There can be no doubting that what George McClellan told his wife in his daily letters was the whole truth and nothing but the troth as he saw it; he was, as it were, testifying under a personal oath. "In talking or writing to you," he once explained to Ellen, "it is exactly as if I were communing with myself -- you are my alter ego...."
Early observers of McClellan's generalship, lacking the terminology of modern psychotherapy, had delivered judgments (such as Peter Michie's) that there was an "unaccountable weakness in McClellan's mental equipment" that went far toward explaining his battlefield lapses. Later, as a consequence of deeper research, especially after McClellan's papers became available, historians began to propose such terms as "messianic complex" and "paranoia" and "persecution complex" in explanation of the general's wartime actions. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, University of Houston historian Joseph T. Glatthaar, in a study of Civil War military leadership, assigned a label to McClellan's "tragic flaws in the light of modern psychology" "paranoid personality disorder."
To be sure, it is easy to cull (as Glatthaar does) innumerable examples from McClellan's actions and from his own words that plausibly fit the textbook definition of paranoid personality disorder, in this instance the American Psychiatric Association's textbook Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The risk in this approach is that it is too easy. Suggesting that General McClellan suffered from what we are now able to define and specifically identify as a mental illness implies that he was therefore helpless to affect his decisions and his actions. A twentieth-century definition of mental illness is applied to nineteenth-century symptoms; and, in brief, he was not to blame. This crystallizes the ultimate irony in the McClellan story. In a letter to Ellen, written on November 7, 1862, moments after he was told he was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, the general was consoled by this thought: "We have tried to do what was right if we have failed it was not our fault...."
The further risk in this course is that it invites such a recent McClellan apologist as Thomas J. Rowland, in an article subtitled "George B. McClellan Revisited," to cull contrary evidence to show that the general was in no sense "plagued by crippling mental instability." Rowland scoffs at the very idea. He contends that with all the psychological failings attributed to him, we seem to have no choice but to picture General McClellan as "a lurking, brooding, out-of-control manic waiting to uncork on the Virginia Peninsula."
The answer to this dilemma of comprehension, I think, is for historians and biographers alike to seek to understand and explain not one General McClellan but four General McClellans. Or, alternatively, to view the general and his actions (and reactions) within the framework and progression of time. He played four major roles in the Civil War, more or less in succession although of course with some overlap. The forces acting on him, forces both internal and external, were different in each sequence; therefore his responses were not the same in each. There was indeed, for a time, contrary to what Thomas Rowland believes, an out-of-control manic on the Virginia Peninsula. There was, for a time, a rational, intelligent, far-thinking strategist. There was an executive officer of considerable ability who knew how to inspire soldiers. And, finally, there most assuredly was a general who would be king.
First in chronology was the McClellan brought to Washington to pick up the pieces after the. Bull Run debacle in 1861. He instantly became the premier executive officer in the Union. If it seemed that he had jumped from cavalry captain (and having never served in the cavalry) to major general with indecent speed, he was at least in a job he had trained for. He had been the best student of military history in his class at West Point. He had been sent abroad to study the administration of the leading armies of Europe. Upon resigning from the army, he oversaw the day-to-day logistics of operations on two important railroads. Now, in Washington, he was assigned the job of organizing and training the North's principal force, the Army of the Potomac. He did this exceedingly well, and in the bargain revealed a genuine talent for morale-building. His men loved him, and he in turn loved them. If there was a bad seed in this, it was perhaps that he loved his men too much to make war with them.
To the historian weighing McClellan the executive officer, a second bad seed that he was demonstrably unable to get along with any of his Washington superiors should come as no real surprise. There was a pattern to it, as there was a pattern to so many of his responses. Thomas Rowland regards it as specious reasoning, supporting foregone conclusions, to bring up "selected details from McClellan's past" to understand and explain his wartime actions. Yet surely what historian would not find it significant that from West Point onward, McClellan had never gotten on with anyone in authority. He disputed those who assigned class rankings at the Academy. He scorned his superiors in the Mexican War. Back at West Point, he endlessly debated the superintendent on the pettiest of issues. During his army assignments he battled authority on the Pacific railroad survey, and suffered his fellow observers sent to the Crimea as fools. In civilian life, he repeatedly tangled with fellow executives of the railroads that employed him. McClellan the major general would have been changing his spots had he not regarded Generals Scott and Halleck, Secretary of War Stanton, and President Lincoln as fools, and worse.
Still, he trained his army to efficiency and high morale. After Second Bull Run he picked up the pieces a second time, somehow pasting the army back together on the march toward the Antietam battlefield. His harshest critics, in his day and ours, have little to say against McClellan the military administrator. However egocentric his conduct, it was of little consequence in this role.
His second role, that of grand strategist, overlapped the first and included the period, during the winter of 1861-62, that he served as general-in-chief. In historians' long-running explications of the divergence of war aims between McClellan and Lincoln, it is too often overlooked that this divergence came only late in their command partnership. Furthermore, the divergence of views when it did come was rendered largely irrelevant as it applied to the actual conduct of the war. By that time, General McClellan, as field commander, had lost the military initiative to General Lee and lost thereby his former major influence on grand strategy.
From McClellan's first days in military command, in western Virginia, to the end of the Peninsula campaign, he and Lincoln were, in today's figure of speech, on the same page. Restoration of the Union was paramount. Slavery and abolition were not issues in the war. When McClellan assured the people of western Virginia by proclamation that he would not disturb their peculiar institution, Washington raised no objection. When, upon his arrival in Washington, he spelled out his grand strategy for prosecuting the war and included in it "a rigidly protective policy as to private property" in the seceded states, it generated no debate within the administration. George McClellan was not, and never had been, an apologist for slavery. He saw it ending, as did Lincoln in this period, by some means of compensated emancipation.
To be sure, McClellan the strategist made little effort to hide his innate hostility toward authority, and in the matter of his plans of campaign, for example, he managed to alienate almost every supporter he had ever had in the Cabinet. With deliberate scorn, when he sailed for the Peninsula, he tossed off a jumbled, directionless plan for the defense of Washington that left Mr. Lincoln, his sole important supporter in the administration, "justly indignant."
McClellan's conviction that he had been called by God to save the Union- his messianic vision may have been (as Thomas Rowland argues) not all that uncommon, a reflection of "religious fervor resonant with similar expressions of his time," yet that only begs the essential question. McClellan went one crucial and unique step further. It was harmless enough for him to believe that God guided his hand as he shaped his plans to save the Union. Under the fierce pressures of the battlefield, however, his messianic vision became his crutch, his ultimate escape from responsibility -- it was beyond his power to shape an outcome that God had ordained. Thus he could tell Ellen, after the defeat of the Seven Days, that he recognized God's "wise purpose in all this.... If I had succeeded in taking Richmond now the fanatics of the North might have been too powerful & reunion impossible."
A third characteristic of his military personality proved even more relevant here, and it had an enormous impact on McClellan's strategic vision. This was his delusion there is no other word for it concerning the enemy. While it is true, as Rowland among other McClellan apologists has pointed out, that McClellan was not the only general in this war to overestimate the enemy's numbers, it is equally true that no other general exaggerated in such monumental proportions or for so long a period. On the last day of his command McClellan was as ignorant of his opponent as on the first day. Most important, no other general was in a comparable position for his delusion to so profoundly influence his strategy -- and, on the field of battle, his tactics.
It must be understood that McClellan did not invent these overmatches in order to gain the reinforcements he was constantly calling for. His frequent reiteration of the enemy's numbers in letters to his wife demonstrates their genuineness in his mind. Nor, as was long believed, was he victimized by the blunderings of his intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton. Latter-day research into the operations of detective Pinkerton and his intelligence gatherers reveals that it was the general commanding, not the detective, who initiated the wildly inflated counting of Confederate forces. And once started on this course, McClellan would not, could not, look back. Pinkerton was indeed a blunderer, but he was hard-pressed trying to keep up with his chief. He was reduced finally to reporting purely speculative "general estimates," and even these did not always come up to the figures McClellan was reporting to Washington.
It is only after one accepts McClellan's figures (for the sake of the argument) that his decisions and his actions assume a certain logic. He could not turn the flank of Joe Johnston's army entrenched at Manassas early in the war because he dared not divide his forces in the face of a greatly superior foe. On the Peninsula it became necessary for him to ignore every Possible line of advance but the one he chose because only that one had the Richmond & York River Railroad that he needed to bring up the great guns with which to besiege Richmond. Those siege pieces were his equalizer against a veritable enemy host.
Most of his missed opportunities on individual battlefields can be traced back to this same first principle: his respect for a phantom Confederate army against which he must not unduly risk the Union's guardian army. At Antietam, the prime example of this, his advantage in numbers over Lee was better than two to one. Yet in his mind's eye he multiplied each of Lee's soldiers by three, and held back a third of his army to meet the phantom threat of a massive counterattack. Viewed from that perspective, it is not any wonder that he would tell his wife afterward that he had saved his army after a terrible struggle, and that those of good judgment had told him "that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art."
It is McClellan in the role of field commander, on the battlegrounds of the Peninsula and in Maryland, that defines the true center of his wartime service. Here was the ultimate test of his generalship. The battlefield was what he had trained and administered his army to expect, what his strategic vision had led him to seek. Surprisingly certainly surprisingly at the time he failed the test. The military historian who evaluates the facts dispassionately (if that is possible in McClellan's case) must say that he failed the test dismally. Indeed, when he deserted his army on the Glendale and Malvern Hill battlefields during the Seven Days, he was guilty of dereliction of duty. Had the Army of the Potomac been wrecked on either of these fields (at Glendale the possibility had been real), that charge under the Articles of War would likely have been brought against him. At Antietam his failure was a virtual paralysis of decision-making, and a battle that by any measure should have been an overwhelming Union victory should even have been that Civil War rarity, a battle of annihilation was instead at best a tactical draw. Lee's subsequent return to Virginia gave the Union a strategic victory, which at that stage was all to the good for the Union. Still, the Antietam might-have-been an end to the war in 1862 marks this battle as the greatest missed opportunity of the war.
McClellan constructed an elaborate defense of his conduct on the Peninsula, in his Report and in McClellan's Own Story, that would be quoted chapter and verse by his admirers then and afterward. Reinforcements were withheld from him at a critical moment, said the general, and overall he did not receive the men he needed. The administration in Washington tied his hands strategically and tactically, deliberately hoping he would be defeated so that Stanton and his cohorts might be free to carry out their radical designs. That this is an entirely mythical construction is easily documented. The general's defenders, however, have never been silenced on the subject. Taking the most charitable view, their explanations, as Peter Michie said of them almost a century ago, "must ever be in the nature of an unsatisfactory apology."
In more general terms, it has been said in McClellan's defense, of both his campaigns, that he was challenging the Army of Northern Virginia when it was young and strong and most vigorous, and that at least at Antietam he fought it to a standstill. It is true enough that at the beginning of the Seven Days Lee had the largest force, 92,000 by the best count, that he would ever have and was the closest he ever came to achieving parity with his Union opponents. McClellan credited Lee with 200,000 men, and was haunted every moment of every day of the Seven Days by that specter. "They had more than two to one against me," he wrote a home-front supporter afterward. "I could not have gone into Richmond with my left."
Certainly Lee had the best numbers he would ever have, but just then the Army of Northern Virginia was far from what it would become in its days of glory. Lee's command system functioned miserably when it functioned at all. Lieutenants such as Magruder and Huger were liabilities; even the renowned Stonewall Jackson stumbled. The Seven Days' Battles were a bloody learning experience for Lee himself. When he insisted afterward, "Under ordinary circumstances the Federal Army should have been destroyed," he was expressing his frustration at how badly his staff and his lieutenants (and perhaps he himself) had performed. The fact that nevertheless he drove McClellan headlong in retreat from the gates of Richmond is less a consequence of the vitality of his army than it is a measure of McClellan's incapacity as battle commander. At Antietam, the thesis of Confederate youthful force has no relevance at all. Lee fought the battle with the fewest men he would ever have until Appomattox. His men fought courageously, of course, and he commanded brilliantly, yet the day ended as it did because (once again) of General McClellan's incapacity on the battlefield.
The distinguished military historian Russell F. Weigley, pondering McClellan's failings as a battle leader, has suggested that the man is perhaps not the enigma historians have tried to paint; the answer, perhaps, is simpler than historians want to admit. In reviewing the McClellan Papers, Weigley observed that "the successful warrior chieftain ... needs a particular kind of moral courage, an ability to confront all sorts of horrors and terrors and emotional strains and crushing responsibilities for life and death, to meet them head-on and revel in their challenges. The McClellan of the wartime letters almost never confronts anything head-on. He was never a warrior. He was a cautious, timorous man probably not so different from most of the rest of us, but most of us lack the stuff of great generals .... Reading between the lines, we see in the Papers a McClellan who was simply and continually frightened by war, which is not so mysterious a condition."
This condition, it must be said, was not a matter of lack of personal courage McClellan had often enough demonstrated his bravery under fire in the Mexican War but there is indeed ample evidence that the terrible stresses of commanding men in battle, especially the beloved men of his beloved Army of the Potomac, left his moral courage in tatters. Under the pressure of this ultimate soldier's responsibility, the will to command deserted him. Glendale and Malvern Hill found him at the peak of his anguish during the Seven Days, and he fled those fields to escape the responsibility. At Antietam, where there was nowhere for him to flee to, he fell into a paralysis of indecision. Seen from a longer perspective, General McClellan could be both comfortable and successful performing as executive officer, and also, if somewhat less successfully, as grand strategist; as battlefield commander, however, he was simply in the wrong profession.
Mr. Lincoln grasped this failing of his general, and McClellan's stubborn, prolonged refusal to take the offensive after Antietam tried the president's patience once too often. Close study of McClellan's private letters in the period leading to his dismissal suggests that he was not overly eager to renew battle against General Lee. Furthermore, his effort to make the dismissal of Stanton and Halleck a condition of his remaining in command of the Potomac army has the look of a bluff he expected to be called. "I have the satisfaction of knowing that God has in his mercy a second time made me the instrument for saving the nation ...," he explained to Ellen. "I feel that the short campaign just terminated will vindicate my professional honor & I have seen enough of public life. No motive of ambition can now retain me in the service...."
There is some evidence that the president would later give thought to bringing McClellan back into the war in the role he had earlier shown aptitude for, that of general-in-chief. The idea, however fleeting it may have been, foundered on McClellan's growing involvement with the Democratic opposition. This initiated the general's fourth, and last, wartime role.
Recent studies of the 1864 presidential contest have included ventures into counterfactual history that is, the "what-ifs" of this wartime election. Assuming a suspension of disbelief, then, the question becomes: What if General McClellan had defeated Lincoln for the presidency on November 8, 1864?
In view of their diverse interpretations of McClellan's other wartime roles, it is no surprise to find a lack of consensus among historians in regard to "President McClellan." (Lincoln's margin of victory 212 to 21 in the electoral vote, 2.3 to 1.8 million in the popular vote is too substantial to be plausibly reversed for this exercise. Counterfactualists therefore posit that the Democratic convention nominated McClellan on a war-plank platform rather than the peace plank he was saddled with; or that Sherman failed to take Atlanta before the election; or both.)
Albert Castel, in an essay subtitled "How the South Almost Won by Not Losing," contends that had Atlanta not fallen to Sherman, McClellan would have been elected, in which event he would not have, or could not have, carried on the war. Instead, there would have been an armistice without conditions as called for in the Democratic platform. In The Jewel of Liberty, a study of the 1864 election, David E. Long reaches the same conclusion, and details McClellan's probable policies as president. His party's repudiation of Lincolnian war aims, writes Long, would perforce have been honored in full by President McClellan. Hence repudiation of the Emancipation Proclamation, the return of black soldiers to slavery, and a crippling of the Union's armed forces with no doubt widespread mutiny and bloodshed. In any event, Northern soldiers and their officers would already have been demoralized by the electorate's acceptance of the Democrats' "war is a failure" rallying cry. Too, McClellan's election would bring about a reinvigoration of the South's fighting spirit while gravely diminishing the North's will to support the war. A Democratic president and a Republican Congress (even with a November sweep in the congressional races, Democrats would not have regained control of the House and Senate until December 1865) would mean governmental gridlock in prosecuting the war.
William C. Davis, in his essay on the 1864 election, titled "The Turning Point That Wasn't," maintains that a McClellan victory in November would have made not the slightest difference in the war's outcome. Lincoln and his generals, Davis feels, would have made extraordinary efforts to put the war beyond McClellan's reach before he could take office. Therefore, upon his inauguration on March 4, 1865, the egotistical, opportunistic McClellan would have made the best of the bargain and leaped at the chance to take credit for presiding over the final victory. In that event, McClellan could rationalize his action to Democrats by pointing to his repudiation of the peace plank the party dissidents had inserted into the platform at the Chicago convention.
Not all the historians in this debate have listened carefully enough to exactly what George McClellan himself had to say about the issues of the war and about his resolve toward these issues. Beginning in the summer of 1862, after the failure of his Peninsula campaign, the general grew increasingly estranged from the Lincoln administration over what he perceived as violations of constitutional precepts and the rules of civilized warfare. He found discreditable, for example, the confiscation acts passed by Congress for dealing with Southerners' property. "Neither confiscation of property, political execution of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment," General McClellan told Lincoln in his famous Harrison's Landing letter. His concern here about "forcible abolition" was stated clearly turning a war for Union into a war for abolition would demoralize and "rapidly disintegrate" the army, for he did not believe his men would willingly go to battle for that objective. This was hardly a reactionary belief, and at the time a great many Northerners agreed with him. As to slavery itself, McClellan went on, military necessity certainly allowed for manumission "within a particular state" so long as there was compensation.
Conservative constitutional principles were most grossly violated, McClellan thought, by two presidential actions of September 1862, following the Battle of Antietam. These were, of course, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus as applied to those opposing efforts to raise military manpower or otherwise giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In his stand on habeas corpus McClellan was, again, far from being a reactionary and far from being alone. As to the Emancipation Proclamation, what he feared most as its consequence was the outbreak of bloody slave uprisings. "I cannot make up my mind to fight for such an accursed doctrine as that of a servile insurrection it is too infamous," he told Ellen. He could not imagine any greater violation of the rules of civilized warfare. Yet his basic underlying view was not changed. General Jacob Cox, an admitted antislavery Republican, conversed with McClellan at this time and concluded that the general believed "the war ought to end in abolition of slavery; but he feared the effects of haste, and thought the steps toward the end should be conservatively careful and not brusquely radical."
By the time of the election of 1864, the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect twenty-two months. Servile insurrections had not marched across the South. The army had not disintegrated or revolted. Black troops great numbers of them straight from slavery had poured into the Union ranks. None of McClellan's worst fears, indeed none of the worst fears of a great many Northerners, had materialized. Therefore, to imagine that George McClellan, inaugurated as president, with the war continuing, would in those circumstances have revoked the proclamation and ordered 100,000 black troops disarmed and sent back into slavery is to totally misread the man. To predict any return or restoration of slavery under a McClellan administration is equally unimaginable.
Both during the campaign and afterward, General McClellan left not a shred of doubt that if elected he would press the war to a conclusion a military conclusion with all possible speed. He did not (as has been thought) hesitate a moment in rejecting the peace plank inflicted on him by the platform committee of the Chicago convention; the delay in his acceptance letter was to try to find a way to paper over the party split that his stand revealed. He had only contempt for those in the peace wing, terming them the "adherents of Jeff Davis this side of the line." During the campaign he made sure officers in the army understood his commitment to seeing the war through to victory. One of his former aides recorded a conversation two weeks before the election "in which the General stated that should he be elected, he expected to be very unpopular the first year, as he should use every power possible to close the war at once, should enforce the draft strictly, and listen to no remonstrance until the rebellion was effectually quashed."
Following his presidential defeat, and with the war over, General McClellan cast a look backward. "Of course I can't tell what the secesh expected to be the result of my election," he told one of his former campaign managers, "but if they expected to gain their independence from me they would have been woefully mistaken ...." That, in fact, had been his credo from the moment he accepted his commission, ten days after Fort Sumter. Whether at headquarters or on the battlefield or in the political arena, in defeat and disappointment, George McClellan never wavered in his determination to put down the rebellion. Historians will no doubt continue to debate his exact contribution to that cause, but they have no cause to deny the sincerity of his efforts.
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