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Informing Your Commander
General Robert E. Lee Informed His Commander in Chief, but Generals Joseph E. Johnston and George B. McClellan Did Not, and Their Causes Paid Dearly
The American Civil War brought to the fore hundreds of military officers whose battlefield decisions have shaped our history. Some proved adept in commanding troops, other proved disastrous. Some worked exceedingly well with their superiors, others just the opposite.
Those dexterous or disastrous at leading up could be found on both the Union and Confederate sides of the battlefields. In this resource, neither side dominated, and both sides discovered that its supply often spelled the difference between triumph and disaster. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contrasting styles of three of the great generals of the Civil War: George B. McClellan, Joseph E. Johnston, and Robert E. Lee.
By spring of 1862, a year after Confederate rebels fired on Federal troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, a Union army under McClellan's command was on the offensive. With more than 120,000 troops and enormous siege guns, McClellan sent his force up a Virginia peninsula toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. His strategy was simple: destroy the defending army, capture the Confederate leadership, end the war.
Though attacking to restore the Union, George McClellan treated its commander in chief with thinly veiled disdain. In the general's view, Abraham Lincoln was uncouth, uncivilized, and untutored in battlefield affairs. McClellan would insulate his strategy against meddling from the president by resisting policy directives, inflating enemy threats, and withholding battlefield reports. For his part, Lincoln was less interested in personalities than results, but without orders honored, numbers trusted, or intelligence delivered, how could he render McClellan the support he requested?
Meanwhile, as McClellan launched his vast and unprecedented military campaign against Richmond, the Confederacy assigned its premier commander, Joseph E. Johnston, the imperative of defending the capital. Like McClellan, Johnston was supremely confident in his own generalship and brooked no advice from political superiors. To ensure that little advice was received, he kept the Confederacy's supreme commander, President Jefferson Davis, in the dark.
But President Davis had been a military commander in his own right. A graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War, he had served as chairman of the U.S. Senate's military affairs committee and as U.S. secretary of war. He expected his commanders to welcome his advice, but he also appreciated that he could render real counsel only if his commanders informed him of what they were facing in the field and what they were intending to do about it.
When a shell fragment felled Johnston on May 31, 1862, President Davis replaced him with his own aide, Robert E. Lee. General Lee continued his own well-established practice of informing and consulting with the president. The result was Davis's unswerving support for Lee. Lee received the men and materiel he required, and within days he had stopped the Union advance on Richmond that General McClellan had been unable to sustain and General Johnston unable to reverse.
By aggressively keeping his president in the picture, Lee acquired what he needed from his superior for both to win. McClellan and Johnston had not and they did not. As we will see in this chapter, the disparity between the upward incapacity of generals McClellan and Johnston (on opposing sides of the war) and the upward facility of General Lee could not have been greater, nor more momentous for the course of the war. Lee's exceptional ability to work with those above gave an enormous advantage to the secessionist cause in the weeks that followed. History offers few starker contrasts of upward leadership performed so differently to such great consequence, nor few clearer examples of the difference that appreciating and informing your superior can make-for you, your superior, and your mutual cause.
Setting the Stage:
Early Battles in the Civil War
Newly elected president Abraham Lincoln had warned in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, that a "disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted" but that the rush to "secession is the essence of anarchy." He appealed to the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone." He asked that we heed the "better angels of our nature."
Lincoln's words fell on deaf ears. South Carolina, Mississippi, and five other states had already declared their exit from the Union. On April 10, 1861, Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, commander of provisional Confederate forces, demanded the surrender of the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The demand refused, he opened fire on the fortress and forced its surrender on April 13 without a casualty suffered on either side. Virginia announced its exit from the Union on April 17. The first land battle of the Civil War came six weeks later when a Union brigade surprised and routed a small Confederate force at Philippi, Virginia (now West Virginia). The human toll: 26 Rebel casualties and 4 Federal losses.
The first large-scale engagement of the Civil War erupted on July 21 when Confederate generals Johnston and Beauregard confronted and defeated Union General Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia in a battle along Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, just twenty-five miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The engagement brutally dispelled any notion on either side that the secession would be quickly secured or crushed. Southern forces suffered 1,750 casualties, Northern forces 2,950.
In the wake of the Federal defeat at Manassas, President Lincoln on July 27 appointed George McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union's largest and most potent fighting machine. His immediate job was to protect Washington from further attack by General Johnston, whose Confederate forces had dug in after the battle just twenty miles from the capital. Neither general, though, was yet primed to strike a decisive blow against the other-or even start a fight. As summer turned to fall, the opposing forces recruited, regrouped, and reviewed their options, but neither moved to battle. By the end of 1861, the two sides' combined losses would not total a fraction of those cut down in a single day's fighting at Antietam, Maryland, less than a year later.
In March of 1862, the standoff in northern Virginia came to an end. After rancorous debate in the White House and War Department, the Union settled on an aggressive strategy of grand attack, with George McClellan targeting the biggest prize of all, the Confederate capital. Since little remained secret in a conflict where both sides compiled a steady flow of information from newspaper reporters, amateur observers, and professional spies, the Confederacy withdrew Johnston's forces from its offensive position near Washington to a defensive posture around Richmond.
As the great confrontation took form, the combat fate of each side and the eventual fate of the rebellion and the republic depended on Johnston's and McClellan's strategic theories with respect to each other's army, on their field equipment and military discipline, on their intelligence networks, and in part on dumb luck. But it also depended in no small part on the two commanders' relations with their superiors.
In both cases, the relations were lethally impaired by the flawed behavior of the two generals themselves. Historians have judged their failings harshly. President Davis "had come to view" Joseph Johnston his own general, whom he himself had appointed "as the enemy," concluded Craig L. Symonds, a Johnston biographer, and Johnston must bear a "major responsibility for the failure of the Confederate war effort." On the Union side, George McClellan "was inarguably the worst commander" that the Army of the Potomac ever had, offered Stephen W. Sears, a McClellan biographer, and "the record is equally clear that it was his own decisions, rather than those of the government, that doomed his grand campaign to end the war."
Among the most dooming decisions of both McClellan and Johnston were their open displays of contempt for their superiors and their consistent denial of data to them. The fatal consequences of their overt antagonism stood in pointed contrast to what Lee would subsequently achieve with the opposite tack.
Such judgments, of course, are made in hindsight. As the Union march against Richmond neared, all that could be said for certain was that the fortunes of both sides rested on a very thin reed of trust extending between the leadership in the field and the supreme commanders at the top of each army.
Failing to "Lead Up" on the Union Side: General McClellan Scorned His Boss, President Lincoln
In March 1862, as Washington hatched the Peninsula Campaign to end the secession, George McClellan was serving not only as commanding general for the Union Army of the Potomac, but also as general in chief for all Northern armies. With seven months in the first role and four in the latter, the thirty-five-year-old McClellan was both the youngest and most senior general officer in Federal service.
McClellan's riveting attention to engineering efficiency and combatant welfare greatly endeared him to his troops. He made a point of mastering the names of his officers, and he frequently rode and walked among his enlisted men. During one campaign, after he shook the hand of a soldier and commended his brigade for its fight, news of the general's personal compliment spread like wildfire. McClellan believed that personifying the army in the form of the commander would foster the morale and verve needed for success on the battlefield. He often conveyed his admiration and appreciation for his troops, especially the front line, and they repaid the attention. On June 19, 1861, the New York Tribune reported to its readers that McClellan "is personally extremely popular" and "army officers and men and everybody seem to have entire faith in him." For downward leadership, he found few equals in the Federal ranks.
In stark contrast to this respect for his troops, however, George McClellan's regard for his superiors verged on contempt. Since his West Point days, he had found occasion to quarrel with almost anybody his senior. He questioned those who determined class rankings at the U.S. Military Academy, even though he would graduate second among fifty-eight in the class of 1846. Upon graduation, McClellan shipped off to fight in the Mexican War, and there he displayed a disdain for any superior officer who had come from civilian life rather than West Point.
He soon targeted political leaders with the same scorn. As early as 1853, when McClellan surveyed the Pacific Northwest for a railroad passage under the direction of the Washington Territory governor, he wrote in his journal, "I have done my last service under civilians & politicians." He told himself that he would quit his exploration unless the governor would give him "general orders & never say one word as to the means or time of executing them."
McClellan's return to civilian life as an executive with the Illinois Central railway in 1858 only added to his growing list of dislikes. McClellan wrote that a certain attorney for the railroad one Abraham Lincoln "was not a man of very strong character" and "was destitute of refinement."
It would be a short-lived stint in the private sector for McClellan as the gathering winds of war brought him back into uniform on April 23, 1861. Almost from the start, he was predictably at loggerheads with the Union's general in chief, seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott, a onetime mentor. McClellan demanded more officers and troops for the Ohio forces that had been placed in his charge, and when Scott refused-hard-pressed as he was to muster troops for all the forces being mobilized-McClellan complained to the Ohio governor that "I almost regret having entered upon my present duty." McClellan soon came to resist General Scott's orders and instructions, and by the end of September 1861, Scott confided to the secretary of war that he would court-martial McClellan for insubordination were it not for its fearful effect on Northern morale. By then, McClellan was in open rebellion against his former friend. A month later, President Lincoln relieved Scott of his command and, on November 1, named George McClellan as the Union's new general in chief.
The sentiment underlying the honor that President Lincoln had bestowed upon George McClellan was not reciprocated. Indeed, the general could not even bring himself to disguise his disrespect for his commander in chief.
Abraham Lincoln had the habit of making unannounced visits to McClellan's office, and though many would feel deeply honored by such calls, for George McClellan they were a burden. McClellan occasionally hid himself at an associate's home to "dodge" a "browsing" president, but on the evening of November 13, 1861, Lincoln called unexpectedly on McClellan's own home. The president arrived with Secretary of State William Seward and personal secretary John Hay, but McClellan's orderly told the visitors that the general was attending a wedding. They decided to wait for his return, yet when the general arrived home an hour later, he walked swiftly past the parlor in which the presidential party was waiting and proceeded upstairs. Half an hour later, Lincoln and his guests sent the aide upstairs to remind McClellan of their presence. The emissary returned to report that the general had gone to bed. John Hay later described the slight as "unparalleled insolence."
By the time George McClellan was finally ready to start the Peninsula Campaign in midspring of 1862, he had managed to alienate virtually every member of President Lincoln's cabinet, most perilously Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. On March 11, just two days before the campaign was to commence, President Lincoln relieved McClellan from his position as general in chief, explaining that "McClellan having personally taken the field" to spearhead the attack on Richmond would have his hands full.