Interview: Longstreet says McClellan's lost opportunity was the "most disastrous failure of the war"

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lelliott19

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McClellan pt 2 image.JPG

On the occasion of Longstreet's visit to Antietam in 1893, a correspondent of the Washington Post recorded the General's opinions on a number of topics. In this part of the interview, General Longstreet continues his assessment in response to the question, ""What estimate do you place upon General McClellan, General Longstreet? Was he considered on your side as a man of real capacity?"

"McClellan commenced too high up, in fact. He should have begun as the colonel of a regiment. He was undoubtedly something of an organizer and a good drill master. He lost a great opportunity here on this Sharpsburg field -- no general could ask for a better. Commanding a greatly superior army, opposed to an enemy divided by the Potomac, Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge into four weak, isolated parts, whose location he absolutely knew from General Lee's written dispositions, which had accidentally fallen into his hands, McClellan's failure to not only relieve Harper's Ferry, but to destroy at least one of the segments of General Lee's army must be considered about the most disastrous failure of the war on either side.

"Properly, General McClellan should have merely threatened D. H. Hill at Turner's Pass, and poured his troops through Crampton's Gap upon McLaw's and Anderson's rear, with the Potomac River and the Harper's Ferry garrison in their front. There was no escape for them, and by this movement Harper's Ferry would have been wrested from our clutch. Instead McClellan elected to turn northward upon us and fight at Turner's Pass, where he lost eighteen hours, and then, after another delay of over thirty-six hours, to attack me in a chosen position behind the Antietam. Sharpsburg was the greatest single day's battle of the war, and involved the greatest losses on both sides."​
McClellan pt 2.JPG

Interview: Reprinted from the Washington Post of June 1893, the interview appeared in The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, VA.), November 12, 1911, page 3.
Image: LOC https://www.loc.gov/resource/gvhs01.vhs00118/?r=-0.073,0.03,1.447,0.628,0

Note: This post is Part 20 of a series on Longstreet's opinions of various Generals and individuals, expressed during an 1893 interview with a Washington Post corespondent. Longstreet's opinions on various individuals are posted in separate threads so they can be easily located - Bragg, Jackson, A P Hill, Early, Ewell, Pickett, Sheridan, Joe Johnston, Beauregard, Hood, Jeff Davis, Lee, Meade, McClellan, and more. Here are the links to Parts 1-19, posted previously:
Part 1 - Intro to the article
Part 2 - Longstreet on Bragg
Part 3 - Longstreet on Jackson
Part 4 - Longstreet on AP Hill
Part 5 - Longstreet on Ewell & Early
Part 6 - Longstreet on Pickett, Sheridan, Five Forks & the Timing of the Surrender
Part 7 - Longstreet on Joe Johnston
Part 8 - Longstreet on Beauregard
Part 9 - Longstreet on Hood
Part 10 - Longstreet on Lee's military attributes
Part 11 - Lee's Best Battle
Part 12 - Lee's Poorest Generalship
Part 13 - Lee's greatest weakness as tactical commander
Part 14 - Lee's tactical weakness at Gettysburg
Part 15 - Meade's Lost Opportunity
Part 16 - Gettysburg Controversies
Part 17 - Post-Gettysburg Relationship with Lee
Part 18 - Lee's Dangerous Confidence
Part 19 -
Longstreet on McClellan Part 1
<Up next - Three lucky shots at Antietam>
@Eleanor Rose @Union_Buff @FarawayFriend @War Horse @novushomus @GELongstreet @LeesWarhorse @Tom Elmore @Coonewah Creek @Yankeedave @Andy Cardinal @PeterT @Zella If you aren't tagged and would like to receive notification when these are posted, let me know and Ill tag you in future ones.
 

Eleanor Rose

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McClellan would agree with General Longstreet. After he received a copy of Lee's orders with details on his army, its deployments and the objectives, McClellan told his aides, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I am willing to go home."

Well he was unable to "whip" him so in early November, an exasperated President Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command and indeed sent him home for the rest of the war.

Some historians estimate that McClellan's conduct at Antietam added as many as two years to the Civil War.


Sources:
The Civil War (Bruce Catton, 1987)
The Civil War: A History (Harry Hansen, 1991)
Civil War Blunders (Clint Johnson, 1997)
 
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lelliott19

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General Longstreet on Jeff Davis' high opinion of McClellan in 1862:

"Strange to relate, President Davis held a high opinion of General McClellan's military capacity, and trembled for the safety of Richmond in the Spring of 1862. Personally, I had not much regard for him in the field. At the very outset I predicted that he would be fully a month getting ready to beat Magruder's 7,000 men on the peninsula, and proposed that meanwhile we make a flank movement against Washington by crossing the upper Potomac. The suggestion was not well received and Mr. Davis even seemed to be offended at my cavalier opinion of McClellan."
Davis' opinion McClellan.JPG

Source: Reprinted from the Washington Post of June 1893, the interview appeared in The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, VA.), November 12, 1911, page 3.
 

67th Tigers

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General Longstreet on Jeff Davis' high opinion of McClellan in 1862:

"Strange to relate, President Davis held a high opinion of General McClellan's military capacity, and trembled for the safety of Richmond in the Spring of 1862. Personally, I had not much regard for him in the field. At the very outset I predicted that he would be fully a month getting ready to beat Magruder's 7,000 men on the peninsula, and proposed that meanwhile we make a flank movement against Washington by crossing the upper Potomac. The suggestion was not well received and Mr. Davis even seemed to be offended at my cavalier opinion of McClellan."
Longstreet's attitudes were in line with Joe Johnston's - Yorktown and the Warwick Line were impregnable to assault* and it would do no good to send more troops to reinforce the ca. 60,000 defenders of Yorktown in mid-April.** Instead Johnston, along with Longstreet and GW Smith argued that Longstreet's and Smith's divisions should head north to link up with the divisions of Jackson, Ewell, Edward Johnson and JR Anderson and threaten Washington.

In essence, Johnston et al. argued for turbo-charging Jackson's Shenandoah offensive, using six divisions instead of two. By contrast, Lee, the CS GinC, was sending all those reinforcements because he thought an offensive in front was possible, not recognising that the situation had changed since Magruder suggested it on 21st March; the river which made it impossible for McClellan to assault also prevent the rebels from assaulting McClellan.

* Johnston's fear was that the USN would bring up ironclads and overwhelm Yorktown. It was a naval bombardment that caused him to call together a council-of-war on 1st May to discuss abandoning Yorktown. Everyone, including Longstreet, agreed.

** The defenders were so numerous that Johnston could not find places for these two extra divisions. Whilst he shuffled divisions around to place Longstreet in the line, he kept two divisions far back from Yorktown.
 
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I really love this series on Longstreet's assessment of battles and commanders. Great job @lelliott19! Here at CWT we have members who love to speak to the issue of Civil War strategy and tactics with its "woulda, coulda, shoulda". Here we have Longstreet with his terse analysis of what McClellan should have done at Antietam:

"Commanding a greatly superior army, opposed to an enemy divided by the Potomac, Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge into four weak, isolated parts, whose location he absolutely knew from General Lee's written dispositions, which had accidentally fallen into his hands, McClellan's failure to not only relieve Harper's Ferry, but to destroy at least one of the segments of General Lee's army must be considered about the most disastrous failure of the war on either side.

"Properly, General McClellan should have merely threatened D. H. Hill at Turner's Pass, and poured his troops through Crampton's Gap upon McLaw's and Anderson's rear, with the Potomac River and the Harper's Ferry garrison in their front. There was no escape for them, and by this movement Harper's Ferry would have been wrested from our clutch. Instead McClellan elected to turn northward upon us and fight at Turner's Pass, where he lost eighteen hours, and then, after another delay of over thirty-six hours, to attack me in a chosen position behind the Antietam."


Was Longstreet essentially correct or are these just the wandering comments of an aging warrior?!?
 
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67th Tigers

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Was Longstreet essentially correct or are these just the wandering comments of an aging warrior?!?
I did start a long post on this days back, but thought better of it.

Essentially, no. The road system simply doesn't work for Longstreet's suggestion. By the time any greater concentration can be affected, McLaws is south of the Potomac due to the surrender of HF.

Now, McLaws suggested to Jackson attacking Franklin, but Jackson rebuffed it. Lee had given orders to pull the army back together, even if it meant abandoning McLaws.

Now, when 1st and 9th Corps entered the Pleasant Valley on the 15th there was a warning order to Burnside that he may be tasked to "turn left" and reinforce Franklin for an attack on McLaws, but the surrender of HF was confirmed before Burnside reached the decision point, and the whole thing was academic.

Now, arguably 2nd Corps could have taken the road SW from Frederick to Crampton's Gap, but they would not be available on the 14th at CG. No change would have occurred until the 15th, and HF had surrendered and McLaws was back across the Potomac before 2nd Corps would have formed in the valley.
 

wausaubob

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Why wouldn't Longstreet know exactly what McClellan should have done, in 1893? The problem is that McClellan had to fight the battle in 1862, with an army that was battered. His own experience in figuring out the enemy's dispositions was not that favorable.
Moreover, it is probable that the administration had given McClellan very cautious instructions. He was not reinstalled to take chances.
 

leftyhunter

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View attachment 211404
On the occasion of Longstreet's visit to Antietam in 1893, a correspondent of the Washington Post recorded the General's opinions on a number of topics. In this part of the interview, General Longstreet continues his assessment in response to the question, ""What estimate do you place upon General McClellan, General Longstreet? Was he considered on your side as a man of real capacity?"

"McClellan commenced too high up, in fact. He should have begun as the colonel of a regiment. He was undoubtedly something of an organizer and a good drill master. He lost a great opportunity here on this Sharpsburg field -- no general could ask for a better. Commanding a greatly superior army, opposed to an enemy divided by the Potomac, Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge into four weak, isolated parts, whose location he absolutely knew from General Lee's written dispositions, which had accidentally fallen into his hands, McClellan's failure to not only relieve Harper's Ferry, but to destroy at least one of the segments of General Lee's army must be considered about the most disastrous failure of the war on either side.

"Properly, General McClellan should have merely threatened D. H. Hill at Turner's Pass, and poured his troops through Crampton's Gap upon McLaw's and Anderson's rear, with the Potomac River and the Harper's Ferry garrison in their front. There was no escape for them, and by this movement Harper's Ferry would have been wrested from our clutch. Instead McClellan elected to turn northward upon us and fight at Turner's Pass, where he lost eighteen hours, and then, after another delay of over thirty-six hours, to attack me in a chosen position behind the Antietam. Sharpsburg was the greatest single day's battle of the war, and involved the greatest losses on both sides."​
View attachment 211405
Interview: Reprinted from the Washington Post of June 1893, the interview appeared in The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, VA.), November 12, 1911, page 3.
Image: LOC https://www.loc.gov/resource/gvhs01.vhs00118/?r=-0.073,0.03,1.447,0.628,0

Note: This post is Part 20 of a series on Longstreet's opinions of various Generals and individuals, expressed during an 1893 interview with a Washington Post corespondent. Longstreet's opinions on various individuals are posted in separate threads so they can be easily located - Bragg, Jackson, A P Hill, Early, Ewell, Pickett, Sheridan, Joe Johnston, Beauregard, Hood, Jeff Davis, Lee, Meade, McClellan, and more. Here are the links to Parts 1-19, posted previously:
Part 1 - Intro to the article
Part 2 - Longstreet on Bragg
Part 3 - Longstreet on Jackson
Part 4 - Longstreet on AP Hill
Part 5 - Longstreet on Ewell & Early
Part 6 - Longstreet on Pickett, Sheridan, Five Forks & the Timing of the Surrender
Part 7 - Longstreet on Joe Johnston
Part 8 - Longstreet on Beauregard
Part 9 - Longstreet on Hood
Part 10 - Longstreet on Lee's military attributes
Part 11 - Lee's Best Battle
Part 12 - Lee's Poorest Generalship
Part 13 - Lee's greatest weakness as tactical commander
Part 14 - Lee's tactical weakness at Gettysburg
Part 15 - Meade's Lost Opportunity
Part 16 - Gettysburg Controversies
Part 17 - Post-Gettysburg Relationship with Lee
Part 18 - Lee's Dangerous Confidence
Part 19 -
Longstreet on McClellan Part 1
<Up next - Three lucky shots at Antietam>
@Eleanor Rose @Union_Buff @FarawayFriend @War Horse @novushomus @GELongstreet @LeesWarhorse @Tom Elmore @Coonewah Creek @Yankeedave @Andy Cardinal @PeterT @Zella If you aren't tagged and would like to receive notification when these are posted, let me know and Ill tag you in future ones.
We need to get another one of our McCellen experts @Saphroneth to weigh in. As always we have to look at Longstreet's win vs loss record as an independent commander.
Leftyhunter
 
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Longstreet's attitudes were in line with Joe Johnston's - Yorktown and the Warwick Line were impregnable to assault* and it would do no good to send more troops to reinforce the ca. 60,000 defenders of Yorktown in mid-April.
It's true that Longstreet and Johnson seemed to have similar opinions regarding McClellans failure to assault at Yorktown. But they did not consider the Yorktown line impregnable to assault... except maybe impregnable to an assault by McClellan.

Johnstons remark about "only McClellan would have hesitated" and Longstreets remarks about having little regard for McClellan in the field, show that neither Johnston nor Longstreet were all that impressed by McClellans actions.
 

ErnieMac

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Remember that by the time on September 14 that McClellan attacked South Mountain, Special Order 191 was five days old. South Mountain provided a perfect screen, McClellan had no way of knowing how the Confederate positions had changed or what awaited west of the ridge. To blindly push the AoP through one gap served by a marginal road network would have been rather foolish IMO.
 
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As always we have to look at Longstreet's win vs loss record as an independent commander.
It seems we always do, but I don't understand why. This thread isn't about Longstreet's command. It's about his opinion of McClellan. General Longstreet didn't have "much regard for him in the field," but it seems Jefferson Davis did. Let's focus on McClellan and whether or not we agree with General Longstreet's opinion of him - not on our opinion of General Longstreet.

Should the Confederate leaders have had "much regard" for McClellan in the field? If so, why?
 

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It seems we always do, but I don't understand why. This thread isn't about Longstreet's command. It's about his opinion of McClellan. General Longstreet didn't have "much regard for him in the field," but it seems Jefferson Davis did. Let's focus on McClellan and whether or not we agree with General Longstreet's opinion of him - not on our opinion of General Longstreet.

Should the Confederate leaders have had "much regard" for McClellan in the field? If so, why?
Just pointing out that those who live in a glass house should not throw stones.
If Grant or Thomas criticized McCellen then I would take them as a more credible source then a general that constantly fails at independent command.
As for the question of should Confederate leader's hold McCellen in high regard ; be it on the offensive or defensive McCellen achieved higher Combat Effective Values
then any Union general that CV faced Lee.
If McCellen had the manpower numerical advantage that Grant had it is reasonable to assume that McCellen could of seized Richmond in 1862.
Leftyhunter
 

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Just pointing out that those who live in a glass house should not throw stones.
So when this reporter approached General Longstreet and asked him his opinion, you think he should have declined to answer. Seems to me his opinion was worth reporting. After all everyone has one. If you need to have commanded a "successful" independent command to offer an opinion on McClellan, few of us (if any) should be posting.
 
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So when this reporter approached General Longstreet and asked him his opinion, you think he should have declined to answer. Seems to me his opinion was worth reporting. After all everyone has one. If you need to have commanded a "successful" independent command to offer an opinion on McClellan, few of us (if any) should be posting.
I am a big believer in the 1st Amendment. That being said it is not inappropriate to note Longstreet's success or lack of it in terms of independent command. If one independent commander ( at least on occasion) critiques another independent commander then the critics background in independent command is fair game.
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leftyhunter

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To quote @connecticut yankee, "Here at CWT we have members who love to speak to the issue of Civil War strategy and tactics with its "woulda, coulda, shoulda"."
But facts are facts. Offensive operations work best when one side has all the advantages. Is it fair to criticize McCellen for failure if he didn't have the manpower and logistical support Grant had?
Not that I begrudge Grant using all resources at his disposal. Just pointing out criticism of McCellen should take into account the totality of McCellen's disadvantages over Lee.
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If Grant or Thomas criticized McCellen then I would take them as a more credible source then a general that constantly fails at independent command.
This is a very interesting point and I would be curious to hear others thoughts on it. To be honest, I’m not sure how seriously I would take Grant’s assessment of McClellan. His modesty and aversion to finding fault in others is well known. One of his staff officers, Colonel Ely S. Parker explained it this way :

Our conversations would sometimes become of a personal nature, but I have never heard Grant refer to any man in the way of sneer or detraction. He always sought to speak of the good in men rather than the evil, and if he had to speak of the bad qualities in a man he would close his remarks with the mention of his good points, or excuses why he did not have them. In his talk with others I have never heard him say or do anything which might embarrass or mortify them.”

A good example of this and one that has always bothered me a bit (made me feel sorry for Grant) is this one:

In December 1864, after Grant has assumed command of all the armies, General George Meade wrote to his wife (upon Sheridan’s promotion):

[I do] not see anything I can do but bear patiently til it pleases God to let the truth be known and matters be set right…Now, to tell the truth, [Grant] has greatly disappointed me, and since this campaign I really begin to think I am something of a general.”

and later:

It is the same old story, the inability to appreciate the sensitiveness of a man of character and honor.”

At this same time Grant is writing to Washburne trying to get his help in getting Meade’s confirmation as major general:

What the objections are I do not know, and therefore cannot address myself to them. I am very sorry this should be so. General Meade is one of our truest men and ablest officers. He has been constantly with that army, confronting the strongest, best-appointed and most confident army in the South. He therefore has not had the same opportunity of winning laurels so distinctively marked as have fallen the lot of other generals. But I defy any one to name a commander who could do more than he has done with the same chances.”

Source: Grant of Appomattox by William E. Brooks
 

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I couldn't agree more with Longstreet's assessment: "McClellan commenced too high up, in fact. He should have begun as the colonel of a regiment." In contrast to Grant, Sherman, and certainly many other officers whose experience and skills developed over time, McClellan was placed in the highest level of command at the earliest moments of the war. Not only did he lack the benefit of a true "learning curve" but his government superiors expected much because they likewise had unrealistic notions about warfare in the early days of the war.
 
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