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

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wausaubob

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If McClellan had started lower he might not have been given such a responsible command. He might have become an important staff officer, or it might have evolved that he had a distaste for combat.
Neither Grant or Sherman spent much effort criticizing McClellan's operations. Longstreet spends more time doing that, but McClellan is dead by then, and General Longstreet is clearly speaking with advantage of hindsight.
Longstreet's comments suggest the southern officers saw McClellan as not authentic, and not a good fit in Lincoln's command structure.
The winning team for the United States in the end, was made up of a respected assortment of young and old West Pointers, with a sprinkle of volunteer officers, who made it a point to follow US policy, not criticize it.
 
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Eleanor Rose

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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."
And Grant did too...

“Speaking of McClellan,” said the General, ” I should say that the two disadvantages under which he labored were his receiving a high command before he was ready for it, and the political sympathies which he allowed himself to champion. It is a severe blow to any one to begin so high. I always dreaded going to the army of the Potomac. After the battle of Gettysburg I was told I could have the command; but I managed to keep out of it. I had seen so many generals fall, one after another, like bricks in a row, that I shrank from it. After the battle of Mission Ridge, and my appointment as Lieutenant-General, and I was allowed to choose my place, it could not be avoided. Then it seemed as if the time was ripe, and I had no hesitation.”

Source: “Around the World with General Grant” p. 463
 

Jamieva

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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)
Granted, McClellan was relieved more due to his lack of pursuit after the battle than the battle itself. The battle was fought in mid September and he was relieved after the elections 2 months later.
 
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Rebforever

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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.
Well, Eleanor. I don’t know about news papers articles! We are told one can’t believe them, you know. :wink:
 

67th Tigers

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There is an implication in Longstreet's remarks that if McClellan had pushed his advantages at Antietam Creek, perhaps the war would have been shortened and lives saved.
But which way? It is possible that McClellan's army could have broken.

Criticism rests with the idea that McClellan had a large unengaged force (called, erroneously, by some observers a reserve), and if he'd only have attacked with that Lee's lines would be broken. There are a bunch of problems with this.

1. McClellan's unengaged force was smaller than people think, and Lee had more fresh troops than people think

McClellan's unengaged force was, in round figures, 11,000 infantry and 2 batteries. Two brigades counted as "engaged" would have been available, but Warren's little half-brigade wouldn't. 5th and 6th Corps could have launched roughly 14,000 infantry, or about the same strength as 2nd Corps on its own launched earlier in the day.

6th Corps would have been attacking two fairly fresh divisions head on in defensive terrain; Walker's and McLaws' divisions only action had been overrunning Sedgwick in the West Woods, and they'd had hours to reorganise after their victory. In addition Armistead's fresh brigade and the residue of Jackson's and Hood's divisions, and Early's brigade, were available.

For 6th Corps the question becomes "can 7,500 bayonets successfully frontally attack ca. 10,000 fresh bayonets back by maybe 5,000 used troops in defensive terrain)".

5th Corps with 6,500 bayonets would basically be attacking the Hagerstown Road position DH Hill rallied on when the sunken road collapsed, with 4 of RH Anderson's fresh brigades (ca. 4,000 bayonets), plus the residue of 3 of DH Hill's brigades holding a stone fence. To reach the stone fence they'd need to march a mile under the fire of ca. 10 guns, and in the last quarter mile (400 m) some 50-60 guns could fire on them. Unlike the Dunker Church position 6th Corps would be attacking, this position was well protected by artillery.

I'd personally contend that Franklin's two divisions (6 fresh bdes) had no chance of dislodging a superior enemy force (9 fresh brigades) in good defensive terrain. I don't think that had Porter's 5 bdes attacked the Hagerstown Road position (manned by 5 fresh and 3 used bdes) they'd have had much success either.

2. When to use the last reserve

A general should never throw in a last reserve into an attack. The last reserve is only to be used if the enemy force has broken, for a pursuit. If you throw in your last reserve to "break the enemy line" then you've nothing to push through the gap and any victory is hollow. A classic example would be Nashville, where Thomas "put everything in" and had nothing left to exploit when the Shy's Hill position was overrun, and Hood's army was able to make a clean break.

3. What if...

Assume McClellan did make one last roll of the dice, and 5th and 6th Corps were both bloodily repulsed (as you'd expect from the situation). Then what?
 

wausaubob

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I don't know what was possible. But Longstreet most likely did, by 1893. However McClellan had different knowledge and different goals in 1862. I take that General Longstreet by 1893 was wishing that General McClellan had taken those chances and succeeded. By 1893 the unified nation was a world power. Slavery was gone in the western hemisphere and many southerners had regrets that the war was continued as long as it was.
 
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Eleanor Rose

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Criticism rests with the idea that McClellan had a large unengaged force
As I have said in an earlier post, I'm certainly not an expert on Antietam or McClellan. However, with that said my reading on this battle has always lead me to believe that Antietam was the Union’s greatest missed opportunity of the war. Even if you argue the size of the Confederate and Union armies, the intelligence coup of the Lost Order and the problematical escape route for the Confederates are enough evidence IMHO that George McClellan missed repeated chances to virtually destroy the ANV. Ezra Carman, a soldier-historian and author of the most detailed tactical study of the battle, wrote that at Antietam “more errors were committed by the Union commander than in any other battle of the war.” I think Colonel Carman had it exactly right. General Longstreet did too.
 

wausaubob

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By the time of Antietam McClellan had seen enough of the war to know that this was not the war he wanted. He thought there was a potential political solution, so the extreme combat of Antietam was something that should have been avoided.
Among East Coast Democrats McClellan's view had considerable support.
But Longstreet's opinions are colored with regret.
 
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CanadianCanuck

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Wasn't the lack of simultaneous and coordinated assaults along the entire line the major cause of McClellan's failure to achieve anything beyond a tactical draw at Antietam?
Well part of the reason for this is that McClellan seems to have genuinely believed that there were nearly 100,000 Confederates on the field at Antietam. He kept a large body in reserve for a phantom army that never appeared, which is what allowed Lee to make a clean getaway.

In truth, McClellan almost caught Lee at his weakest in the war, and a big field victory in September 1862 might have severely hampered Confederate plans for 1863. However, Lee was able to slip away unmolested and McClellan spent the next month saying he couldn't possibly move to attack Lee. When he finally did Lee was easily ready for him, hence his dismissal in November 1862.
 

Nauplius

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On the other hand, there's the Harsh and Rafuse view that McClellan fought Antietam more or less OK.

I think I agree with them, but even for those who don't, do you believe the Union made more blunders there than, say, Perryville or Chickamauga or Fredericksburg or the Crater?
 
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lelliott19

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1. McClellan's unengaged force was smaller than people think, and Lee had more fresh troops than people think

6th Corps would have been attacking two fairly fresh divisions head on in defensive terrain; Walker's and McLaws' divisions only action had been overrunning Sedgwick in the West Woods, and they'd had hours to reorganise after their victory. In addition Armistead's fresh brigade and the residue of Jackson's and Hood's divisions, and Early's brigade, were available.

For 6th Corps the question becomes "can 7,500 bayonets successfully frontally attack ca. 10,000 fresh bayonets back by maybe 5,000 used troops in defensive terrain)".
I can only provide details on one regiment of one brigade of McLaws' division, but I will assert that Cobb's brigade of McLaws' division was certainly not what I'd call "fresh." The brigade, along with 3 regiments of Mahone's infantry and a detachment of Munford's cavalry, had been overrun on September 14 as they attempted to hold up the entire of Franklin's VI Corps at Crampton's Gap.

Through detailed analysis of carded records, letters, diaries, and period newspaper casualty reports, I conclude that the casualties in Cobb's brigade were seriously under-reported. I have only done detailed analysis of one regiment - the 16th Georgia.

McLaws reported the 16th GA entered the fight with 27 officers and 341 enlisted men= 368 engaged. Officially, the regiment reported 24 killed; 36 wounded; 107 missing = total 167. The actual casualties for the regiment were 27 killed; 25 mortally wounded; 13 wounded; 57 wounded/captured; 93 captured; 0 missing for a total loss of 215 of 368 engaged (an under-reporting of casualties by 28%.) Which puts their losses on September 14th at 58.4% and leaves them with only 153 possible effectives who could have made it to the field on September 17th.

More the size of a large company than a regiment. And those 153 men were scattered, having to escape capture as best they could - every man for himself. It is doubtful that all 153 ever made it to the field at Sharpsburg three days later. I'm sure Cobb's men who managed to escape capture - what you call "stragglers" - trickled in the next day Sept 15, hopefully got something to eat, and then had to march from there, to Harper's Ferry and then to Sharpsburg - about 24 miles.

The VI Corps had the short route - I believe they marched from Crampton's Gap via Rohrsville to Antietam about 10 miles.

.....So I don't think I'd personally choose the word "fresh" to describe all of McLaws' division.
Note: I am not attempting to claim that losses were under-reported for other brigades in McLaws' Division, but for Cobb's it is clear that they were seriously under-reported. If they were for other brigades in McLaws' division, I think it is entirely possible that the VI Corps could have been victorious in the scenario you propose.
 
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Everyone was in over their heads at the beginning. Sherman recognized this . and told Cameron that he didn't want independent command and that someone else should be in command when Anderson quit. His "craziness" is that of someone who recognized that fact.

Mac had the problem of a head swelled to enormous size by command, as opposed to being crushed by it as was the case with Sherman. Reading his correspondence with his wife makes one laugh so you don't cry.

Grant's good fortune was his bad fortune with Halleck. It forced him to do his learning at low levels.

Lee also had a miserable start to the war, being chased out of West VA. He was a stopgap when he replaced Johnson.
 
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