Little Mac, grand strategist


First Sergeant
May 8, 2015
Great, great post. I'm sure you can see where I'm coming from. In everything I've ever read (not that it has been very extensive, mostly Catton and Sears, not up to Peninsula yet with Foote), Yorktown has always been presented as being an example of McClellan's timidity with the implication that he was just not a very good general. I think most casual history readers will probably be in a similiar boat and come away with this impression. I don't think I've ever seen Yorktown characterized as a strategic masterpiece.
Do you have any recommendations for a balanced work on McClellan or at least the AoTP in 1862?
Rafuse is probably the most balanced towards McClellan.

As you can see though, McClellan has his apologists, as every other general north or south does as well.

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1st Lieutenant
Feb 18, 2017
This is an argument found in a book from 1912 that 67th pointed me at, that I thought was worth airing as a supplement to the usual arguments about Lee's strength vice that of McClellan.

On July 20 1862, Lee had 4,333 officers marked as present for duty; this discounts Jackson's force and the defences of Richmond themselves. On July 10 (i.e. after the Seven Days and after he got all the reinforcements he'd ever have) McClellan had 3,834 officers marked as present for duty. (The bottom-line total is 4,327 officers, but this number includes Fort Monroe and vicinity, who were a week's march away.)
Of the two, it was Lee and not McClellan who was calling for additional officers about this time (specifically on August 8th) which implies that if either of these forces had an improper relation of officers to men it would be Lee's force being under-officered. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the Confederate definition of PFD was actually effectives as this would discount enlisted who were doing "other jobs" but officers are officers.

Comparison of officer counts assuming an equal officer ratio implies that Lee's force actually near Richmond was a little greater than the whole of McClellan's force in and around Harrison's Landing (about 1/8 greater) before counting the troops in the Richmond defences, which is also broadly consistent with estimated PFD from the Seven Days of the Confederate force and the scale of the subsequent reinforcements. We can assume that if McClellan advanced Jackson would be called in, and that McClellan would be significantly outnumbered if he advanced without being reinforced.

ED: Assuming that the total strength of Jackson's force (of at least seven brigades) meant that it included as many officers as Longstreet's division (also of seven brigades), the total officer strength of Lee's force in Richmond after calling in Jackson can be estimated at about 5,000 (though whether or not this includes the Richmond garrison forces depends on how under-officered Jackson is).
This means that the reinforcements required by McClellan to advance without fear of being outnumbered would be equivalent to those required to give him 5,000 officers as well; that is, to a first approximation an extra two corps of the same strength of his existing ones.
(That's not as bad as it sounds, it's about 30,000 PFD or less if his sick list shortens. It's basically Burnside's force plus some extra regiments, as the reinforcements are fresh they're more "full up".)
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1st Lieutenant
Feb 18, 2017
So I thought I'd put together a quick discussion of the two points which seem to have been the biggest contrasts between Lincoln's view and that of McClellan on the appropriate strategy against Richmond.

1) Fighting versus Strategy.
The first of Lincoln's views is a disdain articulated late in 1862 about McClellan and his belief that he would beat the Confederates with "strategy", as contrasted in Lincoln's mind to his view that the answer was "fighting" - something he felt McClellan was reluctant to do.

It is useful at this point to discuss why it is that battles happen.

Battles can happen for a number of situations.
A) Both armies wish for a battle.
This usually happens when both sides feel, for whatever reason, that they can win a battle. Sometimes this is because each side believes themselves the numerically stronger, while other times one side believes itself numerically stronger enough to overcome some other advantage the enemy has and the numerically weaker side disagrees.
This kind of battle fundamentally means that one side has miscalculated, unless the result is a no-score draw.

B) One of the armies wishes for a battle and the other is compelled to engage them, rather than wanting to.
An example of this would be that the second army in the discussion is trapped in some way and cannot refuse battle (such as Antietam) while another would be that the first army was in position to gain a major strategic advantage unless the second army fought (such as fighting at the gates of the capital).
This kind of battle means the first army can force an engagement - the second army cannot decline engagement even if it is at a disadvantage.

C) One or both armies are surprised by the battle.
This means that the initial contact has essentially happened by chance for at least one side. If it develops into a full battle it is either because both sides feed in reinforcements until they're committed or because once the battle has begun neither side considers withdrawing to be in their best interests (or they are prevented from withdrawing, which is type B.)

What this means, in other words, is that the ways to ensure that the enemy engages you in battle that are within your control are either to fight a battle at poor odds (or rather at odds your enemy thinks will let them win, that meaning you are at some kind of disadvantage) or to create a situation where they must engage you. The second option is obviously superior but much harder; the first is much easier but it means higher casualties on your part and you may very well lose.

Lee was good at manoeuvre; if you advance on him with a larger army where he has freedom of manoeuvre he'll only fight you if he wants to take the fight, which means he thinks he can win. Johnston was quite good at it as well - what this means is that to get the AoNV in a situation where it'll fight rather than fall back you need to either use strategy or accept that Lee will pick the ground and defend on it, and that latter means Spotsylvania or Cold Harbor or Fredericksburg (i.e. lots of casualties and a repulse).

This may seem as though I'm trying to ascribe negative outcomes to "Lincoln's way of doing things", but Lincoln actually approved of how Fredericksburg went - or, at least, the bloody battles part of it...

2) Overland versus over sea

There is a simple problem with the Overland approach to Richmond as contrasted with the approach going by sea, and it's this - it never actually worked.

This may sound preposterous. But consider Grant's Overland campaign from the lens of supply.
Grant starts off supplying from the O&A rail line, and detaches from it for the Wilderness battles.
He re-establishes supply from Fredericksburg and points east, which is waterborne supply.
He fights Spotsylvania then moves around the eastern flank (to the North Anna), then again around the eastern flank (to Cold Harbor) and then again (to the area of Harrisons Landing). Once here he operated from the line of the James river, with his right flank also supplying from the York IIRC, and ultimately took Richmond.

What this means is that when Grant actually campaigned successfully against Richmond, his Overland Campaign was actually a complicated way to get to the James river. It could be argued that much the same result could have been obtained by simply shipping his army to the mouth of the James and marching up the Virginia Peninsula - Grant didn't leave large garrisons to secure the area he'd taken, so there was no real benefit over going by sea.

The argument which Lincoln and his fellows (Stanton, Halleck etc.) used to justify the Overland approach can be summarized as the idea that the Army of the Potomac going overland acts as a shield for Washington. But if one views this as the requirement, the historical Overland route is actually a failure because the army has to move around Richmond and is no longer north of it (between Richmond and Washington), which allows Lee to send a raid by significant forces against Washington anyway (see Jubal Early).

Without taking the Richmond and Fredericksburg Rail Road (which was never historically achieved against Lee) the only way an army can sustain itself close enough to Richmond to fight through the fortifications is by water - either up the York river or up the James river. Of the two, supplying up the York and the Pamunkey is the one which places the Union army in a better position to pressure Richmond if a force is sent to raid Washington, but it also requires enough troops on the right flank to hold the Mechanicsville area (where the Richmond garrison can sally) and the line of the Tolopatamoy (where a flanking force can come down and unzip the right flank otherwise) while still allowing enough forces on the left flank to make regular approaches to Richmond; supplying up the James is less precarious, but it's pretty much south of Richmond so it's not the case that the AotP is acting as a shield for Washington except indirectly.

It is also worth considering that the Overland - as fought - is basically impossible without there already having been an over-sea campaign to open up the York and the James, at least with the USN as it was in 1862. In 1863 or 1864 it's possible that the USN could have broken the York river open, but then again if you're giving the Overland until 1863-4 to work but you reject the over-sea approach based on about half a campaign season that's just biased anyway.

To recapitulate, what this means is that the only merits of the over-land approach that an over-sea approach does not possess are actually not possessed by the Overland campaign that actually happened in 1864. It also has one major problem, which is getting over the Rappahanock and Rapidan rivers in the face of the Confederate army defending that line - historically the attempts consumed Burnside, Hooker and Meade's command of the Army of the Potomac, and Grant finally succeeded on the fourth attempt.

3) The sort-of-exception.

So thus far I've explained how the Overland option (which was Lincoln's preference) was basically inferior in most respects to McClellan's preferred amphibious operation, unless the Overland in question has some pretty heavy properties borrowed from McClellan's actual preference.
But there is one sort-of exception, which is from a specific period in late 1862 during and just after the Loudoun Valley campaign.
Two things make this period unusual. One of them is that the Confederate army was unusually small, after the beating it had taken at Antietam, and the other is that it was split - half of it was in the Valley and the other half was at Culpeper.
This means that, simply by marching, McClellan could threaten Lee with an unpleasant choice - retreat Longstreet's wing from Culpeper to Gordonsville and open the way for the Army of the Potomac to pass the Rappahanock and Rapidan rivers, or retreat that wing from Culpeper towards Fredericksburg and split his army even wider, or hold that wing in place (or retreat it no further than the town of Rapidan) and try and deal with McClellan's army attacking at a massive advantage.

If Lee takes the first option, then until he moves into position at somewhere like the historical North Anna position (if he can get there in time, which is likely but not inevitable) the route from Fredericksburg to Richmond is basically open, and it's as if Fredericksburg (or Wilderness, or Chancellorsville) had been a Union victory which cost neither side troops.
If Lee takes the second option, then he can't combine his army with Jackson further from Richmond than the historical North Anna position even if Jackson marches like hell. The outcome's basically the same unless Lee takes a battle with just Longstreet's wing, and if he does then see the third option.
If Lee takes the third option, he loses that wing.

It's quite possible that he'd stabilize the situation around what was historically the North Anna position, but either way it's a good outcome - if all it means is the Union is operating in force south of the Rappahanock and Rapidan, it's a good outcome, and with the Confederate dispositions as they are that's all but inevitable.

Oddly enough, this is when Lincoln fired McClellan.

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