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McClellan's impetuous letters

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by pfcjking, Feb 9, 2016.

  1. KansasFreestater

    KansasFreestater 1st Lieutenant

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    Yes, McClellan truly was in a nearly impossible situation in the early days of the war. And faulty information from Pinkerton sure didn't help matters.
     
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  3. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    The int was less faulty than commonly believed. Certainly Pinkerton, filtered through McClellan int staff, did a **** sight better than the Bureau of Military Information that replaced him.
     
  4. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Sergeant

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    I think that's an unfair description of McClellan's letters and of his character. If you understand the background to those letters, you understand that his negative comments are not petty or childish but are expressions of justified anger and frustration.
     
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  5. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    I don't want to jump on an anti-McClellan bandwagon. I think he had many strengths, most notably that of building a confident, prepared army out of a mob of civilians. For that alone, I think he deserves a lot of credit that's been overlooked in the haste to condemn him. Certainly the men of the AOP loved him for his capacity to inspire confidence, regardless of any opinions about his strategic/tactical skills.

    Bruce Catton was pretty perceptive about Mac, in my opinion. I don't have the quotes with me, but he believed Mac's difficulties were always more political than military. He wasn't good at managing the political types who inserted themselves into military strategy, essentially 'yessing' the people who needed to be 'yessed'. He wasn't always aware of how his actions or words might be perceived in Washington, and sometimes didn't care. There were moments he wanted to go toe to toe with the administration, not realizing that he could have negotiated rather than fighting losing arguments. All of these things worked against him, so that military missteps could easily be blown out of proportion.

    Perhaps my biggest argument against McClellan is his apparent unwillingness to get dirty and push. This may seem like a strange assessment of the commanding general calling the shots on the single bloodiest day in our history, but he had viable chances to crush Lee that he did not take. Exercising a little more personal influence on the battle, and being willing to take some risks, could have paid off big-time. But enough of the armchair general/Monday morning nonsense. Ultimately, he played a vital part in the War and deserves credit where it's due. The AOP could never have bounced back from everything it took without the energy he infused in it.

    Just my 2.7 cents.
    Adam
     
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  6. damYankee

    damYankee 1st Lieutenant

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    Has there ever been another historical figure that required so many to defend his performance under the pressure of combat then McClellan ?

    At least some of his defenders here have admitted he failed, that is a good first step. So far the excuses have been that he was the victim of political partisanship, but from everything I have ever seen written by McClellan it would appear it was his own partisanship that undermined his relationship with civilian leadership. He had the opportunity to prove his strategic superiority over his enemies, what became of those opportunities?
    Was he not given every sort of logistical support he requested?
    Grant's gracious impressions of McClellan shows us more about the character of Grant than of McClellan and is the best example of what leadership looks like. It is the core of what is pounded into every West Point Cadet, we see it in the way men like Pershing and Eisenhower conducted themselves. But we don't see it in every graduate of that vaunted institution..
    The one lesson McClellan teaches us is,
    Timidity is not a positive characteristic of a combat commander.
     
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  7. Kenneth Almquist

    Kenneth Almquist Corporal

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    I haven't read George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears, but a google search pulls up the epilogue which discusses McClellan's Own Story. According to Sears, “there is no indication that Ellen McClellan had any role in the preparation of her husband's memoirs.” That task fell to William Prime, who had been given access to McClellan's papers for that purpose, including a notebook compiled by McClellan containing letters to his wife. Sears is confident McClellan had collected the letters for the purpose of refreshing his memory of events, and not with the intention of quoting large portions of them in his memoirs.

    Prime's introduction ends as follows:

    By far the larger portions of the letters, and of every letter, belongs to that confidence which not even death affects. In determining what parts may or may not be published, I have been influenced by the wish to present to his fellow citizens who honored him, and the soldiers who loved him, some of that view of his character which those nearest him always had; and I have done this with the guiding trust that he will approve what I have done when I again meet him.​

    Sears' comment:

    William Prime concluded his introduction with the “guiding trust” that his friend “will approve what I have done when again I meet him.” Historians have been grateful enough to Prime, certainly, but if his wish was ever granted it required saintly forgiveness on McClellan's part.​
     
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  8. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Sergeant

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    A few facts:

    * McClellan lost only one battle--the Battle of Gaines Mill. The AOP infamous debacles--Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Second Bull Run, Cold Harbor--came after McClellan was relieved and were the result of commanders not following McClellan's concept of operations.

    * McClellan frequently overruled subordinate commanders' orders to halt or retreat.

    * At times McClellan ordered that attacks be done "regardless of cost."

    * McClellan's siege of Yorktown took less time than Grant's siege of Vicksburg, and McClellan incurred far fewer casualties because McClellan did not waste lives attacking entrenched positions like Grant did (twice). Most of McClellan's corps and division commanders believed that a siege was the best option.

    * McClellan was the only general who inflicted more casualties than he suffered when battling Lee. In Grant's four major battles with Lee, he suffered nearly twice as many casualties as Lee did.

    * When Lee was asked after the war who had been the most formidable general he had faced, he replied, "McClellan, by all odds."

    * McClellan's "missed opportunities" at Antietam are a matter of 20/20 hindsight. Based on what McClellan knew at the time, his decisions were rational and sound. I might add that McClellan was going to throw in his reserves, but Fitz John Porter talked him out of it.
     
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  9. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    Hi Mike, my only (respectful) argument about this is that, while McClellan only lost the one battle, his strategic plan came apart at the seams. Just as Lee wasn't defeated tactically at Antietam, his invasion of Maryland was a strategic failure.

    I don't want to have a view of McClellan that paints him as either savior or buffoon. He had great qualities and some terrible ones. Again, citing Catton (sorry...I know his work has some inaccuracies, but I love his writing style), he had a standard in his work that I think is applicable here: how does a general conduct himself so he can do his job effectively? In that regard, I think Mac failed.
    Respectfully,
    Adam
     
  10. damYankee

    damYankee 1st Lieutenant

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    I'm sure Lee would have preferred to face McClellan for the entire war and never run into Grant,
     
  11. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Sergeant

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    McClellan was never given the chance to implement his strategic plan, as Rowena Reed discusses in detail in Combined Operations in the Civil War. Lincoln was a military novice who was incapable of grasping the brilliance and soundness of McClellan's strategy, and Stanton was simply intent on sabotaging McClellan at every turn.

    I don't get this view that Lee was not tactically defeated at Antietam. Lee abandoned the field. He lost the battle. Lee's officer corps was decimated. McClellan's skillful placement of artillery on the afternoon of the 17th forced Lee to abandon any hope of attacking (Lee wanted to attack, but Jackson convinced him that the federal position was too strong and that attacking it would be suicide).

    McClellan's victory is all the more impressive when we consider that a large part of his army was a hodge-podge of new recruits and hastily formed units from the remnants of Pope's defeated army, whereas Lee's army was mostly proven veterans.

    I know that's been the traditional view for a long time, but I think it falls apart under objective examination.

    Lee would have much rather faced Grant than McClellan on any occasion. Lee inflicted twice as many casualties than he suffered when he faced Grant, and he did so with an ANV that was weaker than it was when he faced McClellan.

    Here are two of my articles on McClellan:

    Answering Some Criticisms of General George B. McClellan
    http://miketgriffith.com/files/answers1.htm

    McClellan's Early Defenders Speak: Voices from the Past in Defense of General George B. McClellan
    http://miketgriffith.com/files/macdefenders.htm
     
  12. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Corporal

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    McClellan was an able military commander who excelled at organization and led the Army of the Potomac capably. I believe that his Peninsula Campaign was well-conceived and not so well executed. My opinion about his performance at Antietam have been challenged by the argument I read in Harsh's Taken at the Flood.

    One of McClellan's flaws, I believe, was that he felt that he needed to take care of every detail himself. It seems he did not trust many of his subordinates, including (or especially) his staff officers, to look after the details. McClellan would look after minor details himself. Part of this perhaps is due to the state of the army when he arrived in Washington in late July 1861, but he continued this even after he had organized and drilled the Army of the Potomac. During the Seven Days, McClellan went personally to scout Harrison's Landing and was not present at more than one battle when the army was fighting important rear guard actions. I think that McClellan was absent from the army while it was fighting for his life may be less of a problem than the fact that he did not designate a commander to control the action on the field -- meaning that each corps commander did as he thought best. This put the entire army at risk and I think this is a fair criticism of McClellan's generalship.

    Another point I would question is why, on June 25 & 26, he immediately began to retreat (or change his base) when the fact was that Richmond was defended only by a very small force. McClellan might have reinforced Porter north of the Chickahominy or have launched an attack on Richmond. Furthermore, after Malvern Hill, even Fitz John Porter advised McClellan to resume the offensive after Lee's attacks were bloodily repulsed, but instead McClellan resumed his retreat to Harrison's Landing.

    Finally, I think the true reason for McClellan's failure as a military commander was his involvement in politics. It was obvious that he was a willing tool of the Democratic party. As long as the Lincoln administration's policy remained conciliatory, there was no real great conflict. As Lincoln moved closer and closer toward a hard war policy in the summer and fall of 1862, McClellan became more and more of a liability. By November of 1862, war aims had evolved and McClellan was an outspoken representative of the opposite point of view. Related to this, I think McClellan's downfall was his association with individuals who were outspoken in their desire to bring the war to a close through negotiation with slavery intact. Whatever his personal views may have been, his association with these individuals made him a political liability for Lincoln.

    On the other hand, McClellan's argument that the war would be won on the banks of the James River was undoubtedly correct. Lincoln's and Halleck's insistence that the Army of the Potomac fight for the rest of the war on the overland route meant that a decisive battle could not be fought in the east. It was not until Grant returned to the James in 1864 that Lee could be cornered and the decisive battle could be fought.
     
  13. dlofting

    dlofting First Sergeant

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    Lee's officer corps took heavy casualties in every battle he fought, whether he won or lost. He was an aggressive commander, which partly accounts for this. The fact that Civil War regimental and brigade commanders led from the front was the other reason they suffered high casualties.
     
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  14. Saphroneth

    Saphroneth Sergeant

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    I'm pretty sure it was defended by about 40,000 or so, which is not a small force - certainly not in long-term defensive works. With his supply line blown away by the Confederate attacks he'd be attacking heavy fortifications with a large army in his rear and no way of getting food or ammunition - it'd have destroyed his army.

    The James is a better base for assaulting Richmond, and McClellan had been blocked from making the change of base.

    That one can be understood in terms of supply logistics - there's no way to get the army supplies on Malvern Hill safely, whereas at Harrison's Landing you've got a protected supply line.
     
  15. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    Richmond was as defended as it was previously. The three divisions Lee moved round were not from the entrenchments of Richmond but were encamped west of the city (Longstreet and DH Hill) and defending the line of the Chickahominy north of Richmond (AP Hill).

    Along the frontage facing McClellan were about 40,000 combatants, well entrenched. Almost as many as held Grant off for nearly a year on a much more extended frontage.

    Now, the decision to "change base" was made at a meeting of McClellan and his corps commanders ca. 2300 hrs on the 26th. Franklin describes it in B&L, and says that the four corps commanders present (and ISTR Bernard, Keyes had been sent to occupy the line from the White Oak to the James with Couch's division) all argued to move to the James against McClellan.

    After Malvern Hill Porter sent a very qualified note, which is in Sears:

    "However serious the day’s results, and in common with Mechanicsville on June 26, General Lee lost the battle but won the larger contest. At 9: 30 that night Fitz John Porter signaled McClellan that “against immense odds, we have driven the enemy beyond the battle field and the firing ended at 8: 30.” He went on to say that if he could be resupplied with food and ammunition, “we will hold our own and advance if you wish.” Here was General Porter, the soul of military caution, proposing to follow up the Malvern Hill victory with a counteroffensive. The next morning he said to Baldy Smith that he had spent the night “urging McClellan to move forward on Richmond at daylight.”

    General McClellan, however, had long since made up his mind. His only thought was safe haven at Harrison’s Landing. Without even waiting for Porter’s verdict on the day’s events, in contradiction to all of Porter’s later arguments, he issued the order for the army to continue its retreat."

    Sears, Stephen W. (2014-11-11). To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (Kindle Locations 5924-5931). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

    You'll note Porter's note is qualified with the need for resupply, and is much less "aggressive" than supposed. The whole point of the movement was that the supply of food and ammunition had been cut off. Indeed, the artillery on Malvern had literally expended all the ammunition to hand and the caissons were empty.
     
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  16. Specster

    Specster First Sergeant

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    I think Ken Burn's documentary was so widely accepted that it became gospel among the populace - not among the intelligentsia tho. I think Burns basically threw Mac under the bus.

    I can understand the Mac was considered arrogant - full of himself and what he said about Lincoln in private was disturbing, as well as the way he treated Lincoln when he came to visit. I think Mac forced the issue of being dismissed.

    The men seemed to like Mac above all others and when the going got rough they hung their hopes on the rumor that Mac was going to take back command of the AOP.

    Say what you will about Mac, and his timidity to fight, and the inflated enemy numbers which came from the Pinkertons, yet, after the war, when pressed, Lee was asked which General did you least want to face, and Lee responded - by far Mac.
     
  17. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Sergeant

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    This seems contradictory: First you imply McClellan was a micromanager who didn't trust many of his subordinate officers (which is not true), and then you fault him for letting his corps commanders handle their area of operations as they thought best.

    And it's a very good thing that McClellan scouted Harrison's Landing. He was very wise to choose that spot as his new base. His selection of Harrison's Landing forced Lee to send his army back to Richmond. Lee scouted Harrison's Landing and decided that it was too strong of a position to attack, that he would wreck his army if he attacked it.

    One, he had already begun moving his base to Harrison's Landing before Lee attacked.

    Two, as Lee himself pointed out to Jefferson Davis when Davis faulted McClellan for not moving on Richmond, if McClellan had done so, Lee would have gotten in his rear and cut off his line of communications. Also, the force at Richmond, though small, was very well entrenched.

    You need to read Rafuse and Beatie. McClellan could not reinforce Porter at the time; he tried but could not. The AOP was in no condition to launch an en masse attack on Lee's army after six days of continuous fighting. Lee would have liked nothing better than for McClellan to have attacked him after Malvern Hill.

    What "failure"? He won every battle he fought except one, and in that one loss (Gaines Mill) he inflicted ruinous casualties on Lee's army. He was the only general to inflict more casualties on Lee than he suffered when he fought him. He won the critical battles at South Mountain and Antietam, which restored Northern morale, ended Lee's Maryland campaign, enabled Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and arguably persuaded England not to recognize the Confederacy.

    If Lincoln and Stanton had not blunderingly (in Stanton's case maliciously) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after the Seven Days Battles by forcing McClellan to abandon his advance on Richmond, Lee would have remained pinned at Richmond and McClellan could have advanced under the cover of gunboats along the James River and used his heavy advantage in artillery to inevitably take Richmond. We know from Confederate testimony that they were thrilled when they learned that McClellan had been ordered to send his army north to Pope because they believed that they would be unable to stop his advance on Richmond if he moved along the James River. Lee explained to Davis that moving in this manner, McClellan would advance post by post and that the Confederates would have no way to stop him.

    I think Rafuse and Beatie have refuted this charge.

    Actually, there was already enormous conflict because of Lincoln and Stanton's disastrous interference with McClellan's operations and Stanton's inexplicable decision to shut down recruiting operations just as the Peninsula Campaign began (which was followed by Stanton's harmful decision to form new units with raw recruits instead of integrating them into existing units).

    Only if one thought that targeting civilians and violating just about every other norm of civilized warfare was acceptable. I'm not at all sure that Lincoln really agreed with the hard war policy, and the majority of Union generals did not employ the shameful tactics that Sherman, Sheridan, Butler, and Kilpatrick did.

    Again, you need to read Rafuse. Most of this is either wrong or overly general. McClellan believed slavery had to be abolished, and he had little patience with Copperheads/ardent Peace Democrats.

    Bullseye!
     
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  18. Rebforever

    Rebforever Captain

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    if....if.....if.....uh........
    It is what it is.
     
  19. Eagle eye

    Eagle eye First Sergeant Trivia Game Winner

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    -------------------------------
    I disagree … he was a timid general but I've never seen anyone refer to MaC as a coward, have you?
     
  20. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Corporal

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    Thanks for your response, Mike. This is a topic that interests me. I have read the first 2 Beatie books and the third along with Rafuse's book are on my pile of books to get to, so I'm definitely looking forward to them.

    McClellan is an interesting and misunderstood figure, which I think has a lot to do with politics. After some point in time, he could not not be allowed to be successful because he was a clear threat to a 2nd term for Lincoln. Therefore it seems that his real strengths were discounted and his real weaknesses were magnified for political purposes. That narrative is the one that has been passed down to us today, so it takes some real work to unearth the other perspective.

    By "failure" I mean simply that he did not win the war in the summer of 1862. Whether that was McClellan's fault or Lincoln's/Stanton's is, I guess, the main point of historical contention. It would seem from what I have read that Lincoln and McClellan had a fairly good working relationship until the end of 1861 and from there their paths diverged. McClellan's sickness at the end of the year, coinciding with the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was part of this, as was the appointment of Stanton as Secretary of War. Stanton, a "friend" of McClellan's, worked from the start to have him removed from command of the Army of the Potomac -- I assume at the bidding of the JCCW.

    I agree that McClellan's performance in Maryland was better than is generally thought, and I also believe that campaign was probably a major turning point in the war. This was the best chance Lee had to win the war. McClellan was able to take three separate commands and get them into the field very quickly to defeat Lee's invasion.

    As you seem to be very knowledgeable about McClellan, I would ask your thoughts on Colonel Thomas Key? I have just read William Styple's book on Key & it contained much information I was previously unaware of.
     
  21. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Corporal

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    One of the interesting things regarding Sherman for me is that he seemed much closer to the McClellan point of view in 1861-1862 and his views changed as the war continued.
     

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