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McClellan's impetuous letters

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

  1. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    I've not read Styple's book, but have seen him lecture on the topic on C-SPAN. I think his case is basically a load of supposition, much of which can be easily dismissed. Part of the problem I think is that Styple accepts Kearny's word completely at face value, but if you ever want to read paranoid and narcissistic ravings go read Kearny's letters - they are in a league far above anything McClellan ever wrote. You never see his ravings against Hancock quoted for example....
     
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  3. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Private

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    Regarding the James River line, this from Meade to his wife (Life and Letters) dated November 22, 1862, shows that others agreed that the James was the proper way to attack in Virginia:

    "I do not see how we can advance from the Rappahannock unless the weather should turn cold and freeze the ground. In view of these obstacles, it is most trying to read the balderdash in the public journals about being in Richmond in ten days. I question if we can get in the neighborhood of Richmond this winter, on this line. I have no doubt the attempt is to be made and an effort to force us on, but I predict, unless we have a cold spell, freezing the ground, that we will break down, lose all our animals, experience great suffering from want of supplies, and if the enemy are at all energetic, meet with a check, if not disaster. All this comes from taking the wrong line of operations, the James River being the true and only practicable line of approach to Richmond. But I have always maintained that Richmond need not and should not be attacked at all; that the proper mode to reduce it is to take possession of the great lines of railroad leading to it from the South and Southwest, cut these and stop any supplies going there, and their army will be compelled to evacuate it and meet us on the ground we can select ourselves. The blind infatuation of the authorities at Washington, sustained, I regret to say, by Halleck, who as a soldier ought to know better, will not permit the proper course to be adopted, and we shall have to take the consequences."
     
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  4. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Private

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    That is an interesting observation. I had thought that BMI did a very credible job and was generally credited with providing accurate intelligence. I would be interested in seeing evidence that Pinkerton/McClellan did a better job.
     
  5. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Corporal

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    Here is an extract from a 2012 article titled “General McClellan and the Politicians Revisited” by Dr. Ethan Rafuse, a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Rafuse is addressing three cases of Lincoln’s damaging interference with McClellan’s operations, i.e., his horrendous decision to withhold McDowell’s corps from McClellan, his decision to force McClellan to alter his line of communications, and his decision to order McClellan to deploy his army so that his right flank could receive McDowell:

    There is also the fact that Lincoln was almost certainly wrong on the substantive merits of the case. His decision in early April to withhold a corps commanded by Irvin McDowell from McClellan’s army was a gross overreaction to the situation in the Shenandoah Valley. It also undermined McClellan’s ability (his plan having been modified as a consequence of events into an advance from Fort Monroe up the York-James peninsula) to undertake a joint operation against the Confederate garrison at Yorktown. Such an operation could have quickly overcome the obstacle the Confederate defenders there presented and spared the Union army the month-long siege operation that eventually captured the town but strained Lincoln’s patience. Then, as McClellan advanced on Richmond, Lincoln issued orders dictating that he use the York River Railroad as his line of communications and place his army in a position from which his right flank could link up with McDowell’s command, which Lincoln directed to march south from Fredericksburg. McClellan complied with his superior’s wishes, though in doing so he was compelled to put his army in an exceedingly problematic position astride the Chickahominy River with his right flank and rear vulnerable to a Confederate turning movement until McDowell arrived. (Parameters, Summer 2012, p. 78)​

    Medal of Honor recipient General Alexander Webb viewed the withholding of McDowell’s corps from McClellan as “inexcusable” and “unmilitary”:

    That the withholding of McDowell was a shock to McClellan is certain. The news reached him on the 5th, conveyed in a brief telegram from the Adjutant-General, at the very moment when the Warwick was discovered to be a considerable obstruction; and when the necessity of a flanking column was immediately obvious. Right in the emergency, that column was withheld from his control; and we affirm, that, looking at the matter irrespective of every political bias, no matter how far McClellan's alleged disregard of instructions in leaving Washington unprotected, may have been true — no matter what the alarm of the commander of the Washington defences, or of the President's military advisers — either McClellan should have been relieved, or else every possible effort should have been made to keep his force, now actively engaged in the field, at the full strength with which alone he proposed to undertake his operations. Whether his own view was correct or incorrect, in that view he was crippled. He proposed a plan with McDowell as a principal actor in it. McDowell withdrawn, the plan was radically interfered with. . . .​

    If McClellan was still retained, one duty was incumbent upon the Government: it should have suffered at least half of McDowell's corps to proceed to the Peninsula at once, and then made every effort to reinforce the capital from other points. To allow the General to remain in command and then cut off the very arm with which he was about to strike, we hold to have been inexcusable and unmilitary to the last degree. (The Peninsula: McClellan’s Campaign of 1862, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881, pp. 59-60)​

    The failure to send McDowell and forcing McClellan to straddle the Chickahominy tempted the Confederates to attack twice, first Johnston in the Battle of Seven Pines and then Lee in the Seven Days Battles, which cost McClellan thousands of casualties (though they cost the ANV even more casualties).

    Later, Webb noted that McClellan had not left the capital in danger, contrary to what Stanton and Wadsworth claimed (p. 179).
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2017
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  6. Karen Lips

    Karen Lips 2nd Lieutenant

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    Maybe he was Narcissistic.
     
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  7. Karen Lips

    Karen Lips 2nd Lieutenant

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    I think he might have been narcissistic.
     
  8. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Private

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    Lincoln did not like McClellan's plan from the get go and did everything possible short of overruling McClellan to have him advance on the overland route.

    It seems Lincoln was infected with the same misconception as many other civilians that the the war could be won by bloodily overpowering the enemy. He later called this the "terrible arithmetic" of the war and declared it would won when he found a general who understood and accepted that arithmetic. He finally found that general in Grant.

    McClellan and his followers were certainly of a different view. They preferred to use strategy and in the process save lives.

    I just purchased Webb's book; I have always admired his action at Gettysburg. I realize that is an entirely different topic, but I always enjoy reading first person accounts of those I admire.
     
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  9. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    Well consider the BMI's estimate of Lee's forces just before Gettysburg:

    92,000 infantry
    6-8,000 cavalry (they had not detected Imboden etc., and upped this to 12,000 when they did)
    270 guns (say 5,400 gunners)
    = ca. 105,000-110,000 combatants

    vs ca. 72,000 for his actual strength. These numbers were explicitly PFD, rather than aggregate present (which many of Pinkerton's estimates were, and indeed some of his raw int is aggregate present and absent). This is actually worse than Pinkerton ever did.

    The thing about Pinkerton's numbers is that his overhead figures are of the whole operational theater (from the Kanawha valley to Norfolk NC), but often the overhead number is quoted out of context and applied only against the force at Manassas, and indeed the PFD (which is combat effectives only) vs the aggregate present Pinkerton was estimating.

    Pinkerton's first estimate was an attempt to cut through the rumours that Scott and his staff were putting about, that McClellan initially repeated when he came to Washington. McClellan thought Scott was massively overestimating, and so set up his own int force. Pinkerton's first estimate was handed in on 4th October 1861, and with safety factors etc. her reported 126,600. Further reports came in, including the fact that he'd double counted the valley force, but adding the Yorktown force, and estimates for the whole theater ranged in the 118-127,000 bracket during this period.

    There is a compiled return in the OR which reports 118,306 aggregate present, excluding Richmond (not reported). Essentially whilst Pinkerton made some errors of location, his numbers were certainly not fantastical.

    The French Princes were tapped to make an estimate, but while lower than Pinkerton's later (post 15 November) estimates this is entirely due to a smaller geographical area.

    On the Peninsula McClellan's early estimates of the force at Yorktown are pretty spot on, starting at 18-20,000 at Yorktown, up to 30,000 on 8th and 80,000 on the 20th. These numbers are actually slightly low. The estimates stay pretty much on until after Seven Pines, where it starts to drift upwards, and by late June Pinkerton's numbers for the force at Richmond are 150,000 which certainly is a significant overestimate; there probably were only about 120,000 in that strength category around Richmond. Pinkerton listed actual units in his files, and he was overestimating by 36 regiments, to whom formations could not be assigned. By the time of Antietam his books carried 46 regiments for whom formations could not be assigned, and were entered as a separate line. If these are disregarded then the numbers for the other formations are uncannily correct. That seems to be the source of the overestimate, and it was always questionable whether said regiments were really believed to be present.

    However, at their most egregious during the height of summer Pinkerton's numbers were closer to reality than Sharpe's were at Gettysburg....
     
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  10. pfcjking

    pfcjking First Sergeant

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    * The odds McClellan faced at Yorktown were trivial compared to those Grant faced at Vicksburg.

    * Lee suffered more casualties that McClellan during the Seven Days mainly because he was on the offensive. That is also why Grant suffered high casualties during the Overland Campaign. Attackers nearly always suffer heavier casualties, especially bold and aggressive ones.

    * Whether McClellan halted retreats, ordered bloody assaults, or what have you, that is all a matter of hearsay and conjecture when compared to the results.
     
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  11. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    Not really. Whilst some writers follow Magruder's lead and give his stripped down "effective strength" before any ANV reinforcements arrive, in fact Magruder's force when McClellan contacted it was of similar size to Pemberton's at Vicksburg, and rapidly much larger.
     
  12. amweiner

    amweiner Corporal

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    Hi Mike, please know I ask questions seriously rather than facetiously. I enjoy good, vibrant exchanges of ideas and am always open to learning.

    I did take the time to consider your responses, read the articles you wrote (and I genuinely appreciated your analyses), and really think about what are these terms 'strategic victory/loss/draw' that get tossed around so easily. I tried plowing through Jomini and von Clausewitz, but found their stuff to be pretty murky. There was a fascinating article I found on the Theory of Victory, attached here, which got me out of thinking in binary terms: http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/articles/08summer/bartholo.pdf.

    Overall, it made me wonder about tactical versus strategic goals and how they can be applied to subjectively assessing McClellan's abilities. Despite all the reading and arguments, I still believe Mac's Peninsula Campaign to be a 'not-win' (borrowing the terminology from the above article). Despite winning the battles, if his stated strategic objective was to capture Richmond, he failed to do so and landed up 25 miles away from his goal. What he might have done following the retreat to Harrison's Landing is just speculation for all of us at this point.

    As for Antietam, I read a lot of different views on tactical victory/defeat, including comments on an article (that naturally I can't find now) that suggested that the attacker, to be victorious, has to drive off the enemy, while the defender can claim a draw by not getting driven off (essentially winning by not losing). It was one opinion of many on the subject. Yes, I entirely agree that Lee met with a strategic loss in Maryland. However, if Mac's tactical plan was to destroy the ANV and he did not, isn't it possible to see this as a draw? If his tactical plan was to stop Lee from moving forward into Maryland and even Pennsylvania, I could see it as win.

    My one point where I'll be stubborn is in regards to getting the job done, which you said falls apart under objective examination. First, what objective criteria are used to assess the overall efficacy of a commander? We can't rely on Lee's statements, or Longstreet's, of Mac being an able general; those are strictly opinions. Winning battles alone doesn't make a general effective, either, as you can lose strategically. So what do we use? I sure don't know, but believe subjectively that Mac made his own life harder by failing to understand his relationship with the civilian government. He wanted to argue with Lincoln about various topics, from slavery to corps commanders, and didn't realize he was going to lose those battles. Right or wrong, he inserted himself into political struggles that were beyond his scope.

    Okay, sorry for the rambling. As I said in my earlier post, I am not anti-Mac and learned a truckload in researching this. I can't turn my opinion 180 degrees on the guy, however, as he had real failings that hampered his ability to lead the Union cause.
    Respectfully,
    Adam
     
  13. Joshism

    Joshism Sergeant

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    I don't think coward I'd usually the word used. On the contrary, I seem to recall he showed personal courage in the Mexican War.

    To paraphrase what Lincoln told Hooker: to go from general to dictator or president one first must have victories.

    I think Lincoln would have gladly traded a second term for a quicker victory.
     
  14. Joshism

    Joshism Sergeant

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    McClellan was not a coward or traitor. He doesn't deserve to be a contender for "worst general of the war." But he was a deeply flawed general.

    Pros: he was a good strategist, an excellent organizer, and inspired his men.

    Cons: he was cautious to a fault, quarrelsome with his superiors to the point of insubordination, and narcissistic.

    Had McClellan remained General-in-Chief while someone else took over the AotP or had he been assigned to some kind of permanent training and organizational role I think he would be remembered well today.

    There are people in this world who can find a way and those who always have an excuse why they can't. McClellan was the type who always had a reason why he couldn't. At least for me it is that attitude that rankles me the most.
     
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  15. Hoseman

    Hoseman Private

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    Much deserved IMO.
    I find it interesting that some defend him even today.
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2017
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  16. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Corporal

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    Someone said that McClellan spent the Battle of Malvern Hill doing a recon of Harrison's Landing. This is incorrect. McClellan did survey Harrison's Landing, but he completed his survey in time to join Porter near the left of his line before Lee's first attack began.
     
  17. pfcjking

    pfcjking First Sergeant

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    The terrain features at Vicksburg were nearly insurmountable. The Confederates had been building those fortifications for months, and they defied an enemy twice their size for months.
     
  18. Jamieva

    Jamieva 2nd Lieutenant Forum Host

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    I would have to go look it back up, I believe it is in Sears' book on the 7 days, but why he's on the boat going down the river to look at a site knowing a major battle is imminent is still something he should not be doing.
     
  19. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Corporal

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    Are we talking about the same George McClellan who ordered the most brutal, vicious attacks of any single day in the entire war at Antietam? Are we talking about the same George McClellan who told Burnside that if he could not move forward with a regular assault that he was to order a bayonet charge?

    Impressively, although McClellan was on offense at Antietam, he inflicted almost as many casualties as he suffered, whereas in other major battles the army on offense often suffered close to double the casualties that the army on defense suffered (at Cold Harbor, Grant suffered nearly three times as many casualties as Lee did). And, if A. P. Hill had not arrived toward the very end of the fighting to savage Burnside's force, the casualties at Antietam might have been closer to even.

    Antietam shows that when McClellan felt he had no viable alternative, he was willing to order frontal assaults. For too many other generals, the frontal assault was their first and preferred option. Grant finally realized that a siege was the saner option at Vicksburg only after launching two foolish, unsuccessful assaults on the Confederate line. And, by the way, Grant's siege of Vicksburg took longer than McClellan's siege of Yorktown.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2017
  20. Jamieva

    Jamieva 2nd Lieutenant Forum Host

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    Cold harbor involved attacking a well established trench network, which was not the case at Antietam, which aside from the Sunken Road was more of a stand up fight, hence more equitable casualties. The casualty multiplier for the attacker is more applicable when attacking prepared works.
     
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  21. Mike Griffith

    Mike Griffith Corporal

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    Lee had ample time to prepare defensive positions at Antietam. Plus, in Burnside's sector the Confederates occupied the steep high ground and had a turkey shoot when Burnside's men tried to come over the bridge the first several times (until Burnside figured out that he could also simply cross the stream). Then, after Burnside finally made it across, A. P. Hill showed up and shredded Burnside's inexperienced troops. And, then, as you mention, there was the Sunken Road.

    Another factor is that many of McClellan's men were new recruits, whereas Lee's army was mostly veterans.

    So I say that it is still impressive that McClellan's casualties were not very much more than Lee's.
     

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