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McClellan's Peninsula Plan (earlyFebruary)

Discussion in 'The Eastern Theater' started by trice, Sep 11, 2017.

  1. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    This is taken from a McClellan letter to Stanton dated February 3rd, 1862. I'll post it rapidly in several consecutive posts to get the thread started.
    Part #1
    ...
    The second base of operations available for the Army of the Potomac is that of the lower Chesapeake bay, which affords the shortest possible land route to Richmond and strikes directly at the heart of the enemy's power in the east.

    The roads in that region are passable at all seasons of the year.

    The country now alluded to is much more favorable for offensive operations than that in front of Washington (which is very unfavorable): much more level, more cleared land, the woods less dense, the soil more sandy, and the spring some two or three weeks earlier. A movement in force on that line obliges the enemy to abandon his entrenched position at Manassas, in order to hasten to cover Richmond and Norfolk. He must do this ; for should he permit us to occupy Richmond his destruction can be -averted only by entirely defeating us in a battle in which he must be the assailant. This movement, if successful, gives us the capital, the communications, the supplies of the rebels ; Norfolk would fall ; all the waters of the Chesapeake would be ours ; all Virginia would be in our power, and the enemy forced to abandon Tennessee and North Carolina. The alternative presented to the enemy would be, to beat us in a position selected by ourselves, disperse, or pass beneath the Caudine Forks.

    Notes and opinions:
    • The "Caudine Forks" is a reference to an event in 321 BC, the Battle of the Caudine Forks (a battle with no fighting or casualties). Outwitted and trapped by the Samnites, the Romans negotiated and were allowed to retreat.
    • The "shortest possible land route to Richmond" looks like this using Google Maps:
      • Arlington to Richmond on I-95 is 106 miles
      • Fort Monroe to Richmond on I-64 is 80.4 miles
      • Urbanna to Richmond on VA-33 and I-64 is 56.3 miles.
    • The Confederate routes to Richmond look like this:
      • Manassas to Richmond using I-95 is 95.2 miles
      • Centreville to Richmond using I-95 is 106 miles
    • On the "passable at all seasons of the year" roads: ROFL
    • On the "much more favorable for offensive operations" country "with much more level, more cleared land, the woods less dense, the soil more sandy": where was he talking about?
    • I am unclear as to why McClellan thinks taking Richmond means the Rebels must abandon Tennessee.
    • North Carolina would certainly be threatened if the Union took Richmond; I doubt the Rebels would abandon it without a fight.
     
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2017

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  3. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Part #2
    Should we be beaten in a battle we have a perfectly secure retreat down the Peninsula upon Fort Monroe, with our flanks perfectly covered by the fleet. During the whole movement our left flank is covered by the water. Our right is secure, for the reason that the enemy is too distant to reach us in time ; he can only oppose us in front. We bring our fleet into full play.

    Notes and opinions:

    • When the big battle did happen (Seven Days), the right was seriously threatened, not secure.
      • The absence of McDowell played a part in that, but I have doubts the right would be secure even if you brought the rest of McDowell down through Fort Monroe (and the absent Blenker's division was described as the worst in the Army at the time).
      • I am not sure how much support the Navy could give the right flank past West Point on the York River.
     
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  4. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Part #3

    After a successful battle our position would be—Burnside forming our left; Norfolk held securely; our centre connecting Burnside with Buell, both by Raleigh and Lynchburg ; Buell in Eastern Tennessee and North Alabama ; Halleck at Nashville and Memphis.
    Notes and opinions:

    • "After a successful battle our position" seems to be a little grandiose for when this was written:
      • Burnside had just left Fort Monroe and had not yet entered Hatteras Inlet, landed, nor fought the Battle of Roanoke Island (February 7-8).
      • Grant would land his troops above Ft. Henry on February 4-5 and the fort fell to Foote on the 6th. Ft. Donelson, a much tougher proposition, surrendered after a medium-sized fight on the 16th.
      • Nashville fell unexpectedly to Buell and Grant's advance on February 25.
      • Buell has somehow advanced to about 250 miles to "Eastern Tennessee and North Alabama" from Kentucky.
     
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  5. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Part #4



    The next movement would be to connect with Sherman on the left by reducing Wilmington and Charleston ; to advance our centre into South Carolina and Georgia ; to push Buell either towards Montgomery or to unite with the main army in Georgia ; to throw Halleck southward to meet the naval expedition from New Orleans.
    Notes and opinions:
    • I guess Burnside and part or all of the AoP have advanced south to take Wilmington and Charleston, linking up with Sherman (not William Tecumseh)
    • I guess some part of Burnside/the AoP has continued to roll on across South Carolina and into Georgia
    • Halleck is headed down the Mississippi towards Vicksburg.
    • Farragut (who doesn't actually take New Orleans until April 25th) has apparently done that in McClellan's plan and headed upriver (as he did, taking Baton Rouge and arriving before Vicksburg on May 18, stood off, returning in June).
     
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  6. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Part #5
    We should then be in a condition to reduce at our leisure all the Southern seaports ; to occupy all the avenues of communication ; to use the great outlet of the Mississippi ; to re-establish our government and arms in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas ; to force the slaves to labor for our subsistence instead of that of the rebels ; to bid defiance to all foreign interference. Such is the object I have ever had in view ; this is the general plan which I hope to accomplish.

    Notes and opinions:

    • Taking "all the Southern seaports" seems to mean Savannah and Galveston -- Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, and New Orleans are already gone in McClellan's plan.
    • Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are looked at as mop-up operations.
     
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  7. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Part #6 (the last)
    For many long months I have labored to prepare the Army of the Potomac to play its part in the programme ; from the day when I was placed in command of all our armies I have exerted myself to place all the other armies in such a condition that they, too, could perform their allotted duties.

    Notes and opinions:

    • Special pleading -- an unnecessary paragraph that adds nothing to our understanding.

    Should it be determined to operate from the lower Chesapeake, the point of landing which promises the most brilliant result is Urbana, on the lower Rappahannock. This point is easily reached by vessels of heavy draught ; it is neither occupied nor observed by the enemy ; it is but one march from West Point, the key of that region, and thence but two marches to Richmond. A rapid movement from Urbana would probably cut off Magruder in the Peninsula and enable us to occupy Richmond before it could be strongly reinforced. Should we fail in that we could, with the co-operation of the navy, cross the James and throw ourselves in rear of Richmond, thus forcing the enemy to come out and attack us, for his position would be untenable with us on the southern bank of the river.

    Notes and opinions:

    • as noted, Urbanna to Richmond on VA-33 and I-64 is 56.3 miles; Urbanna to West Point is 18.6 miles on VA-33 with a crossing of the mouth of the Mattaponi River where it meets the York. That might be done in one day's march if unopposed, but more likely in two.
    • West Point to Richmond is 38.2 miles using VA-33 and I-64. Starts out by crossing the mouth of the Pamunkey River into what looks like a swamp on the map. Unopposed, that's probably three days.
    • If the AoP landed at Urbanna, I would expect most of Magruder's troops to withdraw by boat up the James or the York rivers.
    • McClellan seems to have a poor understanding of the situation on the rivers. The Gloucester Point/Yorktown defenses would need to be considered before the Navy came up the York. This is still over a month before the Virginia/Merrimack came out into Hampton Roads, but the Union knew she was getting ready at Norfolk; no naval operations on the James would be considered until she was accounted for.
    • Virginia came out on March 8–9, 1862. USS Congress and USS Cumberland were destroyed on the 8th; the battle with the Monitor was on the 9th.
    • I am not so sure McClellan is right about his operations on the "on the southern bank of the river" being an absolute war-winner. There'd still be the little matter of winning the battle to go, and the AoP if defeated might be in trouble.
     
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  8. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Silver Patron

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    I had the exact same reaction to the comment about passable roads.
     
  9. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    I shouldn't be so glib about it; just couldn't resist :smile:

    Years ago, I was headed down to go with a group on a tour at Petersburg in late March. A few days before I was to leave, they got several inches of snow (really unusual, but I think it all melted in a day or so.

    A friend from Virginia who was coming on the tour, Steve Merserve, got in touch to warn me to come prepared for a type of mud I'd likely never seen before. I was glad he did after the first day; happier than that by the third day.
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2017
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  10. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Silver Patron

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    McClellan certainly did put the best possible spin on just about everything as if wishing would make it so. Boy, was he surprised when real life intervened.
     
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  11. Rank and File

    Rank and File Private

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    I've always thought that McClellan's plan to transport the army on boats to the Peninsula was brilliantly conceived and poorly executed/ managed. If only the War had ended then, thousands of lives would have been saved.
     
  12. mofederal

    mofederal First Sergeant

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    I lived in an area with some really bad gravel roads. Our old home place still had dirt roads around it. These roads were passable in good weather only. In bad weather impassable. Mud is mud, and our reddish clay mud was very bad.
     
  13. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Yes, like that. My Dad was in Leyte and Okinawa in WWII, saw typhoons up close and personal, had to actually move as an infantryman does through mud. He had a totally different impression of how bad mud could be then I did.

    It seems that McClellan had a poor feel for the country he was headed into when he made these plans. Not particularly surprising: despite being settled since Jamestown, the Peninsula was rarely mapped and most of that was along the rivers (which is why Cram's map is so wrong once you get away from the York and the James).

    I would have guessed that they could find someone in the Army or Washington who knew the area a bit (maybe someone who had been stationed at Fort Monroe a long time?) to give them a better view. Maybe they couldn't; maybe whoever they found didn't know much; maybe they found someone who told them better and "the word" didn't get to McClellan.
     
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2017
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  14. CanadianCanuck

    CanadianCanuck Corporal

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    Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't bad maps, poor knowledge of local conditions (and outright misleading information from the locals) a constant problem in the war? I seem to recall no real detailed maps of most counties existed, and for the most part the engineers were making them up as they campaigned through a region based on scout sketches.

    I certainly know the British had that problem when facing the Fenians in 1866, so it's possible I'm misremembering.
     
  15. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    It is a good plan in many ways (it looks an awful lot like Scott's Anaconda Plan, which is generally how the war played out anyway if you step back and look at it as a 4-year whole).

    It is lacking on detail about the operational part, which is understandable to some degree because of the general lack of knowledge about the Confederates and that part of Virginia. It glosses over a lot by omission. There is no discussion of how the Confederates will react, how quickly they can get troops to block McClellan (once they actually do start moving in real life, they really do move troops to Yorktown rapidly using the RR to Richmond and boats on the York and James rivers), and how this race might work out. There is no discussion of how to work with the Navy, the chain of command/an overall joint commander, or how the President must act to be sure the Army and Navy co-operate.

    The whole plan is dependent on speed of execution and efficient combined operations with a united effort by all concerned. This is exactly where the plan fails. It is a good concept proposal to start planning for an operation. It is bad if it isn't developed further into a real operational plan, and it is bad if it isn't pressed forward expeditiously and pushed urgently by all concerned.

    McClellan did a very good job on certain parts that followed from this. His preparations for logistical and transportation issues to move his Army and provide supply to them down on the Peninsula are very good. His actual movement up until April 1 is very good.

    At that point, McClellan runs into problems, many of which could have/should have been handled earlier. Interaction with the Navy is a big one (routine inter-service rivalry, no unified command, no Navy man in charge and on-site committed to making McClellan's plan work). Interaction with the administration is another (McClellan had not really gotten the President/Stanton/the War Department involved enough, committed enough, informed enough -- which leads directly to a bunch of other issues). Lack of intelligence on the target area is a major problem -- and since McClellan is the intelligence chief, he can't avoid the responsibility for that.

    Right there, around March 31- April 4, McClellan's plan is unraveling. Much of that could have been avoided by better work ahead of time. By April 6th, McClellan has decided to besiege Yorktown and all the possibilities for the rapid advance on Richmond McClellan was pitching in early February are gone.
     
  16. ErnieMac

    ErnieMac Captain Forum Host Trivia Game Winner

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    The Caudine Forks reference is symbolically much more than a negotiated retreat. With the Romans trapped the Samnites were faced with the dilemma - what do we do with the Romans? Two solutions were proposed. One was to allow them to escape, setting the stage for friendlier relations. The second was to kill them all and weaken Rome for a generation. The Samnite commander opted for a middle road. The Romans were permitted to leave after passing under the yoke. Passing under the yoke required the defeated army to pass thru a tunnel created from their own spears. In ancient Italy this was considered a humiliation and the Romans did not forget. McClellan's Claudine yoke reference indicated the Confederates would be forced into abject surrender.
     
  17. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Absolutely.

    If the war had been fought in "the North", better maps would have been available, but that was largely related to denser populations and commercial business than anything else. In "the South", less detailed mapping had been carried out over the decades and there was little available about many places -- usually along the rivers (I am sure northern Maine and the Adirondacks would have been lacking as well). It is a little surprising that the Peninsula wasn't better mapped because it was, literally, the longest settled part of the US.

    The reason it became a point here is that McClellan brought it up in his reports, to explain what happened in his advance on Yorktown April 5-6. I doubt Grant had anything better when he went on the Henry & Donelson Campaign out West, or any of a dozen other commanders. Generally, the first really good and detailed maps in many areas are done by the engineers of the Union Army as they advanced during the Civil War.
     
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  18. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Yes, that's a better description than what I gave, and I am sure that is what McClellan meant. Classical allusions were a big deal in those days among educated men but, even so, I'd think this one might have been a bit obscure to use with a self-educated politician like Lincoln (letter is technically to Stanton, but seems in response to a memo Lincoln was working on in late January).
     
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  19. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    It may seem obvious in retrospect, but a big problem with the plan was lack of attention to intelligence gathering. We now know that McClellan was grossly misinformed about the strength of the Confederate forces, which affected his decision making.
     
  20. trice

    trice Lt. Colonel

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    Intelligence gathering is always difficult. In the US Army, it was universally looked down on as a job even into WWII (Omar Bradley was proud that he'd managed to avoid ever being assigned to it up until he went to North Africa and discovered how far ahead the average British officer was on intelligence matters).

    At the start of the Civil War, there was no intelligence operation in the US Army at all. When secession started, Scott began to make some efforts to gather intel, but had no organization in place to use. Traditionally, this would mean "scouts" or spies -- but Army tradition said that should be handled through the Quartermaster's department (i.e., he was to handle paying them and getting their reports). Since it looked like QM-General Joe Johnston would "go South" when Virginia seceded, Scott didn't want to do that and tried to handle the arrangements himself. He was apparently still doing that in July 1861.

    McClellan took that over when he came East. He dragged Pinkerton (who he knew as someone he employed in his days running a RR out in Illinois, like the lawyer Lincoln, or Burnside in the late 1850s) in.
     
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  21. Bruce Vail

    Bruce Vail Sergeant Major

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    The closer you look, the more Pinkerton looks like a fraud. He understood perfectly that clients for his detective service (including the US) hired him out of fear or paranoia, and then he played on that fear to balloon his profits. He did this notably with his railroad clients and in his various anti-union campaigns.
     

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