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Golden Thread Opinions on Generalship of George B. McClellan?

Discussion in 'The Eastern Theater' started by General Butterfield, Jun 29, 2017.

  1. General Butterfield

    General Butterfield Corporal

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    Opinions on Generalship of George B. McClellan?

    I regularly see McClellan listed as one of the worst commanders of the war. Looking at his career I don't really share this opinion. Overall I agree with Lee who said that McClellan was a "capable" but "cautious" commander. I don't however agree with Lee that he was the best Union general of the war, overall I would rate him a 6-7/10. Looking at his military career....

    McClellan was a skilled organizer who on taking command built up both the Army of the Potomac and the defenses of Washington. He also seems to have been relatively popular with the average soldier and kept morale steady. His first offensive, the Peninsula campaign was overall unsuccessful. He was pushed back from Richmond and his army suffered a bad defeat at Gaines Mill. I would do not however deem the campaign totally without worth. The Union achieved a favorable casualty rate and at Malvern Hill did significant damage to the Confederate army. The positions he managed to take south of Richmond had Lee looking over his shoulder for the rest of the war.

    The early part of the Antietam campaign was probably McClellan's worst moment. Despite having Lee's orders he failed to move quickly and crush Lee's army when it was divided. The battle of Antietam itself was a bloody affair that ended with no clear winner. McClellan, probably due to Porter's apprehension, failed to send in his reserves and win what could have been a decisive victory and Lee was able to withdraw. The battle was still a strategic Union victory that repelled Lee's invasion and paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Shortly after Antietam, McClellan was relived of command for failing to pursue Lee. Had he remained in command I don't think we would have seen the Army of the Potomac suffering disasters like Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. We would have probably seen a long build up period and a return to the Peninsula which may or may not have been successful. I think McClellan would have provided steadier leadership then Burnside, Hooker or Meade, though I do think Hooker is overall the best general of the four. McClellan's motto could be called " better safe then sorry" and I think it is unlikely that McClellan would have been crushed by Lee because he simply doesn't take big risks. Not sure how the rest of the war would have played out but I think an argument can be made that it would have been perhaps less bloody.

    Opinions?
     

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  3. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Silver Patron

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    Burnside was way above his level of incompetence and knew it. Hooker had his moments of both genius and incompetence. Hooker was a very good corps commander. McClellan was an excellent staff officer who had no business in the field. Meade had been a very good commander of division and corps and was steady, if unspectacular, as army commander. Meade was easily the best overall of the four in your list.
     
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  4. Irishtom29

    Irishtom29 Sergeant

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    Ineffective in combat.
     
  5. General Butterfield

    General Butterfield Corporal

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    I am generally of the same opinion. Meade is probably the safest pick plus easier to work with than Mac even with the temper. My main issue with Meade is that I can't see him destroying Lee's army so in that regard similar to Mac. Hooker is more of a gamble and like you said one part genius and one part incompetence. The overall plan for the Chancellorsville campaign, occupying Lee frontally and coming in behind him, was brilliant but the execution ended up being flawed.
     
  6. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Silver Patron

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    Meade, as army commander, did destroy Lee's army.
     
  7. General Butterfield

    General Butterfield Corporal

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    Well Gettysburg shattered Lee's army but it was a defensive battle. I was thinking more an offensive victory that crushes Lee's army.
     
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  8. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    McClellan had figured out Lee's movements on 12th September, i.e. the "day before" SO191 was found. When SO191 was picked up in a field McClellan was seeing Cox's division off to strike at South Mountain. It was handed to McClellan between 1430 and 1500 hrs on the 13th, i.e. after he'd ordered 9th Corps to march to South Mountain to attack next morning, and after he'd ordered 6th Corps to Jefferson's Gap. His next known orders (aside from communicating SO191 to his cavalry) was his 1820 hrs order to Franklin to extend his march and strike Crampton's Gap the next morning.

    Once McClellan breaks through South Mountain he orders a general pursuit and for his commanders to attack the enemy immediately if found on the march. Late on the 15th the two leading divisions (Richardson and Sykes) form line on the bluffs overlooking Antietam Creek - the enemy are digging in behind a water feature on high ground.

    The 16th McClellan shapes the battlespace by ordering Hooker to close off the Hagerstown Road. The army is still coming up, and Burnside's 9th Corps will not be in position even dawn of the 17th(!) and Morell's division is still on the march. The evening of the 16th McClellan orders 6th Corps to come to Antietam and plans to assault the next morning with 5 of his divisions (Smith, Slocum, Couch, Morell and Humphreys) still not yet arrived.

    We know the details of Antietam, but it's worth mentioning that McClellan committed almost every reserve in the late afternoon. When the (apocryphal) weakening of the centre occurs Porter has only the 2 regular brigades and Barnes' brigade of Morell's division with him. Morell's other two brigades have been sent to Sumner (but are recalled when Burnside collapses and Cox orders a general retreat) and Warren has been sent to Burnside, where they spend the day guarding Burnside's HQ at the Rohrbach House.

    McClellan was relieved 51 days after Antietam, whilst actually in the field. He's executed a masterful movement that had forced Lee to split his army in two and was about to fall on Longstreet's isolated wing even as Lee was warning Jackson McClellan was heading towards him!
     
  9. cash

    cash Brev. Brig. Gen'l

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    Underrated
     
  10. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Silver Patron

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    As has been stated many times before, nobody was going to crush anybody in a single battle. Meade did destroy Lee's army. It just took 11 months.
     
  11. O' Be Joyful

    O' Be Joyful Sergeant

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    Since joining here I am coming to that view. The question that I ponder is, just how much did his thoughts in those letters to his wife prejudice the historical view of McClellan the commander?
     
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  12. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    I'm not a Mac hater, nor am I an apologist. I think he made some tremendous contributions to the Union cause, most notably in creating an army that believed in itself enough to suffer through some unbelievable hardships without coming apart.

    He seemed to genuinely care about the well-being of his men and should be praised for it. Unfortunately, he also appeared to stay as close to HQ as possible and didn't reach out to personally influence battles that could have been won (or lost) had he exercised more direct control. I keep thinking of Sumner's screwup at Antietam and how it might have been corrected, allowing the Second Corps to operate more effectively.

    Most importantly, I believe Mac got himself too immersed in political concerns so he could do his job. Rather than accept that, as an army commander, he couldn't do 100% of what he wanted, he chose to engage in bickering with Halleck and Stanton.

    He certainly wasn't the worst general ever, but I think he hampered his own effectiveness by his determination to show the government who he thought was boss.
     
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  13. Carronade

    Carronade 2nd Lieutenant

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    I agree that the "Lost Order" was not as crucial as is often presented. I think the key question is whether the Union army could have moved expeditiously enough to catch the Confederates dispersed and to relieve the garrison at Harpers Ferry, and if so, why was it not accomplished?

    I'm not familiar with the army's movements in the days immediately preceding McClellan's relief, but I've seen that the position at the outset of Burnside's command offered an opportunity to concentrate against one wing of the ANV.
     
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  14. 67th Tigers

    67th Tigers Sergeant Major

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    Well, if Col Miles had held on even half a day he may well have been relieved. South Mountain was fought on 14th, and Miles surrendered on the morning of the 15th. McClellan had told Franklin to carry Crampton's Gap "at any cost" and relieved Miles. To Miles he sent:

    "The army is being rapidly concentrated here. We are now attacking the pass on the Hagerstown road over the Blue Ridge. A column is about attacking the Burkittsville and Boonsborough Passes. You may count on our making every effort to relieve you. You may rely upon my speedily accomplishing that object. Hold out to the last extremity. If it is possible, reoccupy the Maryland Heights with your whole force. If you can do that, I will certainly be able to relieve you. As the Catoctin Valley is in our possession, you can safely cross the river at Berlin or its vicinity, so far as opposition on this side of the river is concerned. Hold out to the last."
    - McClellan to Col Miles, commanding Harper's Ferry, 14th September, unknown whether any of the three copies sent arrived

    Miles surrendered at 0800 hrs on the 15th, and was wounded by a shell minutes after, before Jackson received the surrender letter. None of his men would carry him to the hospital. At 0850 Franklin, advancing down the Valley to relieve Miles sent to McClellan that the firing had stopped and he believed HF had surrendered. He "went firm" and requested he be reinforced in case Jackson struck him in an effort to get into McClellan's rear.

    Had Miles waited until lunchtime before surrendering, he probably would have been relieved.

    The position of the armies:

    McClellans%2Blast%2Bcampaign.png

    Jackson is about a weeks march from Longstreet (the historical time it took him to cover the distance when he finally moved - Hoof and Mouth had broken out amongst his horses).
     
  15. Saphroneth

    Saphroneth Sergeant

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    That right there is the kind of situation a manoeuvrist begs for - half the enemy isolated well away from the other half, the defensive rivers of Northern Virginia indefensible because Longstreet doesn't have the men to cover them all, and basically Lee's choices are how to lose.

    Then the army gets paralyzed for a week.

    I'm not really sure what Lee's optimal movements would be given the situation - how could he salvage the situation? As far as I can tell the best he can do is pull back towards the rail junction as slowly as possible and have Jackson forced-march to reunite with Longstreet, but that leaves the eastern half of the operational area clear for McClellan to send half his army down and race for Richmond. On the other hand if Lee has Longstreet go east and prevent that, then McClellan can go west with the other half of his army and cut off Jackson from using the Gordonsville junction (and thus turn Longstreet out of every position north of Richmond).

    Any thoughts on what Lee should do? Assume he works out the problem exactly when McClellan was relieved in reality.
     
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  16. General Butterfield

    General Butterfield Corporal

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    Found this book today it comes out in Jan, 2018. I'm definitely going to give it a read, just the info posted on this thread has me rethinking McClellan already.

    Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam:

    https://www.amazon.com/Too-Useful-S...1499032025&sr=8-5&keywords=george+b+mcClellan


     
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  17. General Butterfield

    General Butterfield Corporal

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    Been thinking about this more. I have a few question If you or anyone else gets a chance.:D The four major criticisms of McClellan in regard to the Antietam campaign seem to be Lee's orders, the issue with reserves, the pursuit after the battle and finally that his attacks were "i'll coordinated" and "poorly coordinated". The first three you cleared up well, do you have an opinion on the last one? Also what if any major mistakes did McClellan make at Antietam and what could he have done to make the battle have been more decisive?

    On a side note any books on McClellan or Antietam you would recommend? Sears works on both McClellan and the battle are the most popular but I feel he has an anti McClellan bias.

    Very curious if anyone has any ideas.
     
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  18. WJC

    WJC 2nd Lieutenant

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    The problem faced by those who admire any of the early commanders is that they must- in the end- be compared with Grant. Grant delivered victory.
    Further, whatever opinions later analysts have concerning any of them, the CinC, Lincoln, found each of them lacking.
     
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  19. Saphroneth

    Saphroneth Sergeant

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    I kind of think McClellan would also have delivered victory if he was given about a 1.7:1 manpower advantage for the duration of an entire three-month campaign like Grant was - except that Grant didn't deliver victory in that three-month campaign. (I'm of course talking about the Overland.)

    You can certainly say Grant delivered victory, but (1) that ignores the resources Grant had access to and (2) it's also an argument you can use to describe Douglas Haig as militarily highly effective.

    Was Lincoln a military expert?
    We can see from several of his decisions he was not. Just look at his retention of McDowell's corps...


    Anyway. Anyone got an idea for what Lee could do to avoid defeat in the situation shown above?
     
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  20. Carronade

    Carronade 2nd Lieutenant

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    Just ran across something I hadn't known, for the Maryland campaign, McClellan consolidated the AofP cavalry into a division (five brigades, twelve regiments, not quite enough to call it a corps). This was a very progressive step which we usually see credited to Joe Hooker who formed the cavalry corps; the cavalry had been dispersed again in the meantime under Burnside's command.

    The map provided by 67th Tigers above shows effective use of the cavalry division to screen an attack on Longstreet and provide warning of any reinforcement from Jackson's command.
     
  21. Saphroneth

    Saphroneth Sergeant

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    The contemporary British would call that a corps, because they used a binary divisional structure at three regiments a brigade.

    It's also possible the cavalry was taking the crossings to allow McClellan's western wing to cross the rivers - thus putting Longstreet in an impossible position.

    What do we think Lee would have had him do in that situation? It looks to me like the only option is to fall back - Longstreet's so understrength he simply can't survive an attack by more than maybe two corps, and that would be on a good day - but the question then is where does Longstreet stop falling back and make a stand? There's no positions that would block both the eastern and western routes until you reach Hanover Junction, and the western route (which offers Longstreet the option of recontacting Jackson) is also the longer one - it would be hilariously bad for the CSA if McClellan kept pressure on Longstreet with his western wing and just sent the eastern one zipping down via Fredericksburg to cut Longstreet off from Richmond!

    Is there an obvious solution to this for Lee that I've missed? As far as I can tell the best case scenario for the Rebels is essentially that the Overland Campaign happens eighteen months early and without many casualties on both sides (that is, they manage to reunite and prevent McClellan from getting into Richmond but he's got them pinned in place and has a secure sea supply route)...
     
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