Very Informative Article on How McClellan Outsmarted Lee at Antietam

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Scott1967

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@Scott1967 posted somewhere above that Lee was disappointed when McClellan was removed from command and that he rated him as his most dangerous opponent. There might have been an ironic undertone to it, but I would also guess that Lee might have actually meant it when he said that. McClellan certainly didn't make things easy for him - case in point, Lee's casualties when going against McClellan.
I suspect having McClellan in charge was good for the CSA as to Lee's motives I couldn't say but I think Lee liked McClellan from what I've read he certainly didn't dislike him.

I've learnt a lot on this thread some of the postings have been first class I thought I knew George McClellan turns out I didn't know him well enough , You cant call him a bad general anymore his first major battle and a draw with Bobby Lee that's not too bad considering what came after.

https://civilwartalk.com/members/saphroneth.19683/ and https://civilwartalk.com/members/67th-tigers.636/ have given me and education on the quality's of McClellan and in a way I've change my opinion on him well you live and learn in a way.
 

DanSBHawk

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I think if someone is looking for a good summary of McClellan and the Maryland campaign, Ethan Rafuse's McClellans War does a decent job of summing up the pre-Antietam movements of both sides, the circumstances surrounding the battle itself, and the aftermath. Rafuse nicely describes how Lees intentions change with the evolving situation (Taking Baltimore and invading Pennsylvania never intended)

Rafuse is sympathetic and fair to McClellan. He describes McClellans strengths and weaknesses during the campaign. But he finds that McClellans response to Lee's expedition was methodical and cautious (as opposed to the overstatements in the OP article of this thread) and that the dispositions McClellan made around Antietam were such that they made a confederate escape more likely.

Post-Antietam, Rafuse describes McClellan as really not wanting to pursue or take the offensive. And VERY upset about the Emancipation Proclamation.
 

Saphroneth

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the dispositions McClellan made around Antietam were such that they made a confederate escape more likely.

...wait, huh? How?
There was no way of blocking Boteler's Ford without going along the south side of the Potomac...
 
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DanSBHawk

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...wait, huh? How?
There was no way of blocking Boteler's Ford without going along the south side of the Potomac...
Here is what Rafuse wrote:

"McClellan at no time considered making his main effort against the Confederate center on the sixteenth. He also assumed the rebels had no open flank to attack, as being so close to the Potomac enabled Lee to place both of his flanks on the river. With intelligence regarding the location of all the elements of Lee's army and its overall size uncertain at best, crossing the Potomac to carry out a turning movement around either the Confederate right or left did not hold out enough prospect of success to justify the risks such a movement would entail. That left McClellan with the options of concentrating his attack on Lee's left, concentrating his attack on Lee's right, or dispersing his effort by attempting to attack both ends of the Confederate line.

A successful attack against the Confederate right would be the most difficult to carry out but could produce the most decisive results. Any attack south of Sharpsburg would require crossing Antietam Creek where it was widest and deepest and high bluffs on the western bank offered the rebels excellent defensive positions. Moreover, the approach to the creek south of the Boonsboro Pike was such that an attack there could only be made with one corps. The shorter distance between the Antietam and the Potomac south of Sharpsburg also meant that the rebels would not have to hold as extensive a line and could make a more effective defense against Union attackers who crossed the creek. However, if the Federals could overcome these obstacles, they might be able to interpose a strong force between the bulk of Lee's army and the sole Potomac crossing in its rear at Boteler's Ford.

To concentrate the offensive against Lee's left also carried advantages and disadvantages. The fact that the creek was less of an obstacle north of the Boonsboro Pike, the greater distance between the creek and the Potomac, and the gentler terrain north of Sharpsburg would enable McClellan to make his attack with a much larger force against the rebel left than was possible on the rebel right. Moreover, if Lee was in an offensive state of mind and had the strength to act on it—a possibility that anyone who had witnessed the course of the war in Virginia the past few months would be foolish to disregard—the more open terrain north of Sharpsburg provided the Confederate commander with room to maneuver. A powerful Union push north of Sharpsburg would deny Lee the ability to take advantage of this. However, an attack on Lee's left did not offer the opportunity to cut his access to Boteler's Ford; indeed, a successful attack might only have the effect of pushing the Confederates to the ford. This would achieve McClellan's conservative operational goal of forcing the rebels out of Maryland, but if the rebel army was vulnerable to destruction, concentrating the offensive against the rebel left would not provide the opportunity a successful attack against the rebel right offered."
 

Saphroneth

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A successful attack against the Confederate right would be the most difficult to carry out but could produce the most decisive results. Any attack south of Sharpsburg would require crossing Antietam Creek where it was widest and deepest and high bluffs on the western bank offered the rebels excellent defensive positions. Moreover, the approach to the creek south of the Boonsboro Pike was such that an attack there could only be made with one corps. The shorter distance between the Antietam and the Potomac south of Sharpsburg also meant that the rebels would not have to hold as extensive a line and could make a more effective defense against Union attackers who crossed the creek. However, if the Federals could overcome these obstacles, they might be able to interpose a strong force between the bulk of Lee's army and the sole Potomac crossing in its rear at Boteler's Ford.
So it's your view that Rafuse here is suggesting McClellan should have attacked on the right, I see.

The thing is, though, he did - he attacked with the one corps which Rafuse notes is all that could be used to attack there (9th, specifically) and it's not until the afternoon that they actually manage to make it across the river - having been blocked for hours. Once they do, three brigades of AP Hill smash 9th Corps and drive them back to the river.

I'm not really seeing what an extra corps or two would do, since a less vigourous attack on the Confederate left would allow more brigades to be sent over to the Confederate right. Certainly more brigades wouldn't force the Antietam any sooner (they wouldn't fit on the approach), so AP Hill would still arrive in time.

There's an argument McClellan should have sacked Burnside and/or Cox, but that's not the same as his command decisions at the army level. McClellan sent as many troops as he could on the Confederate right, but he also conduted a manoeuvre sur les derrieres by concentrating all his spare force on the Confederate left to try and pull forces away from their right.
 

luinrina

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So I was thinking about what the outcome could have been if McClellan had had 6th Corps cross the Potomac and try and block it behind Lee, and to my mind the key issue is what Lee does in reaction.

Basically Lee has a resource allocation problem here. 6th Corps had about 9,000 combatants in the divisions of Smith and Slocum, so about 14,000 effectives total with Couch is a reasonable estimate after the marches.

Lee has several choices. One of them is for AP Hill to just basically hold the possible crossing point/s of the Potomac and block Franklin (which he should be able to do, AP Hill's division was one of the large ones and a river crossing like that is easy to hold) though this would rob him of AP Hill during the battle itself. This might come out a wash or even detrimental for McClellan.

If Lee had already ordered AP Hill to join him and Franklin gets over the Potomac (I'm not sure how plausible this is,
@67th Tigers ?) then Lee's options shrink. He can have AP Hill act as a rearguard by himself (which would do the same in terms of the impact on Lee's force as the previous option, but risk defeat much more for AP Hill - in campaign strength he'd be outnumbered about 2.5:1 and in effectives it's about the same) or add McLaws or Anderson to the rearguard, which would make it able to fight pretty much an even battle with Franklin in return for not having those divisions with him on the 17th.

Leaving both McLaws and Anderson to fight, along with AP Hill, means the serious risk of Franklin' defeat, but it also means that the fight at Antietam on the 17th is a likely Union victory.

And having Jackson's entire force from Harpers Ferry fight Franklin means Franklin's toast - but it also means the almost certain destruction of Longstreet's wing on the 17th.


My suspicion is that in fact crossing the Potomac there was not practicable after the Rebels left, but it's interesting seeing the risk/reward of what would happen if Franklin did cross. Functionally either Lee commits enough force south of the Potomac to fend off Franklin that the main fighting probably comes out a Union victory and Lee has to retreat to Boteler's Ford in disorder, or he doesn't commit enough force south of the Potomac and so Franklin ends up covering the southern side of Boteler's Ford in force - and Lee's army is screwed, as it's stuck unable to break out and surrounded by rivers.


It'd be an interesting alternate history scenario.
Okay, that's interesting. It suggests that there's the possibility of Franklin actually getting lucky and managing to turn the Army of Northern Virginia, and that both commanders independently decided they needed the troops in question on the Antietam.


This sounds to me like AP Hill set off at 0730 AM on the 17th? Setting off at 1930 on the 16th wouldn't be "after a night of worry". As it' about 12 miles walk by a fairly direct route from HF to Sharpsburg it looks like it's manageable for a division in the space of eight hours taking a somewhat longer route.

Of the two then McClellan needed the troops represented slightly more, because Franklin's three divisions were about 1/6 of his entire force as opposed to about 1/7 to 1/8 of Lee's force being represented by AP Hill.

I think that's an interesting AU:

McClellan does not order Franklin to the Antietam, instead ordering him to try and turn Lee.
0630 on the 17th: AP Hill ordered to Sharpsburg
0730: AP Hill is on the road, his column taking perhaps half an hour to leave.
0815: Franklin begins crossing the Potomac to Harpers Ferry.
0945: Crossing complete, Franklin leaves a brigade or two of Couch to hold Harpers Ferry and marches after AP Hill.

Back at Antietam, McClellan commits Morell's division to help shield the reforming right wing. With nothing at all left in reserve in the centre except a couple of batteries, he may well pull back across the Antietam in his centre - it's possible that he'd have sent all three brigades of Morell north and left the artillery reserve without close infantry support.

1400: AP Hill reaches Boteler's Ford.
1530: As Burnside's wing finally gets into motion, AP Hill arrives on schedule and drives them in.
1630: Franklin arrives south of Boteler's Ford in force, blocking Lee's retreat and probably capturing most of his trains (as they'd been crossing for the last couple of days).

I think at this point Lee's screwed, though the reason he's screwed depends on details McClellan couldn't reasonably have known in advance.
Harper's Ferry was lost and probably McClellan didn't know that Jackson's troops were either still on the way to Sharpsburg or left behind to take care of the captures stores, so I think based on what he knew, ordering VI Corps up to the Antietam was his best option.

But I really like this what if scenario of Franklin being ordered to cross the Potomac and head to Harper's Ferry. It would have meant the recapture of the captured Federal stores still being transported south, the capture of the brigade A.P. Hill left behind to oversee that transportation organization and the closing of Lee's route of retreat across Boteler's Ford.

If Franklin moves quickly enough, he might catch A.P. Hill at the ford and give battle there. Even if Franklin is unable to force the crossing and A.P. Hill can hold his side of the river, it nonetheless would mean Hill's division doesn't arrive in time to absorb Burnside's attack after he finally forced his way across the bridge. IX Corps would be rolling up the Confederate right like a carpet.

Lee would either have to find another way to fight himself out of this - in my opinion unlikely after a day of battle with tremendous casualties - or he would have to surrender.
 
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Saphroneth

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No, I don't think Lee gave McClellan much choice. But that again refutes the OP article that McClellan somehow outsmarted Lee.
It's not the case that McClellan has to find options which produce an arbitrarily bad outcome for Lee in all decisions for him to have outmanoeuvred or outsmarted Lee; simply by creating a position where Lee was forced to stand at Sharpsburg McClellan has done well, as Lee clearly did not want to fight at Sharpsburg but was compelled to do so. Thus McClellan has manoeuvred such as to force Lee to take a fight at a disadvantage.
 

Stone in the wall

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Has been mentioned several times here about Lee's plans of entering PA. Seems strange tight lipped, never tell anyone any thing, Jackson, while in Frederick was asking about maps and the roads of PA. not like him to give out any plans unless he was headed some place else.
 
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luinrina

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I just finished watching this very well-done presentation on McClellan during the Maryland Campaign, hosted by the GettysburgNPS:
Video description:
George Brinton McClellan- one of the Civil War's most controversial and disliked generals- has been the subject of scorn and derision for decades. Frequently near or at the top of "worst generals" lists, historians typically use words such as coward, traitor, or foolish to describe this former commander of the Army of the Potomac. But is the story we all seem to know so well correct? Does George McClellan deserve the reputation he has today? Join Ranger Dan Vermilya for a look at McClellan's actions in the pivotal Antietam Campaign, the most important of McClellan's military career, to see why when it comes to the "Young Napoleon" history tends to be ruled by perceptions and not realities.

I really liked the presentation. Ranger Vermilya did say that he started out like probably everyone else - not liking McClellan. But after reading Harsh's books on the Maryland Campaign, he began to reevaluate his own perceptions. He also acknowledges that McClellan was far from faultless, but with that presentation he wants to animate people to start rethinking George B. McClellan during the Maryland Campaign.
 

Saphroneth

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Yeah, I think the ultimate thing that happens when you dig into McClellan's performance is that:

  • The biggest and core criticism of him that everyone always claims - that he repeatedly massively overestimated enemy strength and thus missed easy opportunities - is simply false.
  • While there are places where he could have made an alternative decision and potentially done better, the decisions he did make all made sense at the time he made them (in the sense that to make better decisions he would need information about his enemy he did not possess).
  • To **** McClellan for not destroying the Confederate army in a single short campaign - indeed, in a single battle in the case of Antietam - is to criticize him for not achieving something when no other commander ever accomplished it under remotely similar conditions.
The only major Confederate army ever "destroyed" without being besieged (in the sense of a true siege without a way out) was reduced to that state by a combination of a heavy Confederate attack that killed much of their senior leadership followed by several days in a logistically difficult situation and an attack by a Union army outnumbering them more than 2:1.

What this means is that McClellan was an effective commander who did at least adequately well with what he had. His performance certainly exceeds that of the generals who were used to replace him, both times it happened. (Pope screwed up big time, and I don't think anyone could see McClellan putting his army through Fredericksburg - he might well have crossed at Fredericksburg, but not after Lee's whole army had arrived.)
His strategic view, meanwhile (a campaign by water, aiming at coming at Richmond up the York and/or the James) concords with other strategists and with how Richmond was actually taken; again this suggests that his strategic sense was at least adequate.

Quite possibly McClellan's biggest problem was being the most visible commander of the Union army during a period of time when the Union populace and the Union government were expecting perfection - and cheap perfection at that, perfection without risk but with big spectacular battles. A single big decisive battle in the Waterloo vein and then the war would be over, notwithstanding that Waterloo required Napoleon to believe himself to have the advantage and was a ****ed close run thing besides.
This led to the impatience - the army hadn't gone on the offensive and it was already January! - and to the way offensive action was demanded but the force held back for defence was so great as to outright wreck any chance of a true offensive concentration.
 
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Saphroneth

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The matter about McClellan's performance at Antietam is really conflicting there are many interpretations to it.
This is true, and I think a big part of it is that crucial bits of information are missing or hard to derive easily* - while other bits, such as the timing of the Lost Order, have essentially corrrupted the historiography.


* Such as the strength of the Confederate army at Antietam. A 10 September return for the Confederate army would be ideal, but no such return was made; thus we end up estimating from various statements. However all methods (estimate of PFD from 2 September, add-back of casualties from after the battle, eyewitness accounts, going through Carman with Tom Clemens' notes, simply doing a direct regiment count) seem to converge on McClellan possessing a small numerical advantage on the field on the 17th, but only by virtue of many of his troops being in extra-size fresh regiments.
The problem is that none of these can be explained nearly as easily as just pointing at what the Confederates said (a count of effectives only, as minimized as possible) with what McClellan said (his strength PFD without straggling.) These numbers are not directly comparable, especially not at Antietam, but they are treated as if they are.
 

luinrina

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This is true, and I think a big part of it is that crucial bits of information are missing or hard to derive easily* - while other bits, such as the timing of the Lost Order, have essentially corrrupted the historiography.


* Such as the strength of the Confederate army at Antietam. A 10 September return for the Confederate army would be ideal, but no such return was made; thus we end up estimating from various statements. However all methods (estimate of PFD from 2 September, add-back of casualties from after the battle, eyewitness accounts, going through Carman with Tom Clemens' notes, simply doing a direct regiment count) seem to converge on McClellan possessing a small numerical advantage on the field on the 17th, but only by virtue of many of his troops being in extra-size fresh regiments.
The problem is that none of these can be explained nearly as easily as just pointing at what the Confederates said (a count of effectives only, as minimized as possible) with what McClellan said (his strength PFD without straggling.) These numbers are not directly comparable, especially not at Antietam, but they are treated as if they are.
The numbers is what Ranger Vermilya goes into, and also that many of McClellan's forces were regiments that hadn't even been drilled properly yet - as he said "hardly something to give the commanding general confidence." He also talks about the Lost Order and that it wasn't that important since it was a) outdated and b) didn't tell about Confederate troop strength.

I've heard the following quote twice now on lectures about McClellan:

McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war. As a young man he was always a mystery. He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. Then he is a man of unusual accomplishments, a student, and a well-read man. I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. I have entire confidence in McClellan’s loyalty and patriotism. But the test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war. It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility—the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.

This is Ulysses S. Grant on George B. McClellan. I've come to believe that McClellan was more a victim of public and political pressure than his own mistakes, and that anyone at the beginning of the war would have faced difficulties.
 

Saphroneth

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This is Ulysses S. Grant on George B. McClellan. I've come to believe that McClellan was more a victim of public and political pressure than his own mistakes, and that anyone at the beginning of the war would have faced difficulties.
Yes, and not only because the Confederates mustered their largest army of the war right at the beginning - there's also an issue of definitions, as Grant himself was at pains to point out for his own Shiloh. As time went on the Union shifted their headline definitions for troop strength to smaller figures, more in line with the way the Confederates reported theirs, so McClellan is the only one who gets hit with the full impact of this.
 
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Stone in the wall

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McClellan being in command in Maryland shows that Lincoln thought of him as his best general. On out smarting Lee however, Lee outsmarted himself. He made several bad mistakes here. Maryland troops did not flock to fill his ranks as he thought, the army was in poor shape for an invasion, dividing the army to capture Harpers Ferry- Martinsburg when he didn't plan to hold them anyway, they could be retaken right back. Although this did remove 12,000 troops from his rear it wore out men, horses,equipment ect. And put the divided army at great risk. Also #191 is a factor here
 

Saphroneth

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McClellan being in command in Maryland shows that Lincoln thought of him as his best general.
Well, it's that or nobody else (i.e. neither Pope nor Halleck) wanted the command, which would imply they considered it a dangerous task without great prospects for success.
 
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