What was the Biggest "Missed Opportunity" of the War?

JeffBrooks

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 20, 2009
Location
Manor, TX
There are several occasions over the course of the war when, if a commander had made a different decision or had simply had better luck, they might have inflicted a decisive defeat on the opposing forces and, perhaps, changed the course of American history. Sometimes this is due to a lack of boldness, or not having enough information, or sheer exhaustion, or (as Shakespeare would have put it) simply the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What are the biggest missed opportunities of the war?

McClellan at Yorktown or the afternoon of Antietam?
Lee at Glendale?
Meade at Gettysburg on July 4?
Hindman at McLemore's Cove?
Johnston/Hood at Cassville?
Lee at the North Anna River?
Hood at Spring Hill?
Something else?
 

NedBaldwin

Major
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
California
Sitting in fortified positions and hoping Sherman would smash into them was not going to work.
But isnt that what everyone is saying Johnston was supposed to do? Isnt that what "why didnt he fortify Snake creek Gap" is all about - that he didnt make a fortified position to sit behind?

JJ used an active counter-attack strategy. Around Dalton he used Cleburne to respond to Hooker's probe at Dug Gap and then sent Cleburne, Walker and Hindman to try to smash McPherson, but McPherson had withdrawm. At Resaca he absorbed Sherman's attacks and then counter attacked Sherman's left. The failure to keep McPherson from crossing the river lower down that led him to pull back. Over the next few days between the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers he skirmished with Sherman while looking for another opportunity to strike. He attempted to attack a portion of Sherman's force at Cassville but subordinates bungled the move and the opportunity passed. In those first couple weeks he did lose a lot of ground, but he was not just "Sitting in fortified positions and hoping Sherman would smash into them."


Over the next month and a half Johnston tenaciously held onto the great defensive space, slowing Sherman considerably. He defeated Sherman's moves at New Hope Church and Pickett's Mill and launching his own counter strike at Dallas. The lines would then move around for weeks. Sherman tried to manoeuver and Johnston attacked him at Kolb's Farm. Sherman than obliged with the "smash into them" at Kennesaw. Other than Kennessaw, JJ did not have a "passive hope-they-attack-and-die plan". But he could not stop the fact that Sherman had such a numeric edge he could keep moving columns around him.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
I would guess you either haven't looked at those numbers hard or have drunk the koolaid on this issue. There are lots and lots of problems in those Confederate numbers that make them very deceptive

Thanks. I have looked at these numbers. I am aware of the issue that post-war, Johnston's critics used higher categories to exaggerate his strength. They indulged in apples-oranges comparisons to try an minimise Johnston's numerical disadvantage.

The normal pattern is to take Johnston's "aggregate present" and compare them with Sherman's "effectives".
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Thanks. I have looked at these numbers. I am aware of the issue that post-war, Johnston's critics used higher categories to exaggerate his strength. They indulged in apples-oranges comparisons to try an minimise Johnston's numerical disadvantage.

The normal pattern is to take Johnston's "aggregate present" and compare them with Sherman's "effectives".
Sherman's "effective strength" that you are presenting is his "present for duty" number. The numbers you are presenting for Johnston is not Johnston's "present for duty" number. It is Johnston's "present for duty, equipped" number. The Confederates do not include officers in that, for a start.

The "equipped" part of that excludes a large chunk of Confederates, particularly in the cavalry, who are really "present for duty, equipped" at the start of the campaign a few days after April 30. Why? Because they are in Wheeler's cavalry. In order to ease supply issues and strengthen the horses, they had been moved back to where better grazing and easier supply would be available. In early May, the horses were brought forward to be ready for the start of the campaign. As a result, one heck of a lot of cavalry suddenly become "equipped" when their horses arrive.

The Confederate numbers are also incomplete.
  • Example: they do not include the Georgia militia/state troops serving with Johnston and Hood in June, July, and August.
  • Example: on April 30, Wheeler reports 8,062 "present for duty", but only 2,419 'effectives"; Kelly's cavalry division has 1,545 "effectives" on May 5, but none on April 30.
  • Example: the August 31 numbers include Wheeler, but Wheeler did not submit an August 31 report. As a result, they include Wheeler's July 31 strength again. Hood had sent Wheeler off on his raid on August 10 with about 4,500 men. By September 1 that cavalry is scattered from East Tennessee to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with one of his generals dead and another under arrest, both horses and men broken down, and the entire force useless without rest and reorganization. Yet they still show up in the AoT "effective strength".
The story on losses is much the same. Sherman shows a large loss in August, which is surprising because there is relatively little heavy fighting in August. That is when the enlistments of many in Sherman's army expired and a good many troops simply were sent home and mustered out. The Confederates did not cause those, although they certainly would benefit from the troops going home.

Sherman's actual reported losses (killed/wounded/missing) for the campaign comes to 37,081.

The Confederate loss numbers are also very hard to get, and even what you will find are known to be incomplete and too low. Foard's report of Johnston's losses is known to be only a partial report. Foard does not include any losses at all for July 10-17 (Johnston's last week) and does not include any loss at all for Tyler's brigade in Bates division (none?). It does not include any casualties in the cavalry or the Georgia militia. It does not include any "missing" such as deserters or prisoners.

Foard (Army of Tennessee medical director) shows 3,114 killed and 18,881 wounded for the campaign. Add the Confederate cavalry and Georgia militia losses to that. Add the Confederate missing to that (Sherman reports 7,480 "prisoners and deserters" for May to August, another 3,065 for September 1-20). Throw in a fudge factor to account for Confederates who deserted, but did not get swept up by Sherman. You will end up with a Confederate killed/wounded/missing number at about 35,000.

So Sherman's losses and Johnston/Hood's losses look pretty similar. Sherman is on the offensive with Johnston (especially) and Hood on the defensive. That would lead you to expect a very different result than actually occurred. Talking about the Confederates attritioning Sherman is misleading. Robert E. Lee did a much better job of that against Grant.
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
But isnt that what everyone is saying Johnston was supposed to do? Isnt that what "why didnt he fortify Snake creek Gap" is all about - that he didnt make a fortified position to sit behind?
Nope. They are saying that he made no attempt to safeguard it at all, does not seem to have recognized its' importance, and may not have even known that Snake Creek Gap existed. For example, Cantey arrives in Resaca on May 5 and was ordered to move to Dalton on May 7, cancelled at Noon on the 8th. Even then, he is ordered to hold his troops ready to move to Dalton by rail at short notice. Cantey was unfamiliar with the area and no one seems to have told him Snake Creek Gap existed (it is not visible from the town).

He also seems very insensitive to being outflanked through it on the 11th and 12th, when he is getting reports from his observers at Dug Gap of a very large Union wagon train moving down the valley. Hood goes to resaca on the afternoon of the 11th and reports "no enemy within 4 miles", but at the same time Johnston gets a message from Calhoun that there are 30,000 Yankees between the gap and Resaca.

By the end of the 12th, only IV Corps and 2 cavalry divisions are facing Johnston at Dalton. The rest are either in or near Snake Creek Gap. Polk is now in command at Resaca and Johnston tells him to bring the rest of his force up from Rome. Johnston keeps Hood and Hardee up around Dalton through the 12th, then rushed them down to Resaca.

JJ used an active counter-attack strategy. Around Dalton he used Cleburne to respond to Hooker's probe at Dug Gap and then sent Cleburne, Walker and Hindman to try to smash McPherson, but McPherson had withdrawm. At Resaca he absorbed Sherman's attacks and then counter attacked Sherman's left. The failure to keep McPherson from crossing the river lower down that led him to pull back. Over the next few days between the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers he skirmished with Sherman while looking for another opportunity to strike. He attempted to attack a portion of Sherman's force at Cassville but subordinates bungled the move and the opportunity passed. In those first couple weeks he did lose a lot of ground, but he was not just "Sitting in fortified positions and hoping Sherman would smash into them."
I think the key thing to recognize is that Johnston never seems to actually follow through on these things. There are no vigorous attacks. There is a lot of talk about it -- but it never happens. Point out these things and the buck gets passed to subordinates or up the line to Davis. Somehow it is never Johnston's fault that his "plans" (much too grand a word for his practice) never develop into real action.

Cassville, I think, is overdone. The Hood and Johnston accounts contradict each other. While an attack might have dinged Hooker and Schofield up, it does not look like they would be crushed. The rest of Sherman was already arriving to put pressure on Hardee when the attack flopped, and even if accepted at face value the Confederates are saying a delay of minutes made the entire attack plan unworkable. The next day, Johnston publishes a bulletin to the Army, promising a fight -- then retreats that very night. This is not impressive stuff.

Time after time Johnston gives up important ground in rapid succession. Position after position is shown to be ill-thought out and unprepared. And Johnston is the one who wants to have the Yankees attack his fortifications (he blames Sherman for being too cautious to do it).
Over the next month and a half Johnston tenaciously held onto the great defensive space, slowing Sherman considerably. He defeated Sherman's moves at New Hope Church and Pickett's Mill and launching his own counter strike at Dallas. The lines would then move around for weeks. Sherman tried to manoeuver and Johnston attacked him at Kolb's Farm. Sherman than obliged with the "smash into them" at Kennesaw. Other than Kennessaw, JJ did not have a "passive hope-they-attack-and-die plan". But he could not stop the fact that Sherman had such a numeric edge he could keep moving columns around him.
May 6 -- Campaign starts
May 9 -- McPherson comes through Snake Creek Gap and almost breaks the RR
May 13 -- Sherman moves on Resaca
May 15 -- Sweeney's division crosses the Oostanaula again at Lay's Ferry, flanking Resaca. Johnston retreats.
May 16 -- Johnston intends to stand at Calhoun, decides the position is no good, retreats
May 17 -- Johnston intends to stand at Adairsville, decides the position is no good, retreats
May 19 -- Johnston plan to attack at Cassville falls apart. About 10 PM, Johnston orders a retreat.
May 20 -- Johnston is across the Etowah, Sherman closing up on the north side.
May 21 -- Sherman pauses his advance to bring his supplies and LOC forward, rest his troops.
May 24 -- Sherman has crossed the Etowah

So in about 18 days, Sherman has advanced his position about 60-65 miles. Looked at another way, Johnston has retreated 60 miles in 12 days (May 12 when he retreats from Dalton).

Kennesaw is the only place where ***Sherman*** decided to attack directly into Johnston's fortifications. There were a lot of times where Johnston sat behind fortifications waiting and hoping for Sherman to attack him. Sherman just kept on outflanking him and Johnston just kept on retreating.
 

NedBaldwin

Major
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
California
Ok, but you are just arguing with yourself since you are the one who earlier said Johnston should have fortified the gap.

They are saying that he made no attempt to safeguard it at all, does not seem to have recognized its' importance, and may not have even known that Snake Creek Gap existed.
So a bunch of baseless speculation. Got it.

For example, Cantey arrives in Resaca on May 5 and was ordered to move to Dalton on May 7, cancelled at Noon on the 8th. Even then, he is ordered to hold his troops ready to move to Dalton by rail at short notice.
And? What is it you think this is an example of?

As for him being outflanked, he got his whole force to Resaca before Sherman did. So....?
 

NedBaldwin

Major
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
California
I think the key thing to recognize is that Johnston never seems to actually follow through on these things. There are no vigorous attacks. There is a lot of talk about it -- but it never happens.
There is a scene in the classic 80s comedy Real Genius where the character's invention crashes and he asks "Would you qualify that as a launch problem or a design problem?" The same question could be asked here. First you said it was design problem -- that his strategy was all wrong because it was "Sitting in fortified positions and hoping Sherman would smash into them" but when I pointed out that he didnt actually do that, you argued that it was a launch problem -- he couldnt or wouldnt manage to execute his plans successfully. This new line of argument I agree with.
 

Lubliner

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
There is a scene in the classic 80s comedy Real Genius where the character's invention crashes and he asks "Would you qualify that as a launch problem or a design problem?" The same question could be asked here. First you said it was design problem -- that his strategy was all wrong because it was "Sitting in fortified positions and hoping Sherman would smash into them" but when I pointed out that he didnt actually do that, you argued that it was a launch problem -- he couldnt or wouldnt manage to execute his plans successfully. This new line of argument I agree with.
All his launches were retrograde movements. I would rather think for parrying the Union advances, that Johnston would try to thrust in and separate the supply line from the lead corps. There should have been ample ambush sites available, baited with a small showable force.
Lubliner.
 

NedBaldwin

Major
Joined
Feb 19, 2011
Location
California
By the end of the 12th, only IV Corps and 2 cavalry divisions are facing Johnston at Dalton. The rest are either in or near Snake Creek Gap. Polk is now in command at Resaca and Johnston tells him to bring the rest of his force up from Rome. Johnston keeps Hood and Hardee up around Dalton through the 12th, then rushed them down to Resaca.
JJ sends an engineer to Resaca on the 10th to lay out a larger defensive position

The cavalry of Martin's division and the brigades of Grigsby and Allen are all ordered to operate in the Resaca area from the 10th on, so roughly 1/2 JJ's cavalry is already left Dalton by the 10th

Loring's division arrives at Resaca by brigade on the 10th - 12th, joining the force already there (Cantey, Reynolds, Nisbett, Vaughn). Also the infantry divisions of Cleburne and Walker are both held south of Dalton from the 10th on, so he already had about 40% of his available infantry south of Dalton.
By the 12th Walker is south of Resaca while Cleburne is between Dug Gap and Resaca

On the 11th Cheatham (less Vaugns brigade already at Resaca and Strahls' brigade at Dug Gap) and Hindman's division are pulled from the line to wait in Dalton before moving south on the 12th, leaving just 3 infantry divisions in front of Dalton to face the IV Corps 3 divisions

By the morning of the 12th JJ had determined what Sherman is doing and begins moving rest of his command to Resaca
By the 13th his has everyone at Resaca ahead of Sherman
 
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67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Sherman's "effective strength" that you are presenting is his "present for duty" number. The numbers you are presenting for Johnston is not Johnston's "present for duty" number. It is Johnston's "present for duty, equipped" number. The Confederates do not include officers in that, for a start.

Johnston reported his effective strength as enlisted men, exclusive of sick, on extra duty and under arrest.

On 26th July, Sherman issued a circular directing that the sick, extra duty men and those under arrest be included in the "effective" column. However, the returns in the OR were not compiled this way.

For the 30th April, Sherman's strength in the field (excluding engineers, LOC troops etc.) was:
Effectives: 110,124
PFD: 124,181
Aggregate Present: 143,896

Of the "PFD not not effective", about half is dismounted cavalry, leaving about 7,000 "not effectives" carried on PFD. There are 19,175 present, but not carried under the "PFD" column. Most of these would be the extra duty men, since the sick were sent to the rear, and the "under arrest" was always a very small number.

In fact, the only substantive difference is in the officers. In April there were 4,958 officers carried as "effective" (4.5%). Feel free to adjust down Sherman's numbers by 4-5%, but it will not magic away his numerical advantage.

The "equipped" part of that excludes a large chunk of Confederates, particularly in the cavalry, who are really "present for duty, equipped" at the start of the campaign a few days after April 30. Why? Because they are in Wheeler's cavalry. In order to ease supply issues and strengthen the horses, they had been moved back to where better grazing and easier supply would be available. In early May, the horses were brought forward to be ready for the start of the campaign. As a result, one heck of a lot of cavalry suddenly become "equipped" when their horses arrive.

Sherman's dismounted cavalry and cavalry in the LOC are also not counted as effective.

So Sherman's losses and Johnston/Hood's losses look pretty similar. Sherman is on the offensive with Johnston (especially) and Hood on the defensive. That would lead you to expect a very different result than actually occurred. Talking about the Confederates attritioning Sherman is misleading. Robert E. Lee did a much better job of that against Grant.

You've made an apples to oranges comparison by including those lost to sickness and battlefield casualties for the rebels, but only the latter for the Federals. In fact, as Newton has noted, Johnston did inflict much heavier losses on the battlefield than Sherman, but they suffered badly from sickness, which wrecked the army. The figures for Johnston's tenure (from Newton) being:

FederalsRebels
Battlefield Losses21,92510,852
Captured and DesertedNot Known3,361
Went Sick34,41230,603
Returned from Sick19,87715,780
Net Loss36,46029,036
 
Joined
Jul 22, 2021
McClellan, anywhere, anytime
McClellan had acquired Lee's battle plans and he even exclaimed that he would have him right where he wanted him. However, he never acted. Doubtless he too would have a general if not an even better idea regarding the size of the force crossing the river. Worse, in my estimation the biggest opportunity was missed just after the battle of Antietam. McClellan was a cautious general and if memory serves, he had a number of troops held in reserve. He always had reserves. I also recall he burned Burnside at the bridge (pun intended), didn't he? McClellan missed a golden opportunity to at least beat and punish Lee on the north side of the Maryland/Virginia border had he not whined and whimpered about needing more men and supplies while his reserves remained in wait. I know some say he was a good general and that DC was responsible for his failings for not supplying him but I say this is superfluous flummery. In many regards he was a good administrator but he was not a fighting tactician nor strategist. Far from it in a time when a little creative aggression and a few guts would have crippled Lee severely.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
McClellan had acquired Lee's battle plans and he even exclaimed that he would have him right where he wanted him. However, he never acted.

So, the Battle of South Mountain and all that followed never happened?

Doubtless he too would have a general if not an even better idea regarding the size of the force crossing the river. Worse, in my estimation the biggest opportunity was missed just after the battle of Antietam. McClellan was a cautious general and if memory serves, he had a number of troops held in reserve. He always had reserves. I also recall he burned Burnside at the bridge (pun intended), didn't he? McClellan missed a golden opportunity to at least beat and punish Lee on the north side of the Maryland/Virginia border had he not whined and whimpered about needing more men and supplies while his reserves remained in wait.

McClellan did not have any significant numbers of troops in reserve on the afternoon of the 17th.

I know some say he was a good general and that DC was responsible for his failings for not supplying him but I say this is superfluous flummery. In many regards he was a good administrator but he was not a fighting tactician nor strategist. Far from it in a time when a little creative aggression and a few guts would have crippled Lee severely.

He did cripple Lee's army. However, as he moved to follow up by bridging the Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry and moving on Winchester, Halleck intervened and forbid any further offensive.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I know some say he was a good general and that DC was responsible for his failings for not supplying him but I say this is superfluous flummery.
The problem with the lack of supplies was real and significant; McClellan's forces were lacking in horses, clothes and equipment of all kinds. (Some corps had deficiencies of thousands of boots.) There were even food shortages; Lincoln was actually present when a bread riot happened.

You can't simply ignore when this situation arises in an army, especially when their opponents (the Confederates) had recently captured two major supply bases since mid-August and were consequently flush. It affects the ability of the army to campaign effectively, and with so much of the force of McClellan's army consisting of brand new troops (some with essentially zero training time) any kind of further problem like that is best minimized.

If you'd accept them, I have citations to the effect that a problem existed from McClellan, his QMG (Ingalls), the commander of 12th Corps (AS Williams), the interim commander of 1st Corps (Meade), the man Lincoln sent to find out if a problem existed (Col Thomas Scott) and multiple lower ranking individuals, from private soldiers to brigadiers.


I also recall he burned Burnside at the bridge (pun intended), didn't he?
Burnside was ordered the previous day (16th) to be ready to attack the bridge promptly, and was ordered to make his attack by a courier before 9AM (that being the time of the first regimental charge, which failed).
It took Burnside until after midday to capture the bridge, owing almost entirely to his inability to take what should have been a fairly easy target; this is a combination of poor tactics (i.e. not attaining artillery fire superiority) and poor positioning (having the troops which should have been ready to attack elsewhere, so they had to spend a long period of time coming up into attack position - that first regimental charge was the only unit even close to the bridge).
Subsequently, Burnside was warned of the approach of AP Hill's troops about an hour and a half before AP Hill actually arrived; 9th Corps was nevertheless caught by surprise.


McClellan's concept of operations at Antietam was to threaten Lee on both flanks at once, without so overextending his army on the attack that he did the same thing Pope did at 2nd Bull Run (i.e. left himself vulnerable to a counterattack). Burnside's screw-ups meant that what was intended to be simultaneous pressure on both flanks of the Confederate army was instead mostly a single axis attack, and that single-axis attack forced Lee to commit just about all of his reserves to stabilize the situation; McClellan kept attacking or threatening to attack in the north until it was confirmed that Burnside had broken.

As of that time, McClellan's forces exclusive of 9th Corps were:

1st, 2nd, 12th Corps: all used up, having already attacked that day, except for one brigade.
6th Corps: five brigades forming the front line, one brigade has already attacked that day.
5th Corps Sykes: at the middle bridge, forming the centre of the army. Ready to advance to conform with 9th Corps and avoid a big gap on the 9th Corps right flank.
5th Corps Morell: 2 brigades marching north after McClellan called them to join 6th Corps. 3rd brigade not sure but I would assume ready to "advance to conform" along with Sykes.

McClellan is preparing to commit most or all of his remaining reserves to one last attack in the north, to keep Lee from using "interior lines" (i.e. to give Burnside as clear a run in as possible, basially) but once Burnside has broken then there's no point.

The net result of all this, with a corps commander screwing up that thoroghly - and with Hooker, Mansfield and Sumner all having not behaved well - is that McClellan inflicts roughly comparable losses on Lee as the number of losses he suffers. Given the light losses to AP Hill (~700 reported in the campaign, inclusive of Harpers Ferry, so probably not more than 700 in the battle) and the very heavy losses to 9th Corps (2,349 in the battle of Antietam alone), it appears that the attacks in the north were actually casualty-positive in raw numerical terms.
 

damYankee

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 12, 2011
His failures were many, all self inflicted, ask the Union men who defended Harper's Ferry while McClellan commanded forces superior to the enemy, but decided to sit and wait, writing letters to his wife and Lincoln.
The man had no business being in command of combat forces. His foot dragging cost lives, prolonged the war, and empowered the enemy.
But, there were men like Halleck, who did the same thing when he took command of Grants army after Shilo, and lead the advance on Corinth, happy if he marched his army two miles a day, upon a Confederate force drawfed by his own, afraid of his own shadow.
It is no coincidence that neither Halleck nor McClellan trusted Grant, at least until Lincoln stepped in.
I would take one Grant over a dozen McClellan's or Halleck' s in a time of war.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
His failures were many, all self inflicted, ask the Union men who defended Harper's Ferry while McClellan commanded forces superior to the enemy, but decided to sit and wait, writing letters to his wife and Lincoln.
I think the first question I'd ask them is "Why did you surrender sooner than you told McClellan you'd be able to hold out until?"
Late on the 13th, Captain Russell of the 1st Maryland Cavalry was sent out of Harpers Ferry with a message to the effect that Harpers Ferry could hold out only for 48 hours (i.e. until late on the 15th). Franklin was already in the Pleasant Valley and marching south to Harpers Ferry when the garrison surrendered mid-morning of the 15th; if HF had held out as long as that message stated, they'd have been relieved.


The second question, which is to you, is to ask when McClellan "decided to sit and wait" while Harpers Ferry was being defended. (Writing letters is obviously the sort of thing that's acceptable unless you're actively in a fight and are putting off making an urgent decision by writing the letter - it's not like we criticize enlisted men for keeping diaries.)
 
Joined
Jul 22, 2021
The problem with the lack of supplies was real and significant; McClellan's forces were lacking in horses, clothes and equipment of all kinds. (Some corps had deficiencies of thousands of boots.) There were even food shortages; Lincoln was actually present when a bread riot happened.

You can't simply ignore when this situation arises in an army, especially when their opponents (the Confederates) had recently captured two major supply bases since mid-August and were consequently flush. It affects the ability of the army to campaign effectively, and with so much of the force of McClellan's army consisting of brand new troops (some with essentially zero training time) any kind of further problem like that is best minimized.

If you'd accept them, I have citations to the effect that a problem existed from McClellan, his QMG (Ingalls), the commander of 12th Corps (AS Williams), the interim commander of 1st Corps (Meade), the man Lincoln sent to find out if a problem existed (Col Thomas Scott) and multiple lower ranking individuals, from private soldiers to brigadiers.



Burnside was ordered the previous day (16th) to be ready to attack the bridge promptly, and was ordered to make his attack by a courier before 9AM (that being the time of the first regimental charge, which failed).
It took Burnside until after midday to capture the bridge, owing almost entirely to his inability to take what should have been a fairly easy target; this is a combination of poor tactics (i.e. not attaining artillery fire superiority) and poor positioning (having the troops which should have been ready to attack elsewhere, so they had to spend a long period of time coming up into attack position - that first regimental charge was the only unit even close to the bridge).
Subsequently, Burnside was warned of the approach of AP Hill's troops about an hour and a half before AP Hill actually arrived; 9th Corps was nevertheless caught by surprise.


McClellan's concept of operations at Antietam was to threaten Lee on both flanks at once, without so overextending his army on the attack that he did the same thing Pope did at 2nd Bull Run (i.e. left himself vulnerable to a counterattack). Burnside's screw-ups meant that what was intended to be simultaneous pressure on both flanks of the Confederate army was instead mostly a single axis attack, and that single-axis attack forced Lee to commit just about all of his reserves to stabilize the situation; McClellan kept attacking or threatening to attack in the north until it was confirmed that Burnside had broken.

As of that time, McClellan's forces exclusive of 9th Corps were:

1st, 2nd, 12th Corps: all used up, having already attacked that day, except for one brigade.
6th Corps: five brigades forming the front line, one brigade has already attacked that day.
5th Corps Sykes: at the middle bridge, forming the centre of the army. Ready to advance to conform with 9th Corps and avoid a big gap on the 9th Corps right flank.
5th Corps Morell: 2 brigades marching north after McClellan called them to join 6th Corps. 3rd brigade not sure but I would assume ready to "advance to conform" along with Sykes.

McClellan is preparing to commit most or all of his remaining reserves to one last attack in the north, to keep Lee from using "interior lines" (i.e. to give Burnside as clear a run in as possible, basially) but once Burnside has broken then there's no point.

The net result of all this, with a corps commander screwing up that thoroghly - and with Hooker, Mansfield and Sumner all having not behaved well - is that McClellan inflicts roughly comparable losses on Lee as the number of losses he suffers. Given the light losses to AP Hill (~700 reported in the campaign, inclusive of Harpers Ferry, so probably not more than 700 in the battle) and the very heavy losses to 9th Corps (2,349 in the battle of Antietam alone), it appears that the attacks in the north were actually casualty-positive in raw numerical terms.
All the information you supply being factual, McClellan has been treated by history exactly right. He had the slows and he had no business being in charge of an Army. Training and preparing one, yes. He was an excellent executive officer but as a combatant he was nothing less than a disaster. He had numerous opportunities to shine and each time he failed miserably. One can make up all the excuses one wants but every general leading these armies, including Grant and Lee had supply problems, commanders who were not up to the task for any myriad of reasons, bad weather, tired troops, less than optimal beasts of burden, et al. Lee's army was in no better condition after that fight than the Union but it still remains McClellan and his faulty, if not outright timid command had missed what I believe was the golden opportunity.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
All the information you supply being factual, McClellan has been treated by history exactly right. He had the slows and he had no business being in charge of an Army. Training and preparing one, yes. He was an excellent executive officer but as a combatant he was nothing less than a disaster. He had numerous opportunities to shine and each time he failed miserably. One can make up all the excuses one wants but every general leading these armies, including Grant and Lee had supply problems, commanders who were not up to the task for any myriad of reasons, bad weather, tired troops, less than optimal beasts of burden, et al. Lee's army was in no better condition after that fight than the Union but it still remains McClellan and his faulty, if not outright timid command had missed what I believe was the golden opportunity.
So when the general historiography about McClellan records him as outnumbering Lee 2:1 or more at Antietam, when the two men had almost identical numbers of regiments on the field and McClellan's force straggled as much as Lee's - that is, when the historiography claims that McClellan had Lee outnumbered 2:1 and the true figure is more like 8:7 - then that's McClellan having been treated by history exactly right?


At Antietam, McClellan's plan of attack for the morning of the 17th is decided upon on the afternoon of the 16th. McClellan at that point has 13 divisions on the field and commits eleven of them to the two main attacks, when he has five divisions still marching to the field (those being Morell, Humphreys, Couch, and Franklin's two divisions); over the course of the morning he commits another (Richardson), has yet another engaged in skirmishing around the middle bridge (Sykes) and when his line collapses in the north sends in two of his reinforcement divisions (Franklin's pair). He's then down to just Morell, who he commits in the afternoon to reinforce an attack but cancels the attack when Burnside breaks.
His operational intent is that whichever attack Lee responds most strongly to will expose Lee to the damage that can be caused by the other. Lee gambles and commits entirely to fighting off the attack in the north, and that attack inflicts more casualties than it suffers; in the south Burnside screws up spectacularly, but that attack has the potential if successful to cut Lee off from the Potomac and McClellan does all he reasonably can to let Burnside realize that potential short of going over there and physically commanding his corps for him - but if he's over doing that then he's not doing the management of the battle in the north, much of which is what creates that potential in the first place.


McClellan's plan at Antietam is certainly not timid; out of the brigades he had at the field on the 17th, he sends in as many to actually attack* on that one day as Lee had sent in by the middle of the third day at Gettysburg, and he's planning an attack with most of his remaining fresh troops when Burnside breaks.
McClellan continues attacking or threatening attacks until the point where there is no longer a prospect of Lee being cut off from the Potomac (and indeed at that point Burnside is complaining that he can't hold his position and begging for reinforcements) at which point, in deference to the fragility of his army, he suspends offensive operations until the situation for them improves (which functionally means the point at which either Burnside can attack again or McClellan can launch a big attack from the north with a good prospect of fighting through Lee's entire army).

* counting one 1st Corps brigade, Morell's three, five of Franklin and some of Sykes as not sent in to actually attack, i.e. 1/4 of the army's brigades do not actually attack. McClellan's planned assault with Franklin and Morell would involve between 20% and 70% of that remaining quarter.

Certainly, McClellan at Antietam is not perfect, but what he is is aggressive (again, he's the one launching all those attacks) and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia cannot be carried away like a cat in a sack; McClellan does better than anyone else ever does when attacking Lee, at least until the point where Lee's army has been hollowed out by months of siege and the rest of the Confederacy has collapsed.
Quite apart from anything else, remember that Lee convincingly won the Second Battle of Bull Run in August and then got reinforced with a third corps of comparable size to the corps of Jackson and Longstreet with which that battle was fought. This is Lee with a large and capable army in good morale and well supplied, while a lot of McClellan's troops were routing off the field less than three weeks ago.




It is certainly the case that McClellan does not attack Lee after Shepherdstown and for the next month. The question that arises however is when he should have done so, and whether that was in keeping with his instructions from his superiors (Lincoln and Halleck); on at least two occasions McClellan stated his plan to cross into the Shenandoah valley and attack Lee, and on both occasions this plan was either refused or not approved (when he had been told to submit his plan for approval).
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
How about Lee at Chinn Ridge? Longstreet’s attack fell just short of driving the AOP into the ranks of Jackson’s not retreating forces. Even Lee said afterward that it was the closest his army had ever come to a decisive victory.
That one has a lot of potential, yes, though I tend to think a better course of events for the CSA would have been the "day two" of the battle (with Porter's attack) taking place on "day one". That way 2nd/6th Corps reinforcement is all the way back at Annadale.
 
Joined
Jul 22, 2021
So when the general historiography about McClellan records him as outnumbering Lee 2:1 or more at Antietam, when the two men had almost identical numbers of regiments on the field and McClellan's force straggled as much as Lee's - that is, when the historiography claims that McClellan had Lee outnumbered 2:1 and the true figure is more like 8:7 - then that's McClellan having been treated by history exactly right?


At Antietam, McClellan's plan of attack for the morning of the 17th is decided upon on the afternoon of the 16th. McClellan at that point has 13 divisions on the field and commits eleven of them to the two main attacks, when he has five divisions still marching to the field (those being Morell, Humphreys, Couch, and Franklin's two divisions); over the course of the morning he commits another (Richardson), has yet another engaged in skirmishing around the middle bridge (Sykes) and when his line collapses in the north sends in two of his reinforcement divisions (Franklin's pair). He's then down to just Morell, who he commits in the afternoon to reinforce an attack but cancels the attack when Burnside breaks.
His operational intent is that whichever attack Lee responds most strongly to will expose Lee to the damage that can be caused by the other. Lee gambles and commits entirely to fighting off the attack in the north, and that attack inflicts more casualties than it suffers; in the south Burnside screws up spectacularly, but that attack has the potential if successful to cut Lee off from the Potomac and McClellan does all he reasonably can to let Burnside realize that potential short of going over there and physically commanding his corps for him - but if he's over doing that then he's not doing the management of the battle in the north, much of which is what creates that potential in the first place.


McClellan's plan at Antietam is certainly not timid; out of the brigades he had at the field on the 17th, he sends in as many to actually attack* on that one day as Lee had sent in by the middle of the third day at Gettysburg, and he's planning an attack with most of his remaining fresh troops when Burnside breaks.
McClellan continues attacking or threatening attacks until the point where there is no longer a prospect of Lee being cut off from the Potomac (and indeed at that point Burnside is complaining that he can't hold his position and begging for reinforcements) at which point, in deference to the fragility of his army, he suspends offensive operations until the situation for them improves (which functionally means the point at which either Burnside can attack again or McClellan can launch a big attack from the north with a good prospect of fighting through Lee's entire army).

* counting one 1st Corps brigade, Morell's three, five of Franklin and some of Sykes as not sent in to actually attack, i.e. 1/4 of the army's brigades do not actually attack. McClellan's planned assault with Franklin and Morell would involve between 20% and 70% of that remaining quarter.

Certainly, McClellan at Antietam is not perfect, but what he is is aggressive (again, he's the one launching all those attacks) and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia cannot be carried away like a cat in a sack; McClellan does better than anyone else ever does when attacking Lee, at least until the point where Lee's army has been hollowed out by months of siege and the rest of the Confederacy has collapsed.
Quite apart from anything else, remember that Lee convincingly won the Second Battle of Bull Run in August and then got reinforced with a third corps of comparable size to the corps of Jackson and Longstreet with which that battle was fought. This is Lee with a large and capable army in good morale and well supplied, while a lot of McClellan's troops were routing off the field less than three weeks ago.




It is certainly the case that McClellan does not attack Lee after Shepherdstown and for the next month. The question that arises however is when he should have done so, and whether that was in keeping with his instructions from his superiors (Lincoln and Halleck); on at least two occasions McClellan stated his plan to cross into the Shenandoah valley and attack Lee, and on both occasions this plan was either refused or not approved (when he had been told to submit his plan for approval).
He delayed any action for 18 hours according to the record. Moreover, he never issued any general orders for some semblance of coordination among his commanders and he failed at taking advantage of the terrain. Each commander for all intents and purposes was on his own and it is why there were three blows of the union hammer instead of one that day. Lee would not have been able to withstand that onslaught had it been better organized and most important, if they had a better commander. Say what will be said of Lincoln, Halleck, supplies, and horses, the operation was a failure and with numerical superiority and knowing his adversaries plan of battle he never quite seized the advantage in a timely fashion. He still balked and offered excuses which I take as at best lack of experience with such a large army and worse, his personal timidity. He wasn't aggressive at all. It was a half hearted effort using 87,000 against the 55,000 in a wholly uncoordinated way.
 

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