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Battle of Antietam Sections
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle of Antietam
Battle of Antietam
McClellan's 'Phony War'
by Kevin S. Lacey

In contrast to the sea of trouble engulfing the Confederates in the West, events in the East during the first few months of 1862 had been relatively quiet.[20]  While some Union critics claimed that General Halleck moved too slowly, General McClellan seemed reluctant to move at all.

When he first arrived in Washington in July of 1861 amidst the chaos that followed First Bull Run, McClellan at once became the center of attention. By some "strange operation of magic", he wrote his wife Ellen, "I seem to have become the power in the land."[21]  He was feted by Washington society and fawned over by the politicians.[22]  McClellan certainly seemed to be the man of the hour. Indeed, soon after replacing General McDowell after the disaster at First Bull Run, McClellan had reorganized the Army, restored its morale and forged a magnificent fighting machine.[23]  He appeared to be off to an excellent beginning.

Major General George Brinton McClellan was a man apparently marked for greatness. Born in 1826, McClellan entered the University of Pennsylvania when 13 years old, and was accepted to West Point two years later. Although at 15 he was the youngest member of his class, McClellan excelled and graduated second in his class in 1846.[24]  Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant, McClellan was posted to an elite unit, the newly formed Company of Engineer Soldiers. He fought in the Mexican War under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; his performance was solid, but not exceptional. McClellan did, however, return from the war firmly wedded to the idea that civilian soldiers were of questionable value and volunteer officers all but useless; he also managed to acquire malaria that returned with him as well.[25]
 
After the Mexican War, McClellan served in a variety of posts. While in Washington in the mid 1850s he made a favorable impression on Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who selected him as one of three members of a military commission dispatched to Europe to study the latest military trends. In Europe, McClellan witnessed part of the Crimean War, and later wrote extensively about European armies. Shortly after returning from Europe, McClellan resigned his commission as a captain, and went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad where he cultivated business and political connections.

Within a month of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the governors of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania vied with each other for George McClellan's services.[26]  Governor Dennison convinced McClellan to take command of Ohio's forces with the rank of Major General of Volunteers. Immediately after assuming command, McClellan, like everyone else, found himself in need of virtually everything. He informed General Winfield Scott, "I find myself … in the position of a Commanding Officer with nothing but men – no supplies or arms."[27] In the beginning Scott had little to spare but sympathy, and even McClellan's request for staff officers went unfulfilled. [28]

While he labored in Ohio, McClellan's meteoric climb, aided by his friends in Washington, continued unabated. Scott placed him in command of the Department of the Ohio, which initially included Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. On May 14th, he was elevated to the rank of Major General in the regular army. Now only the venerable Scott outranked the 34-year-old, and as yet untried, McClellan.

In the summer of 1861, McClellan was vaulted into national prominence when he overpowered a vastly outnumbered force of Confederates at the battle of Rich Mountain in West Virginia. This battle, observed one of McClellan's generals, was "among the minor events" of the war and would merit little or no attention but for the fact that, as a result of his victory, McClellan was appointed to command the Army of the Potomac.[29]

Lincoln must have had some sense of relief and satisfaction as he watched the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac from the mob that had fled from Manassas into a large, well-disciplined army. Lincoln's young commander maintained a rigorous work schedule, his attention to detail was prodigious, and his organizational skills soon reaped visible benefits as the army rapidly regained its morale. But along with all his impressive and undeniable organizational and leadership skills, McClellan also possessed other, less enviable, characteristics; and as these gradually became more apparent many in Washington, including Lincoln, must have begun to have second thoughts about the "Young Napoleon."

McClellan was intolerant of criticism. He held Lincoln, and most politicians, in contempt and attempted to dictate policy to the President.[30]  His conduct toward General Scott, which had recently bordered on sycophancy when he was campaigning in West Virginia, now vacillated between petty disrespect and active insubordination, and it was McClellan's machinations that forced Scott into retirement.[31]  McClellan was also incapable of delegating anything but the most mundane tasks, and in the process of working to rebuild the army, nearly destroyed his own health.[32]  But all these character flaws, paled to insignificance when compared to McClellan's shortcomings as a field commander.

Foremost among McClellan's problems was his inability to accurately estimate the size of the enemy force confronting him across the Potomac. Without any objective evidence McClellan constantly overestimated the size of the Confederate Army.[33]  In early August, he wrote to Scott that he believed Beauregard's army numbered approximately 100,000 men and by October the numbers had inflated to "not less than 150,000 strong, well drilled and equipped" troops.[34]  He confessed to his wife that he could not fathom why Beauregard did not attack.[35]  It was not at all difficult for McClellan to justify his inactivity having deluded himself that he was heavily outnumbered.

As the summer months waned, so did McClellan's popularity. Lincoln was concerned, yet remained patient, while in the cabinet there was growing hostility toward McClellan.

Finally, in early March 1862, some eight months after taking command, McClellan at last advised Lincoln of his plan to take the offensive. The plan called for the transport of the entire Army of the Potomac by sea to Urbanna, from where it would march on Richmond.[36]  Fearful of engaging what he believed to be a numerically superior Confederate Army, it is understandable that McClellan would search for an alternative to the over-land route.

McClellan was mistaken if thought that the politicians who had been simmering over his inactivity would view his plan with approval. While Lincoln must have been somewhat relieved that his general was at last proposing some form of offensive operations after so many months of inactivity, he was not enamored of the plan, which he considered far too risky. Ironically, having prodded McClellan for months to move, the Lincoln administration was now concerned that his plan would uncover the Capital, rendering it susceptible to a swift Confederate attack. McClellan was surprised and predictably offended at the criticisms of his operation, and argued that Washington was, indeed, safe from attack.[37]

McClellan continued to press his case, and eventually Lincoln reluctantly agreed. But he consented only with conditions, and foremost was Lincoln's insistence that McClellan leave sufficient troops to ensure that Washington would be "entirely secure" from attack.[38]  McClellan was willing to do this -- indeed, he had little choice in the matter – and he and Lincoln even agreed on the number of men that would be necessary: 40,000 in defense of the city, with another 25,000 near Manassas.[39]  The problem arose over which soldiers around Washington would be considered when calculating these numbers.[40]

Footnotes

[20] Compared to the military activity west of the Appalachians, the Eastern Theatre appeared comatose. However, there were exceptions. In early April, McClellan's good friend Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside captured Fort Huger on Roanoke Island in an amphibious invasion and followed it the following month by seizing New Berne. Burnside's expedition and victories made a greater impression on public sentiment. Elisha Hunt Rhodes wrote in his diary that the army was "rejoicing" over Burnside's exploits and he added a wish that Burnside would join the Army of the Potomac someday for "I should like to serve under so gallant a soldier." Rhodes, Robert H. All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (Orion Books, 1991), pp. 54 & 59. Unfortunately, he would soon get his wish. The only other action in the East was at Ball's Bluff, a small affair that occurred in early October, and which was blown completely out of proportion do to the fact that the commander of the Union troops, Col. Edward Baker, was a friend of Lincoln and a former Senator from Oregon. Hattaway, Herman & Jones, Archer, How the North Won, A Military History of the Civil War (University of Ill. Press, 1983), pp. 81-82. McClellan, however, used this disaster as support for his inactivity, claiming that it demonstrated the army's un-preparedness. Ibid.

[21] Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 70. Emphasis in original. McClellan's expressed belief that all, including the Commander-in-Chief General Winfield Scott, deferred to his judgment was wrong. Scott had wanted Lincoln to bring Halleck from the West to take command.

[22] Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 71; Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 95-96.

[23] McClellan's skills as an organizer are well documented, and even his harshest critic would not dispute them. Philippe, Comte de Paris "McClellan Organizing the Grand Army" in B&L, vol. II, pt. 1, pp. 112-113. Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners In Command, The Relationships Between Leaders In The Civil War (Free Press, 1994), pp. 58-59; Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 95, en passim; Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond, The Peninsula Campaign (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 3-4.

[24] Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 1-12.

[25] Shortly after arriving in Mexico, McClellan was laid low for a few weeks with malaria, which he called his "Mexican disease". Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), p. 14. Volunteer officers were a favorite target of ridicule by the regular army officers. Trained professionals are apt to look askance at amateurs, but McClellan took this prejudice to new levels, claiming that the similarities between a civil and military man were as different as the "climates of Spitzbergen and Arabia". He even went so far as to write to a U.S. Senator that the United States possessed well-trained professionals obviating the need to go "behind the curtain, into country courthouses, & low village bar rooms to select her generals …". Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), p. 17 and 25.

[26] This stampede by the Governors of three of the largest Northern States to place their troops under McClellan's command appears odd considering his modest military record. However, McClellan's military writings had publicized his name within military circles as well as the general public, he was politically well connected, and he counted among his closest allies Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. Moreover, those who met McClellan were invariably impressed. He looked like a man who knew what he was about and he could inspire great confidence in those around him. Philippe, Comte de Paris "McClellan Organizing the Grand Army" in B&L, vol. II, pt. 1, pp. 112-113. Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 47-49, 72. . Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners In Command, The Relationships Between Leaders In The Civil War (Free Press, 1994), p. 59. Longstreet, James A. "'The Seven Days,' Including Frayser's Farm" in B&L vol. II, pt. 2, pp. 404-405.

[27] O.R., Series 1 vol. 1, pt. 1, pp. 333-334.

[28] Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 69-72. In what was to become a trademark characteristic, McClellan could not, or simply refused to, understand that his problems were not Washington's only priority, and he had scant patience with excuses or explanations when his requests went unsatisfied. When advised that he would, for the most part, have to fend for himself, McClellan wrote to Governor Curtis of Pennsylvania "the apathy in Washington is very singular and very discouraging. … I almost regret having entered upon my present duty." Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 19. Furthermore, although short of staff officers, McClellan was nevertheless selective of those who sought a position in his command. One supplicant, a former classmate from West Point, could not even get an interview with McClellan. Years later, U.S. Grant would write that he waited on two successive days for an interview, but McClellan never bothered to see him. Grant, U.S. Personal Memoirs, vol. 1 (The American Classics Library 1992), p. 241.

[29] Cox, Jacob D. "McClellan in West Virginia" in B&L, vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 135. Referring to Rich Mountain as a battle almost seems presumptuous. The Official Records refer to it as a skirmish, and it involved but a few thousand men on each side. Casualties were relatively light. McClellan reported only 12 killed and less than 60 wounded. O.R., Series 1, Vol. 2, p. 208. The Confederates losses were roughly the same, but they also lost several hundred prisoners. O.R., Series 1, Vol. 2, pp. 264-268. After the battle McClellan proved himself quite as adapt as Beauregard at drafting inaccurate and self-serving reports: He referred to the Confederates as "the crack regiments of Eastern Virginia" that were "well entrenched" and present in "considerable force". O.R., Series 1, vol. 2, pp. 204-205. In fact, the Confederates were heavily outnumbered, just as green as McClellan's troops, and they had erected hasty barriers to try and block McClellan's advance. Cox, Jacob D. "McClellan in West Virginia" in B&L, vol. 1, pt. 1, pp. 126-148; O.R., Series 1, vol. 2, pp. 264-268.

[30] McClellan's initial negative impression of Lincoln was formed when he worked for the Illinois Central. An ardent Democrat who actively supported Stephen Douglas, it is not surprising that he disliked his republican opponent. Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), pp. 58-59. On August 2nd, just a few days after arriving in the capital, McClellan penned a long letter to Lincoln instructing the President as to the "unique" nature of the war, and advising him both as to political and military strategy. O.R., Series 1, Vol. 5, pp. 6-8. McClellan's well known war-time correspondence with his wife were seasoned with insults directed at the President who was described as "an idiot", a "well meaning baboon" a coward, and the "the original gorilla" Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), pp. 85, 106, 114, 135.

[31] On July 18, 1861, he wrote a private letter to General Scott stating that, "All that I know of war I have learned from you, & in all that I have done I have endeavored to conform to your manner of conducting a campaign… It is my ambition to merit your praise & never deserve your censure." Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 60. Yet they soon clashed after he arrived in Washington. McClellan wrote directly to Lincoln, bypassing Scott, and indirectly criticizing his strategy. Rejecting Scott's plan for a concentric attack on the South, McClellan emphasized the importance of the Virginia theatre and argued that he must have a massive army (over 270,000 men) to attack and destroy the principal Confederate Army. Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners In Command, The Relationships Between Leaders In The Civil War (Free Press, 1994), pp. 60-62. O.R., Series 1, Vol. V, pp. 6-8. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Washington Scott was transformed in McClellan's view from his mentor to a "traitor" or a "dotard", and Scott soon became McClellan's "inveterate enemy". Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), pp.81, 106-107. With justification, Scott complained that McClellan was keeping him in the dark by intentionally withholding information. O.R., Series I, Vol. XI, part 3, pp. 5-6.

[32] By the end of August 1861, McClellan was in "a state of exhaustions so severe" it triggered a recurrence of his "Mexican disease". Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), p. 100. At the end of 1861, McClellan became seriously ill with typhoid fever. Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond, The Peninsula Campaign (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), p. 11.

[33] It is not uncommon for a general to exaggerate his problems in order to obtain more material assistance from his government, but McClellan's letters to his wife reveal that he subjectively believed his own misinformation. Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), pp. 85-87.

[34] O.R., Series 1, Vol. 11, part 3, pp. 3-4. Beauregard did not command the Confederate forces in northern Virginia, as he was junior in rank to General Joseph Johnston who assumed overall command after Manassas. O.R., Series 1, Vol. 5, p. 9. During this period, the Confederates probably had only around 40,000 insufficiently armed men. Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War (De Capo, 1990), p. 81. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) p. 364.

[35] Sears, Stephen W., Ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p. 89. In fact, McClellan had little to fear from the outnumbered Confederates. In early October, Davis visited Johnston and Beauregard in Centreville Virginia, to discuss possible offensive operations. Initially, the two generals proposed an offensive, but informed Davis that the Army would have to be heavily reinforced (an additional 50,000 men), which would require Davis to literally strip the rest of the Confederacy for troops. This, coupled with the shortage of weapons and equipment, rendered the plan little more than a flight of fancy, and Davis rejected it. The Generals, in turn, had several objections to Davis' own suggestion that, instead of a large-scale invasion, the army launch small raids into Maryland. In the end, they all agreed to essentially do nothing. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 363-366. Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War (De Capo, 1990), pp. 75-77. Williams, T. Harry P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray (Louisiana State University Press, 1955), p. 100-102.

[36] McClellan's plan underwent several permutations before it was finally adopted, not the least of which was the decision to have the army land at Fort Monroe instead of Urbanna. McClellan's original conception was that, by landing at Urbanna on the Rappahannock, he would be much closer to Richmond than Joe Johnston's Confederate Army. By marching quickly he would either capture the capital or interpose his army between Johnston and Richmond, forcing the Confederates to attack him. Joe Johnston inadvertently foiled this when he withdrew the Confederate Army from Manassas south to Orange Court House, in easy marching distance of Richmond. Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War (De Capo, 1990), pp. 102-109. Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond, The Peninsula Campaign (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 18-19. Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners In Command, The Relationships Between Leaders In The Civil War (Free Press, 1994), p. 66. While Johnston's unexpected retreat caused McClellan some anxiety, it was nothing compared to that suffered by Davis who was not told of the retreat until after it had already happened. Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 410-411.

[37] Lincoln's concern for the capital, so unreasonable in McClellan's narrow view, was nevertheless quite genuine, and it is surprising that even McClellan failed to recognize this. Since his election, Lincoln had been led to believe that Washington was virtually a city under siege, ringed by enemies. On his way into the Capital, Lincoln literally skulked into the city because of exaggerated fears of assassination and the general hostility in Maryland; in April 1861, troops on their way to the capital had been attacked in Baltimore further fueling Lincoln's feeling of isolation; when Virginia seceded, bringing the war potentially to his doorstep, Washington was almost devoid of any troops at all, and Lincoln did not feel any relief until the arrival of units from New York in April. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None, A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Harper Perennial, 1994), pp. 205, 210-213, 233-235. All this was exacerbated by events immediately following the Battle of First Bull Run in July 1861, when the Union Army all but disintegrated and descended back upon Washington like an unruly mob. Davis, William A. Battle at Bull Run (Doubleday 1977), p. 251; Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None, A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Harper Perennial, 1994), pp. 255-256. What renders McClellan's failure to comprehend or empathize with Lincoln's concern over the safety of Washington even more astounding is that fact that his promotion to command occurred on the heels of this defeat and he witnessed first hand the disorganization, utter chaos and fear that reigned in the capital. Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 94-98. Indeed, McClellan himself actually played upon Lincoln's fears in his feud with Winfield Scott, claiming that the old General's dispositions left Washington susceptible to attack. O.R., Series 1, vol. V, pp. 6-8. Moreover, since the previous summer he had been warning the administration that the Confederate opposing him number close to 150,000 men. O.R., Series 1, vol. 5, p. 9. Having done so much to increase the fear and apprehension in the Capital, McClellan now found it difficult to convince the administration that the Capital was, in fact, secure.

[38] O.R., Series 1, vol. 5, p. 50.

[39] O.R., Series 1, vol. 5, pp. 55-56.

[40] When discussing the number of troops to be left behind for the defense of Washington, McClellan included in his calculations the troops that were stationed in and around the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere, but he never bothered to explain this to Lincoln or anyone else. Lincoln interpreted McClellan to mean that the troops would be in the immediate vicinity of Washington, and not spread about the surrounding countryside. McClellan's mistake is that he never fully briefed or discussed any of this with Stanton or Lincoln. Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pp. 170-172. Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond, The Peninsula Campaign (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), p. 34.

- - -
Copyright © 2002 Kevin S. Lacey

Written by Kevin S. Lacey.
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