McClellan and Limited [Civil] War


Would Meade and Grant had have their victories with the Army that McCellan built?

When McClellan was called to Washington, DC, on July 26, 1861, he was treated like a conquering hero and feted by all. During the next six months his reputation would be gradually eroded. Nonetheless, during this period he built up a record of substantial achievement. He proved himself a brilliant trainer of troops, an effective organizer, a tireless administrator, and a charismatic leader. He built the Army of the Potomac, impressed his personality on the command, and was adored by his troops. However, these qualities in themselves did not guarantee success in high command, and once he moved into the field McClellan revealed a number of significant deficiencies that were to contribute to his downfall. In November, 1861, McClellan replaced Scott as general-in-chief. This promotion represented the apogee of McClellan’s formal authority, but only served to weaken his position.

McClellan was a fitting heir to Scott, even though he had intrigued to bring about the latter’s downfall. Although McClellan was a Democrat (while Scott had been a Whig) they both shared conservative views about the war’s nature. McClellan believed that operations under his command should be undertaken in a gentlemanly spirit with a minimum of interference in civilian affairs and property. He intended to insulate Southern civilians from the movement of his armies. The aim was the restoration of the Union and a reconciliation of the sections, and this was to be achieved in the shortest possible time. Scott’s Anaconda Plan had envisaged moving the main Union strategic thrust away from the political core of the Confederacy towards the Mississippi basin. McClellan’s plan brought Virginia (which was Scott’s native state) firmly into focus as the primary theater. McClellan argued that all other operations were subsidiary to the Virginia campaign. He intended to make this truly decisive. It would demonstrate the futility of secession and the “utter impossibility of resistance”: his great army would advance on the Confederate capital and, in siege operations comparable to those at Sevastopol (1854-55) during the Crimean War, seize Richmond, and then the Confederacy would collapse, as Russia had shortly after the fall of Sevastopol. It was within the context of this outlook that McClellan’s concern with increasing the professionalism of his army should be understood. While Lee would latch on to Scott’s offensive outlook, McClellan developed Scott’s interest in detailed planning and took it a stage further. Preparations would be so intricate, staff procedures so perfect, and the men so well trained, that his advance would be irresistible. McClellan would be able to control the battlefield and the object for which he was fighting: there would be no foolish temptation to consider any revolutionary steps such as the abolition of slavery, and the status quo would be restored with a minimum of destruction, discomfort, and death.

The only problem with this elegant scheme and stately view of the war’s progress was that McClellan did not have the time necessary to put it into practice. McClellan was under considerable political pressure to defeat the Confederacy at the earliest possible moment. In addition, McClellan reflected and shared some of the widespread illusions about the nature of the Civil War. For instance, he could never shake off the misconception that the war could be brought to an end by one strategic thrust. Here was an example of how his operational and tactical preferences were shaped by his political views or aspirations. The policy of conciliation could succeed only if McClellan and those like him (such as Don Carlos Buell, the commander of the Army of the Ohio) were able to win rapid and complete victories. However, they were both temporarily incapable of seizing the opportunities that were offered to them on the battlefield.

In short, McClellan’s tenure of command experienced a continuing tension between his role as general-in-chief and his role as field commander which was exploited by his enemies. The most important critical forum established by his critics was the formation in December, 1861, of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. This served as a focal point for all the discontent with McClellan’s performance that had bubbled up during the previous months. Harnessed by congressional (and administration) critics, it blew towards McClellan like a hurricane by January and February, 1862. It was clear that politicians of both parties had little sympathy with McClellan’s efforts to impose professional standards on his army. Yet his problems were accentuated by the command structure that he had inherited from Scott. When Abraham Lincoln, the President, had queried whether McClellan could undertake the simultaneous duties of both field command and general-in-chief, the latter had replied confidently, “I can do it all.” Time would show that he could not.

The organization of an army is an immensely intricate task, and McClellan became absorbed in its detail. He neglected his duties as the government’s principal strategic advisor. He produced no plans, and the President, dissatisfied with the general-in-chief, claimed that the war effort was “stalled on dead center.” McClellan’s health suffered because of overwork and he succumbed to typhoid. Lincoln convened councils of war and issued general orders in January and February, 1862, in an attempt to get the Army of the Potomac to move, but to no avail. Nonetheless, McClellan’s refusal to discuss his plans on the grounds of operational secrecy was high-handed and his credibility was damaged in the resulting controversy.

In truth, McClellan was not acting as a general-in-chief should, but it is difficult to see how he could concentrate on these important duties when he was distracted by his tasks as a field commander. Everybody (including the President) persisted in judging him by his performance as commander of the Army of the Potomac-and it was this latter consideration that brought him the most criticism. Nevertheless, McClellan had the intellect and vision to propound a grand strategic view and work out an operational method for fulfilling it. When eventually in February, 1862, he drew up plans for the administration’s perusal, they were impressive. He sought to launch “combined and decisive operations” and not “waste life in useless battles.” He argued in favor of an indirect approach on Richmond by shifting the Army of the Potomac to the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and advancing on the Confederate capital from the east. By avoiding the bulk of the Confederate main body in northern Virginia, he hoped to “demoralize the enemy” and force him to come out of his defenses and attack the Army of the Potomac. While standing on the defensive, McClellan hoped to inflict an “American Waterloo” on the rebels. Yet it is noteworthy that McClellan hoped that such a decisive outcome could be produced with a minimum of fratricidal bloodshed. He seems to have unconsciously reflected anxieties among some Northern generals about the casualties resulting from any move into Southern territory because his plans are couched in and justified by sound military reasoning. But McClellan’s cool military analysis was underwritten by looming fears that denote both a nervous lack of confidence in Northern troops compared with a romanticized notion of Southern martial ability and a lack of self-esteem which transformed an avoidance of defeat into a triumph. McClellan’s limited expectations of his army reinforced the limited aims he set himself both strategically and politically. Certainly, the compound of technical military reasoning and personal predilection lent a distinctly defensive tenor to his plan.

McClellan did not gain any credit for the successes achieved on other fronts during his tenure as general-in-chief. These seemed to augur that the Confederacy would collapse by the summer. McClellan himself shared this ambivalence. His reaction to criticism was to further centralize the system, and thus to add to the burdens weighing on himself; it took longer to get decisions on urgent matters. He declined to appoint corps commanders, hoping to be able to direct twelve divisions himself, unaided, and these appointments were eventually forced on him by the President. He neglected to appoint a commander of the Washington garrison, and Lincoln moved to install James S. Wadsworth, one ofMcClellan’s critics. This dithering reduced McClellan’s influence as general-in-chief, and Lincoln removed him on March 11 in Presidential War Order No. 3 on the grounds that he should concentrate on directing the Army of the Potomac.

The Confederacy had experienced problems comparable to those of the Union. Jefferson Davis had resolutely refused to appoint a general-in-chief. His experience with Scott, when Secretary of War during the Pierce administration (1853-57) had not been a happy one, and he believed that the powers of the general-in-chief were an unconstitutional encroachment on the presidential war powers. The Confederacy’s senior general was the Adjutant General, Samuel Cooper, whom Steven E. Woodworth accurately judged as the President’s “chief military clerk.” Davis thus dealt with Confederate generals himself without an intermediary. The commander of the Confederate forces in Virginia, Joseph E. Johnston, resembled McClellan in his uncommunicativeness and unhelpfulness to politicians. If he had any plans, he did not divulge them. That Union generals were not alone in failing to comprehend the intricacies of offensive operations was shown in June, 1862, in Johnston’s overelaborate, poorly coordinated and thoroughly muddled counter-offensive at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). Johnston was wounded and was replaced by the President’s military advisor, Robert E. Lee. Lee had only ever held staff positions before and had never commanded troops in battle.


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