Some Sunday Reading: Rafuse on McClellan and Civil-Military Relations

Thanks to a comment left here, I decided to set aside my minuscule concern about the Pro Bowl and turned instead to read a fine article by Ethan Rafuse on George McClellan and civil-military relations.

What do you think of Rafuse’s analysis?


50 thoughts on “Some Sunday Reading: Rafuse on McClellan and Civil-Military Relations

  1. Ned B January 27, 2013 / 3:59 pm

    I think he does a good job with presenting the concepts of Huntington vs Schiff/Roman/Tarr.

    I am skeptical of his description that McClellan only connected with Chase in December 1861 after hearing about the state of the government finances. Chase had been intruding into military affairs from early on and, being an Ohio politician, he probably knewn McClellan from before the war. I am also skeptical that McClellan had an intense disdain for all politicians.

    I also feel that Rafuse is wrong when he writes “His decision in early April to withhold a corps
    commanded by Irvin McDowell from McClellan’s army was a gross overreaction to the situation in the Shenandoah Valley.” The decision to withhold McDowell was mostly the result of A) a report on the defense of Washington and B) the continued presence of the Confederate army on the Rappahanock. The situation in Shenandoah was a lesser concern.

    • James F. Epperson January 29, 2013 / 10:45 am

      I’m late to this party, but I essentially agree w/ Ned. I did like the commentary on military-civilian relations.

  2. TF Smith January 27, 2013 / 6:15 pm

    I thought it was a good summary of the differing viewpoints (Huntington etc.), but I thought it still came back to a slightly tempered defense of McClellan. And as far as the I Corps (McDowell’s command), I think Sears makes a pretty good case that the AoTP still got most of it, and what McClellan was asking for probably would not have gotten to the Peninsula in time for Seven Pines anyway, even under McClellan’s preferred timetable.

    The I Corps was formed in March, 1862, with Franklin’s division, McCall’s PA Reserves divison, and KIng’s division – Franklin’s division went to the Peninsula (VI Corps) in May, and McCall’s in June (V Corps), and Sykes’ division (V Corps) was formed in May; so unless the grand strategy for the Peninsula depended on King’s division of eight NY regiments (Augur and Wadsworth/Patrick as brigadiers) and four Wisconsin regiments (Cutler), it has always struck me as a little much…

    The AoTP started out with 14 divisions, in five corps, in March, 1862, counting Banks’ V Corps of two divisions, which presumably was never going south; McClellan ended up with 10 of the original 14, plus Sykes’ newly formed regular division, by the summer, under five corps headquarters. What remained in the north were the equivalent of four of the original 14 (Banks’ two, King’s, and Blenker’s) plus two more (Sigel and Ord/Ricketts) assembled (primarily) from the defenses of Washington, and some odds and ends.

    If the grand total of what the US could put in the field by the summer of 1862 was (roughly) 17 divisions oof roughly 9,000 infantry and artillery, McClellan had 11 of them, and the equivalent of six were available to be formed into Pope’s army – which hardly seems inappropriate to cover the north end of the Shenandoah and the Rappahannock front, especially since Jackson’s command was undoubtedly in the Shenandoah.

    If McClellan had received McDowell’s original I Corps as constituted in March, 1862, and Blenker’s division as part of the II Corps, and got Sykes’ division (which was formed from regiments that were part of the AoTP’s “infantry reserve” groupment, he would have had 13 divisions on the Peninsula, while Banks’ two and (presumably) those of Sigel and Ord by June.

    Would McClellan have done all that significantly better on the Peninsula that summer with 13 divisions, rather than 11, facing the same opposition under JE Johnston and (presumably) RE Lee?

    I don’t really see it.

    • John Foskett January 28, 2013 / 8:11 am

      Excellent points. I’ve never understood McClellan’s “need” for McDowell during the April festivities on the Peninsula at Yorktown, etc. He severely outnumbered Magruder as it was and still got snookered into the snail approach with Prince John calling on all of his thespian skills, Quaker guns, etc. The circumstances in June were different, of course. It is certainly conceivable that had McClellan added McDowell Lee may well not have taken the “risk” which he ended up taking with successful results. Assuming that McClellan continued to straddle both sides of the river, adding McDowell (as then constituted) to Porter would have eliminated the significant numerical advantage which apparently caused Lee to make his move north of the river. But the question remains, after deciding what Lee would NOT have done – what WOULD McClellan have done? So far as appears, McClellan was still living with the delusion that he was opposed by at least 200,000 troops – a wild overestimate. Even under Leon Tenney’s most recent analysis, Lee would have had at most 114,000 – still a full army short of McClellan’s fictional number. Assuming best case that McDowell would add about 25,000-30,000, McClellan would still have perceived himself as outnumbered by about 2:1.3. I have yet to see anybody come up with a plausible theory about McClellan’s next step, given his false perception. The “revisionists” make a decent case that withholding McDowell was overkill by Lincoln, Stanton, et al. but seem to stop there. I’d like to know the rest of this “what if”. I close by noting that even though the standard story (see Catton, etc.) is that Lee beat McClellan to the punch by attacking first, it seems to me that McClellan came up with his “change of base” plan awfully damned quick in response.. .

      • tonygunter January 28, 2013 / 12:09 pm

        Straddling the Chickahominy was never McClellan’s plan. McClellan having to do so was a direct result of Lincoln’s meddling, ordering McClellan to meet McDowell’s approach from the north despite McClellan’s (correct) warning that doing so would invite defeat in detail to both forces. My guess would be that Lee’s attack was simply a timely excuse for doing what McClellan wanted to do any way, change his base to the James.

        • John Foskett January 28, 2013 / 4:32 pm

          I know it wasn’t McClellan’s original plan, but it was the result of the anticipated hookup with McDowell (which then didn’t happen). So my assumption is simply that, given this, a June connection with McDowell would have still found the A of the P astride both banks. The attraction to Lee, however, certainly would have diminished, since his attack was geared at going after a significantly outnumbered right flank. Lee at least would have been required to further deplete his forces in front of Richmond by some 15,000 or more to gain enough superiority to still follow through, as i see it. Under Tenney’s most favorable accounting, that would have left 42,000 in front of Richmond on the south side – and probably less. I think you’re right about the attack providing McClellan with a convenient excuse – that’s why I pointed out how bloody “quick” he was in coming up with the “change of base” (which I prefer to call what it was – a retreat. Seems to me when you move farther back from your objective, most of the time that fits the dictionary definition). .

          • Bryn Monnery January 29, 2013 / 12:53 am

            Original reply eaten. Changing base to the James was an existent contingency dating back at least to Stuart’s “ride around”. In the wake of this McClellan orders supplies to be ready afloat on the James. As Porter describes in the Century magazine:

            “Before the battle of Gaines’s Mill (already described by me in these pages), a change of base from the York to the James River had been anticipated and prepared for by General McClellan. After the battle this change became a necessity, in presence of a strong and aggressive foe, who had already turned our right, cut our connection with the York River, and was also in large force behind the intrenchments between us and Richmond. The transfer was begun the moment our position became perilous. It now involved a series of battles by day and marches by night which brought into relief the able talents, active foresight, and tenacity of purpose of our commander, the unity of action on the part of his subordinates, and the great bravery, firmness, and confidence in their superiors on the part of the rank and file. “

          • John Foskett January 29, 2013 / 2:27 pm

            Not that I would ever challenge the reliability of Manton Marble’s favorite pen pal on this issue, but being a skeptic I’d like some unbiased corroboration. I do note that in explaining the indisputably rapid decision to implement the “change of base”, Fitz refers to the ANV as being “also in large force behind the intrenchments between us and Richmond”. Uh oh – there’s that “numbers thing” again, the 200,000, etc. As I keep asking, just what were Mac’s plans if he’d gotten McDowell and his 25,000-30,000? Porter doesn’t seem to say…

      • TF Smith January 28, 2013 / 9:08 pm

        Yep, that’s pretty much my thought – given the AoTP the I Corps, Blender’s division, and Sykes division, and let’s say they all come by sea so there’s no issue with the Chickahominy…then what?

        Could the AoTP even deploy 13 divisions south of the river? Was there enough space to get them into line?

        And if so, what would McClellan have done differently?

        • John Foskett January 29, 2013 / 8:07 am

          That’s the question nobody ever seems to answer, after they’ve thoroughly demolished the decision to withhold McDowell.

          • TF Smith January 29, 2013 / 8:39 pm

            One of the things that has always bothered me about McClellan is this – in 1861, he is given responsibility for both organizing the mobilizing wartime army (as general-in-chief), selecting the commander of the second largest field force (Buell for the Army of the Ohio), commanding the largest single force in the field (Army of the Potomac), and is allowed to select his preferred strategy for using it (amphibious movement from northern Virginia to the south end of Chesapeake Bay) – despite the equally attractive strategy of moving overland, river line by river line…

            And, as suggested above, he also gets 11 of the 17 divisions available in the Eastern Theater in the summer of 1862 to execute his chosen strategy….and yet he still can’t deliver.

            No other single officer in US history EVER had that level of authority, responsibility, and freedom of action – not Washington, not Pershing, certainly not GC Marshall, and god knows GCM would have preferred service as supreme commander in the ETO in 1943-45 to service as chief of staff. Same for Peyton March in 1917-18, presumably.

            It is, quite frankly, quite Napoleonic (the sucessful one, not N III) or Cromwellian, and down-right un-American, as witness the examples of Washington, Scott, Taylor, Jackson, Harrison et al.

            So here he is in 1862, with powers approaching those of Napoleon, Cromwell, etc. – and he still can’t bring the necessary force to bear to execute his chosen strategy.

            Basically, he was less Napoleon and more Dumoriez, tempered by the “West Pointer turned businessman” dynamic…

            All in all, I think a much less radical approach to mobilization and organization of the high command would have brought better results – basically, using the regulars, who had A) proven their loyalty by NOT going south in 1861; and B) lived and breathed the American way of war of combining RA, volunteers, and militia – in some cases, like Wool and Scott, going back to 1815 – that had proven itself in Mexico and which, given the professionalization of the Army in the antebellum years, was at least as attractive a model as the “put it all in one man’s hands” approach.

            Replace Scott with a GinC with a deep understanding of the the RA/V/M combination for mobilization and the RA officer corps as the manpower pool for the staff and admministration, plus the ability to work with the bureaux and the civilian leadership, and I think the war could have prosecuted much more effectively from the winter of 1861-62 on-ward.

            That perspective, of course, is what fuels my appreciation of the possibilities of JKF Mansfield, Sumner, and Wool et al among the pre-war types, and the realities of USG, WT Sherman, AA Humphreys, and the others that war itself brought to to the fore.

            Halleck may – or may not – have been simply “a good clerk” but I think it is a fair question whether GBM was ever more than a “good adjutant general.”


          • Ned B January 29, 2013 / 9:23 pm

            Before you get too carried away with the Napoleon/Cromwell analogies I think it is worth remembering that McClellan was only G-in-C from November 1861 – March 11 1862. It was a relatively short stretch.

            And wasnt “the RA officer corps as the manpower pool for the staff and administration” actually how it played out? Staff and Administration for the Army was done by RA officers like Montgomery Meigs, Lorenzo Thomas, Edward Townsend, Joseph Totten, James Ripley, John Abert, James Fry, Randolph Marcy, Robert Allen, Stewart Van Vliet, Justus McKinstry, Rufus Ingalls, Joseph Taylor, Seth Williams, James Barnard. These guys were the RA officers doing staff work before the war and kept on doing it into the war. So i don’t understand what you see as the alternative approach.

          • TF Smith January 29, 2013 / 11:19 pm

            Given that this was the period that cemented the US/USV dynamic in place, and organized the initial 500,000-strong USV 24-36 month enlistment force, it’s kind of a “key” four month period, don’t you think?

            And your detailing of the RA types is my point – put an RA type (as the IG pre-war, Mansfield is an obvious candidate) as GinC, someone with as much understanding of the Army as an institution as Scott, and I’d expect the US/USV dynamic would be very different than it was historically. Same for the major field commanders; other than Grant, I don’t see that the USV general officers in 1861-62 did better than the RAs. I’d argue that Sumner, Thomas, and CF Smith would have been better choices for army or department commands in 1862 than McClellan, Rosecrans, or Fremont. Buell is an exception that proves the rule, I suppose…

            Basically, the volunteers had their function, as was proven quite clearly in Mexico; but commanding an army in the field was not it. McClellan was no Winfield Scott; I’d argue he wasn’y quite Zachary Taylor or Stephen Watts Kearny, either.


          • Ned B January 30, 2013 / 9:05 am

            I don’t see the 4 months from November 61 to March 62 as any more “key” for the “US/USV dynamic” than the 4 months before or the 4 months after. Technically McClellan was not USV but had been appointed MG Regular Army; but I suppose that wasn’t what you meant.

            If I understand you correctly, you see a very different “US/USV dynamic” if the GinC was someone who spent their entire adult life in the army as opposed to someone who had spent all but the prior 4 years in the army. While I think McClellan was a flawed choice by Lincoln I don’t think his 4 years out of the army was what made the difference. In fact I think his having been a civilian for a couple years may have improved his understanding of the US/USV dynamic when compared to someone not accustomed to dealing with a non-regular army population. Regardless I dont see the “US/USV dynamic” as the problem issue during 1861-1862.

          • TF Smith January 30, 2013 / 9:55 pm

            Considering those were the four months when GBM made the AoTP in his image, I’d say they are pretty key, but opinions vary…

            Here’s my point: McClellan graduated from West Point in 1846 (second in his class) and resigned his commission in 1857; 11 years active service during which he never commanded anything larger than a platoon of engineers or a troop of cavalry. His service in the Mexican War won him brevets to lieutenant and captain, so there’s a plus, but I’m not aware he ever led troops in action. He taught at West Point for three years and served on various topographical engineering missions, but a lot of officers did that during the antebellum period. The European tour was a real opportunity for a very junior officer, but he was not alone – and Delafield and Moredecai, given presumably were in better positions to benefit.

            And I will say that getting a professional opportunity that was damn near unique for US officers of his age and generation, the fact that he didn’t stick it out in blue could be interpreted as pretty questionable, actually…

            So contrast that with, say, JKF Mansfield – who graduated second in HIS class in 1822, and remained on active duty through to the 1861; 39 years active service, staff and line, rising to full colonel in 1853, and serving as chief engineer with Taylor’s army in northwest Mexico, including in command of troops. He won three brevets in Mexico (major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel), and was named to the inspector general of the army in 1853.

            Mexico raises the question – both Taylor and Scott were regulars, and both did very well in command in the field against a peer competitor in 1846-48; hard to imagine that their equivalents, a generation later, would not have done equally well in 1861-62.

            Given the men available – Wool, Sumner, Mansfield, the Smiths, etc. – all in all, I think the US would have done better assigning the regulars to the corps/army/department commands and limiting the volunteers to the divisional levels, at best.


          • John Foskett January 31, 2013 / 10:31 am

            That’s an interesting point but I think that the term “volunteers” is a bit misleading. Being out of the service for a mere four years would hardly seem to disqualify somebody with the proper training, credentials and mindset, especially where the four years was spent exrcising authority and acquiring expertise in a relatively new arena of military importance (the railroads). McClellan’s problem IMHO had nothing to do with the four years out – he just wasn’t suited temperamentally for the assignment. Your point about the level of command which he had experience in could be made about nearly every “regular” who you can point to, with the exceptions of Scott and Wool (who, God help us, were probably just too damned old to be handed those reins, especially in the field – in addition to Scott’s gourmand’s waist line). It could be made about Lee, aboit Sumner, about Mansfield, about either Smith, etc. Ultimately, of course, the professionally-trained “volunteers” are the ones who won the war in top command positions.

          • rcocean February 1, 2013 / 7:21 pm

            “That McClellan couldn’t stick it out is “questionable”

            What does that even mean? Or are you just throwing stuff out hoping someone else will fill in the blanks.

          • TF Smith February 2, 2013 / 12:49 pm

            John –

            I understand your point about the lack of formation-level (brigade or divisional) command experience in the RA in 1861, absent Scott and Wool, although I’d argue Sumner’s assignment in Kansas during the short of war era was probably about the best opportunity imaginable for anyofficer in the US since 1781 with regards to a civil war…

            But absent that, one of the issues that I think would have been minimized by the use of the “prewar” RA officer corps in the most senior positions, rather than the volunteers or – for lack of a better term – the “wartime” RAs like GBM – would have been the internal politicking that seems to have repeatedly caused problems for the US forces in the field in (certainly) 1861-63. One of the things the prewar RA seemed to brought with them was a level of respect as professionals, even from the volunteers, that was not a minor thing. Think of Sumner and Mansfield in the AoTP, CF Smith in the AotT, and the like. This is based on nothing more than my own recollections of various and sundry sources over the years, but I am not aware of the sort of extreme feeling and even factionalism being directed at these men by their peers and/or subordinates that seems to have surrounded McClellan, Porter, Burnside, and the like.

            Granted, it was a 19th Century army in a democracy in the middle of a civil war, so there was always going to be patronage and politics, and I think the case for the political generals as recruiting agents and the like is easily made, but that still did not require they be given field commands at the corps, army, or department/theater level.

            Taylor and Scott, although they both had political generals under them, were regulars, and I think the record of the US forces in Mexico, fighting a major two front war against a peer competitor, and less than 15 years before the ACW breaks out, was an example the US NCA should have profited by…

            I’ll put it this way – replace Scott with Mansfield when WS retires in 1861, and GBM with Sumner at the AoTP, and does anyone think the 1862 campaigns in the Eastern Theater would have turned out worse for the US? Especially since, I’d expect, the Peninsula Campiagn is still-born and the US strategy in Virginia would presumably have defaulted to something like that of the Overland Campaign – except in this case, with Sumner fighting JE Johnston in the winter-spring of 1861-62, between the Potomac and the Rappahanock or Rapidan? And with the US forces concentrated?


          • TF Smith February 2, 2013 / 1:02 pm

            RC –

            Well, put it this way – the man is a West Pointer, a regular, just came home from a tour as an observer of the largest conflict in the Western World between peer competitors, and is obviously a fast burner – and, by the way, it is 1857. Buchanan has been sworn in, after the three-way race in 1856; the Dred Scott case is pending before the USSC, and the decision comes out two days after Buchanan is inaugurated; “Bleeding Kansas” is in full flame….seems like he could have seen what is coming.

            The assignment to the Delafield Commission distinguishes GBM greatly from the run-of-the-mill company grade in 1857; the fact he didn’t stick it out in blue is a real question, IMOAAVHO.


          • rcocean February 2, 2013 / 7:59 pm

            TF – McClellan left the Army in the 1850s for the same reason some other West Pointers left, better opportunities elsewhere. The pre-war army was incredibly small and advancement – even Lee wasn’t promoted to Colonel until he was 43, and he was still a Colonel when the Civil war broke out. Other West Pointers who “saw the war coming” but “questionably” left the army before 1861: Grant, Sherman, Halleck, Buell, Burnside, Hooker, Rosecrans. Note: Meade left but came back because he failed in his civilian business. On the Confederate side the following had left the army for civilian jobs: Stonewall Jackson, Bragg, DH Hill, Polk, Jeff Davis. Beauregard had run for Mayor of New Orleans – had he won he would’ve left the army. A.S. Johnson left the US army in the 1830’s and only came back in the 1850s because the Secretary of War asked him to.

            Bottom line: It was normal for West Pointers to leave the army after a certain amount of service before the Civil war. McClellan leaving was not unusual. Lee considered leaving any number of times and only stayed because his wife wealthy & out of Lee’s well known sense of duty.

          • TF Smith February 3, 2013 / 12:56 am

            Except their ages and the circumstances – both for the individual and the nation – were very different.

            Grant was class of ’43 and left in ’54, and I don’t think anyone saw him as a golden boy in the 1850s; far from it;
            Sherman was class of ’40 and he left in ’54;
            Halleck was class of ’39 and resigned in ’54;
            Burnside was ’47 and left in ’53;
            Hooker was ’37 and left in ’53 (after being on leave from 1851-53);
            Rosecrans was ’42 and left in ’54;

            Interestingly enough, all of the above had left before the ’56 election, which would seem to have been the writing on the wall…

            Halleck was the only one professionally who had a real eputation, and he was the second oldest, after Hooker, and none of the above had the sort of once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity that GBM did with the Delafield Commission…

            Consider who else went to Europe: Delafield and Mordecai were both 4.0 types; Delafield (first in his class, ’18) had been supe at USMA for 12 years (probably a record) and Mordecai (first in his class, ’23, and on faculty) and had been co at the Washington and Frankfort aresenal…in an era that predated the AWC, these were probably the two most intellectual professionals in the RA. GBM was a very fortunate young officer, period.

            And according to Warner, Buell stayed in – class of ’41, service through to ’61, when he was a regular army lieutenant colonel serving as adjutant of the Department of the Pacific, and was commissioned a BG (USV) in May, 1861.

            I think the above is suggestive of a something lacking in GBM’s character, which puts some of his decision-making in 1861-62 into perspective.


          • rcocean February 3, 2013 / 9:18 am

            Anybody can suggest anything. I think proof is needed and its lacking. Plus, the idea that anyone in 1857 knew the Civil war would occur in 1861 is absurd. But like “suggesting” people can “believe” anything.

          • TF Smith February 3, 2013 / 7:42 pm

            Proof of what? That GBM left the army in 1857 after being given a career-making opportunity that was unique for a company grade officer – and the war broke out four years later?

            That after the 1856 election, any thoughtful American saw that there was a good chance of war after the next presidential election?

            Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” and Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech both came in 1858, as elements of the mid-terms, IIRC; you really think that anyone with an education the likes of GBM didn’t see it coming after the 1856 three-way presidential election?


            Maybe we should ask the professor…

  3. Scott Smart January 27, 2013 / 6:23 pm

    I think it is a worthwhile study. As an NROTC midshipman, Military History of the US was a required course and Huntington figured prominently in the syllabus. But I think historians and national security specialists in general had a world-view largely based on the personal experience of world war and cold war. These I think tended to reinforce the Huntington “military professional model”. 10+ years of “counter-insurgency” or “war on terror” seem to have modified if not upended that model. Now we see an army seemingly infatuated with concepts of “design” and “effects-based operations” all of which seem to heavily involve, if not come from, a civil-political perspective. I think McMaster’s history of the Joint Chiefs vs Kennedy/Johnson administrations is interesting if viewed this way in the context of Viet Nam. I suppose our favorite military philosopher would argue that “war is a true chameleon” so we can’t take one view or the other, we have to merge them. This is where I think re-evaluation of the civil war might be worthwhile – treating it as more nearly like counter-insurgency, or at least considering that aspect of it. If we are able to do that, we might have a different appreciation for the relationships of “generals” and “politicians”.

  4. Al Mackey January 27, 2013 / 9:03 pm

    I think this may overturn a couple generations of historical agreement regarding McClellan and Lincoln. Paradigm shifts are not easy, and it’s generally not a pretty sight while it’s going on. Many folks hang on tenaciously to the familiar paradigm. I think he’s definitely onto something here.

  5. tonygunter January 27, 2013 / 10:22 pm

    You were complaning last week about people applying a civil war template to modern issues, I think Rafuse here is doing the reverse: applying a modern template to civil war issues. Much is made about McClellan’s letter to Lincoln, but I don’t know there is any proof that Lincoln thought much of it. Nearly all Civil War generals were politicians in one form or another, and McClellan was well within his bounds expressing his concerns to Lincoln.

    The problem with the Lincoln-McClellan dynamic is that it became toxic over time through the fault of both men. Lincoln was less than competent as commander-in-chief, fostered dissension and intrigue, and failed to adequately communicate with his generals. McClellan, reacting to Lincoln’s lack of competence and communication, became secretive and passive-aggressive. Over time, the working relationship between the two men would become less and less viable.

    In 1862, compare McClellan’s reactions to Lincoln vs. Grant’s reactions. Lincoln failed to communicate a plan to Grant, allowed McClernand to intrigue for a separate command in Grant’s department, sabotaged Grant’s plan after he had reached the halfway point in his overland campaign, and ordered a ham-handed frontal assault against the Vicksburg defenses. I can’t find evidence that Grant uttered a single word of complaint … not to Halleck, not to Lincoln, not to Washburne, not even to his wife.

    To McClellan, the interference from Washington was a great personal affront and an opportunity for excuses. To Grant, the interference of Washington was simply another parameter to be factored into the calculus of war.

    • Chris Wehner January 28, 2013 / 9:41 am

      Interesting 1862 comparison! I have studied Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg and have not found anything either.

    • TF Smith January 28, 2013 / 9:13 pm

      Simple – Grant was a much better soldier than McClellan…

  6. Bryn Monnery January 28, 2013 / 11:35 am

    On the letter at Harrisons Landing – McClellan asked permission beforehand to express his view, and Lincoln asked for it to be a letter.

    The initial profer:

    His Excellency ABRAHAM LINCOLN,

    Your Excellency’s dispatch of 11 a.m. received, also that of General Sigel.
    I have no doubt that Jackson has been re-enforced from here. There is reason to believe that General R. S. Ripley has recently joined Lee’s army with a brigade or division from Charleston. Troops have arrived recently from Goldsborough. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that the enemy intends evacuating Richmond. He is daily increasing his defenses. I find him everywhere in force, and every reconnaissance costs many lives, yet I am obliged to feel my way foot by foot at whatever cost, so great are the difficulties of the country. By to-morrow night the defensive works covering our position on this side of the Chickahominy should be completed. I am forced to this by my inferiority in numbers, so that I may bring the greatest possible numbers into action and secure the army against the consequences of unforeseen disaster. I would be glad to have permission to lay before Your Excellency, by letter or telegraph, my views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country. In the mean time I would be pleased to learn the disposition as to numbers and position of the troops not under my command in Virginia and elsewhere.

    Major-General, Commanding.

    Lincoln accepts the offer:

    Maj. Gen. GEORGE B. McCLELLAN.

    Your dispatch of yesterday (2 p.m.) was received this morning. If it would not divert too much of your time and attention from the army under your immediate command I would be glad to have your views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country, as you say you would be glad to give them. I would rather it should be by letter than by telegraph, because of the better chance of secrecy. As to the numbers and positions of the troops not under your command in Virginia and elsewhere, even if I could do it with accuracy, which I cannot, I would rather not transmit either by telegraph or letter, because of the chances of its reaching the enemy. I would be very glad to talk with you, but you cannot leave your camp and I cannot well leave here.


    McClellan agrees:

    His Excellency the PRESIDENT.

    I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your telegram of 8 p.m. yesterday. Under the circumstances, as stated in your dispatch, I perceive that it will be better at least to defer for the present the communication I desired to make.

    Major-General, Commanding.

    Kind of takes the sting out of the “impudence” of the letter that it’s transmission was agreed to beforehand, at least in my eyes.

    • John Foskett January 28, 2013 / 4:34 pm

      Was it in fact written by McClellan or by Colonel Key?

  7. rcocean January 28, 2013 / 8:26 pm

    I thought it was an interesting analysis but understates what McClellan was up against. It should be noted that Lincoln had already tried to fire McClellan fairly early in Peninsula Campaign. In March ’62 Lincoln offered the AoP command to Hitchcock and Lincoln followed up his July ’62 Harrison Landing visit by offering the command to Burnside. And I wonder how Mac felt in early March ’62 when he opened up a paper and learned he’d been fired as C-in-C or that best buddy Stanton who’d pledge eternal loyalty and support was in fact working behind his back to destroy him.

  8. rcocean January 28, 2013 / 8:30 pm

    “Was it in fact written by McClellan or by Colonel Key?”

    And that matters why? Who writes Obama’s speeches? Are they really his thoughts or a speechwriter? Silly red herring. McClellan took ownership of the letter, I think we’re safe to assume he wasn’t a puppet of a subordinate.

    • John Foskett January 29, 2013 / 8:03 am

      Assume whatever you want. You know what they say about that word….

  9. TF Smith January 28, 2013 / 9:29 pm

    Here’s a question – on the occasions when McClellan served as a combat commander in the field, at the divisional, corps, or army level (as opposed to a theater commander), how did his service stack up in comparison to his peers?

    • John Foskett January 29, 2013 / 8:04 am

      Good question. And unfortunately we can’t use Glendale as a sample.

      • jfepperson January 29, 2013 / 5:32 pm

        IMO, McClellan was an absolute non-entity as a battlefield commander, and this failure on his part (again, IMO) is key to understanding his failure as a commander. He tried to win w/o fighting battles, essentially.

        • TF Smith January 29, 2013 / 8:41 pm

          Well, yes.

  10. rcocean January 29, 2013 / 8:09 pm

    “…absolute non-entity as a battlefield commander. He tried to win w/o fighting battles, essentially.”

    Grant so much better. Lets see it cost Grant 55,000 men to get where McClellan had gotten in June 1862, with almost no losses. Maybe having a general who just wants to fight can be a bad thing.

    McCllelan’s real problem was twofold (1) he wanted to fight the war “scientifically” – losing no men unnecessarily and taking no risks that weren’t commensurate with the reward and (2) he was the victim of bad intelligence and completely over-estimated the strength of AVN.

    But here’s a question. Who on the union side was accurately estimating the size of the AVN during April to October 1862 and why didn’t they tell McClellan? From what I can tell Halleck and Lincoln never told McClellan he was over-estimating the size of the confederate army, and if they did, they didn’t provide any basis for it. Instead Lincoln was constantly hectoring McClellan to “pitch into them”, “Hurry Up” while making sure any possible defeat would be blamed on McClellan.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 29, 2013 / 8:11 pm

      I think the difference between McClellan in 1862 and Grant in 1864 is in what each of them did once they got there.

      • TF Smith January 29, 2013 / 8:56 pm

        One can make the same point re Grant and Buell in Tennessee in 1862, or Grant in Tennessee and Halleck in Mississippi…

        What is striking to me about McClellan is his hesitation regarding calculated risk is in such contrast to the American way of war; Washington, Greene, and Scott, for example, never hesitated to take the main chance when it was necessary – Monmouth and Trenton, as much as the soouthern front in the invasion of Mexico, come to mind.

        When did GBM ever take a calculated risk?

        And set aside the American example; what exactly was the Allied campaign in the Crimea in 1854-55 (GBM’s observer tour was really his professional claim to fame pre-1861), but a calculatedr risk of astronomical proportions, given the correlation of forces and the distances involved?

        As far as the operational order of battle intelligence on the Peninsula goes, that’s generally the responsibility of the field commander – not the national command authority. And, it seems from what I have read on the isue (Sears and Fishel, primarily) John Wool (as the CG of the Department of Virginia, which amounted to McClellan’s beachhead for the Army of the Potomac in the Peninsula campaign) had a clear idea of what Magruder really had on the Peninsula when the AoTP landed, but GBM chose to ignore it.

        Essentially, if you put it into the context of a senior commander taking over from an existing beachhead force, it is the equivalent of Alexander M. Patch taking the XIV Corps headquarters ashore on Guadalcanal in the winter of 1942 and ignoring what Archer Vandegrift and the 1st Marine Division staff estimated what the Japanese had on the island.

        Pretty damn unprofessional, basically.

    • jfepperson January 30, 2013 / 5:58 am

      Yes, I think Grant was much better.

    • John Foskett January 30, 2013 / 9:01 am

      So McClellan as the commander in the field wasn’t responsible for accurately collecting or assessing information regarding his immediate opponent’s strength – everybody else was. And this despite his having operatives inside Richmond and a fairly accurate identification of opposing units whose strength then had to be inflated exponentially to get to the magic number of 200,000. Little Mac seems to have had this problem from beginning to end – as we know, he faced a threadbare, severely damaged ANV on September 18 and didn’t lift a finger, in part based on his (again) significantly inflated estimates of opposing strength. I find it interesting that this inflation factor appears to have disappeared from the A of the P calculus after November 7, 1862. Probably just a coincidence. He was a “victim of bad intelligence”? Actually, he was the guy ultimately responsible for whether his intelligence was good or bad and when you come up with a facially suspect estimate of at least 200,000, you need to double check it. Richmond and its supply system would likely have been choked by an army of 200,000 hanging out within its reaches for a few months. Yet nobody in McClellan’s immediate circle seems to have had any doubts at all about that. Instead, he allowed it to influence his decisions.The dispositive point is that we know beyond any reasonable doubt that he was simply and wildly dead wrong and that the Confederate forces defending Richmond at most consisted of a number which was a full army short of the McClellan fantasy. The buck stopped there.

  11. rcocean January 29, 2013 / 8:11 pm

    By AVN, I mean of course the “Army of Northern Virginia” and its predecessor on the Peninsula under Johnston and Lee.

    • TF Smith January 29, 2013 / 9:06 pm

      Didn’t think it was Marvin the Arvin!

      There’s a question – finf the analogues to Scott, Lee, McClellan, JE Johnston, Grant, AS Johnston, WT Sherman, and Bragg in the command structures of the ARVN and the NVA in 1961-75….


      • John Foskett February 3, 2013 / 8:58 am

        TF- This is actually in reply to yours upstairs regarding our dialogue about “volunteers” vs. “regulars”. I, as you know, don’t have much faith in the notion of Bull Sumner effectively commanding more than a division (and I acknowledge again Armstrong’s good arguments that he handled the II Corps at Antietam in better fashion than has been assumed by most). But you make a point with which I have to agree. While I don’t see him necessarily being an effective army commander at Fair Oaks or the Seven Days, I do see the point that he could well have been more effective in the Yorktown-Williamsburg phase of the campaign. Among other things I don’t see him being that easily duped by Magruder, nor do I see him laboring undr the weight of McClellan’s fantasized Confederaste strengths. As for the later combats involving larger forces, that seems to be where Sumner’s limitations would be more emphasized, athough in the end he probably would not have done worse (and I state with moral certainty that he would not have been on board the Galena on June 30 – he would have been where he in fact was as II Corps commander, and where, with Heintzelman, he performed effectively).

        • TF Smith February 4, 2013 / 12:21 am

          John –

          Yep, that’s sort of my point – one thing to consider when it comes to the “prewar” RA types, expecially those seniors, is presumably they would have known their former subordinates well enough to not be bamboozled by tactics like Magruder’s theatrics.

          And, as you say, Sumner would fight, and be close enough to the front to influence what happened, unlike GBM.

          Beyond all that, my guess is Sumner would not have gotten entranced by the amphibious sidestep to the Peninsula; I’d think he would have been more likely just to move south from the Potomac and would have faced JE Johnston somewhere around Centerville in the late winter of 1861-62….be interesting to think that one through, and what the likely impact would be…can’t see it would have left he US in a worse position than historically.


  12. Ned B February 3, 2013 / 9:32 pm


    Consider that the two officers you call “the two most intellectual professionals in the RA” were still just Majors, one rank above GBM, after decades in the service and would still be Majors in 1861. Perhaps he did see the writing on the wall with the 1856 election. For GBM to stay in the army in 1857 probably meant stagnation as a cavalry captain. But become a civilian with connections in Ohio and he could be a senior general in a few years.

    • TF Smith February 4, 2013 / 12:16 am

      Ned –

      And yet one can contrast him with classmates (Foster, Gibbon, Reno, Seymour, Stoneman, and Sturgis, for example) who stuck it out then the lean years, despite not getting an assignment like the Delafield Commission.

      The more one thinks about it, the more it tracks with his character and personality during the war.


      • John Foskett February 4, 2013 / 11:25 am

        Sturgis may have stayed in for the whiskey ration. 🙂

  13. TF Smith February 4, 2013 / 9:41 pm

    I dunno, he had a good day at Antietam and a bad day at Brice’s Crossroads…and he did get two end-of-the-war brevets; not a terrible record.

    Plus he was GAC’s colonel in the 7th…probably needed some strong stuff in THAT assignment.


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