Another Defense of George McClellan

This defense of George B. McClellan (which consists  of many links and a little commentary) is offered in typical style by its author, who should be familiar to some readers of this blog.

I found most amusing the following claim:

McClellan was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in the 1864 election. Incredibly, despite all the advantages that Lincoln enjoyed, McClellan received 45 percent of the vote. If Southern citizens had participated in the election, McClellan almost certainly would have won the popular vote.

If southern civilians had voted in 1864, then there would have been no war going on … and McClellan would not have secured the nomination. Indeed, although McClellan was not in favor of the Lincoln administration’s policy on slavery and emancipation, he wanted slavery to end (saying that McClellan was proslavery would indeed be a smear). The chances of a majority of southern voters supporting a candidate in the middle of the nineteenth century who opposed slavery in the slightest? Zero.

Note, however, the careful use of the word “citizens.” The writer clearly wants to keep black people away from the ballot box in his counterfactual fantasy.

Rarely have I seen such a bizarre leap in logic, but there you are. McClellan deserves far better than this.

77 thoughts on “Another Defense of George McClellan

  1. Stefan Jovanovich September 19, 2014 / 1:53 am

    Grant’s statement about troop strengths at Pittsburg Landing had none of McClellan’s usual hyperbole. Without Buell and Wallace’s men, he had 30,000 soldiers on hand when Johnston attacked. The accepted total for the Confederates engaged on the first day is 45,000 so Grant’s estimate of his opposition could be seen as exaggerated except for the fact that he was undoubtedly including Van Dorn’s 20,000 men in the total.

    • John Foskett September 19, 2014 / 10:12 am

      For those who are into counterfactuals, take any number of situations that involved McClellan and substitute Grant. Then do the reverse. The McClellan defenders and apologists struggle with that one.

      • monodisperse September 20, 2014 / 8:27 am

        At the time of Shiloh Grant reported that “over 100,000 men” in 162 regiments (Grant to Buell 6th April 1862, Grant to Julia Grant 8th April, Grant to Halleck 9th April). Over time he revised these numbers down to “over 80,000” (against his own force of “less than 30,000” – Grant to Ihrie, 25th April), 70,000 against “about 30,000” (Grant to Washburn, 14th May), and finally revised all numbers down again in his memoirs down to 40,955 (the PFD reported) against not more than 25,000. (All communications are in vol. 5 of Simon’s Grant Papers)

        That’s offered as a simple point of information.

        On counterfactuals, the problem is that Grant and McClellan did similar things in similar situations. Take Fort Donelson as an example. Grant had massively overestimated enemy numbers:

        “Matters here look favorable in one sense. We have the works of the enemy well invested and they do not seem inclined to come out. They are very strong however being well fortified and having not less than 30,000 troops. All statements places their numbers much higher.”

        (Grant to Cullum, 14th February ’62, from vol 4 of the Grant Papers)

        “Appearances now indicate that we will have a protracted siege here. The ground is very broken and the fallen timber extending far out from the breast works I fear the result of attempting to carry the place by storm with raw troops. I feel great confidance however of ultimately reducing the place. As yet I have had no batteries thrown up hoping with the aid of the Gunboats to obviate the necessity. The present high water has prevented my extending the right to the river.”

        (Grant to Cullum, 15th February ’62)

        Grant’s decision making at Donelson is nearly identical to McClellan’s at Yorktown, although he’s operating with an overestimate of enemy strength that McClellan wasn’t (placing the enemy at 18-20,000). The difference is on the Confederate side. They stage a breakout whilst Grant is off on a gunboat, there is some confusion and finally:

        “If all the Gun Boats that can, will immediately make their appearance to the enemy, it may secure us a Victory. Otherwise all may be defeated. A terrible conflict ensued in my absence, which has demoralized a portion of my command. I think the enemy is much more so. If the Gun Boats do not show themselves
        it will reassure the enemy and still further demoralize our troops.I must order a charge to save appearances. I do not expect the Gun Boats to go into action, but to make their appearance, and throw shells at long range.”

        (Grant to Foote, 15th February ’62)

        Grant indeed does “order a charge to save appearances”, and the enemy pretty promptly surrender. None of this of course happened at Yorktown, because the rebs did not charge out of their entrenchments and give battle on unfavourable terms. It does not require any great leaps to imagine that if the defenders of Yorktown came out of their entrenchments McClellan would have pasted them. It’s also not hard to construct a scenario where Grant conducts a prolonged siege.

        The same is true generally. The real Grant and the real McClellan have much more in common than their caricatures do.

        • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 12:53 pm

          We can do this forever. A couple of simple points. Grant’s estimate of Confederate forces opposing him in Corinth didn’t prevent him from getting to the battlefield on April 6, organizing a defense,, and then organizing a response on April 7. As for Fort Donelson/Yorktown, we need only look at the actual opposing numbers and the ultimate, respective responses of Grant and McClellan. Maybe if, just once during the Peninsula Campaign Mac had “ordered a charge to save appearances”, we wouldn’t be left with his retreat (yeah, I said “retreat”) to the James. I know – that was all the fault of Lincoln/Stanton/McDowell/the rainy spring/Kearney/the swollen Chickahominy/the Radicals in Congress.

      • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 8:39 am

        I’ll add this. All you need to know is summed up in two separate incidents occurring within a few months of each other involving generals and boats. in one a general used a boat to get to the sound of firing, where he could plunge into the fight and take command – with ultimate success. In the other a general used a boat to get way from a fight in which his army could have been cut in two, leaving undesignated subordinates to figure out battlefield command – ultimately ending up farther from his objective than when he started.. All of the remaining arguments are really pretty cool and interesting and some do (and should) alter parts of the long-accepted history. None, however, change the conclusion one can readily discern from what happened with generals and boats.

        • monodisperse September 20, 2014 / 9:24 am

          Interesting, but incorrect.

          On 15th February ’62 Grant went to a command conference with the naval commander and the enemy attacked his army whilst he was there. He rode back and went to his HQ to try and reestablish control of his army.

          On 30th June ’62 McClellan sent a signals detachment onto the naval flagship ahead of him, and once communications were opened went to a command conference. Whilst there the enemy attacked, but he retained control of his army via telegraph, and returned to his HQ as soon as possible,

          Both men had to go to command conferences. One made a contingency to retain C&C whilst he was there, and the other acted to inhibit it by going out of contact without designating alternate command plans.

          On withdrawing to a new base of operations, when McClellan’s base of operations was destroyed by enemy cavalry he withdrew to a new one (Seven Days). When Grant’s base of operations was destroyed by enemy cavalry he withdrew to a new one (1st attempt at Vicksburg). I fail to see any difference.

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 20, 2014 / 11:51 am

            My guess is that when it came to Grant the battle in question was Shiloh, where Grant did take a vessel to go to Pittsburgh Landing on the morning of April 6.

          • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 12:13 pm

            Right you are.

          • monodisperse September 20, 2014 / 1:29 pm

            I was referring to the siege of Fort Donelson. There are two battles where Grant was away on a boat for part of it (Donelson and Shiloh).

            Grant was seven miles away on Foote’s flagship when the Donelson garrison made their breakout attempt. He did not learn of it for many hours until a messenger told him. When he knew he rode hard to reach the field, and ordered the troops to pull back and entrench. There on looking at the primary sources I find some contradictions in how the charge came about, but it seems have have originated due to Lew Wallace protesting the order to pull back, and it (and Smith’s charge) worked leading to the rebs precipitously surrendering.

            Grant was not perfect that day, but he was good enough. In the same way I see McClellan at Glendale as not perfect (especially with his lack of oversight over Franklin, which is the real mistake he made), but ultimately he was good enough.

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 20, 2014 / 1:31 pm

            You may have been referring to Fort Donelson, but your counterpart was referring to Shiloh, and it was he who made the initial comparison. The confusion is noted.

          • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 12:24 pm

            As our host suggests, you got that one wrong. Meaning that the response is “interesting but incorrect”. And just who was at this important June 30 “command conference” while McClellan’s army was strung out in retreat and vulnerable to interdiction by the ANV? Not Sumner, Heintzelman, or Franklin – 3/4 of Mac’s active corps commanders. They were back at the crossroads preventing his army from being severed in two and sorting out (with surprising effectiveness, given their overall mediocre track records) the field command and control issue that McClellan had omitted to address. “He retained control by telegraph”? I’d be interested in knowing what orders were transmitted by McClellan and received by whom during the battle such that he “directed” the fighting at Glendale/Frayser’s Farm. We’re talking about a primitive and time-consuming field telegraph system, not the as-yet, distant invention of the field telephone and forward command posts. (Not the first time, by the way, that McClellan was absent from the front during combat on the Peninsula.) . The AoftheP’s thank you note for avoiding disaster on June 30 could not be sent to McClellan – it would have been sent to the 3 corps commanders, to troops who fought courageously despite coming close to breaking, and to Stonewall (who, as a nice counterbalance to the MIA federal commander, was taking a siesta at White Oak Swamp ). I am interested in knowing one thing, however. Do McClellan’s defenders honestly believe all of these “explanations” and “justifications” for his string of actions as a field commander or is it really an exercise in debate?

          • monodisperse September 20, 2014 / 2:00 pm

            The naval commander, obviously. Who else do you see on a boat?

            We have some fragmentary knowledge of McClellan’s orders, but as I’ve said before, what we need is the signals logs. This is Myers (the chief signal officer)’s report on the action:

            The signals technology of the time was far more advanced than you give credit for, but then remember that the whole of Europe under Napoleon was linked by signals stations to Paris, and Napoleon could react quickly to events on the German frontier. See

          • John Foskett September 21, 2014 / 8:20 am

            Let’s look at Meyer’s report for the “afternoon and night” of June 30. First, there are no details or even hints of any kind regarding the “communications” between McClellan and the battlefield – when to whom, what, etc, Second, of the individuals singled out by Meyer, only two (from the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves) could possibly have been present at the actual fighting. Two others were in Keyes’ IV Corps. Another was assigned to “Porter’s” HQ. Yet another was stationed “near the riverbank”. Two more were on board “steamships”. The last is assigned by Meyer to a regiment – 41st NY – which was in the Shenandoah Valley and became part of Sigel’s corps in Pope’s new army – so we cannot discern where on earth he was. Third, I don’t care how “advanced” the “signals technology” was. It wasn’t advanced to anywhere near a status where communication was instantaneous and one could direct a battle from a remote location. You might – might – be able to approximate some sort of rough control to a fixed defensive location – Gaines’s Mill, Savage Station, Fair Oaks. No way on earth the technology would allow for that in the fluid circumstances of June 30 with the army on the march (in retreat). As for the “command conference”, you’ve proven my point. What on earth could McClellan accomplish there (aside from enjoying dinner, a cigar, and some brandy – as apparently he did) that, say, Fitz John Porter could not have accomplished ? His choice was (1) to be in direct command of his army as it faced the toughest of its Seven Days and came within a whisker of being cut in half or (2) adjourning to the Galena for a leisurely “conference”. At a bare minimum, his irrefutable obligation was to assign command to a subordinate with direction. Moreover, the “naval commander” apparently was the ship’s captain. This wasn’t a high-level strategic meeting to develop an amphibious operation. The result of the “conference” was that the Galena helped cover the retreat to Malvern Hill and then to Harrison’s. That could have been handled by a subaltern. If this were a civil action in court, the anti-McClellan forces would get summary judgment on this issue. .

          • John Foskett September 21, 2014 / 10:33 am

            By the way, I’m sure that you’re acquainted with Rafuse’s assessment of McClellan’s conduct on June 30 – that Mac’s absconding to the Galena “almost defies belief. … Even though his men were at the time engaged in a fierce battle near Glendale … he spent the afternoon on board the Galena, dining with [Captain] Rodgers and traveling briefly up river to watch the gunboat shelling of a Confederate division that had been spotted marching east along the River road toward Malvern Hill.” Rafuse is hardly biased against McClellan and is eminently qualified to render an objective, informed evaluation.

          • monodisperse September 21, 2014 / 3:11 pm

            Rafuse refused to analyse two issues that he could have, skipping over both with a nod to Sears. One is the Galena, and the other is his visit to Halleck on the night of the 27th-28th August. Without discussing the latter for example you can’t understand the events of the 29th August. Small things I wish he’d done differently in a mighty work.

            On the signals corps – perhaps read their own official history. They had quite a bit to say about it:

            Oh, and the “dinner” was not as described. Remember, it doesn’t appear in the literature before Sears’ Gates of Richmond, and the quoted source I am told may not corroborate his tale. In fact the dinner in question la Comte de Paris had was on board USS Jacob Bell, not the Galena. General McClellan was not present, he was at his HQ. McClellan had sent the French princes to Ft Monroe with despatches, and it’s even reported in the papers because a correspondent for the NYT was onboard:——-en–20–1–txt-IN——

            Sears has unfortunately made some logical leaps that are not true (Paris is having dinner on a gunboat, therefore McClellan must also be there!), and contaminated the historiography here.

          • John Foskett September 22, 2014 / 7:08 am

            This is a \nice set of deflections. A few points: (1) this discussion started with the claim that “he retained control of his army via telegraph”. Since that assertion, all I’ve seen are references to convoluted signalling – an inherently unreliable and time-consuming method, and much of it via Malvern Hill and Haxall’s. I have no doubt that Meyer and his lads did yeoman service and that pride in their achievements understandably shines through in their reports and accounts. I also have no doubt that Meyer would agree that a commander being present to direct the fighting was preferable to wig wagging over distances and via posts remote from the battlefield;; (2) likely for that reason I still haven’t seen anything from anybody about orders issued by McClellan during the fighting or anything remotely amounting to direction of the battle by him; (3) we still haven’t covered the subject matter of this important conference aboard the Galena which in McClellan’s eyes apparently trumped the need for a directing hand at CC Crossroads; (4) nothing you’ve presented addresses the failure to at least put somebody in charge – this was an unmitigated failing because, among other things, the divisions left in the Glendale/Frayser’s Farm/WO Swamp area by McClellan were a mix from several corps, in several instances not in the location of their home corps. (5) we can quibble about what was on the menu in Rodgers’ quarters on the Galena but nothing you’ve said refutes Rafuse’s point (and the point made by many others) – McClellan had no business abandoning his army in this manner on the single day during the Seven when it most needed a guiding hand. Much of this is vintage defense/justification of McClellan – a quarrel about this or that piece of minutia while the big picture remains undisturbed. ,

          • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 12:27 pm

            By the way, let’s not use that statement by Sumner at a later date which was touted in an earlier exchange as proof that Mac had put somebody in command at Glendale/Frayser’s Farm. The quote actually pertains to an order by McClellan after the battle on June 30 and in preparation for July 1.

  2. Spelunker September 19, 2014 / 4:18 am

    I hear that there are people out there that want to return to a world in which Southerners include only one type of people. I guess they only want certain Southern citizens to be able to vote again. What a shame.

  3. John Foskett September 19, 2014 / 7:25 am

    Like Sidney Crosby on a loose puck in the crease, I’ll be back on this one. I see Thorp’s name prominently featured in the list he uses. I didn’t see Dimitri’s, however.

  4. John Foskett September 19, 2014 / 7:27 am

    Edit to my earlier post: I should have read it more carefully before i concluded that Dimitri had been left off.

  5. Al Mackey September 19, 2014 / 8:11 am

    Well, the very first clue is the name of the author. But the first clue for people not familiar with him would be the title, calling it a “defense” of Little Mac. It shows he started with what he wanted to “prove” and then looked for what could be cherrypicked to “prove” it. Which as we know is what he normally does.

  6. jfepperson September 19, 2014 / 10:43 am

    What I found interesting is that he barely mentioned Ethan Rafuse’s work—it’s in there, but almost as an afterthought.

    • John Foskett September 19, 2014 / 2:03 pm

      Rafuse is the answer to the question regarding those links “which one of these is not like the others?” Okay, I’ll add Clemens. Dimitri is a separate category. McClellan is his vehicle for challenging standard propositions in Civil War historiography which are never questioned. That is far from agreeing that in every instance, or even in most, Georgie has been wronged. He hasn’t been. The rest of that group (The McClellan Society????) “is what it is”.

    • Mike Griffith January 3, 2015 / 10:02 am

      “Barely mentioned”? “Almost as an afterthought”? The article’s stated intent is to provide links to online defenses of McClellan. Rafuse’s book is not available for online reading (except in partial form on Google Books).

      And in the article I state that Rafuse’s book is “one of the better modern defenses of McClellan.” That’s a bit more than just “an afterthought.”

      If Rafuse’s book were available for online reading, I certainly would have included it.

  7. dyulgerova September 20, 2014 / 11:49 am

    Imagine if McClellan was as aggressive as Grant and still was able to keep the lives of his soldiers – he would have been the best American general (yes, even better than Lee)

    • John Foskett September 20, 2014 / 12:31 pm

      No question.In fact, he would have been the best general in the history of the planet Now ‘splain to me how he (or any mere mortal) pulls off that nifty little trick. Makes for a great movie script, however.

      • dyulgerova September 21, 2014 / 2:08 am

        ^^ Making fun of me won’t make you funny. What I meant is that McClellan was a great organizer and never wasted the lives of his soldiers unlike many Union generals. Now imagine him also possessing Grant’s aggressiveness…

        • John Foskett September 21, 2014 / 9:21 am

          I’m suggesting that the proposition you mention is facially impossible in the real world. Being as “aggressive as Grant” and at the same time “keeping the lives” of his troops could not be done. Those are mutually exclusive concepts.

          • dyulgerova September 21, 2014 / 11:12 am

            Many great commanders in history who were on the offensive would suffer relatively low casualties like Lee, Charles XII of Sweden, Oliver Cromwell.
            Being the attacker doesn’t automatically mean you will suffer double casualties than your opponent.

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 21, 2014 / 11:13 am

            Lee didn’t suffer low casualties.

          • John Foskett September 21, 2014 / 11:50 am

            Especially when he was on the “aggressive”. Let’s start with the Seven Days. Lee’s numbers for the ACW are even worse when his losses are calculated as a percentage of his forces engaged.

          • dyulgerova September 24, 2014 / 1:56 am

            You are right, Lee should have just left Richmond to be captured by Mac and lose the war because, why the hell not, and that way not suffer any casualties. Brilliant!

          • Breck O'Donnell September 24, 2014 / 5:40 am

            Who suggested that?

          • John Foskett September 24, 2014 / 12:03 pm

            Correct. Apparently the poster is having a debate with an imaginary opponent.

          • John Foskett September 24, 2014 / 10:17 am

            Are you being sarcastic or are you honestly incapable of understanding the point?

          • dyulgerova September 24, 2014 / 11:47 am

            What you all fail to understand is that you can’t compare Grant’s overland campaign with Lee’s Seven Days. In the former, Grant was invading the South, while in the latter it was about the survival of the Confederacy. So Lee could have suffered as much casualties as it was necessary to save Richmond and hence save the Confederacy because Mac was so close, (6.5) miles from the capital.

        • hankc9174 September 21, 2014 / 11:51 am

          ome might say that winning the war was first priority and minimizing losse a happy side effect…

          • dyulgerova September 21, 2014 / 12:20 pm

            ^^ That makes sense! Except that this theory went terribly bad for the Yankees at Fredericksburg 😀

          • hankc9174 September 22, 2014 / 4:19 pm

            I’d say ity goes terribly bad for the losers of any battle.

            In a war that killed 3,000 men a week, 2,000 by disease, doing *nothing* (by default prolonging the war) was perhaps worse then doing *something*…

          • dyulgerova September 23, 2014 / 1:51 am

            ^^ Of course, and frontal attacks is the answer to anything!

          • John Foskett September 23, 2014 / 8:47 am

            I assume you’re not assessing Grant with this statement. If you are, do some reading about Grant’s operational maneuvers in the Vicksburg and Overland Campaigns.

          • Breck O'Donnell September 23, 2014 / 10:29 am

            Indeed. Let’s not forget that Grant also proposed an indirect strategy for Virginia. when first queried on the subject, rather than the Overland Campaign, which was the result of Halleck and Lincoln’s preference for keeping the bulk of the eastern army between Lee and D.C. Even in the Overland Campaign, Grant flanked whenever possible and ultimately decided the contest with a superbly executed flanking maneuver across the James River that caught Lee off-guard.

  8. Breck O'Donnell September 21, 2014 / 11:54 am

    Given that the only offensive battle planned and directed in person by McClellan was the bloodiest day in American history, asserting that McClellan represents an opposite end of the spectrum from Grant in terms of taking casualties on the offensive seems a questionable premise.

    • John Foskett September 21, 2014 / 1:22 pm

      Boy, you’re being harsh (no pun intended). After all, as Mac wrote his wife after Antietam, those in whom he trusted told him he fought the battle brilliantly – complete with disjointed attacks from N to S, failure to adequately deal with the Burnside mess on his left, and holding back the only significant unbloodied force either side had left to it.

      • monodisperse September 22, 2014 / 7:25 am


        1. The disjointed nature of the attacks on the right is unavoidable. To attack on the right the approaching forces must pass through a defile (i.e. the bridge and the ford) and so must do so in turn. The other option was to spend the best part of a day moving all his forces over, lining them up nicely and then attacking.

        What McClellan actually does is more aggressive, pushing 1st Corps over on the afternoon of the 16th, 12th Corps during the night and 2nd Corps first thing in the morning. Now the local corps commanders perhaps did not co-ordinate their corps as well as you’d expect. However can you, for example, blame McClellan that the senior general on the wing was more interested in playing division commander and completely lost control of the rest of his divisions?

        2. How can he deal with Burnside better? Put him under arrest? Remember Burnside holds a Commission from the President (and is the second highest ranking general in the army), and is not some colonel to be cashiered. I agree Burnside and Cox were problematic, but don’t see any good solutions. I also note that Burnside was as problematic for Grant in ’64 and it was seriously difficult to remove him, and only when Burnside took a leave of absence did Grant get his wish by simply finding excuses why Burnside couldn’t rejoin.

        3. In fact Lee has two brigades on the field that never fired a shot (Pender’s and Field’s). McClellan has three (Morell’s division). Both were down to their last reserve, and neither committed their last reserve.

        • John Foskett September 22, 2014 / 11:08 am

          Okay – he fought the battle “brilliantly”. In fact, everything he did from September 13-18 was simply brilliant. I’ll take that approach because otherwise this will become as endless as the efforts to defend/explain/justify the June 30 cruise. For the hell of it, though, remind me – what were the respective sides’ numbers on the field on September 17?. And yes, I’m including all of those rookies in the 12th Corps, etc. who had never fired their weapons. We’re not using the “discount” methodology which Mac employed in his B&L article to fabricate a strength of “75,000” at the beginning of the Seven Days. It’s too bad he didn’t live longer. By 1895 he’d have been able to melt that down to 50,000..

        • hankc9174 September 22, 2014 / 4:23 pm

          ‘the local corps commanders perhaps did not co-ordinate their corps as well as you’d expect.’ – which is the role of the army commander

        • dyulgerova September 23, 2014 / 3:08 am

          I agree on the with Burnside, if he was that stupid as to can’t take a bridge guarded by merely 400 soldiers, Mac couldn’t do anything about it.

    • monodisperse September 22, 2014 / 5:59 am

      Well, since his most of his other offensive movements were examples of Mahan’s “active defense” or turning the enemy out of position perhaps it’s not surprising there are few massive butchers bills. I think can agree McClellan is not a “hey, diddle, diddle – bags of smoke and straight up the middle” kind of commander. Where I suspect (from our previous dealings) we disagree is the appropriateness of the doctrinaire approach as exemplified by Chandler’s utterance “Without a little blood letting, this Union will not be worth a rush!”. A large chunk of American society believed a good general was one that got a lot of his own men killed. It showed the proper fervour.

      Indeed, I invite you to observe the fictional Buford’s objections to the doctrinaire approach in the film Gettysburg. Good film, shame about the prequel –

      • John Foskett September 22, 2014 / 11:17 am

        Apparently Mac read Maxwell and Turner on Tactics. The quote by Buford is good Hollywood stuff for the character and the plot but let’s not adopt it as expert military doctrine.. (That movie with its wooden acting, the Beard that Ate Longstreet, and B-Western stunts was adequate only in comparison to the 2003 debacle which followed). There were no butcher’s bills other than Antietam because that was the only significant fight in which McClellan took the offensive. His efforts on the Peninsula after May 4 were the opposite. And they did indeed cost the ANV more than they cost the A of the P. Of course, when it ended Mac was several miles further from his goal than when he started. Not sure that’s the desired outcome of the game. “Hey, Mom, I ended up back out on the street but i only lost 15,000…”

        • monodisperse September 22, 2014 / 3:06 pm

          McClellan was taught by Mahan as most of the mid-ranking regulars were. Mahan had concluded that the best form of offense was “active defence”, which is essentially being on the operational offensive, but using a tactical defensive to shore up the less disciplined volunteers and expose the enemy to heavy firepower concentrations whilst minimising ones own exposure. Meade at Gettysburg, Lee at Fredericksburg or Spotsylvania, Schofield at Franklin – these are classic active defences.

          As to McClellan’s operations after Williamsburg – they’re actually quite impressive, and certainly creditable. He moves his army pretty rapidly given the conditions (a sustained 5 miles a day in Va mud with guns and wagons is a heroic feet), keeping them well in hand. We even get many examples of active defence at Seven Pines, and in most of the Seven Days battles. McClellan provokes the enemy into exposing himself to heavy firepower concentrations

          You may like to dwell on the fact that McClellan indeed did move “back up the piste” to use the fencing analogy (and if you’ve ever fenced you’ll know this is often to cause your opponent to overextend and open themselves up). Neither he nor Lee saw this as anything other than a small setback. Lee lamented his failure, and McClellan awaited those pontoons he’d sent Marcy to Washington to acquire so he could get his army to Petersburg. Given the sporting analogy it’s like a side 3-1 up having the towel thrown in by their coach (Lincoln) because they conceded a goal.

          The Federal war effort in the east floundered for two years until Grant, smarting from his failure at Cold Harbor “retreated” to City Point and did what McClellan wanted to do two years earlier in the same terrain. I guess by your logic if Grant had had a heart attack crossing the White Oak Swamp he’d have been a massive loser? Perhaps you’d like to consider what Showalter calls “military calvinism” –

          • John Foskett September 23, 2014 / 7:21 am

            You’re proving my point about the proponents of “McClellanism”. This is simple. In June, 1862 Mac’s objective (as it had been for nearly three months) was Richmond. In seven days he moved from the line at Fair Oaks/Seven Pines/Mechanicsville to Harrison’s Landing. His reasoning was crystal clear in his panic-laden messages to his superiors in Washington – he was “saving” his army (presumably from the 200,000 man hordes captained by Lee). He hunkered down at HL several miles further from his objective. In June, 1864 Grant’s objective was the ANV. Having attempted a frontal assault at CH, Grant stole a march on Lee, crossed the James, and damned near broke the Petersburg lines – at which point Lee’s army would have been in dire straits. It ultimately didn’t succeed but the intent and effort were there. McClellan retreated/withdrew. Grant attacked – as he had consistently. No amount of rhetoric, spin, or double talk about “active defense” changes that. I suspect, however, that you’re too smart not to know this and that you’re engaging in the favorite tactic of a lot of McClellan advocates – scoring debating points rather than dealing with the big picture reality. The professionals – Rafuse, Harsh, and Clemens come to mind – know when to stop and how not to overreach. The rest cannot help themselves. By the way, McClellan’s plans as of July 2, 1862 did not involve crossing the James and attacking Petersburg. If you believe his stream of messages to Washington, he was in charge of an outnumbered, exhausted, disease-ridden remnant. Only an utter idiot would undertake offensive operations with that outfit – again, if you believe McClellan’s telegraphed pleas/excuses. Instead he devoted himself to advising on overall strategy. The missing pontoons are like McDowell’s missing legions (which, if you accept McClellan’s fun with numbers arithmetic would have still left him at a 1.3:2 disadvantage) – it’s more baloney to re-direct the finger-pointing.

            One last point about McClellan on the Peninsula – “McClellan provokes the enemy into exposing himself to heavy firepower concentrations ” Are you serious? He was caught with his pantaloons around his ankles on May 31 and had to rush troops across the river to salvage the developing debacle at FO. The same thing happened on June 28. He lucked out on May 31 thanks to several mixups/misunderstandings by Johnston’s subordinates and he ordered a general retreat on June 28.

  9. monodisperse September 24, 2014 / 7:50 am

    Dear Mr. Foskett,

    Thank you for that wonderful illustration of “military calvinism”. You divided generals into the “blessèd” and the “damned”, and then interpret events backwards. When something bad happens on the blessèds watch, you approve and shrug it off, but when something similar happens to one of the damned whole diatribes follow. When one of the damned does something obviously good it must be someone else.

    One wonders, by any chance are you the reincarnation of Ben Wade or another member of the JCCW? The most illuminating part of this exchange, for me at least, is to experience some of the same bizarre attitude that afflicted certain parts of Lincoln’s administration.

    Sir, I do not believe that much good can come of the continuation of this discussion, such as it is. I suggest we stop polluting Prof. Simpson’s blog.

    • John Foskett September 24, 2014 / 12:46 pm

      Mr. Monnery:

      In other words, you have no good answers for the points regarding (1) McClellan’s conduct on June 30 or (2) your fatally flawed analogy of McClellan’s conduct during the last week of June, 1862 to Grant’s during the second week of June, 1864.

      In the past you’ve asserted the following:

      “At Glendale McClellan gave the task of controlling the reserve (only a single division after filling the frontage – and the line is quite thin) to Sumner. Sumner is senior Corps commander and de facto 2i/c, so it is right and proper he have this job. McClellan spent his time coordinating the artillery support (both the naval and reserve artillery on Malvern Hill). We know he was constantly receiving reports from his subordinates and issuing battle orders via wig-wag..”

      You can’t tell us what “battle orders” were issued “via wig-wag” from the Galena. You can’t tel;l is what “reports” were received You can’t point to any tactics at Glendale/Frayser’s Farm/WO Swamp which were the consequence of any orders from McClellan during the fighting. You simply ignore the accounts by all participants in the actual fighting who for some reason make no mention of any such orders. You can’t identify the order placing Sumner in command of the reserve- (and don’t again use Sumner’s later testimony which related to an order he received after the June 30 fighting and in preparation for July 1). (I’ll ignore for the moment McClellan’s freely-articulated contempt for Sumner’s talents at the command level).

      Your lecture regarding “military calvinism” is enlightening. It strongly suggests the need for a working mirror. You’ve decided that McClellan was a skilled, talented field commander who has been carelessly or intentionally wronged/defamed by generations of historians in addition to the Lincoln administration and, no doubt, the voters in 1864. Starting from that premise, the rest of your arguments amount to hammering events into a too-narrow pigeon hole. It doesn’t work.

      On one thing we agree – over and out.

      • monodisperse September 25, 2014 / 5:50 am

        Okay, let me ask a question then, and maybe you might want to answer it elsewhere – I have accounts at civilwartalk and armchairgeneral what are regularly read.

        “(I’ll ignore for the moment McClellan’s freely-articulated contempt for Sumner’s talents at the command level). ”

        Oh, please do tell. I’d love to see some primary sources on that. In fact what he said in his memoirs was:

        “Sumner was in California when I assumed command; he returned not long before we took the field, and at once received a division. He was an old and tried officer ; perfectly honest; as brave as a man could be; conscientious and laborious. In many respects he was a model soldier. He was a man for whom I had a very high regard, and for his memory I have the greatest respect. He was a very valuable man, and his soldierly example was of the highest value in a new army. A nation is fortunate that possesses many such soldiers as was Edwin V. Sumner.”

  10. John Foskett September 25, 2014 / 11:37 am

    I knew you couldn’t resist. Read Mac’s letters to his wife instead of relying on a spin-doctored account intended for publication. If you do you’ll find brutally frank gems like “Sumner would ruin things in about two days” and Sumner “proved that he was even a greater fool than I had supposed.” E. Porter Alexander is a good example. On the one hand there is his memoirs intended for publication. On the other hand, thanks to Gary Gallagher and UNC Press, there is his private journal intended only for the family. Guess which one contains Alexander’s candid assessments of Stonewall, Lee, et al.. I’ll give McClellan his due on this, however. When it came to the book you cite he treated the dead with respect.

    • Ned B September 26, 2014 / 10:47 am

      Mac’s letters to his wife are a problematic source. McPherson put a note in his book Battle Cry of Freedom that says “These letters to his wife consist of extracts from the originals, copied by McClellan himself some time after the war. There is no way of knowing whether he edited these copies in any substantive way, for the originals no longer exist.”

      • John Foskett September 26, 2014 / 11:48 am

        That’s a fact that’s been known for awhile, although nobody has come forward with evidence that McClellan fabricated any “reconstruction”. Now think about it in the instant context – would McClellan have falsely “fixed” the content of his letters to Ellen on the Sumner score while at the same time issuing a document for publication which did a 180 regarding his views on Sumner? Makes absolutely no sense. Sears addressed the letters/memoirs issue some years back on Dimitri’s blogsite:

        Ironically, the memoirs may actually be less reliable than the extracts – at least those which are in McClellan’s hand. Ellen outlived McClellan by 30 years. That would be 3 decades after his death knowing that their “correspondence” was fake.

        • Brooks D. Simpson September 26, 2014 / 11:51 am

          Let’s put it this way” suppose the letters were faked or so heavily edited as to distort their meaning seriously. That would take away some colorful sentences. It would leave us with McClellan’s official correspondence and other letters. Would that significantly alter our take on him?

          The reason most people accept the letters as real is because they are in keeping with what else we know about him.

          • John Foskett September 26, 2014 / 12:05 pm

            An eminently reasonable point. For example, generally the extracts are consistent in tone with the undisputed expressions of his views in telegrams to his superiors during the Peninsula Campaign. Whether or not he expressed his views about Sumner more colorfully when he sat down to this task in the 1870’s, one must row against the current to establish that those more colorful expressions were different in substantive content from the original expressions in 1862.

          • Ned B September 26, 2014 / 12:36 pm

            Good point. So is there other sources that shows him having contempt for Sumner that is in keeping with the oft quoted “greater fool” letter?

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 26, 2014 / 1:24 pm

            I’ll let those folks who are absorbed by this matter do some poking around.

          • Ned B September 26, 2014 / 1:39 pm

            I found an answer to my question and so will now try to back out of this conversation, tail between my legs, until the topic changes to something I know more about. 🙂

          • John Foskett September 26, 2014 / 2:19 pm

            And so they will. For starters, however, and perhaps to shed some background on McClellan’s views about Sumner, the subject matter of the linked book is important (Dimitri touched on this several years ago) . Recall that at the time Mac served on the Delafield Commission, Sumner commanded the First U.S. Cavalry; as its Col.; Mac;s mentor Joe Johnston was a Lt. the regiment; and Mac was a Captain or Lieutenant (I forget which). Johnston had strong views of his own about Sumner’s capacity. The author quotes a letter from Johnston to McClellan at the time: “You have yet to learn how ignorant a man can keep himself who relies, for knowledge, upon experience, & yet never observes or remembers.” McClellan apparently did Johnston’s bidding by insisting that the Delafield Report address cavalry in a way which would stymie Sumner’s influence on doctrine.


            Now recall that when Mac was in command of the Army of the Potomac and it went to a corps structure, he did not pick his corps commanders. Instead he had Sumner, Keyes, and Heintzelman foisted on him. There is more out there than the “extracts” of Mac’s May 6, 1862 and June 22, 1862 letters to Ellen on this. But the background sets the stage nicely. .

          • monodisperse September 27, 2014 / 5:19 am

            We’ve been given two quotes about Sumner. The first obviously shows that McClellan was frustrated with Sumner for his (mis)handling of Williamsburg. The second shows McClellan was concerned about his successor in the event he was incapacitated. Neither of those quotes became widely available until 1989, so can’t (as Mr. Foskett supposes) have altered his reputation in the years 1862-1989. Neither is very damning.

            Joseph Harsh noted that McClellan’s letters are essentially him venting his frustration, and that there has been a trend to mine them for negative quotes and construct some (IMHO bizarre) psycho-dramas.

            We know McClellan rated Sumner, because he was one of six generals he proposed for Corps (McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelmann, FJ Porter, Andrew Porter and Franklin), and he continued to assign Sumner difficult tasks as long as he served under him. In early October 1862 Sumner (commanding wing at Harper’s Ferry) fell ill, requested a leave of absence, and asked to be reassigned to a quiet department. He returned to his command in early November and McClellan’s prediction that “it is very doubtful whether he can stand the fatigues of another campaign” was sadly accurate.

          • John Foskett September 27, 2014 / 11:40 am

            You’re really trying too hard and you’re presenting a classic example of the “military calvinism” which you pretend to denigrate. You dismiss/deflect/explain away every – literally every – piece of evidence which in any way substantiates the traditional view of McClellan. You counter it with evidence which is at least as suspect or which involves sheer speculation – documents with their own inherent problems, mystery orders and reports which curiously don’t show up directly or by description in any existing historical record, etc. Here, you use a document intended for publication in the Victorian Era when gentlemen were prone to diplomacy in discussing others’ failings, especially those of the deceased. In addition, you ignore the inherent reliability problems involving how that document was put together. You don’t like two quotes from Mac about Sumner? Here’s a third – “But unfortunately nature has limited his capacity to a very narrow extent. ” You ignore McClellan’s pre-war experience with Sumner. You note the appointment of Sumner, et al. to corps command in early 1862 but you ignore, among other items, the May 8, 1862 exchange between McClellan and Lincoln regarding McClellan’s desire to undo the corps organization and the underlying reasons. Your various explanations of what happened on June 30, 1862 regarding McClellan involve the use of contradictory sources, gaps, and differing accounts of what McClellan did. He left orders to Sumner but he didn’t have to leave orders because Sumner was senior on the field. He was in contact by wig-wagging but he was in contact by telegraph. In the past you’ve cited the account of the Galena’s surgeon – whose account actually was presented to counter McClellan’s (false) implication that he wasn’t even on board the Galena. (The surgeon’s account, by the way, leaves ample time for Mac, the Prince de Joinville, and his two nephews to have satisfied any hunger pangs while guests of Rodgers.) You point to no primary accounts by anybody involved in the June 30 fighting stating that McClellan was present at any time, during the battle or that one single order from McClellan was received during that fighting. Where/when, by the way, did McClellan himself say he was present for the battle at Glendale or provide details about any orders which he issued during that fighting? Yet the Galena sojourn was a highly visible issue during the 1864 campaign. You refer to Harsh – did Harsh reject the statements in the letters regarding Sumner as false/misleading? II await the citation. Your explanation for a statement about Sumner which is as derogatory as can be imagined is that McClellan was merely “frustrated” – except that McClellan made another such statement only 6 weeks later. Kindly direct us to any historian who has justified/defended McClellan’s handling of things on June 30. I’ll leave out those who have studied the battle in detail – Burton, Sears, for example – because you’ve decided that they can’t do basic research or have been biased since birth. What about those who have shown an openness to reviewing the established record regarding McClellan – Harsh, Rowland, Rafuse, Clemens? And don’t tell us that Rafuse is another with an anti-McClellan agenda. That is a disservice to a justifiably well-regarded historian who manifestly looks at these things with an open mind. In short, you’ve decided that McClellan has been victimized by historians and others and so you simply reject everything which indicates that they may have gotten it right. That is “military calvinism” at its most extreme.

    • John Foskett October 2, 2014 / 9:09 am

      Thanks for translating and providing this account There are a number of interesting details. It does, however, appear to confirm certain overarching facts: (1) McClellan was on the Galena while the crucial fighting took place at Glendale/FF; (2) McClellan put nobody in charge before absenting himself; (3) McClellan prioritized assessing the landing spot for his retreat over providing a directing hand on the field at Glendale/FF despite the dire straits in which his army found itself, and even though he had a perfectly competent subordinate (Porter) and staff (including his Chief Engineer) to evaluate Malvern/Harrison’s; (4) the circumstances at the crossroads were indeed dire in the Count’s view; (5) the Count was surprised at the direction McClellan took when firing was heard from the vicinity of the crossroads; (6) dinner was indeed served by Rodgers; (7) there is no evidence of any directing hand by McClellan through the signalling system in place, which would have been difficult if not impossible. As a different matter, although McClellan handled the pre-battle dispositions at the crossroads area, his alignment was an odd stew of divisions from the several corps. One thing never explained, so far as I know, is the placement by McClellan of McCall’s severely used division at a vital spot. The results were eminently predictable.

  11. Mike Griffith November 12, 2014 / 9:27 am

    This is an unfortunate, distasteful, and downright bigoted blog article. Your suggestion that because I used the term “Southern citizens” I want to keep black people from voting is not only absurd but revolting.

    Your claim that Southern voters would not have voted for McClellan in 1864 if they’d had the chance is your own speculation. In point of fact, there is a good amount of evidence that Southerners were hoping McClellan would win the election. When McClellan lost, quite a few Southerners expressed regret that Lincoln had been reelected.

    I was raised with the idea that one can disagree without being disagreeable and rude. You, however, seem incapable of showing a modicum of respect or professionalism toward those who disagree with you.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 12, 2014 / 10:29 am

      Whatever. Keep playing the victim and claiming that you are being misunderstood. You have a long track record of misrepresenting yourself and others. Be thankful that I gave you any attention at all.

      Typical of your incoherent whining is your claim that southern citizens would have voted for McClellan in 1864. Recall what I said: “If southern civilians had voted in 1864, then there would have been no war going on … and McClellan would not have secured the nomination.” That obvious observation escaped what passes in your world for your keen intellect.

      It’s well known that I don’t tolerate fools. But I don’t mind exposing them. Consider yourself exposed … again.

      • Mike Griffith November 14, 2014 / 3:29 pm

        I notice you made no effort to defend your ridiculous, disgraceful claim that because I used the term “Southern citizens” I didn’t want black people to vote. This is typical of the overheated polemic you use when dealing with those who don’t agree with Lincoln’s use of force to restore the Union.

        And, just for the record, you may be shocked to know that I have long record of supporting affirmative action and that I have been clear in denouncing racism when I have found it among Southern heritage defenders (see, for example, my article “Suggestions for Southern Heritage Defenders,”, written way back in 2003 just after I got involved in Civil War scholarship).

        I have no history of misrepresenting myself, but you have a long history of making false claims about when I became interested in the Civil War and how I came to change my views on the subject, even though I have explained this to you in detail at least twice in other forums and have even offered to let you speak with my mother and friends, who would be glad to verify that I used to be ardently anti-Southern and pro-Lincoln and that I had no serious interest in the Civil War until late 2001.

        As for your additional arguments regarding how Southern citizens would have voted in the 1864 election, you are avoiding the central point. The simple fact of the matter is that IF Southern citizens could have voted in that election, there is some pretty good evidence that they would have chosen what they clearly viewed as the lesser of two evils, i.e., McClellan. Many Southerners were aware that McClellan had waged honorable warfare and had tried his best to protect the private property of Southern citizens. They were also aware that he was an outspoken critic of the disgraceful “total war” tactics that many Union generals had adopted–and that Lincoln had allowed and even rewarded those tactics.

        Furthermore, just on a point of logic, it is incorrect to assume that the only way Southern citizens could have voted in the 1864 election would have been if there had been no war going on at the time. For example, Lincoln could have followed through on his absurd claim that the Southern states were still in the Union and could have offered Southerners the opportunity to come and vote in federal-held areas of the South, of which there were plenty by November 1864. For that matter, it is by no means far-fetched to think that Confederate authorities would have been glad to see Southern citizens vote in that election–in order to embarrass Lincoln with a loss in the popular vote. Indeed, it’s a valid question as to why Lincoln did not make some effort to at least allow Southern Unionists to vote and then to select Electoral College electors for the Southern states based on how Southern Unionists voted.

        In any case, the point is that IF Southern citizens somehow could have voted in the 1864 election and had to choose between Lincoln and McClellan, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that most of them would have voted for McClellan.

        • Brooks D. Simpson November 14, 2014 / 4:43 pm

          Mike, I hope you enjoy your last appearance in my comments section. You distort what others say, then insult them, then whine when they decide you’re not worth listening to. As for your history of misrepresenting yourself (it’s been a decade or more), other folks who witnessed that behavior can choose to chime in the comments section. I’ve simply had enough of your abusive and deranged ranting.

          The fact remains that if white southerners were voting across the South in 1864, there would have been no war going on, no Confederacy in existence, and McClellan would not have been a candidate running for president (because, my dear boy, his only standing was as a general in a war that would not have taken place under your counterfactual). I will not even go into your mishandling of Reconstruction, for, in order to vote, voters would have had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. So you couldn’t vote in a US election if you were a Confederate citizen. Simple, isn’t it?

          So your counterfactual is simply nonsense. However, that you cling to its absurd claims offers readers an acute sense of your inability to reason logically, as well as your feeble attempts to conceal that shortcoming by attacking me.

          Good luck in your future endeavors.

          • Mike Griffith January 3, 2015 / 9:35 am

            You ignored my arguments and repeated your own. A hypothetical is, by nature . . . hypothetical.

            Let’s put it this way: Plainly and clearly, a sizable majority of Southern citizens preferred McClellan over Lincoln. I trust you would at least acknowledge this much. So, IF, by some method, they had been able to vote in that election, McClellan probably would have won the popular vote. And, again, some way or another could have been found to give Southern citizens the chance to vote. It was not impossible, and it did not require that the war end. I already discussed a couple of possible scenarios where Southerners could have voted in the election. Granted, they are unlikely scenarios, given the leadership of the federal government at the time, but they would not have been impossible.

            But that’s really beside the point. The thrust of my argument is that most Southern voters clearly preferred McClellan over Lincoln. That’s the key point. So, IF some way could have been found to have let Southern citizens vote in the 1864 election, McClellan most likely would have won the popular vote.

          • Brooks D. Simpson January 6, 2015 / 10:31 am

            I dismiss your hypothetical because it had no chance of happening. You just don’t understand that. That’s not my problem.

            “And, again, some way or another could have been found to give Southern citizens the chance to vote.” Nope. Only in your dreams. You just don’t understand the American Civil War.

  12. Mike Griffith November 14, 2014 / 3:33 pm

    For those who might be interested, I have created a McClellan website: George B. McClellan: Outstanding General, War Hero, Christian Gentleman. Here’s the link:

    I have a fair amount of material on the site now, and I will be adding more in the future.

    Also, I recently web-published another article on McClellan titled “McClellan’s Early Defenders Speak: Voices from the Past in Defense of General George B. McClellan” (it’s one of the articles carried on my McClellan site, and it’s also on my CW site).

    Finally, I have substantially expanded my article “The Smearing of George B. McClellan” (also available on my McClellan site and my CW site).

  13. Mike Griffith January 3, 2015 / 7:05 am

    After all is said and done, the fact of the matter is that McClellan was not the only Civil War general to overestimate enemy troop strength. And it’s not like McClellan came up with his estimates out of thin air. He based them on the various intelligence and other reports that he received, and sometimes his estimates were accurate or reasonably close. Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck’s errors in estimating enemy troop strength, enemy threat, and enemy intentions were far more egregious–and costly–than any of McClellan’s errors.

    If we want to compare Grant and McClellan, we could start by noting that McClellan never hurled thousands of men to their deaths in ill-advised, unsuccessful frontal assaults the way Grant did at Vicksburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.

    For anyone who might be interested, I have just web-published an article that addresses some of the common criticisms of McClellan. It is titled “Answering Some Criticisms of General George B. McClellan.” Here’s a link to it:

    Also, I have moved my McClellan website to a different web host. I’ll be moving my Civil War site in the near future. Here’s a link to my new McClellan site:

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