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George B McClellan the Most Underrated General of the Civil war

4 years 1 month ago #1 by stonewalljackson

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  • George B McClellan

    “No other general in the war commanded more respect and admiration from his men than George McClellan”
    -John Cannan The Antietam Campaign

    It is my opinion that General George B McClellan was the most underrated army commander of the civil war. Not because I think he was a great general or military genius, but because he is portrayed as so awful a general. No one carries today the example of a in-complainant, timid northern general like Mcclellan has been given. I think unjustified. George B McClellan nicknamed “Young Napoleon” or “Little Mac” [mac from here on] graduated second in his class of 59 at the U.S Military Academy in 1846. A class that included 20 future full rank generals. He would return to West Point as an instructor.

    West Virginia and Promotion

    Mac first saw action in the civil war as a commander of union forces in what is know West Virginia. During the rich mountain campaign he dislodged, captured, and forced the retreat of confederate forces while taking minimal loses. This helped secure west Virginia for the union. Lincoln was very impressed and this propelled him to commander of all union forces. Mac would take over for McDowell after his defeat in the battle of Bull Run.

    Organization of the Army of the Potomac and Demotion by Lincoln

    What the non military press and Lincoln, who was pressured for political reasons, wanted was quick action and a fast end to the war. Part of what fueled this was the north's inability to see how determined the south was even after the loss at Bull Run. They thought this would be an easy quick war. They underestimated the south resolve to fight and their ability to wage war. So while the press and Lincoln called on mac for fast action. The military man mac, understood that what the demoralized, undisciplined, citizen army needed was discipline, training and organization. He disciplined and trained the soldiers while reorganizing the army. He got rid of poor performing generals and instilled in the soldiers a spirit and pride while increasing their morale. He was loved and revered by his men. One area those even critical of him admit is that he was a first rate organizer of the army. Mac took a militia army and turned it into a professional army.

    “Mcclellan started with little more than a collection of undisciplined, ill-officered, and un-instructed men, who were, as a rule, much demoralized by defeat and ready to run at the first shot. He ended with the finest army ever seen on the North American continent”
    -James V Murfin Battlefields of the civil war

    Had the north attacked soon after bull run or before they were ready like Lincoln and the press called for, likely the same result would have happened further dropping national morale. As General Sherman stated Napoleon took three years to build an army “Here its expected in ninety days and bull run is the consequence.” Macs offensive plan, as many in the north called for, was to mass a large army some said up to 200,000 to than march on Richmond and end the war. They wanted no mistakes after Bull Run. This was mac's general plan, this plan would take time and preparations. Mac also constructed large fortifications around D. C including 48 forts and 480 guns as the capital had been left almost completely unguarded or prepared for by McDowell.

    Given mac had to train, organize, recruit, supply and discipline a massive citizen army and transform it into a professional world class army the time he was able to do so is reasonable. Just when mac felt his army was ready winter had started in. Lincoln and the non military press wanted action know. This offensive action was attempted in the winter of 62 by Burnside, the results were Fredricksburg and the “mud march” ending in the removal of Burnside. Grant in 64 would start his spring offensive in April later than mac would his peninsula campaign. As grant said because the roads in Virginia would not allow large movements of troops before than. Mac started at the normal time for spring offensives. No other union army was campaigning during this winter. Yet Because of Lincolns urgency and what he saw as a too cautious McClellan. He demoted mac to simply commander of the army of the Potomac. Lincoln also chose and forced corps commanders on the army of the Potomac. Mac wanted to wait to promote generals after seeing them in battle. This is not the last time Lincoln interfered with macs plans.

    “It was inevitable that the first leaders should be sacrificed to the nations ignorance of war”
    -William Swinton Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac

    Peninsula Campaign Begins

    The peninsula campaign started with a well thought out plan designed by mac an amphibious movement utilizing the north navel superiority to transport and supply his army, the ultimate goal was Richmond. Mac thought he would have over 150,000 men for the campaign as he left for the peninsula. However once landed Lincoln would greatly reduce his army with the other troops spread around the valley, D.C, and mananas. Mac had wanted more men but Lincoln wanted him to hold men back to guard D.C. Lincoln forced mac to leave Blenkess division of 10,000 men in D.C along with the garrison already available. Lincoln know had a garrison of around 20,000 in D.C and up to 74,000 as far as NY that could be shipped/railed/marched to the D.C if attacked. Plus world class fortifications set up by McClellan. McClellan, McDowell, Winfeild Scott, and every corp commander believed this was more than enough men to guard D.C and supported McClellan plan to bring more men, but Lincoln would not allow for fear of D.C being attacked.

    So Mac landed the army that was slow moving because it was so massive and carried heavy siege equipment. Once his army landed he was notified that Stanton had closed all the recruiting depots in the union. His army would know have to do without any replacements or reinforcements during a major campaign. This was a huge shock to mac and the generals in the army. He than was told that McDowell's 40,000 men near mananas could not be used but must help defend any possible action towards D.C. McDowell told McClellan this decision [McDowell protested it] was “Intended a blow to you.” Than McClellan was told the garrison of 10,000 men at Fort Monroe would as well be withheld. Even critics of McClellan like general Heintzelman said it was a “Great outrage” to withhold his army from his command. General Wells said it was the radicals trying to get mac to resign. Harpers weekly stated “To exaggerate the mischief which has been done by division of councils and civilians interference with military movements”

    Mac was know forced to revise his plans because of the over cautions Lincoln. In the revised plan McDowell would advance on Richmond from the north with his 40,000 men and would better protect an attack by confederate general Joe Johnson if he were to go north to Washington due to Lincolns concern with protecting Washington. However as mac argued the attack on Richmond would force the confederate army to defend their capital rather than a desperate attack on D.C. This disagreement and argument delayed the attack further with Lincoln getting his way.


    Mac know moved up the peninsula towards Richmond and was promised McDowell men if D.C was clear. His army first encountered confederate general John Magruder small confederate force at Yorktown. Magruder did a fantastic job deceiving mac into thinking his force was larger than it really was by moving the same troops around in multiple places, acting aggressive, small units moving constantly, using ammo freely, setting up dummy defensive positions etc this convinced mac the force was larger than it really was so mac set in for a siege also wanting his siege artillery to come up. Mac eventually captured Yorktown but it gave confederate general Joe Johnson time to organize troops to defend Richmond.

    Advance on Richmond

    Mac than started to push towards Richmond with Johnson falling back. The union army captured both supply and cannons during this advance. Mac is criticized for slow movement with a smaller confederate force in front of him, yet he relied upon his friend and “expert” spy Alan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton detective agency. Pinkerton gave relabel info on many matters and was considered dependable. Yet the one area he failed was in enemy troop numbers. He gave confederate force numbers from various agents as 160,000 123,000 180,000 and even 200,000 in the Richmond area. Because of this Mac actually believed he was outnumbered. This was common during the war generals thinking the force opposed him was larger than reality. Since this was the information he had and believed he was not being cautious but aggressive and daring to continue the campaign even if at a slow/ cautious pace. Some northern newspapers working independent gave even higher estimates than mac did. At the time the enemy numbers were not certain. Mac also waited for his heavy siege artillery to come up from the back as it was needed for an attack on Richmond's large forts.

    But without doubt the advance was working. Richmond was preparing to evacuate. It forced the confederates to scuttle the ironclad Virginia. Johnson called general Euell from Jackson to help in Richmond. McDowell was advancing unopposed north of Richmond. Three things saved Richmond and stopped mac from capturing the confederate capital and being hailed as a hero. All three had to happen to stop mac, and two were very unlikely and could not be foreseen.

    1] Jackson in the Valley

    Mac unlike Lincoln saw Jackson's valley campaign as a diversion by Lee to pull men away to help protect Richmond. Richmond was saved because of Jackson brilliance in the valley. Jackson outmaneuvering and outfought a force three times his own [17,000- 60,000] defeating them in multiple battles while also threatening D.C. Jackson knew Lincoln concern with protecting D.C so he knew aggressive maneuvers would pull men from the peninsula and help save Richmond. In all Jackson kept 71,000 additional men away from the Richmond attack with his victories and maneuvering. Lincoln was constantly scarred of what Jackson might do and this caused McDowell and other troops from helping Mac, the withholding of McDowell would prove decisive.

    2] Lincoln Recalling Troops to Valley

    Because of Jackson Lincoln recalled troops to support Washington and the valley, he also held back McDowell's 40,000 from the attack on Richmond. This “Changed the whole nature of the confrontation near Richmond” and “The confederacy was truly handed a amazing gift.” Mac would have rather left Jackson to clear out the valley and even attack D.C if he wished. Mac had built massive forts with a large garrison to protect the capital. With Pinkerton reporting large numbers of enemy to mac he paused his attack without McDowell who was suppose to attack Richmond from the north and pin the confederates from any attack. McDowell called his recall to the valley “a crushing blow to us” Even Lincoln told mac “If you think you are not strong enough to take Richmond just know, I do not ask you to try just know”

    3] Lee Replaces Joe Johnson

    The commanding confederate general Joe Johnson was injured and replaced by Robert E Lee. This would change the entire campaign. Mac had been slowly pushing back Johnson towards Richmond but Lee would take the inventive and attack mac.

    Lee vs Mac

    Lincoln had micro manged a trap for Jackson in the valley and greatly reduced mac force near Richmond. Heavy rains swelled the Chickahominy river and created a split in the army of the Potomac and lee saw his opportunity. Lee who many consider not only the premier general of the south but of the war, recalled Jackson from the valley to help in the offensive vs mac, know with a force near equal of mac's, would battle on the peninsula. Lee would strike the smaller portion of macs army and threaten is supply line under general Porter. Porter was suppose to be supported by McDowell from the north to meet up with his flank coming south from mananas. Had Macs plan been allowed, the attack would not have been possible, repulsed, or Richmond captured. However when Lincoln sent McDowell to the valley to trap Jackson, this left porter vulnerable and Lee pounced.

    Lee attacked in multiple bloody battles that resulted in high loses on both sides. Mac would cause high causalities on Lee during the campaign inflicting more loses than he received. However Mac going off “expert” information know believed not only was he outnumbered but in danger of being cut off with no help from the north with Lincoln recalling so many of his troops, ordered a retreat off the peninsula. Mac telegraphed D.C stating “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in have done your best to sacrifice this army.” The retreat off the peninsula was dangerous yet well conducted by McClellan to save his force from disaster. It was a major strategic victory for the south yet tactical victory for the union. Lincoln called it a “half defeat.” Given the force size and causalities suffered, mac performed better than the future union commanders of the army of the Potomac.

    -Peninsula campaign total troops involved
    -Union 105,000 causalities 15,849
    -Confederate [with Jackson] 88,500 causalities 20,133

    Antietam/Mac Takes Command

    “I must have McClellan to reorganize this army and bring it out of chaos...there is no man in this army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops into shape half as well as he can”
    -Abraham Lincoln

    Aggressive general John Pope's army of Virginia was defeated and he was embarrassed by Jackson and Lee at Second Mananas, Pope was exiled to Minnesota to fight Indians. Lee turned his attention to an invasion of the north. Meanwhile mac had to reorganize the defeated army of popes and integrate it into his command and try and restore morale. Mac was given command of popes army and the army of the Potomac on September 2nd .

    “The effect of the news was instantaneous. All of a sudden the federals forgot their defeat, weariness, and hunger and exploded into triumphant hurrahs, multitudes of caps were thrown in the air”
    -John Cannan The Antietam Campaign

    “As the news passed down the columns, men jumped to their feet and sent out such a hurrah as the army had never heard before”
    -Union solider upon hearing McClellan had taken command

    Slow to Meet Lee?

    A modern criticism of mac in the Antietam campaign is that he was slow to move the army out to meet Lees invasion allowing Lee to enter Maryland. Lee entered Maryland around Sep 4-7. Mac had just taken control on the 2nd of a disorganized defeated army. McClellan “worked a minor miracle in the next few days as he restored the army's morale and organization, and equally significant, its pride and sense of purpose.” No other man in the army could have as fast restored morale and cohesion as mac did before the battle of Antietam. Mac had already reorganized his army and marched to meet Lee by September the 9th. Lee expected a longer time for mac to prepare and his fast reaction spoiled Lees plan to capture Harrisburg Pennsylvania.

    Also Hallack had ordered Mac to be cautious of D.C and wait until Lees intentions were fully known believing Lee was trying to draw mac out to than attack D.C. Mac was receiving consistent reports from his Calvary of an enemy strength between 60,000-120,000. This was accepted by union high command believing Lee must have been reinforced before an invasion attempt.

    The Battle

    Before Antietam started in earnest mac helped lead the attack at the battle of turners gap, south mountain and Fox Turners Gap. All victories. At Turners Gap CSA losses were 2,300 USA loses 1,800 despite the fact that the attack was up a mountain and rough terrain and the confederates used multiple stone walls. The union still took the ground.

    The two armies met near Sharpsburg Maryland on Sep 17th The “cautious” mac would assault the confederate lines leading to the bloodiest day of the war. Mac plan was for an attack simultaneously on both the confederate left and right, to be followed up with a massive and reserves attack in the center. The attack met with small success, but failed to destroy Lee in part due to Burnside's late hour to come into the battle. Burnsides delayed attack on the confederate right “throw off the whole plan” and allowed lee to shift reinforcements along his line to meet the attack in the center and left. McClellan sent a half dozen couriers to Burnside to push him to attack and threatened to relive him of command. Yet still Lees army was near to breaking in all three sectors. Mac deserves criticism for being cautious and not trowing in his reserves that would have won the battle. He was fearful of a confederate counter attack given his reports of the enemy strength.

    Mac did not show genius and made some mistakes but in the end it was a strategic victory for the north and a tactical draw. It sent Lee's army wounded back to Virginia and more importantly ended any hopes the confederacy had for European involvement in the war.

    Union Forces 87,000 Causalities 12,401
    Confederate Forces 47,000 Causalities 10,316

    McClellan Allowed Lee to Escape?

    “The federals found that the rebels still had a formidable bite”
    --John Cannan The Antietam Campaign

    Mac was heavily criticized by Lincoln for not destroying lees army and not following him back into Virginia. However mac had sent Porter to harass the enemy retreat and A.P Hill counter attacked pushing the union men back across the Potomac. Hill said it was “The most terrible slaughter...a lesson to the enemy, and taught to them to know it may sometimes be dangerous to press a retreating army.” Often retreating armies fought great rear guard actions to prevent the destruction of the army. Civil war battles rarely ended in the destruction of the army and I think points more to the expectations of the early war north had, rather than realistic goals. When the army was criticized after for not destroying Lee's army a solider in the army of the Potomac replied.

    “Think the rebbel army can be bagged? let them come and bagg them. Easy to talk about”
    -Pennsylvanian solider after Antietam

    Mac's army was also low on supply and had just fought two large scale engagements. Lee knew where mac would not be able to supply his army [size of a moving city] and planned his retreat accordingly. Mac was also working off his Calvary and Pinkerton's estimate of the confederate strength. Thinking the confederates still had equal force, he chose not to push the attack. Later in October mac moved into Virginia to the Warrenton area so fast he split and surprised Lee. Both Lee and Longstreet were concerned, however the order was given 2 days before by Lincoln, and mac was removed from command.


    “Strong grounds for believing he was the best commander the army of the Potomac ever had”
    -Francis Pafrey Antietam, Fredircksburg

    While I would not go as far as the above quote does, I would say mac was the most underrated general of the war. He does not get credit where he should and gets the blame where he should not. I do not see mac as cautious to a fault as claimed. It was often Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck being over cautious about protecting D.C. That interfered with macs plans. His intelligence let him down not his over cautious nature. Lincoln and the papers wanted aggression and the results were Bull run, Burnside at Fredricksburg and Pope at Second mananas. No general of the early war was able to handle the tandem of Jackson and Lee. Extreme events withheld mac from a capture of Richmond in 62. A fair critical comparison between mac and Sherman/Grant up until mac dismissal, is if anything very favorable to mac. Later when Grant/Sherman gained victories, it was more because of the capabilities of the confederate armies to offer Resistance than their ability being grater than macs.

    I believe the real reason for Lincolns disappointment with mac was in the high expectations from the north. The north thought one battle, one victory in Virginia would win the war for them. They underestimated the resolve of the southern people to fight the war. They also underestimated the ability of Lee and Jackson.

    “I fear we shall at last find out that the difficulty is in our cause rather than in particular generals”
    -Abraham Lincoln to his friend Carl Schurz 1862

    The reason maybe historians have rated and viewed mac in a negative light is he was opposed and disagreed with Lincoln. He committed the unpardonable sin of running against Lincoln in the 64 election on a peace platform to end the bloodshed. Lincoln committed many errors that robbed mac of success as Lincoln would even admit. After McClellan Lincoln would not anymore get directly involved with his generals. Lincolns military faults it seems have simply been passed on to mac by his fan club of historians.

    “McClellan's relationship with Lincoln is central to any understanding of why historians judge him as a flawed personality...Lincoln has attained a stature that sets him apart from other mortals”
    -Thomas J Rowland George B Mcclellan and Civil war History in the Shadow of grant and Sherman Kent State University Press

    Major Battles and Causalities of Union Generals vs Lee

    Union commander/ Battle Union Losses Lee loses Union causality per confederate

    Pope- Second Manasas 13,879 Lee 8,353 1.65 per
    Hooker- Chancellorsville 17,100 Lee 12,151 1.43 per
    Burnside- Fredricksburg 13,353 Lee 4,576 2.95 per
    Grant- Wilderness 18,400 Lee 11,400 1.61 per
    Grant- Spotsylvania 18,000 Lee 12,000 1.5 per
    Grant- Cold Harbor 12,737 Lee 4,594 2.8 per
    Grant- Total 49,100 Lee 27,900 1.75 per
    Meade- Gettysburg 23,049 Lee 28,063 .82
    Meade- Total [Above] 72,049 Lee 55,963 1.29

    McClellan- Peninsula 15,849 Lee 20,133 .78 per
    McClellan - Antietam 12,401 Lee 10,316 1.2 per
    McClellan - Total 28,250 Lee 30,449 .92 per

    McClellan was the only union general to give out more causalities than taken when faced with lee. His average over two battles is only bested once by a union commander, that was by Meade at Gettysburg. He fought against Lee with if anything less of a manpower advantage than Grant would have later on. He also faced the Army of Northern Virginia while it had Jackson, was well supplied and the south had high national morale, unlike what Grant faced. How many other union commanders can claim over two battles with Lee to have won a tactical victory on the first, and a strategic victory and tactical draw on the second while inflicting heavy losses? It is no wonder Lee said mac was the best he faced.

    Main References
    -Great Campaigns Jackson's Valley Campaign David G Martin Combined Books PA 1994
    -Great Campaigns The Peninsula Campaign David G Martin Combined Books PA 1992
    -Great Campaigns The Antietam Campaign John Cannan Combined Books PA 1994
    -Thomas J Rowland George B Mcclellan and Civil war History in the Shadow of Grant and Sherman Kent State University Press 1998
    - America's Civil war Magazine
    -How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat Bevin Alexander 2008 Crown Forum
    --The Confederate war Gary Gallagher Harvard University press 1999 -A History of the south the Confederate States of America E Merton Coulter Louisiana State Press 1950 -James V Murfin Battlefields of the Civil war -The Ultimate Civil war Series 2012

    "How do you like this are coming back into the union"
    Confederate solider to Pennsylvanian citizen before Gettysburg

    "No way sherman will go to hell, he would outflank the devil and get past havens guard"
    southern solider about northern general sherman

    "Angels went to receive his body from his grave but he was not there, they left very disappointed but upon return to haven, found he had outflanked them and was already there".
    northern newspaper about the death of stonewall jackson

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