McClellan's caution prevails in battle

Commander: George B. McClellan won a critical battle of the Civil War while leading the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, but "Little Mac" repeatedly lost in his enduring conflicts with President Abraham Lincoln.

September 08, 2002|By Michael Memoli | Michael Memoli,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once relieved of command by President Lincoln and accused of treason, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was reluctantly reinstated as head of the Union army in time to lead it to a hard-fought victory at Antietam.

His return to presidential favor was short-lived, however, and the capable but cautious general turned to politics, where he was again bested by Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.

Popular with his men and respected for his military organization skills, McClellan was never comfortable in dealing with civilian leaders. That eventually ended his military career.

A Philadelphia native, George Brinton McClellan was a West Point graduate who honed his military skills by first-hand study of European armies in the Crimean War of the 1850s.

He resigned his commission on his return to the United States in 1857 to take a job as a railroad engineer. But he returned to the military as the Civil War began, rising swifly through the ranks from major general of the Ohio volunteers in April 1861 to commander of the Union armies in November.

Using his engineering experience and the knowledge he acquired in Europe, McClellan forged the Army of the Potomac into a powerful force.

Trouble begins

But McClellan soon developed a poor, distrustful relationship with Lincoln. It began when he refused to disclose his military plans to civilians, even refusing to meet with Lincoln on one occasion.

He was relieved of his command after abandoning his plan to advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., in March 1862.

After a conversation with Lincoln in which the president called his actions "traitorous," McClellan observed:

"It is difficult to understand that a man of Mr. Lincoln's intelligence could give ear to such abominable nonsense. ... I arose, and, in a manner perhaps not altogether decorous towards the chief magistrate, desired that he should retract the expression, telling him that I could permit no one to couple the word treason with my name."

John Pope took command of the Army of the Potomac, but his failure at the Second Battle of Bull Run caused Lincoln to reconsider McClellan.

On Sept. 2, 1862, Lincoln again gave McClellan the command, hoping to turn around a dejected army.

"There is no man in the army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he," Lincoln told his private secretary. "If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight."

Return hailed

McClellan's return was hailed by the soldiers, one of whom wrote: "From extreme sadness we passed in a twinkling to a delirium of delight."

The general quickly transformed his division, along with those of Pope and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, into a powerful unit.

But as Lee and the Confederate army crossed the Potomac, "Little Mac," as he was called, had to quickly adapt to a changing front.

Lincoln turned to Burnside to lead the campaign against Lee, but for the second time Burnside turned him down. He instead suggested that Lincoln allow McClellan to remain in charge. With few alternatives, Lincoln did so.

McClellan would later claim that he never received an official order from Lincoln to leave Washington and command the forces.

"If the Army of the Potomac had been defeated and I had survived, I would, no doubt, have been tried for assuming authority without orders and ... probably have been condemned to death," McClellan would write in his memoirs.

Nevertheless, a weary army was now faced with the task of holding back the Confederate charge as Lee invaded Maryland.

"Nothing but sheer necessity justified the advance of the Army of the Potomac," recalled McClellan, noting the poor morale of his men, who numbered 80,000.

Conflict with Halleck

His early command was wrought with conflict with Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Lincoln's top military adviser, who feared that by moving the army too quickly, McClellan was leaving Washington open to an attack by Lee.

McClellan also overestimated the size of Lee's forces, thinking them to exceed 100,000, when in fact the Union side held nearly a 2-to-1 advantage.

But soon McClellan found himself in possession of Special Orders No. 191, Lee's secret plans that showed the organization and distribution of Confederate Army.

"Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home," McClellan said upon seeing the plans. McClellan ordered a two-pronged offensive that would "cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail."

Historians have criticized McClellan's tactics in the Maryland Campaign, especially since he had the enemy's plans. A. Wilson Greene, for example, concludes that McClellan took too long to act after gaining this advantage in intelligence.

McClellan's words at the time show he put supreme emphasis on moving with caution, ensuring that his men were fully in place before engagement, especially against a formidable opponent like Lee.

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