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God’s Chosen Instrument
In the Republic’s direst hour, he took command. In the black days after Bull Run, he won West Virginia for the Union. He raised a magnificent army and led it forth to meet his “cautious & weak” opponent, Robert E. Lee. Why hasn’t history been kinder to George B. McClellan?
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Almost immediately McClellan revealed the flaw in his military character that would become increasingly troublesome. He formed a picture of the enemy that existed—and continued to exist for as long as he led the Army of the Potomac—only in his mind’s eye. Two weeks after assuming command, he raised the alarm that Washington was in “imminent danger” of assault by one hundred thousand rebels. From that day on he assumed the role of underdog in every campaign, never facing a Confederate army that he estimated to number fewer than one hundred thousand men.
This count was entirely McClellan’s invention, and it set the precedent for all those that followed. When Winfield Scott rejected his extraordinary arithmetic and insisted the capital was in no danger, McClellan declared war on him. How could he save the country, he asked, as long as General Scott refused to recognize the crisis and was ever in his way? “I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor!…he is a perfect imbecile.” Under pressure from McClellan and his allies, the President finally accepted the removal of the aged Scott. On November 1, 1861, McClellan took his place as head of the army.
Once he had created this initial estimate of the enemy, all later estimates could be based on it. If the Confederates could threaten him with 100,000 men in August 1861, then it was to be expected that by November they could field 150,000. During the first days of the Peninsula campaign in 1862 he reported he was facing 100,000 enemy troops at Yorktown, a figure that had grown to 200,000 by the time he reached the outskirts of Richmond three months later. When Lee subsequently struck out northward against Pope, McClellan gave the Rebels 120,000 men; when Lee invaded Maryland after defeating Pope, McClellan continued to estimate his numbers at 120,000.
That these counts were two or three or sometimes four times greater than the Confederates’ actual numbers, that from the first day of his command to the last day he very substantially outnumbered his foe (at Antietam, for example, by almost two to one), was a reality beyond McClellan’s grasp. To be sure, he was abetted by incompetent collectors of intelligence, notably Allan Pinkerton and Alfred Pleasonton, his cavalry chief, yet these men supplied him only with what he expected: confirmation of his own convictions. There is nothing to suggest that he deliberately fabricated these figures to gain reinforcements or to excuse reverses. On the contrary, as his letters to his wife make clear, he was totally convinced.
One of McClellan’s men wrote after the Peninsula, “Either we have made an inglorious skedaddle or a brilliant retreat.”
In a like manner he attributed remarkable abilities to his enemies. Anything theoretically possible—transferring whole armies from one theater of war to another to oppose him, moving columns of reinforcements to the battlefield with lightning speed, or supplying without difficulty forces greatly superior to his own—became a fact. He imagined Southern soldiers to be better trained and faster marching and to have higher morale than his own men, and he expressed the greatest respect for Southern generals. (Curiously enough, the one Confederate general McClellan disparaged was Robert E. Lee. During the Peninsular campaign he told Lincoln that he considered Lee “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility…likely to be timid & irresolute in action.”) For George McClellan, every case was the worst case, and every prophecy self-fulfilling.
Nevertheless, he was determined to direct the conflict to the military and political ends he sought. In the strategy he evolved as general-in-chief, all operations in all theaters of war would be geared to the support of the Army of the Potomac; it would advance like a juggernaut to crush the rebellion in one Napoleonic stroke. Even his conviction that he was outnumbered did not deter him from this idea of a single grand campaign. If he had to give up his hope of winning an American Waterloo by sheer force of numbers in favor of pounding the enemy at Richmond into submission by siege operations, the result would be the same. He viewed secession as simply a political aberration; once defeated in a major test of arms, the Confederacy’s leaders would come to the peace table willing to trade secession for reunion. If in the process Southern civilians and their property (including their slaves) were carefully protected, the Union might be restored without social upheaval.
By conviction George McClellan was a conservative Democrat, and the strongest of his convictions was that revolutionary political objectives—abolishing slavery and confiscating property—would only embitter the South and force the Rebels to fight to the last ditch. He viewed with infinite dread, he wrote in 1862, “any policy which tends to render impossible the reconstruction of the Union and to make this contest simply a useless effusion of blood....” Unconditional surrender must not be a war objective.