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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
Yet the idol, as the chaplain later bitterly acknowledged, proved to have feet of clay. By the summer of 1862 he had been driven from the gates of Richmond in the Seven Days’ battles by Lee’s relentless attacks, and his grand campaign lay in ruins. To explain to his army what had happened, McClellan conjured up a triumph over adversity, if not a victory. They had not retreated, he insisted, but only executed a change of base “by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients.” He invented “vastly superior” enemy forces, against which, “without hope of reinforcements…and under every disadvantage of numbers,” they had bravely survived the week of bloody fighting. “Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history.”
In further support of this illusion, McClellan attributed all blame to the government. He claimed that the administration had deliberately withheld reinforcements to ensure his defeat at Richmond—to forestall a peace settlement on McClellan’s terms. Republican radicals, he insisted, would never permit the war to end until abolitionism had triumphed. By this “abominable design,” he asserted, his enemies in Washington had “done their best to sacrifice as noble an Army as ever marched to battle.” As he intended, his charges soon reached the newspapers, and the case was made plain to the men of his army. In the eyes of their general, they had fought gallantly against the enemy host, but without the support of their own government they had been doomed to fail.
The abominable design, to be sure, existed only in McClellan’s mind. On the eve of the Seven Days he had more troops available to him than his plans had ever called for. He lacked not men but a will to fight or, as it was called in that day, moral courage. At the beginning of the Confederate offensive he had telegraphed his wife, “I believe we will surely win & that the enemy is falling into a trap. I shall allow the enemy to cut off our communications in order to ensure success.” Clearly he recognized the opportunity for a counterstroke presented him by Lee’s bold but risky flanking attack, but when it actually occurred, he became unnerved and ordered a retreat. Over the next several days, as his army repeatedly fought for its life, McClellan posted himself far from every battlefield and let subordinates direct all the fighting. His army survived not because of him but despite him.
While no doubt a majority in the Army of the Potomac accepted his explanation for the Peninsular failure, there was a strong undercurrent of disillusion. Francis C. Barlow, a regimental commander involved in the bitterest fighting during the Seven Days, wrote home that many officers and men “are disgusted with & have lost confidence in McClellan & are disgusted with attempts of the papers to make him out a victorious hero....The stories of his being everywhere among the men in the fights are all untrue....” Others shared the puzzlement of the soldier who wrote from Harrison’s Landing, “Either we have made an inglorious skedaddle or a brilliant retreat.” In the press, in Congress, and in the army as well the debate over McClellan’s generalship grew heated.
Following the Federal defeat in the Second Bull Run battle in August, the debate intensified. McClellan was charged with deliberately withholding reinforcements from General Pope to ensure his defeat. In a classic example of self-fulfilling prophecy, he argued the case differently. As he wrote his wife, he considered Pope a “villain” who was certain “to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him,” and in that event he was duty-bound to save Washington from capture. Thus he held back sending two army corps under his command into the field; the only aid they rendered Pope was to cover his retreat. To be sure, John Pope might have lost the battle anyway, but having those twenty-five thousand reinforcements twenty-four hours earlier would certainly have improved his chances.
On September 2, 1862, in one of the critical decisions of his Presidency and against the strong opposition of his cabinet, Lincoln turned the Army of the Potomac back to General McClellan. As he judged the case, the army was suffering from a crisis of confidence after the Second Bull Run for which there was only one remedy. “McClellan has the army with him,” Lincoln said. McClellan wrote his wife, “I only consent to take it for my country’s sake & with the humble hope that God has called me to it.” Five days later he took the field to challenge Lee’s army of invasion in Maryland.
The general’s military legacy was crippling: the Army of the Potomac inherited from him an army-sized inferiority complex.
McClellan was to gauge the Maryland campaign as the high point of his military career. For the second time (the first was after the 1861 Bull Run debacle) he acted as God’s instrument for saving the Union. “I feel some little pride,” he told his wife, “in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.” On the day after the climactic struggle at Antietam, he wrote her, “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art,” and every year for the rest of his life he made a particular point of celebrating September 17, the anniversary of the battle. His claim of a masterpiece of art was the saving of his army from defeat by a foe “greatly superior to us in number.”