Fortress Washington, Part II

Barton S. Alexander

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Steve T. Phan to continue his discussion of Fortress Washington. You can find his first post here.

In the late afternoon of July 21, 1861, Captain Barton S. Alexander, U.S. Army Engineers, described the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia’s fight along banks of Bull Run in a message to the War Department in Washington D.C. The future chief engineer of the Department of Washington’s communique was concise and alarming:

General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centreville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army. All available troops ought to be thrown forward in one body. General McDowell is doing all he can to cover the retreat. Colonel (Dixon S.) Miles is forming for that purpose. He was in reserve at Centreville. The routed troops will not reform.[1]

The disquieting report stirred the War Department into action. Ever the stalwart, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott responded to the Federal defeat with the steadiness and bearing expected of a fifty-year military veteran. He dispatched reinforcements to the front and called upon support in the immediate region, notably Baltimore, the Shenandoah Valley, and Pennsylvania. When Brigadier General Irvin McDowell informed Scott that he intended to make a stand with the remnants of his army near Centreville, Scott supported with reinforcements from Alexandria. McDowell’s stand was short. The beleaguered field commander, advised by the commanding general to “return to the line of the Potomac,” moved the army ingloriously back to the confines of the city.[2] Despite the serious threat of a Confederate incursion, the Union infantry continued to comprise the frontline defenses of the capital but not for long. The die had been cast before McDowell’s army on Henry House Hill.

General Winfield Scott

Prior to their fight along the banks of Bull Run Creek, McDowell’s raw soldiers initiated the construction of fortifications after crossing the Potomac south into Virginia in late May and early June 1861. Following the bombardment Fort Sumter and subsequent call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the War Department strained to shift the war machine into full motion. The timely arrival of reinforcements, both regular and volunteer regiments, secured the capital.

General Scott then looked to his native state before issuing his next decree. Virginia’s protracted debate over adopting an ordnance of secession delayed any concerted forward movement by the US Army. Scott nonetheless prepared for the worst. He ordered a reconnaissance of the ground directly around the city in preparations for an advance. The task fell to the Department of Washington’s commander, Colonel Joseph K. Mansfield.

A grizzled old army veteran of nearly forty years, Mansfield took command of the department in the final days of April 1861. In his May 3 report to the general-in-chief, Mansfield dutifully noted that the ground east of Washington overseeing the Naval Yard across the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River) “can readily be fortified at any time by a system of redoubts encircling the city.”[3] He was confident ample troops in the city could be directed in that direction.

The issue, Mansfield contended, was the direct threat to Washington (Georgetown and the Federal city) from the Virginia shoreline. The heart of the government—the White House, Capital building, departments, arsenal, and aqueduct—was a mere “two and a half miles across the river from Arlington high ground, where a battery of bombs and heavy guns, if established, could destroy the city with comparatively a small force after destroying the bridges.”[4] In order to prevent the city’s “bombardment at the will of an enemy,”[5] Mansfield proposed that the army seize the initiative. He recommended “that the heights above mentioned be seized and secured by at least two strong redoubts, one commanding Long Bridge and the other the Aqueduct Bridge, and that a body of men be there encamped to sustain the redoubts and give battle to the enemy if necessary.”[6]

Mansfield as a Maj. Gen. in the Civil War.

The soon-to-be brigadier general realized such a move might “create much excitement in Virginia,” but there could be no greater cause of tension than an enemy occupation and bombardment of Washington across the Potomac.[7] Mansfield ended the report by informing Scott that his engineers, most notably his chief, Major John G. Barnard, were “maturing plans and reconnoitering further.”[8] The department commander consulted heavily with Barnard, whose services were critical to the development of the Defenses of Washington in the coming weeks.

The army moved swiftly after Virginia’s vote for secession on 23 May 1861. The next day, General McDowell’s forces crossed the Potomac and occupied Arlington Heights and Alexandria to the south without a fight. McDowell assumed formal command of occupational forces in Alexandria four days after its fall. He reported to headquarters that, despite “a want of tools” and transportation to move troops at the Alexandria wharf to the hills overlooking the city, “defensive works [were] under construction.”[9]

The hills were fortified to secure the army’s occupation of the city. The army also begun erecting two major forts. The first “main work cover[ed] the Aqueduct and ferry opposite Georgetown,” which “was in a fair state,” stated McDowell.[10] Soldiers of the famed 69th New York Infantry constructed the strategic work that protected both Aqueduct Bridge and Mason’s Island (present day Theodore Roosevelt Island). As common practice, the men named the fort in honor of their commander, Colonel Michael Corcoran.

To the southeast, Federal troops constructed the largest defensive earthwork in the Defenses of Washington: Fort Runyon. Brigadier General Theodore Runyon of the New Jersey militia commanded a division in McDowell’s army, and his men wasted no time breaking ground on the fort. Once fully completed, Runyon’s pentagonal perimeter measured 1,500 yards, mounted 21 guns, and was garrisoned by nearly 2,000 men. It strategically guarded the south approach to Long Bridge, directly linked to the Federal city, and was positioned at the Columbia Pike and Alexandria Pike crossroads.

A sketch of Fort Runyon, guarding the road to Alexandria, occupied by the Twenty-first Regiment, New York Volunteers, August 1861.

More works were added to complement the original two: Fort Ellsworth due west of Alexandria and Fort Albany, built to protect Runyon’s vulnerable flank along the Columbia Pike. These foundational sites were erected to secure Federal presence in Northern Virginia, providing a springboard for the army’s offensive operations against Confederate forces reported to be operating to the southeast. If necessary, they provided a fallback and rallying point if McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia happened to be driven back to the gates of Washington. Following the army’s ill-fated baptism of fire at Manassas two months later, soldiers converted these temporary positions into permanent, fortified structures.

The preliminary Defenses of Washington provided a formidable fall back and concentration point for McDowell’s dispirited army. Upon hearing disastrous reports of the army’s defeat, headquarters ordered General Mansfield at 2:30 am on July 22 to “man all the forts and prevent soldiers from passing over to the city” to prevent widespread panic.[11] The high command believed Mansfield “need[ed] every man in the forts to save the city.”[12] Their sentiment was well-placed.

Colonel William T. Sherman reported to headquarters later that morning that the army suffered “a terrible defeat and has degenerated into an armed mob.”[13] To reform the broken command, he proposed “to strengthen the garrisons of Fort Corcoran, Fort Bennett, the redoubt on Arlington road, and the block-houses.” The brigade commander was supported by McDowell, who formally requested further reinforcements to maintain his position south of the Potomac. Three artillery companies of Regulars manned earthworks while additional troops were needed to garrison Fort Corcoran.

A map of forts near Alexandria, including Fort Ellsworth

General Scott responded to his commanders’ requests accordingly. He called upon the reserve division at Alexandria under Runyon to enhance the defenses, with instructions to consult engineers and “strengthen the garrisons of Forts Ellsworth, Runyon, and Albany.”[14] Another fifteen infantry regiments accompanied by artillery attachments were directed across the river. The general-in-chief then ordered a general withdrawal of “all the remaining troops and all the wagons and teams not absolutely needed”[15] by McDowell to the army’s camps around Washington, “protected by the forts.”[16] The army’s resolute determination to secure the capital after the battle appeared to have stymied any serious threat from the victorious enemy. Simon Cameron was convinced. On the same day of Sherman’s grim report, the Secretary of War declared to Republican colleagues that the “works on the south bank of Potomac are impregnable, being well manned with re-enforcements. The capital is safe.”[17]

General Scott was confident of the city’s safety but needed assistance to reinvigorate the army. Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant-General U.S. Army, carried orders for Major General George B. McClellan one day after Manassas that circumstances in Washington made his “presence necessary.”[18] The rising star, fresh from victories in western Virginia, dutifully turned over command of his forces and proceeded directly to his new station. On July 25, McClellan assumed formal command of “Division of the Potomac, comprising the Military Department of Washington and Northeastern Virginia. Headquarters for the present at Washington.”[19] The young general’s ascendance marked a momentous transformation in the evolution of the Defenses of Washington. McClellan’s guidance determined the shape of Fortress Washington and other critical defenses of the capital.

Steve T. Phan is a historian and park ranger for the National Park Service (Civil War Defenses of Washington). He received his MA in history at Middle Tennessee State University, BA in history at the University of Northern Colorado and participated in the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College.


     [1] The War of The Rebellion: Original Records of the Civil War (Columbus: Ohio State University); digitized from original, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (70 vols. in 128 parts; Washington, 1880–1901), Serial 002, Chapter IX, 747, accessed; hereinafter cited as Official Records.

     [2] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 747.

     [3] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 618.

     [4] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 618-19.

     [5] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [6] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [7] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [8] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 619.

     [9] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 653.

     [10] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 653.

     [11] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 754-55.

     [12] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [13] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [14] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 753.

     [15] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 755.

     [16] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 754.

     [17] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 756.

     [18] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 753.

     [19] Official Records, Serial 002, Chapter IX, 766.

George McClellan in 1861: A Glimpse of Foibles to Come (part two)


We are pleased to welcome back guest author Jon-Erik Gilot

(part two of two)

Yesterday, I outlined some of the ways that George McClellan’s early war actions in western Virginia foreshadowed some of the problems that would become some of his best-remembered if least-desirable traits. Quarreling with subordinates and superiors was one hallmark trait. Micromanaging was another. His micromanagement, in turn, served as a manor contributing factor in another infamous McClellan trait . . . 

Slow Movement:

Numerous delays—either real or perceived—would slow McClellan’s movement during the western Virginia campaign and throughout the remainder of his service. He would describe his plan to Col. E. D. Townsend, stating he would not move “until I know that everything is ready, & then…move with the utmost rapidity & energy,” while reassuring his wife, Mary Ellen, that “I shall feel my way & be very cautious.”[1] Historian Fritz Haselberger noted that, between the battle at Philippi on June 3 and McClellan’s advance from Clarksburg to Buckhannon at the end of the month, it had taken McClellan 27 days to advance his army a mere 30 miles to occupy a town that had only been held by the Confederates for a matter of hours. Haselberger estimates that “it was merely a matter of getting up enough nerve to advance and occupy the town” that spurred McClellan’s eventual movement.[2]

McClellan was again slow to move in the face of the Confederates at Rich Mountain. Furious over Schleich’s unauthorized July 5-6 expedition that he feared had tipped his hand, it still took McClellan another five days to move a mere twelve miles ahead of Rosecrans’s July 11 attack at Rich Mountain. Following Irvin McDowell’s defeat at Manassas, General Winfield Scott ordered McClellan to advance down the Shenandoah Valley, to which McClellan responded with reasons why such a movement—which McClellan himself had suggested only days earlier—was impossible, ranging from homesick regiments to incapable officers. McClellan would be criticized for slow movement during some portion of each of his following campaigns; Lincoln referred to it as “the slows.” This sluggish movement can often be attributed to McClellan’s tendency to . . .

Overestimate Enemy Strength:

George McClellan was always outnumbered, or so he thought. While some of this could be chalked up to faulty intelligence, McClellan was apt to overestimate strength and underestimate the abilities of those below him. While his own forces in western Virginia numbered nearly 20,000 men, McClellan would routinely overestimate the strength of the Confederate forces in front of him, believing at one point that up to 50,000 Confederates were headed his direction, when in reality the Confederate strength in the area would muster less than 10,000 effectives. McClellan would estimate Confederate strength at Laurel Hill as high as 10,000, when in reality it was closer to 4,000. Confederates at Rich Mountain were likewise estimated at more than 5,000—the actual number being fewer than 1,500—giving McClellan’s 7,000 men a decided five-to-one advantage.

In the fall of 1861, McClellan would estimate Confederate strength around Manassas ludicrously high at 170,000. Constantly feeling outnumbered, McClellan would wear on the nerves of the Lincoln administration in his continual calls for reinforcements. This stigma would often cause McClellan to exhibit . . .


In the spring of 1861, a civilian railroad director recalled that McClellan “can never make up his mind under two or three weeks on any matter and when he has made it up, is by no means certain about his decision.”[3] While McClellan would exhibit indecisiveness throughout the first campaign, it is nowhere better illustrated than in the face of the enemy at Rich Mountain.

On July 10, with the assistance of local intelligence, McClellan and Rosecrans devised a flanking movement around the Confederate works at Rich Mountain. The plan called for Rosecrans to take his brigade over five miles on a rugged path around the Confederate works, coming out on the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike in their rear. At the sound of Rosecrans becoming engaged in the Confederate rear, McClellan would launch a frontal assault on the Confederate works at Camp Garnett.

Rosecrans’s early morning march was more arduous than anticipated, setting back his timetable on the assault, which did not get off until midafternoon. The fight swirled around Rich Mountain for nearly four hours before the Confederate defenders fled over the mountain towards Beverly. Rosecrans had gained position behind the Confederate works at Camp Garnett, located two miles below at the base of Rich Mountain. He had heard no gunfire coming from Camp Garnett, where McClellan was to make a frontal assault. What had happened?

John Beatty of the 3rd Ohio would recall that on hearing Rosecrans become engaged, “General McClellan and staff came galloping up, and a thousand faces turned to hear the order to advance; but no order was given. The General halted a few paces from our line, and sat on his horse listening to the guns, apparently in doubt as to what to do; and as he sat there with indecision stamped on every line of his countenance, the battle grew fiercer in the enemy’s rear. Every volley could be heard distinctly.”[4]

McClellan vacillated on hearing the growing battle. Hearing cheers from the Confederate lines and fearing that Rosecrans had met with defeat, McClellan refused to commit his forces to battle, eventually calling off the retreat and calling his men off the line. Jacob Cox would recall that McClellan “showed the same characteristics which became well known later. There was the same overestimate of the enemy, the same tendency to interpret unfavorably the sights and sounds in battle, the same hesitancy to throw in his whole force when he knew a subordinate was engaged.”[5] Damning commentary from a capable, hard-fighting general.

Historian Russell Beatie picks apart McClellan’s decision-making at Rich Mountain. Beatie relates that “under almost any military circumstances, the first stroke of a flanking force must be immediately followed by the major attack, even a frontal assault against defensive works, or the flanking force will be destroyed and the plan aborted.” Beatie continued, believing that McClellan “drew negative conclusions from inconclusive and incomplete facts that supported by negative and positive inferences . . . McClellan had devised a plan in which he could not see the flanking column and knew his active part would begin on sound. In short, he did not carry out his role as he should have because he refused to make a frontal attack when circumstances demand it.”[6] How many later battles could the same have been said about McClellan?


If not a benchmark, in hindsight we can at least agree that McClellan’s first campaign set a precedent for future expectations. This is not to say all of his qualities were poor, but that those poor qualities are what would come to define his Civil War service and our popular memory of him.

What do you think was McClellan’s biggest character flaw of the Civil War? What admirable traits did he impart on the Army of the Potomac?


[1] Sears, Papers…, 45, 46

[2] Haselberger, Fritz, Yanks from the South (The First Land Campaign of the Civil War: Rich Mountain, West Virginia), (Baltimore, MD: Past Glories, 1987), 159

[3] Beatie, Russell H., Army of the Potomac, Volume I, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 403

[4] Beatty, John, The Citizen-Soldier – The Memoirs of a Civil War Volunteer, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 25.

[5] Cox, Jacob D., “McClellan in West Virginia,” Battles & Leaders of the Civil War., Vol. I , 137

[6] Beatie, 413 – 414.

George McClellan in 1861: A Glimpse of Foibles to Come (part one)

George McClellanECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Jon-Erik Gilot.

(part one of two)

More than his battlefield prowess or organizational abilities, George McClellan is remembered for his less-than-desirable traits—quarreling with subordinates and superiors; micromanaging affairs; uncertain decision making; hesitant movement in the face of and wildly overestimating the size of the Confederate armies facing him.

As I’d mentioned in my last article, McClellan’s 1861 campaign in western Virginia can be used as a benchmark against which can be measured his later successes and failures. The campaign was a military and political success during an otherwise dismal summer for the Union, and was accomplished with minimal bloodshed. However, it is also where McClellan first exhibited his most McClellan-esque tendencies of the Civil War.

Let’s examine some of these traits that would rear their ugly heads later in the war. 

Quarreling with Subordinates & Superiors:

George McClellan was sure that no one above or below him could win the Civil War—only George McClellan was up to the task. In Western Virginia, he had no shortage of squabbles with his brigade and regimental officers. In a July 3 letter to his wife, McClellan singled out each brigadier, stating “I have not a Brig Genl worth his salt – Morris is a timid old woman – Rosecranz is a silly fussy goose – Schleich knows nothing…”[i]

Rosecrans had been on the receiving end of McClellan’s fury on July 1 after occupying Buckhannon, Virginia, because McClellan feared that Rosecrans had tipped his hand to the Confederates in the area. In a July 2 letter to Mary Ellen, McClellan bragged that Rosecrans was “very meek now after a very severe rapping I gave him a few days since.”[ii] Stephen Sears would relate the rebuke as “so sharp that Rosecrans had appealed to him to delete it from the record.”[iii]

McClellan was equally harsh with Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris, who McClellan would task with holding in place the Confederate army under General Robert S. Garnett at Laurel Hill. McClellan’s gross overestimate of Confederates at Laurel Hill caused Morris to seek reinforcements, believing he was severely outnumbered and vulnerable if attacked. This request infuriated McClellan, who responded with scathing instructions, reading, in part, “I propose taking the really difficult and dangerous part of this work on my own hands. I will not ask you to do anything that I would not be willing to do myself. Do not ask for further re-enforcements. If you do, I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command and to return to Indiana.”[iv] Following the war General Jacob D. Cox would recall that Morris was in the right—that had the Confederate troops numbered 10,000 as McClellan had believed, he had left Morris vulnerable with only 4,000 to oppose them. Should Morris have been defeated, Garnett’s army would have had a clear path to the vital rail and road junction at Clarksburg.

The rebuke of Newton Schleich was McClellan’s least offensive. Schleich was a savvy Democrat from Ohio who owed his commission more to political stature than military prowess. Schleich would come very near to upsetting McClellan’s plans when, on July 5, 1861, scoffing at McClellan’s slow movement, he ordered an unauthorized expedition from Buckhannon to Middle Fork Bridge, nearer the Confederate troops at Rich Mountain. A sharp skirmish ensued at the bridge, sending the Federal party stumbling back and alerting the Confederates to a possible movement against that sector. McClellan was furious, relieving Schleich of command and reassigning his regiments to Brigadier General Robert L. McCook. Schleich would again prove later in the war that he truly “knew nothing.”

As late as July 19—hours before being called to D.C.—McClellan was still bemoaning the officers under his command. “In heaven’s name, give me some General Officers who understand their profession,” he pleaded to Washington. [v] While early war officers were certainly a mixed bag, McClellan did have capable officers under his command who would distinguish themselves later in the war, most notably William Starke Rosecrans, who would rise to the rank of major general and masterfully strategize the often-overlooked Tullahoma Campaign in the summer of 1863.

McClellan likewise had no issue in quarreling above his rank in the summer of 1861. He would meddle in affairs outside his department in Kentucky and Maryland and scoffed at Winfield Scott—his only ranking officer—and Scott’s proposed “Anaconda Plan.” When called to D.C. in July, McClellan would ignore the chain of command, bypassing Scott entirely in favor of Lincoln and his cabinet.

McClellan’s squabbles with his superiors—namely Abraham Lincoln—and several of his subordinates would continue through 1861 and 1862. These feuds and distrust would often result in McClellan’s . . .


George McClellan was a masterful micromanager, seemingly taking satisfaction in overseeing tasks that should have been delegated to subordinates. He would write to Mary Ellen only days after arriving in western Virginia that “everything here needs the hand of the master,” and that “unless where I am in person everything seems to go wrong. He would similarly bemoan to Washington that “I give orders & find some who cannot execute them unless I stand by them. Unless I command every picket & lead every column I cannot be sure of success.” His belief that the army could not move without him would spill over into a belief that the army could likewise not fight without him, remarking to Mary Ellen that “I don’t feel sure that the men will fight very well under anyone but myself,” never mind that troops under Rosecrans and Morris had fought ably at Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford, and in the Kanawha Valley under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox.[vi]

McClellan would be routinely delayed after crossing the Ohio River in the micromanaging of transportation, supply wagons and logistics—traits that would likewise haunt him in the planning and execution of the 1862 campaign on the Virginia peninsula. This style of leadership would regularly lead to McClellan’s . . .

. . . slow movement, which we’ll talk about in part two.

To be continued….


[i] Sears, Stephen W., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860 – 1865, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), 44

[ii] Sears, Papers…, 41

[iii] Sears, Stephen W., George B. McClellan – The Young Napoleon, (New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), pg. 86

[iv] Scott, Robert N., The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, (Washington, DC: Gov’t Printing Office, 1882), 208-209

[v] Sears, Papers…, 61

[vi] Sears, Papers…, 34, 40, 61

Searching for George Brinton McClellan


In preparation for Rob Orrison’s and my upcoming ECWS book, To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, we closed the books and hit the trails and cement roads zigzagging through northern Virginia and central and western Maryland. At the end of one particular long day (soon to be even longer since we were squarely on the wrong side of rush-hour traffic), we made our last stop in the middle of bustling Rockville, Maryland. Our destination was the home of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

Before the historical society moved in, during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862,


the two-and-a-half story brick dwelling belonged to the widowed Jane Beall, “an old maid of strong Union sentiment.” Rob and I wandered around all four sides of the house, reading each interpretive marker dotting the property. None of them had anything to do with why we were there. They made no mention of the Maryland Campaign, only the Gettysburg Campaign that eclipses all others in public memory.

Despite the setback, there was no mistaking why we were there. George B. McClellan slept there his first night in the field–September 7–during his campaign to rid Maryland of the invading Confederate army. But still, no mention.


Rob turned to me and quipped, tongue in cheek, “You should write Searching for George Brinton McClellan,” calling to mind Tom Huntington’s Searching for George Gordon Meade. “Why isn’t Meade better remembered today?” Huntington questions in his opening pages. Here we were, at a point crucial to McClellan’s story in the campaign, and nothing. Why isn’t McClellan remembered at all here, today? I wondered. 

Of course, it is no secret that George McClellan is a lightning rod of controversy. It was not always so.

In the fallout of the Federal defeat at First Bull Run, a desperate Lincoln administration handed the 34-year-old general almost everything. “I seem to have become the power of the land,” he believed, as many in Washington appeared to bow down to him. “A better officer could not be found,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman in the war’s early stages.

Sixteen months after McClellan arrived in the eastern seat of war, raised the Army of the Potomac from the ashes, and crafted it in his image, the relationship between McClellan, Lincoln, and some members of Congress dropped out the bottom. McClellan lost his job and never again rose to the pedestal he had occupied in the summer of 1861.

The war of words swirling around McClellan’s head began even in his moments of prominence in the nation’s vast struggle. “By some persons he is considered the greatest strategist of the age. By others he is regarded as unfit to command even a hundred men,” commented an early biographer. Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant tried to dodge the debate entirely: “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”

No matter which way one sits in the ongoing conversation, very rarely does one find themselves wavering back and forth or sitting squarely on the fence in their deep-rooted opinions of the man. To have an unbiased discussion of McClellan is a rare occurrence at all.

Perhaps the turning point of all this comes when examining the general’s relationship with his most immediate superior, Abraham Lincoln. McClellan’s private letters to his wife demeaning (even dehumanizing) his commander-in-chief became public following his death. By that time, Lincoln had become a well-seated martyr for the Union cause and was well on his way to being memorialized on the National Mall in a temple of stone. Anyone anti-Lincoln was undoubtedly not a fan favorite.

On the flip side of that equation, McClellan sparred against a general viewed with much admiration throughout American history–Robert E. Lee. While not literally carved in stone to the extent of Lincoln, Lee’s symbolic figure equally seems untouchable. Indeed, George McClellan could not rival or best the Virginian Lee.

McClellan’s conflicts with Lincoln and Lee and the status those two achieved automatically places him at a disadvantage when it comes to being remembered. Additionally, his meteoric rise to fame and power followed by his corresponding fall from grace is something not easily equaled in the annals of history.

All of these factors, and probably more, combine to wane the memory of McClellan’s role in the Civil War. Like any career, his had its ebbs and flows. But for a time, perhaps George B. McClellan was the right man for the job, coming to Washington’s rescue in July 1861 and again when he rode through the night to reach his army’s camps around Rockville in September 1862. Despite this, he, like George Gordon Meade, appears to have been left behind it all.

McClellan Gun Club sign

It’s blurry, but that’s George Meade on the McClellan Gun Club sign. I guess they both shared the same first name, right?


“The Dreadful Responsibility”: Why George B. McClellan Was the Go-To Guy (part two)

TurningPoints-logoECW welcomes back Jon-Erik Gilot
(part two of two)

McClellan arrived in western Virginia on June 22 to take personal command of his troops in the field. Endearing himself to the enlisted men, he issued a circular on June 25 with a flair for the dramatic: “Soldiers! I have heard that there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and share it with you. I fear now but one thing—that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel. I know that I can rely upon you.”[i]

Over the following two weeks, McClellan would gather supplies and men to move on the reinforced Confederate army, now under the command of General Robert S. Garnett. Richmond had also sent Confederate reinforcements into the Kanawha Valley under former Virginia governors Henry A. Wise and John B. Floyd, against whom McClellan would detach Jacob Dolson Cox with a brigade of Ohio and Kentucky troops. 

McClellan would divide his command, sending one brigade to hold in check a force of nearly 4,000 Confederates under Garnett at Laurel Hill, while McClellan himself would move three additional brigades, totaling 7,000 men, nearly two dozen miles south to attack the Confederate position at Rich Mountain, held by approximately 1,300 men under Colonel John Pegram. Though he had estimated the Confederate force at Laurel Hill to be as many as 10,000, McClellan chastised his brigadier general, Thomas A. Morris, charged with holding those Confederates in place, stating “I propose taking the really difficult & dangerous part of this work on my own hands,” threatening to relieve Morris of command should he request any further reinforcements.

The Battle of Rich Mountain – July 13, 1861 (Harpers Weekly, July 27, 1861)

McClellan’s brigades were in place near Rich Mountain July 9, and the following day were alerted by a local Unionist farmer that a pathway existed whereby the Federal troops could turn Pegram’s left flank. McClellan detached a column of 1,850 under an able but maligned Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans to make the flank assault on the morning of June 11, while McClellan would lead the remaining two brigades in a frontal assault upon hearing Rosecrans’ guns.

When hearing gunfire and artillery open later in the afternoon, McClellan waffled; cheers heard from the Confederate lines raised further doubt as McClellan called off his frontal assault, leaving Rosecrans to fend for himself on the enemy’s flank. Rosecrans would carry the Confederate breastworks on his own, sending the disorganized Confederates fleeing down the mountain and rendering Garnett’s position at Laurel Hill as untenable. Pegram and nearly half his command would surrender three days later. Garnett would evacuate his position on June 11 and would be mortally wounded two days later at the battle of Corrick’s Ford, though the majority of his column would escape.

Front page of the New York Daily Tribune – July 14, 1861

A war-hungry northern press lavished praise on McClellan, the first general to gain any semblance of victory in the young war. He would likewise receive the laudatory thanks of Congress. To be fair, he had outmaneuvered and routed all organized Confederate resistance in northwestern Virginia; had captured hundreds of prisoners and killed the highest-ranking Confederate officer in the region; had secured the Ohio border and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for the Union; and had protected the northern panhandle city of Wheeling, where politicians from western Virginia were meeting to form a new government, ultimately resulting in the new state of West Virginia. The first campaign had been a resounding success, McClellan rattling off a telegram to the War Department: “Garnett’s forces routed—…his army demoralized—Garnett killed. We have annihilated the enemy in Western Virginia. Our success is complete & secession is killed in this country.”[i]

While planning a proposed movement on the vital rail junction at Staunton, McClellan was made aware of Irvin McDowell’s advance on Manassas. After learning of McDowell’s repulse, on the morning of July 22 McClellan would receive the fated telegram calling him to Washington. After a circuitous route through Wheeling, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, McClellan was in the capital inside a week, reviewing the situation with the demoralized Union army and haphazard defenses around the city. Within a month of his arrival, he reformed the broken army he’d found into the Army of the Potomac. The press would make references to him as something of a Napoleon, a comparison McClellan couldn’t help seeing himself, remarking in a letter to his wife that “I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me.”[ii]

1864 Copy of McClellan’s Report, Inscribed by Colonel Horatio Blake Reed, 22nd New York Cavalry (Author’s Collection)

Regardless of your opinion of George B. McClellan, much credit must be given to what he accomplished during the second half of 1861. His engineering expertise helped to transform Washington, DC, into the most heavily fortified city in the world. He more than tripled the size of the Army of the Potomac, swelling the ranks to more than 160,000 officers and enlisted men. He reinvigorated morale in the army, making the men believe in themselves, if not their officers. The organization and reforms instituted and the confidence instilled under McClellan would help carry the men of the Army of the Potomac through some dark days and serious reverses that lay ahead. While he may not have been the man who could lead the army to victory, he was the man the army needed at that moment. His ascension to the head of the Army of the Potomac is undoubtedly a turning point in the war.

In his seminal work on the Army of the Potomac, historian Russell Beatie described McClellan as “The Enigma,” which of all the monikers attached probably comes as close to describing McClellan in 1861 as much as it does our understanding of him today.[1] In my next article we’ll look at characteristics and traits—both good and bad—that McClellan exhibited in western Virginia and carried east with him to the Army of the Potomac. We’ll do the same with his counterpart in Robert E. Lee, whose own experiences in western Virginia helped to shape some of his decisions at the helm of the Army of Northern Virginia. These early campaigns—often relegated to the backwaters of Civil War historiography —can be used as a benchmark in measuring the later successes and failures of both McClellan and Lee.


[1] Beatie, Russell H., Army of the Potomac, Volume I, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 387

[i] O.R. I:II: 204

[ii] McClellan Papers (C-7:63/D-10:72), Library of Congress

[i] O.R., I:II:196 – 197

Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part three)

TurningPoints-logo(part three of three)

What exactly the Lost Order told McClellan has been the subject of much heated debate and controversy almost from the moment he glanced its contents.

From an intelligence standpoint, the Lost Order was important to McClellan, but not as much as has often been portrayed. As stated in the previous installment of this series, the most perplexing part about the campaign thus far to McClellan had been what Lee’s movements, heading in two different directions, meant. Now, the Lost Order simply solidified in McClellan’s mind exactly what Lee’s odd movements were all about. “I obtained reliable information of the movements and intentions of the enemy, which made it clear that it was necessary to force the passage of the South Mountain range and gain possession of Boonsborough and Rohrersville before any relief could be afforded to Harper’s Ferry.”[1]

Despite the clarification, the Lost Order was four days old when McClellan read it, and the wording called for the various parts of Lee’s plan to be achieved by Friday, September 12—the day before Union soldiers found the order. 

Naturally, the first thing to be done was to get his cavalry chief Pleasonton to verify the days old order. At 3:00 pm, Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy updated Pleasonton’s mission.[2] While time faded away as Pleasonton’s horsemen went about their business determining the veracity of the order, McClellan, now very aware of the possibility that Lee’s army may be divided in his front, pushed more of his army in that direction almost instantaneously.[3]

While setting the van of his army in motion, McClellan continued to browse through the order. It did seem that the discovery was a great find, but for as much as it told McClellan of Lee’s thus far undetermined intentions, the fog of war did not dissipate away like an early morning’s blanket of haze.

First, the order—which had been addressed to Gen. D.H. Hill, dropped by someone in the Confederate army, and then scooped up by three Indiana soldiers—began with Paragraph III. Either the Confederate high command proved unable to perform a simple arithmetic function (a highly unlikely proposition) or there was more to the order than what McClellan held in his hands. What did the first two paragraphs say further about Lee’s intentions?

A simple glance in the Official Records reveals that Paragraphs I and II state nothing about Confederate plans in Maryland. For McClellan to have known that was an utter impossibility. Certainly, the unanswerable question hung over his head throughout all of this: what was missing from the Lost Order?[4]

The wayward copy of Special Orders No. 191 also did McClellan no favors in the numbers department, already not one of the general’s best attributes. Earlier reports flooding into headquarters told McClellan of an enemy force numbering as high as 200,000 strong.[5] By the end of September 13, McClellan lowered this estimate not quite by half, concluding the enemy in his front “amounts to 120,000 men or more.”[6] The Lost Order does not mention anything of troop strength, but clearly designates five separate enemy columns before dropping in two vague references to the main body. Was the main body another column or one of the columns already mentioned, just by a different name? In addition, the very essence of Lee’s plan outlined in Special Orders No. 191 suggested a large number of Confederate soldiers in Maryland. Would the enemy divide itself into such disparate columns in a foreign land if it was such a small force? The Lost Order could not answer that question either.

Despite all of this, McClellan did plan an attack for September 14, armed with the solid information he did glean from Lee’s campaign plan. He began moving his forces into position on September 13 to carry the next series of ridges cutting north-south across the landscape of western Maryland.[7] So if the Lost Order did not provide McClellan with all of the information that he might have sought from such a fortuitous find, what then did it do?

As September 12 ended, the Army of the Potomac’s goals were to push west from Frederick and gain possession of Catoctin Mountain, a natural defensive barrier buttressed even more by the Confederate cavalry guarding the mountain passes. McClellan hoped that by carrying this mountain, Pleasonton’s cavalry could be in position the next day to go up and over the next barrier facing him—South Mountain.

The battle of South Mountain occurred on Sunday, September 14, and probably would have happened anyway, though perhaps on a smaller scale, as a natural extension of the Federals’ westward movement from Frederick whether the Lost Order was discovered or not. In McClellan’s first written report of the campaign, dated October 15, 1862, he also rightly recalled that the first place he received “reliable information that the enemy’s object was to move upon Harper’s Ferry and the Cumberland Valley, and not upon Baltimore, Washington, or Gettysburg” was while in Urbana on September 12.[8]

This is not to pronounce that the Lost Order had no significance whatsoever. Until that document came into McClellan’s hands, he was peering through the smoke screen attempting to derive the intentions of his opponent mostly unsuccessfully. Where the Lost Order proved crucial to McClellan’s intelligence reports was in its clear indication of what Confederate movements towards Harpers Ferry and the Maryland-Pennsylvania line meant. There were many other questions Special Orders No. 191 presented to the commanding Union general, but Lee’s intention no longer remained one of them.

The discovery of the Lost Order truly is an incredible story. Who could not indulge in a story like it? Its mysterious loss, the seemingly impossible find by three soldiers in a field, and its path up the chain of command right into George B. McClellan’s grasp accord the story a legendary status that few novelists could have framed better. Unfortunately, its import to the outcome of the campaign—and the war, say some—has been whisked into the legend of the Civil War.

Again, to say that the Lost Order’s odyssey is insignificant misses the point. To say that everything that subsequently happened in the Maryland Campaign hinged on this amazing story likewise does not stick to the track of the historical record. It is a story worthy of the ink spilled over its discovery, but does not accord it with the title of a major turning point of the Civil War.

[1] Report of George B. McClellan, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 26.

[2] Randolph B. Marcy to Alfred Pleasonton, September 13, 1862, 3:00 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 829.

[3] Randolph B. Marcy to Jacob D. Cox, September 13, 1862, 3:35 pm, ibid., 827; Edward M. Neill to Orlando B. Willcox, September 13, 1862, ibid., 827-28.

[4] The full text of Special Orders No. 191 is found in OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 603. The text of the Lost Order can be found in McClellan’s Report, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 42-43. The Lost Order reproduced in McClellan’s report omits the paragraph numbers, but the original copy of the Lost Order found in McClellan’s papers in the Library of Congress show the oddly numbered order, GBM Papers, LOC, reel 31.

[5] Andrew G. Curtin to George B. McClellan, September 10, 1862, 10:00 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 248.

[6] McClellan to Halleck, September 13, 1862, 11:00 pm, ibid., 281.

[7] In addition to the references previously cited in this work, George B. McClellan to William B. Franklin, September 13, 1862, 6:20 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 45-46, also provides information about the Army of the Potomac moving into positions to strike at South Mountain and relieve Harpers Ferry on September 13.

[8] McClellan’s Report, ibid., 26-27.