Preservation Opportunity in the Western Theater

Our friends at the Civil War Trust sent along this announcement and opportunity to preserve more battlefield ground in the Western Theater. Continue reading for more information about this opportunity and how you can get involved.

“With the exception of Virginia, no state endured more significant Civil War battles than Tennessee. It was in Tennessee — during the war’s early stages — where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first gained national recognition by demanding and securing the “unconditional surrender” of a Confederate army at Fort Donelson. In 1863, the nation’s gaze was again fixed upon the Volunteer State as Union and Confederate troops vied for control of Chattanooga. And it was in Tennessee that Gen. John Bell Hood launched a last-ditch effort to strike back at the Yankees, resulting in inconceivable suffering at Franklin and ultimate defeat at Nashville.

In recognition of the state’s importance during our nation’s defining conflict, you and I have already saved 3,491 acres in Tennessee, allowing future generations to walk the ground where history was made.

Today, we have the opportunity to save an additional 15 acres at three battlefields in Tennessee: Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry (near Chattanooga), and Franklin. We will be adding to the 639 acres we have already saved at these three battlefields—more tiles in the mosaic of Tennessee’s rich Civil War heritage. Thanks to a magnificent $21.17-to-$1 match, you and I can save this land—worth a combined total of $1.5 million—for just $73,250!

Help us build on our previous successes in Tennessee and save these three Tennessee battlefields.

’Til the Battle is Won,

Jim
Jim Lighthizer, President
Civil War Trust

P.S. Please join our efforts to save 15 acres at Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry, and Franklin. 

General Orders Number 6: The Creation of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps

Joseph Hooker

The opening months of 1863 marked the beginning of a season of change for the Army of the Potomac. Major General Ambrose Burnside, who had directed the disastrous Fredericksburg Campaign and subsequent “Mud March”, had been replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. With a profound appreciation of his command’s condition, Hooker instituted a series of reforms to help improve the army’s morale and restore it to fighting condition. A system of furloughs was implemented, rations improved and corps insignia adopted. But on February 5, 1863, 155 years ago today, Hooker issued General Orders Number 6. This directive would have a lasting impact on the army in the months and years to come.

Paragraph 3 of the order stated: “The cavalry of the army will be consolidated into one corps, under the command of Brigadier-General Stoneman, who will make the necessary assignments for detached duty.”

Under previous commanders, the Union horsemen had been parceled out to the various corps and later grand divisions. Although Burnside and his predecessor, George McClellan, had maintained separate brigades, reserves and divisions throughout their tenures, the troopers lacked overarching cohesion. Under General Orders Number 6, for the first time, the mounted arm would operate under the direction of one commander who reported directly to army headquarters.

The commanding general’s choice to lead the corps was a logical one. A West Point graduate, George Stoneman brought experience with cavalry and at the command level to the post. Prior to the war he had been assigned to the 1st U.S. Dragoons and 2nd U.S. Cavalry. During his time with the dragoons, he had served as Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Adjutant, positions that would improve his administrative skills, a trait that were invaluable to a corps commander. Stoneman had also been McClellan’s cavalry chief, a position he held for over a year and more recently, the head of the III Corps in the Army of the Potomac.

George Stoneman

Hooker’s directive had finally placed his horsemen under a similar organizational structure as their Confederate counterparts. The order marked a new chapter in the history the Federal mounted arm. It was the genesis of the Union cavalry’s ascendance to superiority in the Eastern Theater.

 

Steve Bartman and the Battle of Chancellorsville

In the past few weeks ESPN has been re-running the Alex Gibney film Catching Hell. The film focuses on Chicago and it’s reaction to Steve Bartman in 2003 after the Cubs lost that year’s National League Championship Series (NLCS). There is also a discussion of Boston and Bill Buckner after his error in the 1986 World Series.

Watching the film, I was struck by the group reaction to the Bartman play among the Cub fans and certain players, which led directly to the team’s collapse in Game 6. As I thought about it, I realized the Bartman story can help people understand the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in 1863. 

For those who may not be familiar with the story: In 2003 the Cubs had enjoyed a magical regular season that raised hopes in Chicago. They entered the playoffs looking for the first World Series appearance since 1945 and their first title since 1908 (95 years at the time), and led the NLCS 3 games to 2 over the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins), having lost Game 5 in Miami. Game 6 occurred in Chicago on October 14, and the Cubs led 3-0 going into the top of the 8th inning. A foul ball along the third base line was deflected by a fan (later identified as Steve Bartman), and the Cub outfielder, Moises Alou, reacted in frustration. The Marlins started a flurry of hits, helped by a flubbed shortstop play by Alex Gonzalez that would have ended the inning with the Cubs up 3-1 or 3-2; instead, Florida buried the Cubs with 8 runs in the 8th, and the Cubs could score no more. Game 7 the next night went back and forth, but the Marlins again (for the third straight game) beat the Cubs and went on to their second World Series in franchise history, eventually defeating the New York Yankees. Steve Bartman, meanwhile, became the scapegoat in Chicago, blamed for the defeat.

In the film, Cub fans going to Game 6 are seen admitting their nervousness, and one stated “I’ve never been so nervous before a game.” Steve Lyons, who called the game for Fox Sports, said the whole stadium was “waiting for something crazy to happen.” Some people felt it in the 7th Inning Stretch, when Bernie Mac sang “champs” in Take Me Out to the Ballgame. But the Bartman play in the 8th (in the words of Cubs 1st Baseman Eric Karros) “took the air out of the stadium.” The team seemed to tense up, and that explains both Gonzalez’ error and the meltdown of Chicago pitching. After Game 6 many in Chicago felt it was already over; some Cubs players even booked flights home after Game 7, expecting not to go to the World Series.

This, in broad parallel, is the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. After an energetic winter and spring during which Major General Joseph Hooker reformed, rebuilt, and re-energized the army, in late April 1863 it set off for its next contest against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The last clear-cut offensive victory the Army of the Potomac had won over the Confederates was at Williamsburg, almost exactly a year earlier. A year is a long time to an army in combat, and that record weighed on the Federals as much as the 95-year drought weighed on the Cubs in 2003. Indeed, a sense of nervous energy emanates from some of Hooker’s statements before the battle and the way some of his commanders strained to get into the fight.

Lee’s unexpected strong reaction on May 1 caused Hooker to pull back, and a strange lethargy set in among the Federals. Seizing the opening created by this passivity, Lee flanked the Army of the Potomac, launching Stonewall Jackson’s famed flank attack on the evening of May 2. Jackson’s corps routed the Union XI Corps on the army’s western flank, driving it back over 2 miles before darkness ended the fighting. The attack did not win the battle, but left the Confederates threatening to win. A strong Federal defense, and/or a resolute counterattack, would recover the Army of the Potomac’s fortunes.

Yet the Army of the Potomac was like the Cubs after Bartman – the air had gone out of them. The troops themselves fought well on May 3, but the leadership was defeated and steadily pulled back. Hooker also ordered the 20% of his army at Fredericksburg to save the other 80% at Chancellorsville – a panicked order which shows how far he had melted down mentally.

Even thought the fighting on May 3 ended with the Federals in a strong position south of U.S. Ford, the battle was all but over in the mind of Hooker and many of his commanders. After some skirmishing on May 4 and 5, the Army of the Potomac quit the field. After the battle the XI Corps became the scapegoat for the army because of its failure to hold Jackson – much like Steve Bartman became the scapegoat for the foul ball play in 2003.  In both cases, the overall group saw these events as the turning points where it all went wrong and spiraled into the inevitable defeat.

The next time Catching Hell is on, take the time to watch it, as the group dynamics among the Chicago Cubs fans and players echo those of the Army of the Potomac leadership 140 years before.

Top: Steve Bartman and Moises Alou go for a foul ball in Game 6, with one out in the Top of the 8th. 

Bottom: Jackson’s flank attack on May 2.

Notice the reorientation of the Union line and the isolated position of the XI Corps “behind” the new Union position.

The Decision to Attach William F. Smith to the Army of the James

General William F. “Baldy” Smith

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Sean Chick

Major General William Farrar Smith is one of the Civil War’s most controversial commanders. He was twice removed from command. He was once considered for an army command. He was one of the few men to befriend Ulysses Grant and lose Grant’s full confidence. That loss started the moment Grant posted Smith to command of XVIII Corps.

Smith was known throughout the army as “Baldy” to distinguish him from the eleven other generals with his surname. Smith ran a relaxed headquarters, serving champagne and fine food. He was popular with his subordinates but hypercritical of his superiors. He was a schemer who undermined his superiors. He was also given to bouts of poor health due to his previous exposure to malaria.

In 1862, Smith was a rising star, noted for his bravery at the Seven Days and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he led the VI Corps. However, in early 1863, he made several mistakes. First, he condemned his superior, Major General Ambrose Burnside, in messages sent to Abraham Lincoln. Second, he was a friend and supporter of Major General George McClellan even after McClellan’s removal. Smith also wanted to attack Richmond by using the peninsula approaches, although Lincoln vehemently opposed such a strategy. All three factors led to his dismissal from the Army of the Potomac. The Senate also failed to confirm his nomination to major general.

After leading militia forces during General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Smith was sent to the Army of the Cumberland. It was his finest hour. Working as chief engineer, he managed the “Cracker Line” which saved the army under siege in Chattanooga. He also bickered with Major General William S. Rosecrans. When Major General Ulysses S. Grant took over at Chattanooga, Grant was impressed with Smith’s abilities. He also knew that Smith was no friend of Rosecrans, a man Grant detested.

In early 1864, Grant got Smith a promotion to major general. Yet, what Grant was going to do with Smith was unclear. Smith was rumored to be the replacement for Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade however was humble, dutiful, and pliant in his meeting with Grant. Despite pressure to relieve Meade, he stayed in command. Smith might have been made a corps commander, but he had many enemies in the army, in particular Burnside. Grant needed to find a new home for Smith.

On April 1, 1864 Grant, accompanied by Smith, Brigadier General John Rawlins, and Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, went to Norfolk to meet with Major General Benjamin Butler. In a war noted for contentious personalities, few could compete with Butler. He was an accomplished politician, lawyer, and businessman. In the American Civil War, he became famous for being among the first generals who refused to return escaped slaves and for his stormy administration of New Orleans. Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward wanted Butler to command the drive on Vicksburg. Butler turned them down. Instead, he made speeches in the North, tacitly setting himself up as an alternative to Lincoln. In November 1863, Butler was given the Department of Virginia and North Carolina to mollify him.

Grant discussed strategy with Butler, and they decided to attack Richmond, or at least threaten the Confederate capital. Smith was not present at every meeting, and soon found out he would command XVIII Corps under Butler’s newly minted Army of the James. Why Grant chose Smith for the XVIII Corps is at first not hard to fathom. Smith was a good engineer. He was widely considered one of the Union’s best tacticians, and he could be innovative. Butler had never led troops into a major battle, and Smith could offer good advice and a steady hand. Smith had also long favored an offensive similar to what Butler was attempting. Yet, there was probably a less kindly reason for Smith’s placement. In Butler’s department, Grant had no one who could monitor the situation. In addition, if Butler needed to be removed, Smith was the obvious choice.

Smith’s presence though was insidious. He wanted an independent command and sent reports to Grant with Grant’s permission. This was a poor decision, since Grant was giving Smith a chance to bad-mouth Butler. It also showed that Grant did not wholly trust Butler. In addition, Smith was being assigned to an officer with a tongue so acidic that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor once wrote “in the war of epithets he [Butler] has proved his ability to hold his ground against all comers as successfully as did Count Robert of Paris with sword and lance.” (Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, 112) It was practically pre-ordained that Smith and Butler would bicker.

Grant and some of his generals

Smith proved to be a liability. He did not wholly agree with Butler’s plan to take Bermuda Hundred and threaten Richmond. He favored making City Point the main base with Petersburg as the target, but he did not make his point to Butler. Throughout the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, he quarreled with Butler on tactical decisions. On the eve of the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Smith told his friends Major General Phillip Sheridan and Brigadier General James Wilson that Butler should be removed. It was understood that Sheridan and Wilson would say as much to Grant when they next saw him.

Grant hardly seemed surprised by Smith’s machinations, and admitted to Major General Henry Halleck that the discord in the Army of the James could be Smith’s fault. Grant’s solution was to have XVIII Corps transferred to Meade’s command and then sent to attack Petersburg, but not under Butler’s supervision. The solution failed, and Smith and Meade started to bicker. Smith also failed to take Petersburg on June 15. Grant at first praised Smith for his leadership in the battle, but with hindsight, he became more critical. By July 1864, Smith was removed.

Grant was a capable manager of men during the Civil War. Although known to hold grudges, he promoted men who were friendly with each other, creating a relatively positive command atmosphere. Grant’s lieutenants were not perfect, but with few exceptions they were not incompetent. Unlike Major General John Pope, Grant successfully managed many difficult personalities in the eastern theater despite being an outsider. However, the question of what to do with Smith was vexing, given his character and reputation. Sending him to Butler kept Smith away from men such as Burnside, but the alternative proved to be no better. Smith’s feud with Butler was a major source of woe in the Union high command. As Grant wrote in his memoirs, “I was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith’s promotion were well founded.” (Grant, Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 2, 367)


Preservation News: June 1, 1864 at Cold Harbor

Recently the Civil War Trust announced an effort to preserve land related to the June 1, 1864 fighting at Cold Harbor. This combat has often been overshadowed by the Union assault which took place there on June 3. Cold Harbor had yet to become, in the words of Union staff officer Thomas Hyde, “the Golgotha of American history.” When I read through the announcement and examined the map which included the targeted tracts my eyes were immediately drawn to a particular segment of the property. It lays just north of the Cold Harbor Road and above and slightly to the right of the Miles Garthwright House.

On May 30, with Union cavalry operations heating up around Cold Harbor, Gen. Robert E. Lee began shuffling men there to secure the area. This effort continued the following day, as the Federal cavalry attacked and eventually captured the road junction. Late in the evening of the thirty-first, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade also began to funnel infantry toward Cold Harbor. The crossroads was vitally important to the commanders. One road led directly to the Union supply base on the Pamunkey River while another ran directly to the Confederate capital at Richmond, less than a dozen miles to the southwest. Grant planned to attack there the next morning. The General-in-Chief, however, was asking too much of his soldiers.

Walking over the battlefield at Cold Harbor, one of the things that comes to mind is the condition of the men in both armies who fought there. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had been locked in a desperate, non-stop campaign for nearly a month. They were completely exhausted. Grant’s expectation to immediately launch an assault following a harrowing night march was unrealistic. The first blue infantry to reach Cold Harbor was Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps, which tramped in at about 10 a.m. It was not until 2:30 that afternoon that Wright’s last division arrive and deploy for battle. Wright was to coordinate the offensive with Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps, recently arrived from the Army of the James.  Smith’s orders had been botched, adding miles and hours to his march. His men finally arrived around mid-afternoon. The delay gave Wright’s men time to wait and contemplate the inevitable assault. Across the open space before them stood Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division and Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s First Corps. The Confederates had spent much of the morning preparing and improving their defenses. Among those who waited anxiously to make the assault was a brigade commanded by a colonel from New York, Emory Upton.

A post war photo of Emory Upton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I’ve always been fascinated by Upton. Socially awkward but incredibly brilliant, he was the Sheldon Cooper of his day.  Upton had been one of the few men to recognize that the technology of the 1860s, especially the rifled musket and the advent of field fortifications, had rendered the tactics of the day obsolete. Just weeks earlier, Upton led an attack on the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. He massed his twelve regiments in a column, three across and four deep. His men were directed not to open fire as they stormed the enemy works. The bayonet assault was initially successful, however, supporting troops did not arrive in time to exploit the breach. Impressed with the effort, Grant utilized Upton’s methods and sent the II Corps crashing into the salient on May 12. Once again, the attack was not properly coordinated which allowed the Confederates to recapture and hold part of the line.

As time ticked away that afternoon, Upton prepared for the assault. He formed his regiments into two lines. The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery formed the first, with battalions stacked upon one another. Behind them was the 5th Maine, 95th Pennsylvania, 96th Pennsylvania and part of the 121st New York.

The 2nd Connecticut, led by Col. Elisha Kellogg, was a new regiment which had spent much of the war in the Washington defenses. Due to losses sustained in the campaign, they were converted to infantry and sent south, arriving with the army on May 21. I wonder what it was like for those men, who had never seen combat, to prepare for the attack. What thoughts went through their minds? What feelings did they have? One thing, I think, was certain. Derisively viewed for their lack of experience by their sister regiments, whose own ranks had been depleted by casualties, the Nutmeggers wanted to prove they were up to the task which awaited them.

Upton likely planned for his lines to move forward in concert. The “Heavies” were to carry the brunt of the assault while the remaining regiments awaited the outcome. If they were successful, Upton would send his second line forward to exploit the breach. Should Kellogg meet stiff resistance, Upon would send individual regiments from the second line forward with the expectation that the additional weight would break the Confederate position.

Kellogg took his place at the head of his regiment. He ordered his men to unsling their knapsacks and any other accouterments that might impede their movement. Around 6 p.m. the blue soldiers moved forward. “The Second Connecticut…moved to the assault in beautiful order,” Upton wrote. “Crossing an open field, it entered a pine-wood, passed down a gentle declivity and up a slight ascent. Here the charge was checked. For seventy feet in front of the works the trees had been felled, interlocking with each other, and barring all further advance. Two paths, several yards apart, and wide enough for four men to march abreast, led through the obstructions. Up these, to the foot of the works, the brave men rushed, but were swept away by a converging fire…I directed the men to lie down, and not to return fire. Opposite the right of the regiment, the works were carried…in this position, without support on either flank, the Second Connecticut fought, when the enemy fell back to a second line of works.”

Watching from the rear, a member of the 121st New York wrote “as soon as the heavies began to charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast, and many wounded began going to the rear.” The 2nd Connecticut approached Brig. Gen. Thomas Clingman’s brigade and a section of the line held by the 51st North Carolina. Aghast, the Empire Stater observed the Connecticut soldiers “fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped.” Among the dead was Kellogg. Wounded early in the attack, he remained at the front before being shot down, struck multiple times. Kellogg’s personal example helped ensure that his regiment would no longer be called “band box soldiers.”

Although Upton’s attack had ground to a halt, on his right, Union infantry overran part of Clingman’s line. Upton quickly pushed elements from the 2nd Connecticut to his right and over the works. He then shifted to the left and managed to capture that portion of the entrenchments from which the Confederates had so badly mauled his men only minutes before. Later on, he pressed his second line up to hold against enemy counterattacks. Elsewhere, other units from the VI and XVIII Corps achieved similar results. This temporary success prompted Grant to launch his famous army wide assault on June 3.

2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Monument at Cold Harbor.

Today, a monument stands within the National Park Service boundary to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Some of the ground over which the regiment traversed during their attack has been identified by the Trust for this purchase. It represents an opportunity to further pay tribute to the valor of  Upton, Kellogg, the men who followed them and the other soldiers who fought at Cold Harbor that share in our American experience.

 

 

 


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

McClellan

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 . . .

Indecisiveness:

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?

Conclusion:

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.