Turning Points: Gone With The Wind

December 15, 1939, marked a turning in interpretation and image of the American Civil War. Perhaps one could argue that the turning point had started earlier in 1936 when the novel that inspired the movie hit shelves across the nation, beginning a tidal wave that would eventually envelop the globe. That December night in Atlanta, thousands of people lined the streets and hundreds packed into the theater. As the movie’s title – Gone With The Wind – scrolled slowly across the screen against a background of a vivid Technicolor sunset, the moment had come when a story came to life and challenged the historiography of the Civil War.

This is an arguable turning point. It did not occur during the 1860’s. It was not a literal battle. It was not even pretending to be a comprehensive look at the conflict. However, Gone With The Wind influenced the way domestic and international societies view the American 1860’s, staged a battle of ideology and interpretation, and evolved into an education on the war and reconstruction. With epic influence, this movie managed to captivate audiences with its entertainment factors and teach them a one-sided so-called history lesson that continues to haunt many today.

“Gone With The Wind” movie poster (Public Domain)

As entertainment, Gone With The Wind, deserved many of its accolades. It was the Star Wars of its day – if that comparison is permissible – with crowds lining up around the block to get tickets. This movie drew millions to the theaters during the Great Depression era and showed them struggle, grit, and a vow that “tomorrow is another day.” Filmed in Technicolor on lavish sets, the motion picture thrilled the audiences. As Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara) flirted on the screen, she represented the capstone of a national “search for Scarlet” that had consumed the entertainment world and fan magazines for months prior to filming. Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes), and Hattie McDaniels (Mammy) starred impressively in 1930’s filmmaking. Epically, Gone With The Wind grossed millions at the box offices, leaving many people delighted with the adaption of a novel that some had called The American Classic.

At the center of The Wind storm lived the author, the instigator: Margaret Mitchell. She liked to portray herself to the media as an Atlanta housewife who wrote a book in her spare time. However, she took writing more seriously than that, having worked for a local newspaper in Atlanta for several years, gaining popularity as a journalist before troublesome health forced her to live more secluded. Mitchell researched extensively in the Atlanta archives and remembered her youthful conversations with Confederate veterans and former Southern belles; she liked to emphasize that her story was accurate. Parts of it are. Other parts do not match further historical research. Clearly, Mitchell researched and wrote from a strictly Southern perspective, drawing on tradition and heritage for inspiration, too. The book includes painfully racist remarks (which were omitted or toned down for the movie version) and an incredibly sympathetic view of the Confederacy and the Southern situation during the Reconstruction Era, leading modern readers to wonder where the boundary lines lie in historical accuracy in fiction.

Whether the skewed perspective was intentional or not, Mitchell’s book of romance and strictly Southern interpretations became widely popular. Her publisher launched one of the largest national publicity campaigns, and book clubs, reporters, and other market and consumer influencers approved the book, pushing concerned or dissenting voices to the sidelines. When Hollywood entered the scene, director David O. Selznick reimagined the story – reducing the political and ethnic situations in the book – and created a “simpler” romantic story set during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”

On the surface, it is easy to imagine that Gone With The Wind is just a story set during the 1860’s. However, the passing decades have shown the movie’s reinforcement and creation of myths about the Civil War. The ideas of happy plantations, contented slaves, flirtatious belles, and “cavaliers” play out in the movie, underscored by a large dose of Lost Causism. Ironically, Scarlett herself hates the war and Lost Causism, creating a strange conflict between what the book and movie actually present and what fans take away.

Because of the multiple Academy Awards, staring cast, and a plot that resonated well with people across the world, Gone With The Wind became the unofficial public history education source for many on the topic. As the drama played over and over on television and home entertainment, its grip on the mind strengthened. Clearly, with its one-sided portrayal, this interpretation of the Civil War did not qualify as balanced information, but in many circumstance, the entertainment value routed accuracy. Interestingly, in many foreign countries, Gone With The Wind is seen as American history – something beautiful, romantic, and charming. That veneer masks the other side of the story, the part that for decades was neatly kept hidden away: the horrors of slavery, the abuse of women, the positive efforts during The Reconstruction, just to name a few. The truth – as usual – tends to be found between the two extremes of the story and the dark side of history.

Gone With The Wind built an empire of a story that has wriggled its way into many topics related to the Civil War – battles, clothing, women’s studies, Black history, Southern image, Lost Causism, medical studies, blockade running, Reconstruction, and economics. This presents a double-edged sword for historians and educators and recognizing the threat and opportunity is crucial.

The famous Civil War movie threatens a clear understanding of the war because of its perspective and interpretation. Unfortunately, through the generations, many viewers accepted the film as relatively accurate, propagating many misconceptions about the conflict and mid-19th Century Southern society. Historians must delve into the book and the movie to be able to understand the perspective, be able to explain the ideology behind the plot, and be willing to discuss what other research has revealed, countering the myths.

On the other hand, historians and educators may find it useful to utilize the movie’s influence as a way to engage. Without endorsing the featured Lost Causism and suspect history, it can be used as starting point for a discussion. For example, I have had many foreigners approach during living history events and want to know if I am “a Southern belle like Scarlett” – rather than scolding, it has been useful to realize that their knowledge of Civil War women comes from that movie and then provide accurate (primary source based) information about the experiences of women during the war. I have also found that people don’t always know what blockade runners are, but if I mention Rhett Butler, Paris, and the green bonnet, it gives a little connection and then I can explain the historical details to an interested audience.

Gone With The Wind’s premiere in 1939 represents a turning point in how America and the world envisioned the Civil War. Some of it is accurate, other parts leave much to be desired in historical details. As historians, educators, or history enthusiasts, it is important to recognize the impact this movie has had, acknowledge the historical and ideological problems, and realize that the film’s influence can be used to teach accurate history to an audience who is obsessed with Scarlett’s version of “War, war, war!”

Chattanooga: More Than Just Another Victory for Grant

TurningPoints-logoIn the late summer and early days of fall of 1863, it seemed that all eyes were on the small railroad town of Chattanooga, TN. The disastrous defeat at Chickamauga and the huge casualties it reaped turned what had nearly been for Union commander Major General William S. Rosecrans a victory almost as significant as the fall of Vicksburg into an embarrassing defeat of epic proportions. Yet in the defeat, Rosecrans still held onto Chattanooga, the objective of his campaign, although his army, the Army of the Cumberland, soon found itself under siege in the town.

Rosecrans managed to hold on thanks to a 60-mile supply line to their forward supply base of Bridgeport, Alabama, only 25 miles away, but due to the placement of the Confederate army’s best cannon on Lookout Mountain and sharpshooters along the banks of the Tennessee River, direct access was impossible. Rosecrans continued to work on the defense of the town and planned a move to open up another, shorter route of supply, although word of this was not making it to the ears of the War Department. The assistant secretary of war, feeding a growing panic about Rosecrans, sent false reports of an eminent withdrawal. Already reinforcements were on the way to aid Rosecrans, though: Joe Hooker was dispatched with the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac from Virginia, and William T. Sherman was coming with a portion of the Army of the Tennessee from Mississippi. But suddenly another move was made that would have tremendous impact on the rest of the war and one that proved fatal to Rosecrans’s career. 

Major General Ulysses S. Grant had steadily grown into the hero of the Union cause. From the first so-needed victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh, and the hard road to capture Vicksburg, Grant seemed to provide the victories that the Union cause desperately needed. Grant proved himself to be a tough-as-nails commander, and his maxim of “when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back or stop until the thing intended was accomplished” served him well.

However, Grant also displayed some very human flaws. He was sometimes jealous of the attention the press gave other officers and displayed some misplaced paranoia. This resulted in a bitter rift with Rosecrans, destroying a decades-long friendship in the wake of the battles of Iuka and Corinth the previous fall.

Grant’s accomplishments, though, shined brightly now that the Mississippi once more, through his efforts, ran “unvexed to the sea,” severing the Confederacy. With this latest accomplishment, Grant received notification of his promotion to command the newly created Military Division of the West, which covered a massive expanse of ground: the three military departments between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, including his old command, the Army of the Tennessee, now commanded by his good friend and loyal subordinate, William T. Sherman, and also that of the now seemingly collapsing Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland.

Grant was tasked with insuring that Chattanooga remained in Union hands. The War Department gave him two sets of orders related to the fate of his old friend, Rosecrans. He literally held Rosecrans’s fate in his hand. One set of orders retained him, and the other removed him from command and replaced him with Major General George H. Thomas.

There never was any doubt: Rosecrans was done.

Grant arrived at the Union supply depot at Stevenson, Alabama, approximately 45 miles west of Chattanooga, on October 22 to be met by the departing Rosecrans. In what could only have been a very tense meeting, Rosecrans briefed Grant on the situation at the front and also about his plans for opening a supply line. Grant, for his part, falsely told Rosecrans that he didn’t have anything to do with his removal before sending him on his way.

The following day, Grant made his way through a pouring rain to Chattanooga, where he met with General Thomas and heard more about Rosecrans’s plan—though the army’s chief engineer, General William F. Smith, claimed it was his own. Grant now turned his energies to getting the much-needed supplies into Chattanooga. Taking Rosecrans’s plan and making it happen, Grant launched one of the war’s few night-time assault—and an amphibious one, at that—the battle of Brown’s Ferry, which broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. What became known as “the Cracker Line” was now open, and a steady stream of supplies moved unvexed into Chattanooga.

Along with the supplies, a path was open for the reinforcements that had begun arriving. Hooker’s men had arrived only eleven days after they were dispatched, played a big part in opening the “Cracker Line” and then defending it in a series of fights that are collectively called the battle of Wauhatchie. Grant now waited for Sherman to arrive.

In the interlude, the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, dispatched part of his army to deal with the third army under Grant’s command, Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which captured Knoxville, TN, after the city’s garrison had rushed to reinforce Bragg just before the battle of Chickamauga. Now wanting to eliminate Burnside as a threat and retake Knoxville, Bragg sent Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with his corps for this mission. When Sherman finally arrived at Chattanooga in mid November, Bragg initially discounted him as a local threat, thinking Sherman’s men were on the way to Knoxville—which, in turn, prompted him to order more of his army to that front. Ironically that move compelled Grant, now growing worried about Burnside, to act against Bragg.

Receiving a report that the Confederates were leaving his front, Grant ordered a reconnaissance in force on November 23 against the Confederate picket lines near Orchard Knob, a prominent hill between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, along whose base a long portion of the Confederate defenses ran. That reconnaissance soon turned into the first of what would be three days of fighting. The Confederates were still in their lines, and a short fight ensued, with the Union forces capturing Orchard Knob.

Grant now saw that it was time to act. He sent orders for the main assault to occur the following day. Sherman would attack the Confederate right and roll up the line, sweeping the Confederates away from Chattanooga and into North Georgia, while Hooker would attack Lookout Mountain in diversionary action.

However, November 24 proved to be a day of frustrating success and failure. Hooker’s attack was a success, forcing the Confederates to abandon the seemingly impregnable Lookout Mountain, while Sherman, due to a poor reconnaissance and even poorer maps, attacked what proved to be an undefended set of hills slightly in front of Missionary Ridge. Grant now had to draw up a new set of plans for November 25 even as Bragg pulled all of his men back to defend Missionary Ridge. The following day, Sherman was to attack what he now knew was the Confederate right on the portion of the ridge known as Tunnel Hill, while Hooker would move off Lookout Mountain, cross Chattanooga Valley, and attack the Confederate left, crushing the Confederates between the two forces as the Army of the Cumberland loomed as a diversion in their front.

Once again luck seemed not to be with the Union forces, though. Flooded creeks and a burned bridge delayed Hooker as he moved eastward, while Sherman was handed several humiliating repulses in his attacks on the north end of the line.

Finally, late in the day, having received erroneous reports that Bragg had reinforced his right. Grant decided that it was time to commit Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. Late in the afternoon of November 25, the Cumberlanders moved forward with orders to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of the ridge, a move they made easily enough—but finding themselves under heavy fire from the Confederate main line on top of the ridge, the men surged forward without orders. Clambering up the side of the ridge, they shouted over and over again, “Chickamauga!” Using the name of their defeat as their battle cry, they soon had the summit and, in short order, broke the Confederate line and sent the Rebels into full retreat. Grant had his victory.

In the aftermath of the battle, Grant was once again hailed as the great victor, this time having opened the gateway into the heart of the Deep South. In the space of four months, Grant had delivered two of the most important victories of the war—and he was destined for even greater things. Grant, in short order, was promoted again, this time to take command of all of the Union Armies. He, in turn, promoted Sherman—despite Sherman’s failures—to take command of the Military Division of the West. The team was now being assembled to win the war.

The following spring, Grant traveled to Virginia to try his luck against Robert E. Lee, and Sherman moved through the gateway into Georgia, beginning a campaign that would lead to both his fame and infamy—but all of it leading to the death of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga wasn’t just another victory for Grant, it was the event that enabled him to assemble his winning team—a team that won the war.


[For more on the relationship between Grant, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, read Dan Davis’s essay “Vicksburg: The Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant” in Turning Points of the American Civil Warpart of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.]

“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

Lee and Guerrilla Warfare

TurningPoints-logoTwo days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a council of officers in what was left of the bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia hashed out three possible options for Robert E. Lee to consider. General John Brown Gordon, who was not present at the meeting but who heard about it later, said that the first option was “To disband and allow the troops to get away as best they could, and reform at some designated point.” In other words, Lee could later rendezvous with the remains of his army and then try to drag out the conflict indefinitely, perhaps through guerilla warfare, with the aim of wearing down the Northern will to carry on. In fact, this would be the very strategy Southern resistance would adopt during Reconstruction, eventually wearing down the will of the North to support continued occupation of the South. 

According to Gordon, though, in early April 1865, “This was abandoned because a dispersion over the country would be a dreadful infliction upon our impoverished people, and because it was most improbable that all the men would reach the rallying-point.”

Apparently no one from the weary group of officers dared bring the idea forward to Lee, but artillerist Edward Porter Alexander gave voice to the same idea on the morning of April 9. “We must either surrender,” Alexander told Lee, “or the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their own way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.”

“Well, what would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee asked.

“If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay,” Alexander replied, hoping for foreign recognition or northern frustration to somehow end the hostilities.

Lee demurred. His men, with no rations and under no discipline, “would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence,” he said. “The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.

As a soldier and an officer, Lee had determined to win or lose the question of independence not just through armed conflict but, specifically, on the battlefield. “[A]s for myself,” Lee told Alexander, “while you young men might afford to go to bushwacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.”

These exchanges have given birth, over the past 150 years, to the idea that Lee considered the possibility of a guerrilla war of some sort rather than outright surrender. To read Alexander’s account—which can be found on pp. 530-533 of his memoir Fighting for the Confederacy—Lee doesn’t seem to consider the idea at all, dismissing it casually and instantly.

Does that make his decision a kind of turning point—one nearly invisible to us because his choice really seemed like no choice at all? And because it led so quickly to the ending so well known to us?

As it happens, two of Emerging Civil War’s historians formerly worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, so I posed the question to them. Was Lee’s dismissal of guerrilla warfare a turning point of sorts?

Bert Dunkerly:

Lee the soldier knew that a guerrilla war was not sustainable. If his army moved west to fight unconventionally, how would he sustain it? With no base of supply or an infrastructure supporting it, how would they obtain food, medicine, and ammunition? Successful guerrilla operations often depend on outside support, as Washington knew well from the Revolution with his army’s invaluable support from the French. The North Vietnamese support from China is another, more recent example.

More importantly, however, a guerrilla war would not obtain the result Lee or anyone in the Confederacy wanted: independence. Washington certainly knew this very well. Without any of the trappings of an independent nation: a capital, a currency, a government, an established military, and most importantly, territory, such a struggle would not deliver independence. A guerrilla force fighting without those elements, without “Respectability,” as George Washington once wrote, would lack legitimacy.

Dan Davis:

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Questions still abound regarding Lee breaking up the army to engage in guerrilla warfare and continue the conflict. To a certain degree, this option was certainly feasible for Lee; however, it was not likely to be sustainable.

Despite the fact that his army was surrounded the morning of its capitulation, elements from Lee’s cavalry corps had successfully slipped through the Federal vice and headed for the city of Lynchburg. This movement showed that small pockets of Confederate soldiers could evade capture to rendezvous at a pre-determined location. Elements from other Confederate armies were able to accomplish similar feats in the following weeks and months.

Should Lee haven taken this route and been successful, though, he would have other factors to consider—chiefly that of logistics.

One of Lee’s main concerns during the retreat from Richmond and Petersburg was the ability to supply his army. Had Lee ordered his small force to disperse, the issue of supply would have remained. Much of Virginia, and the Confederacy for that matter, had been devastated by the Union war effort. The means of subsistence for an army, even one relatively small in number, was difficult to procure.

Another element necessary for the successful operation of a guerilla effort is the support of the local population. It is difficult to determine if the Southern people, after four years of death and destruction, would have been willing to support such an endeavor.

Perhaps, however, asking such questions are moot. Guerrilla warfare simply was not in Lee’s DNA.

Lee was a strong admirer of and follower of the precepts of George Washington. Like Washington, Lee was bound by his honor and duty to do the right thing for the men in his charge. Two days prior to the surrender, in correspondence with Grant, Lee had expressed his “desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood.” Lee understood that any further combat, especially guerrilla-type warfare, would be devastating not only to the soldiers, but to the civilians as well. The morning that Lee met Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, he commented to his aide, Walter Taylor, that such actions would be “cruel.”

Much to Lee’s credit, he made a decision that set in motion a series of events that brought about the end of one of the worst conflicts in the history of the United States.

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

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

I’ve long been fascinated with the early days, weeks, and months of the Civil War. The optimism and unbounded confidence displayed on both sides of the conflict during the spring and summer of 1861 would quickly wane as the human toll began to exceed even the wildest expectations. And while events during those first months would seem to unfold rather quickly, military actions—both in planning and on the battlefield—happened at a more deliberate pace. While I’ve spent more than two decades studying all aspects of the war, I’ve often found the early campaigns to be easier to digest than the frantic fighting and wholesale slaughter that would be the hallmark of later battles and campaigns.

So in considering the theme of ‘turning points,’ my thoughts were immediately drawn to the spring and summer of 1861, which had not been kind to new Lincoln administration. As more southern states seceded and government property and installations were lost, Federal troops suffered a number of minor though highly publicized setbacks in Virginia and Missouri ahead of the first large-scale battle of the war at Manassas, Virginia on July 21, 1861. This stunning Confederate victory on the doorstep of Washington, DC, sent the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia streaming back to the capital city. Any thoughts of a 90-day war were quickly eroding. 

Abraham Lincoln needed a general to rebuild his citizen-soldier army. While Manassas was clearly an early turning point of the war, I’d argue that a second turning point came within mere hours of the Federal defeat, when a desperate telegram was sent to a general on the western fringes of Virginia: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary.”[i] What prompted Lincoln to call on this ‘Young Napoleon’?

“I realize now the dreadful responsibility on me – the lives of my men – the reputation of the country & the success of our cause…I recognize the fact that everything requires success in my first operations.” – George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, July 05, 1861

George Brinton McClellan had led an accomplished 34 years on the eve of the Civil War. Graduating second in his 1846 West Point class, he earned a coveted commission in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving ably during the Mexican-American War and peacetime army before turning to civilian railroad work. His engineering and organizational capabilities had made him highly sought-after in military and civil circles.

Within two weeks of the attack on Fort Sumter McClellan returned to the military with a commission as major general of Volunteers in the Ohio militia. Ten days later, he accepted a federal appointment as commander of the Department of the Ohio, charged with defending the broad border of the Ohio River, his department eventually stretching from western Pennsylvania and Virginia to far off Missouri. Just eleven days later, he was commissioned a major general in the regular army, an impressive ascent for a former regular army captain who had spent the last three years in civilian pursuits!

As Confederate troops in western Virginia under the command of Colonel George A. Porterfield burned bridges and threatened the viability of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the key railroad line connecting Baltimore and Washington to the west—McClellan issued orders for his troops to cross the Ohio River and enter ‘the seat of war,’ vowing to “with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection.”[ii] While McClellan remained in Ohio to gather troops and supplies he arranged for Ohio, Indiana, and loyal Virginian troops to secure bridges and the important juncture of the B&O and Northwestern Virginia Railroad at Grafton, Virginia, which was accomplished by Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley on May 30, 1861.

On June 02, Kelley led a force of 3,000 troops to dislodge Porterfield’s command of less than 600 men at the nearby village of Philippi, where on June 3 in a driving rainstorm the Federals would rout the Confederate soldiers in the first land ‘battle’ of the Civil War. As more Ohio and Indiana troops were pushed into western Virginia, Confederate reinforcements arrived and occupied entrenched positions commanding the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike near the village of Beverly. McClellan, showing an early penchant for exaggerating enemy strength (at various times doubling to quadrupling Confederate strength in the region) recalled that “the reports from Grafton were now very alarming, I determined that the proper time had arrived for me to take the field”[iii]

(To be continued…)


[i] 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), 753

[ii] O.R., I:II:48 – 49

[iii] George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac: To Which is Added an Account of the Campaign in Western Virginia (New York, NY: Sheldon & Company, 1864), 19

The ’64 Valley Campaign: Solidifying Lincoln’s Election but Not a Turning Point

TurningPoints-logoIn the midst of our ongoing ‘Turning Points’ discussion last week, someone asked me last week if I thought Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign was a turning point. I gave this very question a lot of thought when Phill Greenwalt and I were working on our book Bloody Autumn: The 1864 Valley Campaign. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that the Valley Campaign of ’64 was not a turning point. 

BloodyAutumnReleasedI do believe there was a danger that if Sheridan failed—or stumbled, for that matter—those events could have offset Sherman’s gains in Georgia, similar to the way Rosecrans’ disaster at Chickamauga and subsequent siege of Chattanooga negating Grant’s victory at Vicksburg.

I do think the victory in the Valley helped reinforce and solidify Lincoln’s re-election, but it was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that really made the difference.

Additionally, for it to be a turning point, I think Sheridan would have had to turn in a great performance. Instead, it’s far below average. He can barely get out of his own way, and what saves him are the Crooks, Custers, Merritts, Gettys and Russells of his army—not really his own performance.

For more on the impact of Sheridan’s victory on the Election of ’64, check out “The Valley Campaign for Memory,” one of the appendices in Bloody Autumn.


“Sheridan’s Ride,” a popular poem written in the wake of the battle and which was even set to music, was circulated widely by Lincoln’s supporters in the days before the election. While it bolstered their optimistic outlook and served as great political propaganda, it probably had little significant impact on its own.