War Is Politics By Other Means: The Reputational Demise of Civil War General George B. McClellan
On March 11, 1862 general-in-chief of the Union armies, General George B. McClellan, was summarily removed from his command, being reduced to command of the Army of the Potomac only, it being the primary federal army in the east. On behalf of what were known as the radical Republicans, the very treacherous and domineering Sectary of War Edwin M. Stanton in effected executed what amounted to a coup.
The radical Republicans in Congress held strong abolitionist sentiments. They hated Southerners and their “peculiar” institution of slavery. As such they wanted the war fought on the basis of destroying the South and putting an end to slavery. They did not feel that the general-in-chief shared their same intensity of hatred toward the South nor their true war objectives.
They were correct. While McClellan was somewhat sympatric to the abolitionist cause, he saw beyond all else stopping the breakup of the American Union as his top priority. In his view, (it was early in the war before much had been revealed about the true nature and purpose of the fighting) to ensnare military matters with slavery issues would only complicate the process of putting down the rebellion. Moreover, as another black mark against him in the eyes of the radicals, McClellan did not hate Southerners in general. In fact he held numerous personal friendships among Southerners. This caused many Republicans to fear him to be a potential traitor to the Union cause.
The result of the dastardly machinations Secretary of War Stanton’s and his virtual usurping of the post of general-in-chief of the army was to cause the entire federal military posture, which was just then beginning to gather moment, to become unraveled. This was exactly as the Radicals wished to see it happen, contrary to their pubic protests that McClellan was dragging his feet in going after the Rebels. The last thing the Radicals wanted to see was the war ended before the abolition of slavery was publically acclaimed to be a major war aim.
Moreover, Republicans didn’t wish it seen by the public that Democrat generals were the ones that had won the war, especially because hero generals made for potential presidents. So stating it crudely from the radical perspective: what was the point of fighting a war that cost them political power? (So you see things haven’t changed all that much over the years,) Therefore removing politically dangerous generals from high profile posts became a high priority of the powerful Radical Republican Congressional caucus, higher than any poorly timed, for them, military victory of significance.
From the viewpoint of ending slavery a little quicker, the subversive actions of the radicals might seem to be a good thing, but by dragging out the war there was a tremendously high price in life and property to be paid — roughly 600,000 deaths among the contending sides alone.
In order to subdue the eleven states of the Confederacy that geographically composed a vast region of rivers, lakes, swamps, forests and mountains, backed by a mighty determined people, would require a massive amount of management, manpower and supporting military resources. The brilliant, relatively young and energetic George McClellan — a graduate in high standing from the US Military Academy (West Point), having served in the Mexican War with distinction and then served as first chief engineer then president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad — was without question the perfect individual to organize such a grand endeavor.
Upon his removal as general-in-chief by his superior, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (though technically it was by order of the president), Stanton immediately began deliberately slowing military operations via such means as inexplicably closing down recruiting stations just as McClellan was about to march on Richmond. Prior to his demotion the little general (McClellan) had been in feverish communications with his regional commanders. Mostly he had been lining them up for coordinated attacks on New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, Jackson Mississippi, Mobile Alabama, the fort guarding Savannah Georgia and of course the cradle of session Charleston South Carolina, not to mention Grant’s investments, in coordination with Admiral Foote, of the river forts of Henry and Donaldson, which would turn General U. S “unconditional surrender” Grant into a national hero.
Within his second attempt at writing a military memoir (the first draft being destroyed in a warehouse fire) and the second unfinished version completed by one William Cowper Prime, McClellan writes in stark terms of the political forces arrayed against him.
Taking about how it was on the political front soon after he came to Washington to assume the post of general-in-chief of all the Union Armies he write: “They [the Radicals] then saw clearly that it would not be possible to make a party tool of me, and soon concluded that it was their policy to ruin me if possible.”
Knowing this, it was a strategic blunder on McClellan’s part to have ever left Washington. By taking direct command of the Army of the Potomac in the field, instead of appointing another to that duty, was all that was needed for Stanton and his Radical friends to affect full overall control of military operations — after a little arm twisting of the president that he should go along with their quest.
McClellan’s demotion came about in Lincoln’s War Oder №3. “Maj. Gen. McClellan having personally taken the field at the head of the Army of the Potomac, until otherwise ordered he is relived from command of the other military departments, he retaining command of the Department of the Potomac.”
McClellan made no sounds of bitterness. Perhaps he figured that if he could score a spectacular victory with the Army of the Potomac at Richmond it would automatically propel him back into top command. It was wishful thinking on his part, if that was the case. With Stanton in the catbird seat there was ultimately nothing McClellan could do without his enemies wanting it so. All that was needed on their part was a big public show of support for the general while withholding assets as needed.
And so it was that by the time McClellan brought his troops to the gates of Richmond, as one writer has described the general’s approach to the enemy capital, it was clear to the general and his political supporters back in Washington that Stanton, with Lincoln’s somewhat reluctant blessing, had no intention of fully supporting his endeavors. Thousands of troops originally intended for McClellan’s campaign on the Virginia Peninsula were being withheld, so as to soon form a second Eastern army. This new army, The Army of Virginia, would be under the direction of one of the darlings of the Radicals, Major General John Pope. Headed by Pope, who previously commanded in the West, the new army would subsequently be disastrously routed at the Battle of Second Manassas on August 30th1882.
Meanwhile the famous, but not yet famous at this point in time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, fully aware of McClellan’s tenuous situation from his readings of Northern newspapers, devised a daring plan to exploit his adversary’s plight. Lee would unleash a type of attack that would seem to confirm what common sense and basic military doctrine called for: that the Confederacy had massively concentrated it forces at Richmond in order to defend its capital. Actually this was not the case though Lee did have at his disposal the largest army he would ever command, around ninety thousand, perhaps a shade under McClellans troop strength — Lee, however, having the advantage of being much closer to his main source of supply than McClellan.
Southern military leaders had wanted to greatly reinforce the Richmond front, but once again politics acted to block such a vital concentration of forces. Fragmented states rights thinking that was at the heart of the Southern States withdrawing from the Union in the first place made it politically impossible at the time to strip away large portions of local troops, troops seen by resident officials as necessary for regional defense. In other words states right theory was crippling states rights survival.
Of course McClellan and his staff had no way of knowing this reality. McClellan had served Jefferson Davis, a military man in his own right, when Davis, now president of the Confederacy, had been US Secretary of War. It never would have entered McClellan’s mind that Davis would fail to see to it that massive numbers of combatants were brought to the Richmond front. Later anti McClellan writers would try to make it seem that it was silly for McClellan to reason that he was vastly outnumbered. There is, however, no evidence that others (staff), all about him, didn’t possess the same reasoning.
In any event, bamboozled by Lee on his front and undercut by Stanton in his rear, on the morning of June 27 1862, as troops were moving into a new defensive position behind one of numerous little streams that fed into the Chickahominy River for what in a few hours would become a titanic battle, the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, McClellan had already concluded that his situation was hopeless. He must make a dash for the James River. He would use the pending battle of his 5thCorp with Lee’s horde, the Rebels having crossed east of the usually sluggish stream of a river, the Chickahominy that was currently a raging torrent because of recent heavy rain squalls.
General Fitz john Porter, McClellan’s most trusted leader, had managed to fend off Lee’s opening move the day before, being securely dug in behind Beaver Dam creek. In fact Porter’s 5thcorps had given Lee’s boys quite a blood nose. But with the approching Stonewall Jackson expected at any moment to flank Porter on the right, it was deemed better to redeploy his men closer to the escape bridges over the flooding Chickahominy River.
The fact that Lee could afford to come at his extreme right flake with such massive numbers was the last straw. It was all the conformation that McClellan needed to give up his current line of attack on Richmond. He saw the wide James River — as apposed to the narrowly congested Pamunkey River — where federal gunboats were free to maneuver far more easily for protecting his army and its arriving supplies — as a much safer line of campaign.
Under peaceful conditions a movement to the James would be an easy day’s march from his current lines. But as things stood, he would be compelled to march across an active enemy’s from, a most hazardous undertaking, especially in that he would have to cover the transporting of all that was portable from his White House supply base on the Pamunkey. He termed his retreat a change of base, which in a way it was. But politically and militarily it was still seen as a retreat, a retreat that would greatly prolong the war effort and virtually ruin McClellan’s military reputation.
The Battle of Gaines’s Mill would become known to history as the third and bloodiest battle of the Seven Days series of battles fought during McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Lee would come at Porter’s semi isolated 5thcorps with some 57,000 men. It would be Lee’s largest attack of the war. For most of the day it was a disjointed assault, but approaching dusk the relentlessly pounding mass of Rebels became more coordinated, and so with the setting sun, around 7:00 PM, bit by bit the 5thCorps line started to crumble and the federals concealed by a faded light began making their way in the dark as best they could to the bridges that connected them to the rest of the Army of the Potomac, an army that would in a few more days successfully fight its way to a new deployment along the James River.
Not only did Lee fail to completely crush the federals as intended. In his all or nothing, headlong attacking of McClellan, his formations sustained heavy losses, losses that could not be made up, especially in officers killed and wounded. As one Confederate would comment later in the war, “at first we valued life too cheaply.”
Had not General Lee been so desperately aggressive or McClellan’s political enemy been so fiendishly effect, it is hard to say that McClellan would not — Ike Grant after him, a general who did receive the full backing of the Lincoln administration — have eventually invested Richmond at a faction of the cost of Grant’s 1864 campaign in lives, with the war concluded in but a few additional months. As war is politics by other means and politics is always a messy business, so too is war. And that last comment is what keeps today’s security professionals awake at night with Trump at the helm of state.
You know I couldn’t miss that last dig.
For more details and an interesting story line, check out two books: Little Mac: Demise of an American Hero and Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.