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October 22, 2011
A Slight Demonstration (3)By Greyhawk
Sunday, 20 October 1861: The Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac would return to his Washington headquarters reinvigorated after spending a couple of days in the field with his troops.
Major General George Brinton McClellan commanded the largest military force assembled in modern history. Approaching 150,000 men strong (with additional regiments still arriving) he had at his disposal in the area around Washington DC an army that outnumbered Napoleon's and Wellington's at Waterloo combined. He was quite confident that someday he could begin a campaign that, like Waterloo, would bring on the epic battle that would end this war; that he, George McClellan, would restore the Union, much as it was before his misguided friends from the South had elected to depart. He had more than a few Northern friends who already looked back on those days with great longing - and all their hopes for their return rested on George Brinton McClellan.
He had no intention of letting them down. Just "Help me dodge the nigger," he wrote Samuel Barlow, an old friend and influential New Yorker. "I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt - on no other issue. To gain that end we cannot afford to raise up the negro question..." ("I hope some time next week to have a review of from 30,000 to 50,000 good troops," he added. "Can you not bring Madame on to it?")
He was just 34 years old when summoned to Washington and given command of what was soon called the Army of the Potomac, younger than most commanders of divisions, brigades, and regiments below him. Short of stature, newspapers had taken to calling him "The Young Napoleon" at that time, when all perceived him as the savior of both the Union and its capital city. Arrayed against him that summer and fall of 1861 were a mere 45,000 Confederate troops in what the South also (and first) called the "Army of the Potomac." Although comprised of men every bit as inexperienced as McClellan's, that was still not an insignificant force - but, given the rapidly growing federal numbers, it was nothing that could stop a qualified and determined general from achieving a world-shaping victory that would indeed rival Waterloo as the greatest and most significant of the modern era.
Order of battle, Union and Confederate forces around Washington, DC, 15 October, 1861 (from Staff Ride Guide: Battle of Ball's Bluff, by Ted Ballard, U.S. Army Center of Military History)
In McClellan's thinking, however, one thing above all others prevented him from doing just that. He'd expressed that concern not long after he'd been placed in command of an army then numbering a mere 50,000 men: "I am induced to believe that the enemy has at least 100,000 men in our front..." While by no means an otherwise humble man, McClellan would insist to anyone who mattered that he commanded merely the second largest army of modern times, and that as fast as it was growing, the enemy's grew faster. "I am here in a terrible place," he wrote his wife Ellen in mid-August, "- the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force - the Presdt is an idiot, the old General in his dotage - they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs..."
The "Presdt" was Lincoln; the "old General" was Winfield Scott, McClellan's only superior in the US Army. Normally a confident man, McClellan was uncertain, he confessed to his wife in another letter, whether Scott was "a dotard or a traitor!" - but was convinced he was "a perfect imbecile" who "understands nothing, appreciates nothing & is ever in my way." Scott, 75 years old (with most of them spent in military service - he was first commissioned 18 years before McClellan was born), did not believe it possible that the Confederates had achieved anything close to numerical parity with the federals - much less superiority - in the weeks since Bull Run. Even after McClellan brought in a rebel deserter who confirmed his estimates Scott remained unconvinced. Thus by September McClellan was warning that the Confederates were sure to attack soon with 170,000 troops, against only 60-80,000 he'd have available (depending on their line of march) to meet them.
A West Pointer (class of '46 - he'd been admitted via waiver while still one year under the minimum age of 16) who'd left the Army for a successful stint in the railroad business, his contempt for General Scott didn't extend to all career soldiers. McClellan deeply respected the Generals in gray, many of whom were once either West Point classmates or fellow officers from his earlier period of active duty. In fact, "All my associates, indeed all of them - are Southerners," the youthful but studious George had written home to Philadelphia during his West Point days. "The manners, feelings, & opinions of the Southerners are far, far preferable to those of the majority of the Northerners." Those days were well in the past now, but "I know full well the capacity of the Generals opposed to me," he assured Barlow in 1861, "for by singular chance they were once my most intimate friends."
They were good generals - but George Brinton McClellan had hit the books and been at the top of the class. And while he respected his old friends, they couldn't fool him. He knew exactly what they were up to because as good generals they were doing exactly what he would do. "Were I in Beauregard's place," he'd declared in the first days of his new command - having assessed his opponent's strength at 100,000 men - "with that force at my disposal I would attack the positions on the other side of the Potomac and at the same time cross the river above the city in force." Perhaps he would have, but that such a blow never fell never led McClellan to conclude his opponent didn't actually have 100,000 men. To the contrary, each passing day meant only that the Confederates were delaying because they were gathering an even more overwhelming force, and on September 13th he sent that urgent message to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, warning him they were about to be crushed by 170,000 men.
"The movement of the enemy so far as discovered by us and information reaching us from many directions and sources all indicate that the enemy intend at a very early day to advance;" he wrote Cameron, "even that he has already commenced that movement." He left little doubt that "the decisive battle of the War is soon to be fought in this vicinity" - and while he rather liked being compared to Napoleon, when McClellan's one great battle came he intended to be the victor. He was convinced the Confederates were reinforcing in Virginia with troops formerly operating in Missouri and Mississippi, which presented both a crisis and a means of addressing it: "the safety of the nation requires" that half of General Fremont's federal troops in Missouri be transferred to his command, McClellan insisted, "without one day's delay."
"Unless the force of the enemy is greatly overrated and all the information I have received concerning it be erroneous it will be found when we meet in the field, that their Active Army outnumbers ours by nearly two to one."
He'd hinted with some degree of subtlety that any fault with the estimates of enemy strength wasn't his, but enclosed his own figures to emphasize his concern.
"T.W. Sherman's rgts," much-needed right here, were soon to set sail on a secret mission to South Carolina - a foolish example of Scott's continued influence. And though McClellan had overlooked a minor subtraction error in his "Present at Washington belonging there" line (93,226 - 8,000 = 85,226) that rendered it and all subsequent totals on that sheet he'd provided the Secretary of War 1,000 men low, even correct figures couldn't change the fact that imminent danger was obvious, it was right there in black and white!
On September 28th, just two weeks after McClellan delivered that assessment, the Confederates pulled back from their positions nearest Washington. Desperately outnumbered, they couldn't afford to hold a front in that proximity to enemy forces, thus they elected to concentrate their available manpower around Centreville. Their now-abandoned strongpoints included Munson's Hill in Virginia, a height prominent enough that a large rebel flag flown from its crest could be seen from nearby Washington. More disturbingly, with the aid of an eyeglass one could also discern the forms of cannon jutting out from the fortifications on the peak. Remarkably, the latter were left behind when the secessionists abruptly departed - and General McClellan's Army of the Potomac moved out to claim them, along with a large stretch of now-undisputed ground, almost immediately thereafter.
They were accompanied by members of the press, many of whom had a field day of a different sort when it was discovered the cannon that had terrified Washingtonians for so long were actually logs painted black - decoys nicknamed "Quaker Guns." They couldn't fire rounds, but they'd proven highly effective at striking fear (or perhaps, in hindsight, merely deep concern) into the hearts of residents of the nation's capital - including those in the White House, Congress, and the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.
Only those in the latter group, however, were expected to be experts on armaments.
"Rebel Gun at Munsons hill--a regular quaker" - cartoon from the New York Illustrated News, October 14, 1861 (Library of Congress)
Soon the discovery was ridiculed across the nation in cartoons and song, and some began raising more serious questions about The Young Napoleon's qualifications and motivations - and why was it again that the army they'd sent him hadn't yet gone to war? He could take that - he had previous assurances from that idiot in the White House himself that he wouldn't be pressured into some premature campaign ending in a repeat of Bull Run, albeit with casualty figures commensurate with the larger numbers of men participating on both sides. As for the rest of the armchair generals, they couldn't see what was immediately obvious to McClellan - the Confederates would have burned those logs if they hadn't wanted him to find them. It was all part of the lure in their new plan to get him to underestimate them, and march recklessly forward from his recently completed fortifications to attack them where their numerical advantage would be even further enhanced by his lengthy movement against their own well-constructed defensive positions.
Gloomy times - but at last he'd received uplifting news, and yesterday, while out riding among his troops in the field he'd taken a few moments to share it with his wife in a brief letter: "It seems to be pretty well settled that I will be Comdr in Chf...
"Genl Scott proposes to retire in favor of Halleck. The Presdt and Cabinet have decided to accept his retirement, but not in favor of Halleck. The old ___'s antiquity is wonderful and lasting."
It didn't solve all his problems, but at last that worn out old man, so often condemned by McClellan as the greatest impediment to achieving his goals, was getting out of the way.
Besides the BIG news, he had other strategic planning to share with her, too. "The enemy have fallen back on Manassas - probably to draw me into the old error." If by late October he was thoroughly induced to believe that rather than assaulting him with their overwhelming numbers they were now intent on leading him into a trap, (after all, as good generals they were doing exactly what he would do) he wasn't taking their bait. He would, however, take advantage of their pullback to advance in another direction. He hadn't planned on it, but it might just fall into his hands: "I hope to make them abandon Leesburg tomorrow."
It was all going according to his plan - which he might not have realized until expanding on it in another letter to Ellen the following day:
I yesterday advanced a division to Dranesville, some ten miles beyond its old place, and feel obliged to take advantage of the opportunity to make numerous reconnoissances to obtain information as to the country, which is very beautiful at Dranesville, where I was yesterday. The weather is delightful. The enemy has fallen back to Centreville and Manassas, expecting us to attack there. My object in moving to Dranesville yesterday and remaining there to-day was to force them to evacuate Leesburg, which I think they did last night.
Domestic tranquility: George and Ellen McClellan
If done with the proper timing (and railroad men, soldiers, and politicians could all agree that timing was everything), that (hopefully bloodless) triumph at Leesburg would be immediately followed by the public announcement of Scott's departure and McClellan's promotion. (Though he was certain the people of his nation - and especially his soldiers - would be relieved to know he fully intended to maintain his current command, too. After all, its true full name would always be McClellan's Army of the Potomac to him.) "I was called to it;" he assured Ellen regarding his God-given destiny to save his nation, "my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end." And though he could quickly list all the "difficulties in my path" ("the impatience of the people, the venality and bad faith of the politicians, the gross neglect that has occurred in obtaining arms, clothing, etc...") he knew he would overcome them; he was convinced he could do it all.
Several busy days followed. When he found time to write home once again...
"That affair of Leesburg on Monday last was a horrible butchery. The men fought nobly, but were penned up by a vastly superior force in a place where they had no retreat. The whole thing took place some forty miles from here, without my orders or knowledge. It was entirely unauthorized by me, and I am in no manner responsible for it...
(Part four is here...)
Thomas W. Cutrer, The Mexican War Diary and Correspondence of George B. McClellan
Ethan Sepp Rafuse, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union
Posted by Greyhawk / October 22, 2011 11:14 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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