Another View of George McClellan at Antietam

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

General George McClellanMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, has come in for withering criticism from most historians for his actions at the Battle of Antietam.

There are some who question his timidity and say that he may not have had the will to destroy the Confederate army because he was a Democrat. As a Democrat, they say, he was opposed to Lincoln’s war aims of freeing the slaves. However, only a select few knew that Lincoln would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the next Union victory.

Others say that McClellan was loathe to hazard the Army of the Potomac in pitched battle. He had created the army over the previous year and the troops worshiped their young commander.

Here are some known facts about George McClellan. He was superb when it came to military logistics. We must remember that at the start of the war no officer had commanded a regiment in peacetime, much less an army in combat. The two army’s were simply armed mobs in the fighting of 1861, intent upon bludgeoning the other side into submission.

McClellan took the Union armed mob and made it into the Army of the Potomac. At the start of the Peninsula Campaign, he made sure that his vast army of 100,000 all arrived on the Peninsula in reasonable order with proper supplies, equipment and support. It was a feat that many historians overlook.

However, George McClellan was not a great battlefield commander like Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant. His skills on the battlefield suffer by comparison to these two superb field commanders.

McClellan’s reputation for timidity was set for all time by the events surrounding his actions before, during and after the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Perhaps, it’s time to take another look at the underlying facts surrounding the events.

First and foremost is the question of troop strength for both armies. The Union Army of the Potomac had been in flux for at least two months before Antietam. The army had been on the Peninsula where it fought a series of battles culminating in the Seven Days Campaign. McClellan had retired after the Battle of Malvern Hill and after his failure to resume operations the Union high command shifted many of his troops to the Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope.

Pope was beaten badly at the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and withdrew back to the Washington defenses. Lincoln hesitated to act but finally on September 1st, he returned the shattered formations of Pope’s army to McClellan’s command. Ever the egotist, McClellan wrote to his wife that he was once more asked to save the nation.

But what did McClellan have? The Union army was composed of four separate commands, thousands of untrained recruits and other small units scattered around the area. Three of his commanders had been relieved of command, charged with insubordination by Pope. His cavalry command had been reduced from a paper strength of 28 regiments to a mere 1,500 troopers. Opposing them were 5,000 Confederate veterans led by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Most historians number the Union army at 87,000 men and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at 40,000. Sometimes the Confederates are credited with starting the campaign with 55,000 men in the belief that by the day of the battle some 15,000 straggled off. Five days after the battle, Lee reported that he had 36,418 infantry. He did not include his cavalry or artillery units in his counts. Adding in 5,000 men for the missing components, it appears that he had 41,000 men at the end of the campaign.

Eighteen days later, on Oct. 10, Lee filed his first complete report, which showed 64,273 present for duty.  Lee had not received a single additional regiment in the interim time. When his campaign losses of 13,417 are added to this total, we have a figure of 77,690 men at the start of the campaign, a far cry from 40,000-41,000. Eyewitness accounts corroborate the estimate of 77,000 men.

Special Order Number 191 holds a primary place in the McClellan reputation of timidity. For many years it was believed that McClellan waited an inordinate amount of time before he acted on the contents of Lee’s “lost” orders. Special Order Number 191 was Robert E. Lee’s plan for the entire Maryland Campaign.

It revealed that Lee had dangerously split his army into five parts. Three columns had converged on Harpers Ferry to capture the Federal garrison there, a fourth column was in Hagerstown, and a fifth column was acting as a rear guard near Boonesboro, Md. It was discovered on September 13, 1862 by an Indiana corporal who passed it up the chain of command.

For many years it was believed that McClellan waited 18 hours before acting on the intelligence the order contained. Stephen Sears in his bestselling work Landscape Turned Red cites a telegram that McClellan sent to Abraham Lincoln at “12 M”, which Sears says stands for meridian or noon, in which McClellan confidently informs the president that he has the plans of the enemy and that “no time shall be lost” in attacking Lee.

After the book was published, the receipt for the telegram was discovered among the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. It shows that the telegram was sent a midnight, hence the “12 M” notation. This casts a totally different light on McClellan’s response to the “Lost orders” intelligence.

The revised timeline should read like this. The orders were found at about noon, according to the Indiana unit’s commander. McClellan had them by 3:00 PM. McClellan ordered his cavalry commander to begin a reconnaissance to determine the validity of the information. At about 3:30 PM, he ordered Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to begin to move his IX Corps in pursuit of Lee. At about 6:20 PM, the rest of the army received orders to commence their movement at sunrise on the 14th.

By 9:00 AM the Union army began to climb South Mountain and clashed with the Confederate rear guard. After an all-day battle, the Union army captured the heights and the Confederates had retreated back to the west. They established defensive positions on Antietam Creek on the 15th, pursued by the Union army.

When these two pivotal factors are included in the narrative, it would appear that McClellan did not dawdle as many historians contend. It would also appear that the armies were more evenly matched than it has been previously reported.

We still cannot excuse George McClellan for his timidity as a battlefield commanders. His refusal to send in his reserves after the bloody struggle in the center of the line is inexcusable. Doing so would have split the Army of Northern Virginia in half and invited its defeat in detail. With its primary army defeated and destroyed, the Confederate government would have been forced to surrender.


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