The Eastern Theater: Graveyard of Generals (Part Two)
After Irvin McDowell’s defeat in the First Battle of Manassas, the Lincoln government took several actions. The most important decision in the near-long term was the recall and promotion of Maj. Gen. George McClellan to command the newly forming Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater.
McClellan had been trumpeted by the newspaper for several small victories over the Confederates at the Battle of Philippi (which came to be known as the ‘Philippi Races’ after the Confederates fled) and the Battle of Rich Mountain. His opponent at the latter was General Robert E. Lee who had such a lackluster performance that he was relieved of command and transferred to the North Carolina coast to supervise the building of fortifications.
McClellan was the most successful failure as a general ever to serve in the Eastern Theater. He was a superb organizer and trained the new Army of the Potomac its peak yet he was a timid field commander. He was one of a number of generals who believed in conciliation with the Confederates. McClellan had been a Democrat before the war and did not hold the abolitionist of say Maj. Gen. David Hunter who was known as ‘Black Dave’ for his views on abolition.
George McClellan’s other major contribution to the Union war effort was his supervision of the building of Washington’s defenses. When they were complete the nation’s capital was the most heavily defended city in the world. He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists.
McClellan was finally prodded into action in early March 1862. He was relieved of his position as general-in-chief in order to devote his full attentions to the coming Peninsula campaign. Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a War Board of officers assumed command of the Union armies for the next four months.
McClellan’s huge army landed at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula and immediately spent built up resources for a siege at Yorktown. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston ordered his forces to withdraw as soon as it became apparent that they would be overwhelmed by the Union Army. The entire month of May was spent in the same fashion with the Confederates grudgingly retreating up the Peninsula.
The two forces finally came to a halt along the Chickahominy River and fought the Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks), fought on May 31 – June 1, 1862. Although the battle was inconclusive two important strategic effects resulted; both were in favor of the Confederacy. General Johnston was severely wounded and replaced by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee.
Second, General McClellan chose to abandon his offensive operations to lay siege and await reinforcements he had requested from President Lincoln; as a consequence, he never regained his strategic momentum. The two armies fought seven battles in seven days from June 25th to July 1st.
The cost to both sides was high. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered almost 20,000 casualties out of a total of over 90,000 soldiers during the Seven Days, McClellan almost 16,000 out of 105,445. The Army of the Potomac’s offensive strength had been blunted by the Confederates and he withdrew to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Northern morale was crushed while the South reveled in Lee’s successes.
The Union government appointed John Pope to command the newly formed Army of Virginia. Pope had achieved some success in the Western Theater, and Lincoln sought a more aggressive general than McClellan. Pope’s force numbered some 50,000 men amid three corps. Pope’s mission had two objectives: protect Washington and the Shenandoah Valley, and draw Confederate forces away from McClellan by moving in the direction of Gordonsville.
Lee’s Northern Virginia campaign was a triumph with the Army of Northern Virginia defeating the Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28th to August 30th. Despite the three corps that had been transferred from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac Pope’s army was crushed by the Confederates. Unlike the First Battle of Manassas, the Union army retreated in somewhat good order.
At the Battle of Chantilly the Union army suffered a grievous loss when two of its generals, Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny, were killed during the fighting. Pope ordered his army to retreat back to the Washington defenses. Pope was relieved of command on September 13th and his army was merged with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. He spent the remainder of the war in the Department of the Northwest in Minnesota.
Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams, who served briefly under Pope, held the general in particularly low esteem. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote:
“All this is the sequence of Gen. Pope’s high sounding manifestoes. His pompous orders . . . greatly disgusted his army from the first. When a general boasts that he will look only on the backs of his enemies, that he takes no care for lines of retreat or bases of supplies; when, in short, from a snug hotel in Washington he issues after-dinner orders to gratify public taste and his own self-esteem, anyone may confidently look for results such as have followed the bungling management of his last campaign….I dare not trust myself to speak of this commander as I feel and believe. Suffice it to say (for your eye alone) that more insolence, superciliousness, ignorance, and pretentiousness were never combined in one man. It can with truth be said of him that he had not a friend in his command from the smallest drummer boy to the highest general officer. All hated him.”
McClellan was once more perceived as the savior of the nation but Lincoln’s cabinet thought differently. A majority of them signed a petition declaring to the president “our deliberate opinion that, at this time, it is not safe to entrust to Major General McClellan the command of any Army of the United States.”
The president admitted that it was like “curing the bite with the hair of the dog.” But Lincoln told his secretary, John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”
McClellan was immediately thrust into a crisis when Lee moved from Manassas across the Potomac into Maryland. Lee’s goal was to penetrate the major Northern states of Maryland and Pennsylvania and cut off the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line that supplied Washington. He also needed to supply his army and knew the farms of the North had been untouched by war, unlike those in Virginia.
McClellan organized a pursuit of the smaller Confederate army. Then, he experienced an incredible stroke of luck when Union soldiers discovered Lee’s orders to the commanders of his army. General Order Number 191 indicated that Lee had divided his army, making it possible to be defeated in detail. McClellan waited 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence, a delay that almost squandered his opportunity.
On September 14th McClellan’s forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of South Mountain and pushed through to confront Lee along Antietam Creek. Meanwhile, Lee frantically moved to concentrate his army. The two armies met on September 17th east of Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Battle of Antietam.
The two armies fought the bloodiest single-day engagement of the war along the banks of the creek and in the surrounding farm fields. After twelve hours of inconclusive combat during which over 23,000 casualties were sustained by both armies, the Confederates disengaged and retreated back to Virginia.
McClellan’s performance was criticized on a number of fronts. During the battle, he never took control of his forces. Rather he allowed the field commanders to proceed according to the pre-battle plan. He never sent in his reserves, some say that Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter cautioned him that they were the last reserves of the army. Finally, with Lee’s Army in retreat he did not order any pursuit.
On November 25, 1862, Fitz John Porter was arrested and court-martialed for his actions at Second Bull Run. By this time, McClellan had been relieved by Lincoln and could not provide political cover for his protégé. Porter’s association with the disgraced McClellan and his open criticism of Pope were significant reasons for his conviction at court-martial. Porter was found guilty on January 10, 1863, of disobedience and misconduct, and he was dismissed from the Army on January 21, 1863.
George McClellan was relieved by Abraham Lincoln on November 7th. From September 17 to October 26, despite repeated entreaties from the War Department and the president himself, McClellan declined to pursue Lee across the Potomac, citing shortages of equipment and the fear of overextending his forces.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” He never held another position during the war.