McClellan, A Historian's View
By
Professor Ernest Butner (Irish)

        McClellan - The General: "It is doubtful that Professor Mahan ever had a more brilliant pupil than McClellan. When the war came he had mastered the military literature as thoroughly as any American of his time. He translated that mastery into magnificent strategic plans. But on the field of battle all of the instincts of a great general failed him. War is an imperfect chaotic world, where plans often come to grief or must be changed. Commanders must be able to seize the hour and move with the changes. McClellan couldn't. When his knowledge had to be applied his imagination failed him (Waugh, John C. 1994).
        "McClellan is to me one of the great mysteries of the war. As a young man he was always a mystery. He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance...the test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war. It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility-- the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us" (quote by US Grant).
        McClellan the pupil: "ze gr-r-rand Napoleon," Theophile D' Oremieulx, assistant professor at West Point gave his students the literal meaning of the Grande Emperor. Professor Dennis Hart Mahan gave his students the practical lessons of the French Field Commander. Both believed highly in the habits that characterize officers - gentlemanly deportment, strict integrity, devotion to duty, chivalric honor, and genuine loyalty. None of Mahan's interpretations of the military masters of the past was ever meant to preclude an officer from thinking for himself on the battlefield. No two things in his military credo were more important than speed of movement--celerity, the secret of success--or the use of reason. Mahan preached these twin virtues vehemently. No student learned more than George McClellan.
        McClellan the observer: McClellan was assigned to the Corps of Engineers in Mexico. He helped plan the deliberate destruction of the port city of Veracruz with such notables as Robert Lee, and PGT Beauregard. Heavy naval guns were moved slowly inland to a position from where their monstrous muzzles could bear down on the great walls of that fabled city. It was the beginning and the engineers had proved themselves a force to be reckoned with.
        Veracruz fell, and few Americans were listed as casualties. Slow deliberate use of the thunderbolts achieved a victory with minimal losses. "Speed of movement--celerity, the secret of success?" He watched American troops assault fortifications at Churubusco, Chapultepec Castle, and El Molino del Rey. Successful battles all, and tremendous casualties inflicted on the victors. Speedy movements-- producing quick victories--at enormous cost, the secret of success?"
        He observed the Crimean War. He brought with him to Crimea his views of Napoleon and watched the war unfold through the distorted bifocals of Lord Raglan. Raglan was a student of Wellington...not Napoleon. Raglan had a poor view of cavalry...it's only necessity being to round up stragglers, escort trains, and reconnaissance. His cavalry commanders were inexperienced. McClellan watched in disbelief as Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade was destroyed at Balaclava. It made a lasting imprint on his mind. He also witnessed the sanguinary beauty of the successful Siege of Sebastopol. "What price is time in comparison to space and the health of men?" Napoleon said: "Troops are made to let themselves be killed." He also said: "The soldier's health must come before economy or any other consideration." Can you have both? McClellan and General War Order, No. 3: Ordered, That no change of the base of operations of the Army of the Potomac shall be made without leaving in and about Washington such force as, in the opinion of the general-in-chief and the commanders of army corps, shall leave said city entirely secure... These orders defined General McClellan, President Lincoln, and Secretary of War Stanton.
        Crippling orders given in a state of fear. In order for the United States to bring a positive end to the war, the army was needed to be loosed on the Confederate faction to the South. This fact was known by the war department, it was known by those who study war, it was known by the President of the United States. It was known by the Confederate states. "On to Richmond!" was the shout that emphasized the fervor in the North. A quick end to the hostilities. The politicians knew it could be done. The military leaders knew it was impossible.
        George Brinton McClellan was a student of the art of war. "The young Napoleon," had answered his nation's call and seemed destined to become the great savior of the Union. There was possibly no contemporary of his who fully understood the complete nature of war. There was possibly no other who was driven to change that nature. Speed was not the key to success---Siege warfare had been demonstrated---the siege of Veracruz and Sebastopol -- deliberate war against garrisoned troops. A beautiful sanguinary work of military art. The only losers were those who had placed themselves in a stationary fortified position. His ideas on war were based on his studious knowledge of siege warfare.
        McClellan and the Chickahominy: The damnable nothing of a river proved to be a death nail in McClellan's well constructed plans. It snaked carelessly through the Army of the Potomac creating logistical difficulties that were never experienced in the battles that McClellan had observed. He understood the need for extending his northern line to Fredericksburg. Without that extension his plans for the siege of Richmond would never be realized. He understood that an assault on Richmond was not a workable plan.
        Lincoln wanted a quick resolution--speed of movement, celerity. Even as he implored Washington to send more troops he had convinced himself that he would not be the composer of the death symphony that an assault on earthen fortifications would produce. He would keep Washington at a length while he orchestrated the composition of delightful music that would resound with the report of siege mortar and heavy naval guns. He would not launch an all-out attack. It proved to be his undoing...that and Order No. 3.
        Had McDowell been sent to McClellan to extend the Peninsula line to Fredericksburg the orchestration would have been complete. When the movement ended...and the composers were recalled with no ovation...a new conductor entered the scene and the old ones departed.
        There was Pope at Manassas, and the re-entry of McClellan in Maryland...but new orders. New orders would produce his eventual fall from grace. Special Orders 191 and speed of movement and celerity.
Source: From the papers of the late Dr. Ernest Butner

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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