SCHAEFFER: ANTIETAM – Part 2: The Young Napoleon

The soap opera tenure of George B. McClellan, who’d left the peacetime army to find success as a railroad executive before accepting a commission as major general when civil war broke out, was a fifteen-month play in two acts.

The first and longer act began during the summer of 1861 when he came to prominence by leading a small but successful excursion into Virginia’s western counties, securing their support for the Union, after which he was called on by Lincoln to take command of and rebuild the Union army. It was still stinging after the defeat at First Bull Run on July 21, 1861 at the hands of a disciplined Rebel army ably led by the Creole Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard — along with the eccentric Virginia Military Institute instructor, Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, who’d earned the nickname “Stonewall” at that battle, and whose very mention would soon strike fear in the North. It was a monumental task. But, said McClellan, “I can do it all.” And he set to work.

What the wunderkind McClellan, then just thirty-five, did for the Union’s most prominent army, The Army of the Potomac, was truly remarkable. He tirelessly orchestrated a rejuvenation of the ranks, feeding them, re-equipping them, re-organizing the officer corps, and instilling discipline through constant drilling and parades. His unusually paternalistic attitude towards the men (whom he likened to his children) was returned by a fierce loyalty to the general they affectionately called “Little Mac” and whom the press dubbed “The Young Napoleon” (a sobriquet he no doubt relished). By September 1861 it was clear to an impressed Lincoln that George McClellan had built a formidable army, well-trained, amply supplied, and filled with renewed confidence, that could take the field and, if properly led, defeat the Rebel army, storm the enemy capital Richmond, and crush the Confederacy in its infancy.

Maybe so, but it soon became apparent that having built a great army, McClellan was in no rush to use it. While Lincoln gently but persistently prodded his general to leave the safety of Washington’s fortified ramparts and take the war South, McClellan began to display a prickly, arrogantly hostile, and unsettlingly dictatorial nature that soon had him bitterly complaining to his wife that he was being hounded by civilian buffoons and ingrates. Lincoln, for example, was a “well-meaning baboon” and War Secretary Stanton “an unmitigated scoundrel”. The president for his part was growing tired of waiting as the fall campaign weather with its hard roads was frittered away. Stanton was more blunt: “The champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be ended.” Lincoln even briefly considered taking the army into the field himself if McClellan refused to budge. Then the general became genuinely ill with typhoid fever, and by the time he recovered, it was time to consider settling in for the winter.

When spring 1862 arrived, McClellan proposed to take the Army of the Potomac by water on an end-run around the Rebel army on the outskirts of D.C. to land on Virginia’s southern shore on the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers and approach the Rebel capital from the southeast. Although Richmond was only ninety miles from Washington, he felt the overland route too fraught with hazards. One argument against a head-on approach revealed a major handicap McClellan brought to the field: his propensity to “see double” as some called it. Basically, in his mind he was perpetually outnumbered by opposing divisions that often had a 2:1 advantage over him. This misconception was fueled by his reliance on civilian agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency who furnished detailed reports . . . which were all wrong. The Rebels camped at Manassas and Centerville, they reported, numbered some 150,000 well-equipped men. This was absurd. The Confederate Army, now under Maj. Genl. Joseph E. Johnston, that faced him in Virginia numbered maybe 50,000 to his own 105,000 and was, as one foreign observer who visited the Rebel camp offered, “ragged, dirty, and half-starved.”

Only 30% of the railroads were in the South, making supply a chronic issue for Confederate armies. But as far as McClellan was concerned, the Rebels somehow fed and equipped an army twice his size via a single dilapidated track from Richmond 90 miles long. He faced an enemy host and thus was he always demanding more men, more guns, more wagons, more supplies, and most aggravating of all, more time to prepare . . . otherwise any defeat he suffered would be on the Administration’s hands, not his own. It was a convenient rationale. If he won, he’d be the master tactician who overcame daunting odds; if he was defeated, it would be from lack of proper support and thus would the blame fall on others. Still, Lincoln needed action and so gave hesitant support to what would be known as McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. On March 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac set off on boats down its namesake river into the Chesapeake Bay and sailed south and away from Washington, “that sink of iniquity” as McClellan called it, to capture Richmond and end the war.

McClellan didn’t realize that his biggest impediment to glory wasn’t Washington politicians. Nor was it that phantom ocean of Rebel legions he might encounter. The real challenge before him would be dealing with the man who would soon face him in battle. His name was Robert E. Lee.

Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here:

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