When judging Civil War leaders, we sometimes look at them in isolation of a period or event, forgetting that they always act in accordance with the sum of their knowledge and experience to date. But remembering what has gone before in an officer’s career is sometimes the only way we can understand his decisions and actions.
Such an example is George McClellan in the 1862 Peninsula/Richmond Campaign. There are many reasons to criticize his leadership and generalship in that operation, but critics sometimes miss elements in McClellan’s biography that may help explain his thinking. One factor certainly has not received the attention it deserves: McClellan’s experience in the Crimea as an observer during the Crimean War.
McClellan was the junior member of the three-man Delafield Commission, which travelled to the battle zone in 1855 as observers on behalf of the U.S. Army. The officers reached Sevastopol a month after the two-year siege had ended in an Anglo-French victory over the defending Russians. The climactic battle featured a massive artillery bombardment followed by a mass attack by 60,000 men over four days, 5-9 September 1855. The Commission spent several weeks studying the recent operations, analyzing weapons, tactics, logistics, medical services, and other aspects of what was then the most modern conflict available. Because of his cavalry background, McClellan was lead investigator of mounted operations, including a review of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854.
All three commissioners also inspected Sevastopol’s fortifications, and came away deeply impressed at their strength. One of Sevastopol’s key strongpoints, Malakov Redoubt, is pictured above after the siege. After returning to the United States, the men spent the next two years completing their voluminous report.
Compare the Malakov Redoubt with the famous pictures of the Yorktown defenses and the Richmond defense lines. When McClellan encountered these in the spring of 1862, was he in fact flashing back to Sevastopol and expecting a similar operation? Is this why he resorted to siege warfare so quickly at Yorktown and Richmond, and insisted on a massive siege train accompany the Army of the Potomac? Do his findings in Crimea also partly explain McClellan’s ambivalence to cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign?
How much do the ghosts of Crimea influence McClellan’s thinking in Virginia? We will never know for sure, but it must have been a factor – one that should be remembered in any analysis of George McClellan in the spring of 1862.