Question of the Week: 4/23-4/29/18

What if…

If McClellan hadn’t been appointed to command the Army of the Potomac, who should have been commander and how would he have pressed an attack “on to Richmond”?

32 Responses to Question of the Week: 4/23-4/29/18

  1. Frankly, I have enough trouble figuring out & remembering what did happen… what ifs are a rabbit hole.

  2. It may well be the case that ANY strategy based on marching the Army of the Potomac down the Kanawah River valley to the environs of Richmond, VA was a suicidal delusion. This “strategy” was largely the pipe dream of armchair generalissimos who lacked all comprehension of the geopolitical realities involved. The workable approach to ending the Insurrection was discerned by such true analysts as Gen. Winfield Scott, C.S.S. Gen. Leonidas Polk, BGen (Volunteers) Ulysses S. Grant, Capt. James Buchanan Eads, and some others. After the fighting in the War of 1812, the Duke of Wellington taught the British peace treaty delegates that the United States was an immense geopolitical body, wherein subjugation of cities was largely an exercise in futility. The rivers and seaports were the sine qua non of controlling this mini-continent. The control of the Mississippi River, and of the Tennessee, Cumberland a few other strategic arteries was of the essence. Some of the rebel leadership caught on, and were attempting to fortify the riverine infrastructure; Fort Henry was a military disaster because it was situated in great haste. Gen. G.B. McClellan had reached the pinnacle of his talents by organizing the Army of the Potomac, and the time had come for real commanders (including Navy men who deplored brown water) to step up to the plate.

  3. McClellan’s plan devised in August, 1861 was strikingly similar to what Grant ended up choosing in Spring, 1864 – a multi-pronged offensive with the local objective in Virginia to drive the Rebels to Richmond. The difference was that McClellan envisioned one large battle while Grant’s plan morphed into a war of attrition. As I look at the other summer, 1861 possibilities for command, I have no idea how they envisioned that the war would unfold. If we’re going to indulge in this hypothetical, let’s assume that Lee did a George Thomas and accepted the Union command. What do we think he would have done?

    1. Or, what if Lee’s plans had NOT been wrapped around some cigars near Antietam/Bull Run, and turned over to McClellan? Even with them in hand all Little Mac could achieve was a draw that led Lee to withdraw back across the Mason-Dixon Line.

  4. I wonder what might have happened if McDowell had been given a second chance. He knew he wasn’t ready to march out to Manassas in the first place (although I agree with part of Lincoln’s premise that everyone was having cold feet, so at some point, McDowell just had to plunge in). So, upon the return of his scattered command in DC, McDowell could have been given the opportunity to refit the army and turn it into something–much as McClellan took the time to do.

    And I wonder, too, how things might have been different had Scott been able to take the field. “Fuss and Feathers” or not, the dude knew how to use troops on battlefield once upon a time.

    1. Best answer yet! McDowell is seriously underrated. His plan for Manassas was a winning one–with an experienced army it well could/should have woked. Also, McDowell had never commanded in the field. That he was summarily kicked to the curb always rankles me. I think he and Scott could have wrapped things up in a reasonable amount of time. But then . . . no Grant, no Sherman, no Lee. Probably no ECW!

      1. Interesting points but I’d be careful to distinguish (1) the fact that McDowell was playing against a loaded deck in July, 1861 from (2) any assumption that the merits of his plan for 1 BR means that he would have fared well leading the Union’s war effort in Virginia. His performance at 2 BR was mediocre, to put it generously, even accounting for Pope’s numerous bad decisions.

      2. John–No disagreement there. I guess I am imagining a situation wherein McDowell got good mentoring from Scott. Maybe Pope would have profited by some of that as well!

      3. Meg: I think the problem is that Scott appears to have had competent strategic vision but whether he could have mentored McDowell or anyone else in the art of actually leading an 1861 army in battle is open to question. He “done fine” against Santa Anna in 1847 but times (and the quality of the opposition) were rapidly changing and he was 75, after all. Pope, of course, looked capable based on his Island No. 10 campaign but quickly was out of his element in Virginia (exacerbated by the motley collection of troops assembled under him and by McClellan’s/Porter’s “sabotage”). Nobody has ever done a biography of McDowell, due in part to the fact that he apparently left no papers. An interesting topic for a biographer.

  5. To continue discussion thread of John Foskett:

    It is on record that, through surrogates, President Lincoln offered Colonel Robert Lee (2d US Cavalry) command of the militia and regulars gathering to enforce the laws of the nation. Had he accepted, a newly promoted Brigadier General (USA) Lee would have led the Union field force that marched on Manassas Junction.

    Reading his letters of the time, even if staying with the US Army, R. E. Lee would have been a half-hearted warrior, supporting a limited war with the goal of a negotiated return of the Confederate states to the Union. If defeated at Manassas, I think that he would have resigned and retired to his house on the hill.

    While some of us may not conceive of a Lee-led Union Army being defeated, I am not at all certain that he would have been victorious. Recall that the “Lee of Cloyd’s Mountain” (WVA 1861) was unduly deferential to his subordinate officers, devised a complicated enveloping maneuver beyond the capabilities of his officers and soldiers, and retreated upon failure. “Lee of Manassas” would have had a similar pack of beyond-their-capability general officers and a collection of untrained short-time militia regiments. Because he was audacious, because of his Mexican War experience, “US Lee” may have essayed too complicated a enveloping plan, and broken against a stone wall. Remember that General Patterson (PA militia) failed to prevent Joe Johnston from moving to the Junction from the Shenandoah Valley, and there is no reason to suppose that Joe and the boys would not have been present on the field of battle.

    Joe and Ole Bory were stout enough on defense, and early in the war proved that they could conduct retreats, so if defeated they would have likely withdrawn south of the Rappahannock.

    Lee would have deferred to his President’s imperatives, left Washington City garrisoned and fortified, and followed the Rebel Army for an overland campaign. If logistics problems did not force him to halt, I can see a series of fights along the river lines north of Richmond. President David would not negotiate in 1861-62. With a victorious in a “limited warโ€ Lee in command of the field force in the east, maybe the ‘young Napoleon’ would have found himself commanding the western theater after the West Virginia success.

    We have the interesting situation of…McClellan commands the Army of the Ohio, Fremont the Army of the Mississippi, Lee the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Halleck takes over from Scott in 1862.

    Wonder how that would have turned out…

    1. A lot of good points regarding Lee. We tend to forget that when he got his first important command, he had prior combat experience as a commander in what was then western Virginia (albeit not very successful). In June, 1862 he took over an army which had some significant combat experience, including at its highest command levels (and I’m including Jackson, Ewell, et al,. who joined up before Lee fought a battle). So it’s almost impossible to say based on that what he might have accomplished in July, 1861 under pressure from the administration to take the offensive with an army and leadership which had zero combat experience or at most experience from the Mexican War in smaller field commands. I had to laugh at this comment in yours – “a limited war with the goal of a negotiated return of the Confederate states to the Union.” Sounds exactly like what Lincoln got with Mac when McClellan actually had to implement. ๐Ÿ™‚



      1. So let’s never analyze what any historical figure did. They were always right. There were no better options. Nothing to criticize or look at objectively. Your lack of curiosity is astonishing.

  7. I don’t disagree that McDowell probably warranted a second chance. Regarding who, in late 1861, could have prosecuted an “on to Richmond” campaign, I think that the realistic options would have been those who would become Corps commanders in March of 1862. Of these, Franklin and Keyes were advocates of retreat from Richmond rather than counter-attacking, particularly after Malvern Hill. That leaves Heintzelman, Sumner, and Porter. Of these, despite his close ties to McClellan, I personally believe that Porter might have done the best job. His leadership in defensive battles at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill was admirable and his corps probably ended up bearing the heaviest load during the campaign. Granted the question assumes none of these events had happened, but I think that he would have been effective if placed at the head of the Army. He would have probably been cautious, but not as much as his chief. Additionally, he would have counterattacked Johnston/Lee, when the opportunity presented itself, and would have been a more persistent presence on the battlefield than McClellan ended up being.

  8. I always thought Fitz John Porter was under rated and received a horribly bad rap due to the rancid politics of the Union Army in the early part of the war. But he acquitted himself well as part of Little Mac’s army during the 7 Days. He was known for his defensive skills, but who knows what might have transpired if he had been given command of the entire army?

    The other one I’d mention is Phillip Kearny. Lincoln was supposedly considering replacing McClellan with him at the tone of Kearny’s death. He was against McClellan’s withdrawal from the Richmond area as the 7 Days concluded.

    1. Let me play devil’s advocate on this. Porter was in constant contact with his pal Manton Marble of the New York World, during which he was highly critical of the administration’s policies (not his job) and bordered on violating the Article of War as they were written at the time. He also hardly fit the definition of “audacity” and his actions at Second Bull Run on August 29 (and I don’t mean the failure to follow through on Pope’s orders after Longstreet was positioned in the way) weren’t an exemplar of the aggressive military art. I think that Porter has unduly benefited from the fact that he was scapegoated by Pope after 2 BR. If true, his comment to McClellan on the afternoon of September 17 is further evidence. Phil Kearney is an entirely different story. I just don’t know if his “front of the charge” leadership style fit army command (as opposed to division command). It got him killed at Ox Hill/Chantilly.

      1. Well, the question centered on command attributes. Porter having communications with benefactors or others certainly was not unique to anyone in a command position on either side, nor was criticism of the war effort and decisions made pertaining to that. Neither one of us KNOW what anyone would have done if presented with the command of the army beyond those who were actually entrusted with that. So Porter is as fair of a consideration as is anyone else.

      2. I think that his conduct relates directly to a “command attribute”. It’s not limited to whether his written orders are clear or he can competently assess where to place X or Y Corps. Porter was a corps commander sending his disagreements with his commander-in-chief about the war policy it was pursuing to an opposing newspaper publisher. You didn’t mention the remainder of my points. Kudos to him for figuring out how to utilize the Beaver Dam Creek and Boatswain’s Creek topography for defense but that wasn’t rocket science (and let’s remember that the Boatswain’s line finally broke). He was pretty uninvolved in the rest of the Seven Days; had nothing to do with Fair Oaks; accomplished little at 2 BR; and was pretty much uninvolved again at Antietam (in part, if the story is believed, due to his own begging off). What else did he do that showed command capabilities which suggest that he could have exercised army command successfully?

      3. No one would get worked up if you stuck to the original premise of the thread. My point, which you obviously have trouble grasping, is that virtually ANYONE was fair game for consideration at that particular point in the war to this particular question. I still cannot fathom why that remains so hard for you to understand. The war was new, and many officers strengths and weaknesses were not known. Based on The 7 Days, Porter had track record, but seeing how the question relates to the time well BEFORE the 7 Days, how Porter would perform could not be known. And that applies to EVERYONE. I am not on here trying to BS anybody that I am a scholar or an accredited historian. I do try to stick to the question parameters when they are presented. One more time, for THIS particular fantasy, ‘what if’ question, ANYTHING goes, because literally EVERYTHING (in the way of names presented) is legit. Even yours.

  9. Remember that this is early in the war. The question is who could replace McClellan at THAT TIME. I get it that you don’t like Porter. That is your prerogative. Porter is as LOGICAL of a choice given the circumstances and the question as anyone else. You don’t agree with that, and that’s fine. I didn’t address your other points because they are not relevant to me. I addressed the question as I saw fit. And I stand by my picks.

    1. Fair enough. So it’s reasonable to take into account his actions as Patterson’s Chief of Staff. This isn’t personal – it’s a dialogue about whether Porter was qualified.

      1. Given what transpired during the war, on both sides, Porter was as eminently qualified as anyone else, especially for a ‘what if’ fantasy like this. McClellan had a superb resume’ when he was given the job, how did that work out? So you, and I, and everybody else have no idea how Porter would have performed in the capacity of Commander of the AOTP. Just like all the other names submitted on this thread by everyone else, we can’t possibly know. And reading all the responses to this question, I jhven’t seen any offerings from YOU as to who should have been given command. Seeing how you take such issue with my OPINION on this matter, who do YOU answer this fantasy question with?

      2. I’m not sure why you appear to be taking this as a personal affront. I’m simply raising legitimate issues about Porter based on what he actually did or did not do. You’re free to challenge them or to just ignore them (as you seem to be doing). If you want three names from my end, I’ll give you George G. Meade, Israel B. Richardson, and John F. Reynolds. I’m sure you can come up with reasons why any of them may not have succeeded (I know I can). As for Porter, I’ve given you facts which indicate why he would not have worked out. Feel free to give me some facts – not just opinion – which support your belief that he might have.

      3. YOU are the one who appears to be taking this very personally. It’s like “how DARE anyone voice their OPINION on here concerning a hypothetical that nobody can prove”. If you are of the mind that your OPINION is superior to everyone else’s, have at it. But it might bite you back on venues like this. And NO, I will not attempt to discredit the 3 names you have submitted, because as we have seen with virtually everyone in command positions throughout the war, most had good and bad points to them. Even Lee, and even Grant. IT DOESN’T MATTER.

        But once again, staying WITHIN the boundaries of this hypothetical, i.e., FANTASY situation, literally anything goes. The question centered on WHO should have received command of the AOTP., at the TIME McClellan did. The reputations of at least some of them named in above posts were established later in the War, not in the time of when McClellan was given command.Thus the field at that time was wide open, and that hypothetical fantasy question can be applied to the Confederates. Ultimately, none of it matters, and REAL history concerning the CW is interesting enough. And per Porter’s attributes, since you seem to be so concerned with them, I DO point to his performance on the Union right when he faced the confluence of major Confederate forces and did a remarkable job of holding them back during the 7 Days. Hate that all you want, I do not care. He proved as able as anyone else on the Union side AT THAT TIME! But once again, I stand by it. If that still bothers you, oh well. Take it up with the administrators of this site.

      4. That, by the why, is why I mentioned Porter’s work on Patterson’s staff. There already was a sample before August, 1861. Let’s end this. You’re getting too worked up about what should be a civil dialogue. I don’t mind having my points questioned with facts. You obviously do. Over and out.

  10. The most likely options for command if there is no McClellan (I am assuming he died in WVA) are Halleck and Fremont. Banks and Butler were too much of amateurs to be given such a command.

    Halleck was skilled in organization, army politics (by war’s end most of the Union high command were his friends), and grand strategy, but little else. Fremont had even fewer skills. Both would have endorsed the direct march on Richmond, which against Johnston could have worked. Yet, Fremont would be likely to stir up political trouble. Halleck was not fully tested in battle, but his actions during the war show an inability to come to grips with a situation that did not involve propping up his friends and undermining his enemies.

    It is likely they would be sacked after a major defeat, with Fremont’s fall undermining the radicals. It also makes one wonder how the west would turnout. If McClellan is not dead and simply goes west I see him doing well. He was comfortable with naval operations, a good trainer, and he would not be in the political snake-pit that was was Washington. Whether or not such success could be sustained in a long war is questionable.

    1. Good points. As for Butler, I’d add that he’d already demonstrated some incompetence on the military side with the fiasco at Big Bethel.

  11. In short, he devised a too-complicated plan for the inexperienced troops he had, requiring converging columns in a night march, and failed to exercise command in person, leaving it to an incompetent militia officer, Ebenezer Peirce. The result was predictable. Of course, given his political importance, it didn’t affect him too much.

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