Question of the Week: 11/9-11/15/20

In your opinion, who was the better general? George B. McClellan or Ambrose Burnside. Why?

10 Responses to Question of the Week: 11/9-11/15/20

  1. For all his failures as a combat commander, McClellan’s skill at raising, equipping and training an army was perhaps only exceeded by Hooker. But his emotional fly wheel was always flying off, as his correspondence with his wife and Washington demonstrates. Burnsides had his moments in Eastern Tennessee, the march to Fredericksburg, and in the barrier islands. But Burnsides was awful at the maintenance of an army, and afflicted with terminal stubbornness. The icing on his rotten cake was his poor performance during the Overland Campaign.

  2. I agree with John in the first comment. McClellan, as much as everyone rags on him about not being more aggressive in combat and pursuing Lee, did a decent job of boosting morale and training the Federal army. I’d almost venture to say that if he wasn’t in the picture, the army wouldn’t have been as efficient as it was (despite its losses). Burnside is… well, Burnside. I don’t know much about his performance in the west or elsewhere (besides a tad about Knoxville), but his attitude during Fredericksburg and the Overland Campaign just had me shaking me head. When I explained the 9th Corps actions during that spring of 1864 to my husband, I said, “And Burnside was over there… doing Burnside things, as usual.” I don’t have much good to say about him except his beard is pretty epic.

  3. I’m gonna go with Burnside. At least he would fight. He certainly had a checkered career with its ups and downs. Many throughout history don’t judge him too kindly. I don’t claim to be an expert on him, but to the best of my knowledge, his men liked him because of the concern he expressed and showed for them. In that regard ‘Little Mac’ was of a similar persuasion. But Burnside is defined by the First Fredericksburg campaign. It’s important to remember that he had a pretty good plan to enact, but it depended on timing, and that timing was thrown askew when the pontoons didn’t arrive when originally planned. I think it’s also fair to point out that what happened at Fredericksburg had a lot to do with demands from Lincoln and Halleck to get something done ASAP. I’ll stick with Burnside.

    I’ll also add this about both men. Little Mac proved to be superb in both organizing and logistics. He also implemented training protocols that would serve the Union armies well. Burnside did have a concrete contribution to the war beyond the instances where he performed well, and this is his development of a carbine that was used extensively throughout the war and proved to be quite popular. He went bankrupt from all that. Interesting that Little Mac allowed Burnside to move in with him and got him a position within the railroad he worked for that allowed Burnside to eventually pay off his debts from that disastrous venture.

  4. As has been pointed out above, it depends on how you score it. McClellan was the much better organizer, trainer, and administrator. He also inspired the men under his command much more than Burnside did. On the other side of the coin, Burnside successfully prosecuted complex campaigns in NC and Tennessee, and stayed in active command until 1864 (as opposed to 1862). Burnside also was much more humble.

    1. One interesting point that relates to this discussion is the area of combined operations. While Rowena Reed’s book spends a lot of time at the “McClellan Was a Genius” altar, it was Burnside, and not McClellan, who showed an ability to actually practice the art. The excellent essay collection edited by Craig Symonds undermines Reed’s hyperbole to some extent.

  5. William Marvel writes a pretty positive bio on Burnside indicating he was poorly served by Halleck at Fredericksburg and undermined by Franklin during the actual battle. Burn was in a rough spot during the overland campaign serving under Grant directly instead of Meade for much of the campaign and likely was not appreciated by Meade when put under his control. What if Meade fully supported Burn with the Crater as opposed to interfering? However I am puzzled by his allowing Ledlie’s division to lead the attack, straws or no straws. Prefer Old Burn over McClellan. McClellan had the full support of his generals, the army and still could overcome his feeling of inferiority with Johnson or Lee’s actual strength.

  6. Who had greater strategic and operational accomplishments? I think we tend to be too dismissive of the liberation and maintenance of East Tennessee. The region was staunchly Union, more so than anywhere else in the 11 completely seceded States. It was hard to get to for Union forces & hard to supply once there. Burnside did, though. I’m biased as I had many Union ancestors there. But for this, I give the nod to Burnside.

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