Question of the Week: 9/26-10/2/22

George McClellan got (and still gets) criticism for his relative inactivity after the battle of Antietam. If you were McClellan, what would you have done at the end of September/beginning of October 1862?

(Same historical scenario. No what-ifs except you’re the commander!)

9 Responses to Question of the Week: 9/26-10/2/22

  1. Does “I have no clue” count as an answer? The more I study the Civil War, the more I realize that I know a lot less than I thought I did and also what a difficult undertaking it was for everyone involved. When I was younger, I thought that McClellan had this huge reserve at Antietam that he never utilized. Apparently that was not true. I also thought that Meade missed a great opportunity by not immediately counterattacking after Pickett’s charge. Apparently Hancock’s wounding had a major impact on that counterattack never occurring. It turns out that ordering an attack is not the same as ordering a pizza.

    McClellan after Antietam faced the same problems that Meade faced after Gettysburg. The army was punched out. Days of hard marching and fighting a bloody battle had taken its toll. McClellan stopped the invasion and won a tactical victory. Maybe he felt that that was enough, given that his army was bloodied and exhausted. I probably would have done the same thing he did.

    1. Excellent answer, one that I always have entertained also. Lincoln did seem to grant Meade that leeway after not sending his letter to Meade. I don’t know though, Grant seemed to keep going albeit his label as “a butcher”. Still, Grant won the war with his attack and pursue methods.

  2. Well, McClellan seemed to always be dealing with inflated numbers when it came to estimations of his enemies strength. He was being fed that information from his own intelligence sources. We know NOW that such estimates were almost always wrong, but to Little Mac they were quite real and had to be accounted for. Union cavalry wasn’t as proficient as it would start to become the next year.

    To pursue Lee would have meant traversing mountainous territory that the Confederates knew well. There would be no ‘special orders’ to know where Confederate units were and when. Lee was ready to do battle on the 18th before he started his retreat. And though the Union army had some fresh forces available, that army had still endured a considerable mauling of its own. So all that said, I don’t know if not pursuing the Confederates in the immediate aftermath of the battle was so wrong. Unless the Union army could gain a position between Lee and Richmond, Lee would have most of the advantages as I see it. Instead of going after Lee, perhaps advancing into the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg area would have been an option to force Lee’s hand? Who knows?

    1. Regarding what McClellan actually believed about inflated numbers, no less than Joseph Harsh raised the possibility in an interview in the late 1990’s that McClellan could have been knowingly puffing the numbers up for his own purposes.

  3. Actually, the Pinkertons had fairly good intelligence estimates (how many brigades in Lee’s army, how many men per brigade; the rest is simple arithmetic), and while they added a small fudge factor to cover unknowns, they weren’t too far off. McClellan took those slightly inflated estimates and then, for reasons no one fully understands, further inflated them himself by rather a large amount.

    I’d like to think I’d order a pursuit and press Lee closely, but I am sure that there were a lot of practical difficulties in the way. It’s hard to get an army to move fast after a heavy mauling like Antietam.

  4. This is one of those periods where McClellan takes a lot of heat, and it’s easy to paint him with a brush of derision, particularly because he and Lincoln both say some things that are easy to quote and which make McClellan seem like an imbecile.

    Remember that McClellan retook command in the wake of Pope’s defeat with hardly any time to get himself re-situated or reorganized before he had to swing into action, so he wasn’t able to get a good read on his army’s infrastructure until after Antietam, and what he saw concerned him a great deal. His supply issues in the wake of the battle were very real. We deride him today for complaining, but all the corps commanders, a number of the devision commanders, and the cav commanders are ALL grousing about the supply issues, too, which points to a legit, widespread problem.

    The flip side of that is that McClellan was truly one of the greatest logistical organizers in the history of the army. That he didn’t bend those powers to fixing his problems sooner is a major failing.

    I had the chance to explore all this in depth in the first three chapters of my book “Decisions at Fredericksburg” if anyone wants more details. 😉

  5. Whenever someone criticizes McClellan for his failure to pursue the defeated Confederates, I ask for one example of a successful pursuit of a defeated army in the Civil War prior to Grant catching Lee at Appomattox. After Antietam McClellan set about to do what he did not have a chance to do in Washington when he took command three weeks before — get the AOP supplied and organized. After all, it had just gone through two huge battles — Second Manassas and Antietam. Lincoln quite rightly knew that Mac could take way too much time doing this and hurried him along. But I don’t think I would have gone charging into Virginia with this battered group that much earlier than he did. As for the other commentators claiming McClellan purposely inflated Confederate strength, in the Maryland campaign he was getting his estimates from Union sources, including Halleck and Pennsylvania Gov. Curtin. None was below 70,000. And twice during Sept. 17 Confederates had appeared seemingly out of nowhere — McLaws et al in the West Woods and A.P. Hill at the end of the day. McClellan must have wondered what else Lee had back there.

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