Friday, March 27, 2015

Jackasses of History: George McClellan

Before we talk about why General George B. McClellan, once the general-in-chief of Union forces during the American Civil War, is a Jackass of the First Order, let's talk about his good points. He was handsome. He was charismatic. He was a very good organizer, and academically, understood military tactics and, especially, training.

"Attack the Confederates? Meh."
Unfortunately, he was pompous, vain, prone to bask in unwarranted self-congratulation, ignored orders, was insubordinate to his commanders (especially President Lincoln)  utterly identified with the aristocratic south, supported slavery, and, worst of all, seemed overly cautious to the point of cowardice. He blamed all of this failures on others, and history would judge him not only by his contemporary detractors, but by embarrassing revelations found in his own letters and papers after his death.

George McClellan was a blue-blood, born into a wealthy family. He showed early promise, graduating university at 13 and being given a special dispensation to enter West Point early. He graduated second in his class. At West Point his closest friends were Southern aristocrats and he was sympathetic to their lifestyle, believing firmly that slavery was protected by the Constitution. 

During the Mexican-American War, he served as a commander of engineers and did well constructing things under fire, although he never saw actual combat as a participant. He wrote a manual on bayonet tactics, but it was only afterward he acknowledged he had simply translated it from the French. After that, he was sent to the West to shore up fortifications and scout out passes through the Cascade Range of the Rocky Mountains. He was utterly insubordinate to his commander, the governor of the Washington Territory, because he considered him a social inferior. Ignoring orders and acting on faulty intelligence, he found a pitiable pass through the mountains, somehow managing to miss three far better ones that were quite close by. These would later be used by the railroad companies. This process took him so long that he was presumed dead, and he was bitter about newspaper articles that reported he'd been killed by Comanches. He refused to surrender his log books when he was relieved of command; it later turned out this was because of embarrassing personal comments he made about his commanding officers.

He soon became a protege of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who sent him on a secret mission to the Dominican Republic with an eye toward future annexation. His ties with the south were strong. He believed in the Union, but felt that the Federal government should not interfere with slavery.

When the Civil War broke out, he claimed a great victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain. It wasn't much of one - it was, in truth, somewhat indecisive, although the Confederates did withdraw. Faced with many Union setbacks at the outbreak of the war, the public nevertheless hailed McClellan as a hero, calling him the "Napoleon of the United States." He seems to have taken this seriously, as his pose in our photograph makes clear. Never mind that during the battle, he threw his own subordinate, commander William Rosecrans, under the proverbial bus by not committing reserve troops to reinforce Rosecrans, which was an essential part of the battle plan, resulting in a Pyrrhic victory.

He became so popular he wrote that if he wished, he could be Dictator of the United States. Because he was a good organizer and had the public on his side, Lincoln put him in charge of the Army of the Potomac, charged with defending Washington DC from the Confederate forces of General Joseph Johnston, who were massed nearby - far too close for comfort.

McClellan boasted that he would crush the rebels in a single campaign, then proceeded to sit around and do pretty much nothing for a few months. He consistently over-estimated the size of the Confederate forces, falling victim to tricks that even the simplest recon missions could have penetrated. For example, Johnston painted tree trunks to look like canon; he marched the same few troops through a gap in McClellan's sight-line over and over and over to give the impression there were more of them than there were (they were just walking in a large circle). McClellan had the largest unit ever assembled in the United States, and one of the largest in the world at the time. Nevertheless, he felt he was not in a position to attack. At no point during his command did McClellan's forces not outnumber his enemy by at least two to one, and often the ratio was far greater.

Meanwhile, he wrote scathing remarks about abolitionists, and issued a proclamation to southerners that he would not free their slaves if he invaded, and would ensure that their property was not damaged (a promise he could not possibly have kept). This was done without the knowledge of his superior, General-in-Chief Scott, or President Lincoln, which miffed them greatly.

McClellan then threatened to either quit the army or stage a military coup unless he was made General-in-Chief. Lincoln reluctantly agreed, hoping that McClellan's skill as a trainer and organizer would come through. But Lincoln and the war committee became increasingly frustrated at McClellan's apparent lack of zeal, as his army sat encamped and made no moves against the Confederates. At the Battle of Ball's Bluff, McClellan managed to lose despite outnumbering his opponents by three to one. When a Congressional committee called him in to explain, McClellan called in sick. His subordinates testified that he did not share any specific overall strategy with them and they were left without orders during the battle.

McClellan blamed Lincoln for his failures, calling him a "baboon" and "gorilla." When Lincoln came to visit McClellan at his home, he kept the president waiting for half an hour, then had a servant tell the president he had gone to bed.

Under intense pressure from Lincoln to do something, McClellan finally shared a plan to divide the Confederate forces called the "Urbanna campaign." This came to nothing, as McClellan took a long time to prepare. Meanwhile, General Johnston somehow managed to move his entire Confederate army without McClellan realizing it, rendering his tardy and over-cautious campaign plans utterly moot.

Lincoln removed McClellan as General-in-Chief, but kept him in charge of the Army of the Potomac and ordered him to focus on taking Richmond, the Confederate capitol. But he conducted this campaign with a significant lack of zeal, it seemed, and soon developed a reputation for never being where the action was. At the Battle of Malvern Hill, for example, McClellan was 10 miles away, in a boat. Newspapers mercilessly lampooned him for sitting in safety while his men died. When General John Pope of the Union moved his army toward Virginia, McClellan was ordered to reinforce him. McClellan didn't, and this resulted in the loss of the Second Battle of Bull run. Lincoln realized that McClellan was better at engineering and training, and put him in charge of the fortifications of Washington DC, against the advice of his cabinet. Said Lincoln of McClellan, "If he can't fight himself, he excels at getting others to fight."

But when McClellan had his chance to shine, he blew it. General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland with the Army of Northern Virginia, counting on pro-slavery citizens there to smooth the way. While Lee stampeded into Union territory, he told his subordinates he was counting on McClellan's reputation for being too cautious and academic. McClellan was ordered to chase Lee, but moved his troops at a mere six miles per day. Then he got his golden ticket: spies discovered Lee's battle plans hidden in a rolled-up cigar. McClellan was ecstatic and wrote to Lincoln that if he couldn't crush the Confederates with this knowledge, he would consider himself a failure and go home.

Of course, he didn't crush the Confederates, he didn't consider himself a failure, and he didn't go home. Catching up with Lee at Antietam, he postponed his attack several times due to early-morning fog. This gave Lee plenty of time to prepare. Ultimately, the battle was called a Union victory, but only because Lee withdrew his much smaller force from the field first. The battle was technically a draw, with no tactical advantage for either side. Lee retreated, but McClellan had every opportunity to pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, he allowed Lee to maneuver his entire force back across the Potomac into Virginia to regroup and fight another day. In fact, McClellan was many miles away in his tent during the battle, too far away to personally supervise anything. He also, for some reason, chose not to use any cavalry in the battle, leaving a powerful force sitting idle. His subordinates complained that McClellan had shared no overall battle plan with them, making it impossible for them to take initiative or respond to unfolding events during the battle.

Lincoln ordered McClellan's dismissal, replacing him with the famous-whiskered General Burnside. Lincoln also ordered the Emancipation Proclamation at this time. Furious, McClellan ran against Lincoln for president in 1864. But repeated Union victories under his successors doomed his candidacy, and Lincoln won in a landslide. Tellingly, the military voted 3-1 overall in favor of Lincoln, and some 70 percent of the Army of the Potomac voted for Lincoln as well, despite McClellan's personal popularity among the rank-and-file.

McClellan went to Europe after the war, and planned to return and run for President again following Lincoln's assassination. However, he backed out when he learned that Ulysses S. Grant would oppose him. He was appointed to be the Superintendent of Public Works for New York, but the senate blocked the appointment, citing his incompetence. He was elected the governor of New Jersey, where he spent a single term somehow not managing to stir controversy or screw anything up. He wrote a book defending his conduct in the war, a volume full of bitterness toward his superior officers, blaming all of his failures on Lincoln's refusal to give him enough troops - ridiculous, when we consider he constantly outnumbered his opponents. McClellan died unexpectedly from a heart attack at 58 years old. Neither of his children had children, thus saving future generations from the jackassery in his gene pool.

McClellan went to his grave believing history would vindicate him, but ironically it was his own pen that doomed his reputation. His personal letters to his wife were made public after his death, revealing his tendency for self-aggrandizement and self-congratulations, scathing racist remarks, and total identification with the aristocratic southerners he was supposed to be fighting. History can only conclude that McClellan enjoyed all the trappings of being a general, had a solid understanding of war from an academic point of view, but was reluctant to fight, either from cowardice or because he sympathized too greatly with his enemies.

So, for being pompous and self-important, racist, blaming his inactivity and failures on others, refusing to share battle plans with his subordinates, staying miles away from the front lines of any battle, for publicly snubbing and mocking the commander-in-chief, for terrible political judgment, for prolonging the most terrible conflict in American history through his inaction - congratulating himself all the while as the "savior or the Union" in letters to his wife - General George McClellan is, without a doubt, one of the true Jackasses of History.


1 comment: