Tag Archives: George McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

(March 7, 2018) Provided below is Chapter Eleven of my Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies book. Source citations are available in the book whereas they have been removed from this online version. Generally, modern historians condemn McClellan for what he failed to do instead of applauding him for what he did do. Among the things he did do was to take command of a panicked and demoralized army and converted it into a victorious one that stopped Lee’s first invasion of the North in less than three weeks.


Ultimately Civil War students must take a position on Major General George McClellan. It is necessary to decide whether Lincoln was correct in growing impatient with him, or whether the general was driven to a natural resentment of the President—and especially Radical Republican leaders—by their unfair treatment of him. While most modern historians side with the Republicans, McClellan apparently had powerful endorsements among experts of his time.

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One example was Helmuth Von Moltke who was the leader of the Prussian armies that won the 1870-1871 Franco Prussian War, which paved the way for the creation of a German state. George Curtis, who was co-counsel to Dred Scott when the slave’s case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, cited a conversation that Moltke had with another American whom Curtis “had no reason to doubt.” The American said, “Some of us in America do not estimate McClellan so highly as we do some of our other generals.” Moltke replied, “It may be so, but let me tell you that, if your Government had supported General McClellan in the field as they should have done, your war would have ended two years earlier.” However, since Moltke met with McClellan in 1868 when the latter visited Europe, it may be presumed that the Prussian was influenced by whatever information McClellan provided.

Similarly, during the last summer of his life Robert E. Lee visited his cousin Cassius Lee and they shared reminiscent conversations. Cazenove Lee who was Cassius Lee’s twenty-year-old son, claimed to be present. Cazenove later told Robert E. Lee, Jr. that he asked the former Rebel leader, “ . . . which of the Federal generals he considered to be the greatest.” According to Cazenove, the old general answered, “McClellan, by all odds.”

While both the Von Moltke and Cazenove Lee incidents cannot be absolutely verified, they were told under circumstances that suggest validity. But whether or not they are true, a case for McClellan or Lincoln can be made independent of the statements.

Following defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 the principal federal army in the east was in disarray. Lincoln called upon 34-year-old George McClellan to take command, bring order out of chaos and prevent the capital from being captured by the jubilant Rebels. The President chose McClellan for two reasons. First, he was familiar with him from before the war because Lincoln did legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad when McClellan was an executive in the company. Second, news reports had generally credited McClellan with winning four small victories in the western mountains of Virginia during the preceding month or so. In truth, the victories were actually won by subordinates, although McClellan had overall command. Nonetheless, they had the effect of separating the strategically important western part of Virginia from the Confederacy. Continue reading

Other Generals Shared McClellan’s Disease

(July 5, 2017) Modern historians commonly condemn Union Major General George McClellan for almost uniquely overestimating the size of his opposing Confederate armies. According to the Civil War Trust, for example, the general’s “most grievous error [of] hugely overestimating Confederate numbers [was] a delusion [that] dominated his military character.” In truth, however, a number of Federal commanders were prone to overestimate the size of the enemy’s army.

During the Battle of Shiloh, for example, General Ulysses Grant sent a note to the commander of a reinforcing Federal army that Grant was under attack by more than 100,000 Rebels whereas the Confederates only numbered about 45,000. While that overestimation might be excused  because it was made in the heat of battle, Grant continued to overestimate his opponents strength at 70,000 even after the battle.

Similarly, on the eve of the Battle of Antietam where McClellan  would lead the Federal troops, Union General in Chief Henry Halleck in nearby Washington estimated Robert E. Lee’s opposing army at 150,000 men compared to its true strength of only 40,000. Nine days before the battle McClellan’s own commander of cavalry estimated Lee’s strength at 115,000. The prize for exaggeration, however, goes to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin who wired the War Department five days before the battle that Lee had 190,000 men north of the Potomac River and another 250,000 men in northern Virginia ready to cross the stream. In short, Curtin estimated Lee’s army to be more than ten times bigger than it actually was.

As explained in an earlier post, President Lincoln was afraid that Stonewall Jackson would attack Washington following the latter’s repeated victories in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. Even though Jackson had only 17,000 soldiers Lincoln estimated it at 30,000. Union commanders in the Valley, James Shields and Charles Fremont, estimated Jackson’s numbers to range from 20,000 to 60,000.

When Major General Jubal Early led a Confederate army in a second Shenandoah Valley campaign two years later and did, if fact, reach the outskirts of Washington, Lincoln’s War Secretary Edwin Stanton claimed Early’s army contained 35,000 men. In reality, Early had only 12,000.

Shortly before launching his offensive against Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863 Union commander Joseph Hooker told Lincoln that Lee outnumbered him, whereas Hooker actually outnumbered Lee two-to-one.

The prevailing tendency among historians is to judge McClellan for what he did not do as opposed to what he did. Thus, he is not admired for accomplishing in a matter of three weeks the transformation of a defeated Union army into one that stopped Robert E. Lee’s first invasion at Antietam. He is not applauded for immediately cancelling the orders of Stanton and Halleck to ship the weapons in Washington’s arsenal to New York and keep a steamer ready to evacuate political leaders in the panicked aftermath of Second Bull Run. Nor is he credited with earlier reaching the gates of Richmond before the Battle of Seven Pines by suffering only modest casualties and inflicting more casualties on Lee than Lee did on him during the ensuing fighting on the peninsula. Two years later, Grant would sacrifice over sixty thousand soldiers to put Petersburg under siege and force the surrender of the Confederate capital. Grant’s maneuver was much like the one proposed by McClellan in July 1862 but overruled by then General in Chief Halleck.

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Did Lincoln Want a Slave Rebellion?

Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is the most memorable result of the American Civil War, most students of the era fail to realize that many period contemporaries—North and South— suspected the President of sinister motives.

After Lincoln read a first draft to his cabinet in July 1862, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase advised caution even though he was one of the Union’s most resolute abolitionists. He felt it would be better to let the generals in the field implement emancipation as they advanced through the South sector-by-sector, partly in order to avoid the “depredation and massacre” of civilians.

Chase’s comment suggests that a number of important Northerners recognized that emancipation might prompt a slave uprising. In fact, President Lincoln was among them.

On September 13, 1862 a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visited the White House to urge immediate emancipation. Lincoln first clarified that  he did not object to their proposal based upon any argument that he lacked the legal authority to do so. Next he added that he did not object based upon the possibility that it could lead to a bloody slave uprising in the South. Whatever the moral benefits—or immoral consequences—of emancipation he considered the matter to be exclusively a war measure.

Understand, I raise no objections against it [the delegation’s emancipation proposal] on legal or constitutional grounds, for, as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war I suppose I have a right to take any measures which may best subdue the enemy; nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view this matter as a practical war-measure, to be decided on according to the advantages and disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion. [Italics added.]

Such an uprising would almost certainly have compelled Confederate soldiers to desert in order to go home to protect their families. Even if they were among the 70% of families that did not own slaves, such a rebellion could trigger a race war. The danger was most  threatening in states like South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi where slaves represented over half, or nearly half, of the population. The Confederacy would have little chance of surviving a widespread servile insurrection that would require it to fight both the slaves and the Union armies.

#2_Confederacy at Flood Tide

Although there were few prior American slave rebellions, Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia uprising confirmed they could be merciless racial conflicts. During their brief summer rampage Turner’s rebels killed nearly every white they encountered. A total of about sixty were massacred, mostly women and children.

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Book Review: Lee’s Lost Dispatch

Earlier this week Civil War author and book reviewer, Fred Ray, wrote the review of my Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies provided below:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies

By Philip Leigh
Illustrated, photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index, 224 pp. softcover $18.95
Westholme Publishing 2015

Philip Leigh, whose last book, Trading With the Enemy, I reviewed a while back, has produced another volume for the Civil War reader. This one is a series of essays on various controversies, mysteries, and other aspects of the war. Briefly, they are:


• The Biggest Confederate Error. Leigh sees this as Jefferson Davis’ decision to hold Southern cotton off the market to put pressure on England and France to intervene. In retrospect, however, Davis missed a golden opportunity to supplement his meagre war chest while he still could. Had the cotton been sold and the money put into European banks, the Confederacy would have had more money than the United States to buy badly needed war materiel. Once the blockade became effective, it was too late.

To read the rest of the review, please go to the TOCWOC Blog where Ray posts his reviews. 

My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

Lee’s Lost Dispatch

Provided below is a copy of a speech I gave to the Civil War Roundtable of North Florida about the Lost Order of the Antietam Campaign.

The Confederacy never came closer to winning its independence than in September 1862.
Only three months earlier in late June, Washington brimmed with expectations of a Confederate collapse. The first six months of the year provided a string of federal victories in the West. They began in January at Mill Springs, Kentucky and continued with the surrender of 14,000 Rebels at Fort Donelson in February, Confederate ejection from Missouri in March at Pea Ridge, and culminated with the repulse of the supreme Confederate counter-offensive at Shiloh in April. Even a Rebel offensive in remote New Mexico was turned back.

In May the South’s largest city, New Orleans, surrendered to a Union fleet that fought past the city’s downstream fortifications. When Memphis was occupied in early June only a single Rebel outpost at Vicksburg prevented Union commerce from flowing down the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers to export markets through New Orleans.

Union prospects were also favorable in the East where Major General George McClellan commanded the largest army ever assembled in the Western hemisphere. His troops were so close to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia that they could set their watches by the city’s church bells. He planned to smash the Rebel defenses to rubble once he concentrated siege guns at Old Tavern less than six miles from the city, which he would then take by assault. Unless something unexpected happened, Washington’s optimism seemed justified.

But the unexpected did happen.

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Defining Moments for Grant and Lee

What moments from the biographies of the famous, and infamous, define the person?

While it is unfair to conclude that a single episode reveals a person’s entire character, it is likely that some instances are insightful. Consider, for example, the behavior of Bruce Ismay and Charles Lightoller. Early in the twentieth century Ismay was president of the White Star steamship line. White Star owned the RMS Titanic, which Ismay accompanied on its fateful maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller was the ship’s Second Officer, placing him fourth in command behind the Captain, Chief Officer, and First Officer.

Lightoller was in charge of lowering the lifeboats on Titanic’s port side. Although Ismay had no official duties during the crisis, he was often near the boats on either side encouraging that they be promptly filled and lowered. Except for a small number of crewmembers to navigate the vessels, Lightoller only permitted women and children into his portside boats. Ismay was last seen on the starboard side where he took a seat on the final boat.

Twenty minutes before Titanic sank, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the boat he was then loading. Lightoller refused and was soon struggling in ice-cold water with hundreds of others where he found an overturned lifeboat. Along with twenty others he survived the night standing on the upside-down hull.

The Ismay-Lightoller comparison is revealing because each responded differently to the same incident, while the story’s inherent drama amplifies its tension. Grant and Lee shared no such occurrence. However, both had similar winning reactions to apparent defeats.


The better-known story is Grant’s reaction to his failures at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It was the first time Grant fought Lee’s Virginia army after compiling a victorious record for the Union in the Western Theater. It was fought over much of the same ground where Lee won his greatest victory a year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yet from a casualties suffered-to-inflicted viewpoint, Grant did even worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker who commanded the federal army at Chancellorsville. Grant’s losses at The Wilderness totaled about 18,000 whereas Lee’s were about 11,000. Conversely, at Chancellorsville, Hooker suffered losses of about 17,200 as compared to Lee’s 13,300. Continue reading