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McClellan Revisited - George McClellan - The Participants of the War - Mikitary & Civilian - Civil War Interactive Discussion Board
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 Posted: Fri Apr 1st, 2011 05:00 pm
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Hosford1
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Like most lovers of Civil War history, I grew up believing General McClellan was in the last tier of that war's generals.  And, no doubt, his reputaton for passivity and  reluctance to fully commit his army to battle is well deserved.  But while he is rightfully commended for his skills at organization, I believe he has not been properly credited as a strategist.  In fact, I believe he could and would have won the war in 1863 had he been supported by Lincoln and Halleck.

Grant is largely credited with ending the war by wearing Lee down from The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, crossing the James, investing Petersburg and extending and starving Lee to ultimate surrender.  The fact that he lost over 60,000 men (and Lee less than half that) by the time he got to Petersburg is cited as a mere cost of war.  A necessary evil.  While that may or may not be true one thing is historical fact.  The McClellan plan that was rejected in 1862-63 was the same plan finally successfully adopted by Grant in 1864.  And McClellan reached his conclusion in half the time and at a fraction of the cost in lives and material.

GRANT.  At the time of The Wilderness Grant's intention was to attack Lee relentlessly, overwhelm him with numbers and material and literally bowl his way through to Richmond.  After being caught in the vines of the wilderness and having both flanks turned, he sidled to Spotsylvania and tried it again.  Being twice unsuccessful he turned to his left again for a race to the North Anna.  When Lee failed to give battle there he raced to Cold Harbor - where more frontal assaults were easily repulsed, losing more lives that morning than Lee did with Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.  Only then did he decide to race to the James, cross over and take Petersburg by storm - thereby opening the way to take Richmond and the destruction of Lee's army on its resulting retreat south.  But the process of being bled white from the Wilderness to the James had so badly shaken his army that the initial assaults on Petersburg were timid at best.  General Meade at the time had to throw up his hands in disgust when repeated orders to attack were simply refused by the men in the ranks.  Best estimates put Grant's loses on the eve of the Petersburg siege at over 60,000 and Lee's at less than half that number.

MCCLELLAN.  Following the Seven Days battle McClellan was on the James and requesting permission to cross over, invest Petersburg and take Richmond in the same way eventually done by Grant.  While at the time McClellan had already lost thousands of lives in Seven Days, it was fraction of those lost by Grant in his Overland Campaign.  McClellan was in the exact position as Grant, and with the same plan, in a fraction of the time and with a much better army than Grant.  But Halleck disapproved - and while he did the same with Grant, he didn't have the veto power with the latter that he did with the former. 

No doubt McClellan's investment of Petersburg would not have been done with the same relentless pressure exerted by Grant.  Judging on past performance, there is every reason to believe McClellan would have refused to stretch his lines and make periodic stabs at Lee's thining entrenchments.  But he wouldn't have had to.  His presence alone would have compelled Lee to make the attacks - which would have certainly been repulsed as they were at Malvern Hill.  Had Lincoln funneled McClellan all the men he asked for - admittedly without merit - McClellan's siege would have eventually starved Lee out and the same result as Grant's would have followed. 

To give Grant his due, he was relentless and refused to turn back during the campaign.  Also true is the fact that Grant's Overland Campaign did take away from Lee almost 30,000 men.  But Lee still faced Grant at Petersburg with approximately the same number that he would have faced McClellan with in 1863 - and with much greener troops. 

I think there is every reason to believe McClellan would have ended the war in 1863.  What say the rest of you? 



 Posted: Fri Apr 1st, 2011 08:12 pm
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BHR62
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McClellan was a notoriously timid General. At Antietam he snatched a draw out of the jaws of total victory. He refused to send in his reserves when the Lee's center broke. Who knows what would have happened if he had tried the overland plan that Grant would use later. Any kind of setback would have had McClellan yelling retreat. Like you said McClellan was an excellent organizer. He built the army that Grant would use to bludgeon Lee into submission.

Lee always worried that the Yanks would keep switching generals until they found one. After the Wilderness when Grant turned south instead of north, Lee knew the Confederacy was in big trouble. The Yanks finally had their general that wasn't afraid to fight.



 Posted: Fri Apr 1st, 2011 11:52 pm
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javal1
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I won't say McClellan was a coward - probably too strong of a word. I think BHR had it right with the word timid. I've heard a boatload of excuses for this, mostly that he "loved his troops so much" he couldn't stand to lose them. Then get the hell out of the army and join the Sanitary Commission or some other group.

What I can't abide, and puts him second only to Sickles on my "officers I despise" list, is that I can never forgive a high-ranking officer running for President against his Commander-in-Chief. At least have the balls to resign from the service first. Winfield Scott did it too, and I despise him as well. I know others will disagree, but it smells too much like treasonous behavior to me.



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 05:40 pm
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HankC
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Before Grant arrives in the East, the 2 armies there lose a combined 214,000 casualties from 1861-1864.
 
In that time, despite all the maneuvering down the Peninsula and up into Maryland and Pennsylvania, the sprintime front line moves from Fairfax to Warrenton - maybe 30 miles, mostly sideways.
 
In a bit less than a year, Grant ends the war at the cost of about 118,000 more combined casualties.
 
Grant knows that time is precious. With the war costing 3,000 lives a *week*, acting now saves many lives in the future.
 
Unlike, say, McClellan, Rosecrans and Thomas, Grant initiates action and rolls with the punches...
 
 
Cheers,
HankC



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 06:15 pm
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Hosford1
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Well said, but if your point is that the 118,000 lives were necessary for the win I disagree. Had Grant started with the James/Petersburg part of the campaign rather than ended with it he could have saved over two-thirds of his casualties. Every soldier he lost from The Wilderness to the time he crossed the James was a waste. He should have initiated his action at Petersburg and rolled from there.  And that view isn't simply Monday morning quarterbacking - that was the view McClellan took over a year before....

Last edited on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 06:17 pm by Hosford1



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 07:05 pm
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HankC
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As little Mac discovered, maneuvering room on the Peninsula was severely limited.

There is no way to outflank 1864-style fortifications in that small space.

The only thing an 1864 march up the Peninsula does is move the siege of Petersburg to the siege of Williamsburg - with no flank to turn. The siege lines at Richmond and Petersburg were 40 miles long. The Peninsula at Williamsburg is about 4 miles across.

I'm not comparing Grant to Butler, but note how simple it is to bottle a large force up on a peninsula like Bermuda Hundred, or Magruder doing the same to McClellan in 1862 at Yorktown...


HankC



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 07:22 pm
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Hosford1
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Yes, but McClellan's idea to cross the James did not come when he was advancing up the Peninsula towards the Seven Days, but afterwards - just before Halleck removed him to send his troops to Pope. At that time he was already anchored on the James and wanting to cross over.

You're right - Grant was not Butler, and McClellan wasn't Grant. I don't imagine McClellan would have "stormed the gates" as Grant tried and ultimately did. But with a secure line of commmunication and supplies off the coast and with Lincoln and Halleck's support the end would have been a matter of time - and longer, I expect, than the 9 months it took Grant.

Grant's overland method has always been a little bit of a mystery to me.  Even Porter Alexander - who was an admirer of Grant's - contended that the Petersburg move was the obvious one to McClellen in '62-63 and should have been for Grant in '64.

The only thing I can imagine is Grant initially adopted the silly idea that the direct approach to Washington had to be secure and his belief that frontal assaults was the way to the quickest breakthrough ("fight it out on this line if it takes all summer", indeed.  In fact, he fought it out on 4 lines and then settled down for a siege - what he inexplicitly wanted least of all in the beginning). 

Last edited on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 07:32 pm by Hosford1



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 08:19 pm
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BHR62
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Until Grant every time the Yanks got whipped they ran back to Washington with their tail between their legs. While they regrouped there....Lee also regrouped. They never kept the pressure on Lee full time. When Grant took over he had all Union forces on the move across the country. Which is something Lincoln had begged every one of his commanders to do. Grant was determined in 1864 to hound Lee and keep the pressure on and pin him down. It was the only way Lee could be defeated. There wasn't any nice way of going about it except through brute force. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania bled Lee badly of irreplacable losses. Like I said....McClellan was great at organizing and even planning....but he wilted under pressure. IMO, I just don't think he would have pulled off Grant's 1864 offensive and eventual victory.



 Posted: Mon Apr 4th, 2011 08:46 pm
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Hellcat
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BHR62 wrote: Until Grant every time the Yanks got whipped they ran back to Washington with their tail between their legs. While they regrouped there....Lee also regrouped. They never kept the pressure on Lee full time. When Grant took over he had all Union forces on the move across the country. Which is something Lincoln had begged every one of his commanders to do. Grant was determined in 1864 to hound Lee and keep the pressure on and pin him down. It was the only way Lee could be defeated. There wasn't any nice way of going about it except through brute force. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania bled Lee badly of irreplacable losses. Like I said....McClellan was great at organizing and even planning....but he wilted under pressure. IMO, I just don't think he would have pulled off Grant's 1864 offensive and eventual victory.

Not everytime before Grant. I doubt the Mud March would have occured where it did had Burnside retreated to Washington. And after the Seven Days Battle McClellan stayed at Berkley Plantation instead of returning to Washington.

The thing with Grant is that he was more willing to fight a war of attrition.



 Posted: Wed Apr 6th, 2011 01:44 am
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Mark
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I think Grant's reputation as a general who won by sheer force of numbers is undeserved. Of the four times during the war that an entire army was destroyed or captured (Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg, Nashville and Appomattox) three of those were achieved by Grant. Even Lee and Jackson couldn't boast of such Austerlitz victories. Ft. Donelson and Vicksburg were achieved against Confederate numbers that were on parity to the Union forces in enemy territory. Thoughts?

Mark



 Posted: Wed Apr 6th, 2011 05:54 am
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Hellcat
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My thoughts remain the same, Mark. Grant was willing to fight a war of attrition. I know attrition is supposed to be loss of men and material, but I'd also say wearing down the opposing for to the point where they might not be able to continue fighting would count as well. How often did Grant stop to let his army lick it's wounds and recover, giving those who he faced time to do the same? That seems more common in the Eastern Theater prior to 1864.



 Posted: Wed Apr 6th, 2011 01:28 pm
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HankC
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Nashville may have been the coup de grace for the CS Army of Tennessee, but the army was not destroyed there any more than it was at Franklin or Chattanooga.

Fort Donelson was the capture of an advanced outpost (and a lot of men) rather than an entire army.


HankC



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