Rafuse: McClellan in the Maryland Campaign

19 09 2007

Just in case you’re wondering, this blog is ostensibly about the campaign and battle of First Bull Run.  I’m sure that may come as a surprise to some of the unusually large number of readers who have visited here over the past few days, what with all this Antietam talk.  But I promised fellow blogger Dmitri that I would post a recap of the talk given by Ethan Rafuse this past Saturday evening (Sept. 15) in the ANB visitor’s center on George McClellan in the Maryland Campaign.  While what follows are Rafuse’s views, I can’t say that they vary greatly from my own on this subject.

Rafuse recapped McClellan’s career up to his critical 35th year and the circumstances surrounding his taking command of the combined forces of the Army of the Potomac, Army of Virginia, and the Kanawah Division on Sept 2, 1862, pointing out that he did not have the support of the War Dept. in his appointment and that half of his new command consisted of soldiers with whom he had no previous experience.  His new army also included dozens of raw, untrained regiments.

McClellan was authorized to take field command of the army on Sept. 5.  He promptly recommended abandoning Harper’s Ferry and releasing the garrison to play a more threatening role as Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia made its way across Maryland.  Not only did Commanding General Henry Halleck deny this request, he admonished McClellan to move more slowly.

Rafuse recounted the movement of the AotP toward Frederick, and the finding of Lee’s Special Orders 191.  He summarized the steps taken by McClellan in the wake of the discovery, arguing that there was little unnecessary delay.  While SO 191 and the situation at Harper’s Ferry indicated that the enemy army was divided, this information needed to be confirmed.  [One of my few complaints with McClellan’s War is that it did not seem to consider recent scholarship that indicates the famous “will send trophies” telegram was not sent by McClellan until midnight on the evening of the 13th as opposed to noon the same day.  I was going to ask Ethan about this later, but decided against it.]  He also alluded to the poor performance of J.E.B. Stuart during the campaign, something I’ve argued elsewhere though I’m surely not the originator of the notion.

After the fighting at the gaps of South Mountain (Rafuse pointed out the great risks involved in negotiating mountain passes), Rafuse faulted Franklin and Burnside for failing to act with celerity on the 15th.  As a result, when Mac arrived at Keedysville on the 15th, he had only 2 divisions with him.  The day and evening of the 15th was spent consolidating his forces.

Fog obscured the battlefield on the Sharpsburg side of the Antietam on the morning of the 16th, therefore a recon could not be performed until later in the day.

Rafuse asserted [rightly, I think] that the best place for McClellan’s HQ given the wide front over which his army was to attack was indeed the Pry House.  He also dispelled the annoyingly persistent idea that McClellan never left his HQ, and described his foray to the East Woods in the afternoon of the 17th.  He argued that, while Mac’s decision not to launch an attack in the center may have been a bad one in retrospect, it was probably a good one based on what was known at the time.  I was glad to hear him say that there was little that happened on the 17th to indicate that Lee’s army was inferior in size and close to being beaten.

Consultation with his generals convinced McClellan not to renew the attack on the 17th.  He fell ill on the 18th, and while he issued orders to renew the conflict on the 19th, Lee’s army had already withdrawn.

In summary, McClellan had taken a beaten, disorganized, and partly inexperienced army, and used it to conduct a campaign that ended the best chance Lee’s veteran, victorious forces had to win a great victory.

Rafuse also pointed out the different circumstances under which the Union and Confederacy operated.  Lee and his army needed to win a victory north of the Potomac – time was the enemy.  Not so for McClellan, except where Lincoln was concerned.  And here was the problem: Mac wanted to ultimately grind the Confederacy down.  After Antietam, he wanted to return to the line of the James, the same line that would be revisited by Grant in 1864 and which would lead to ultimate Union victory.  But the James was the last place Lincoln wanted his army to go.  The James meant a siege, and “sieges were boring”.  After Antietam, either McClellan or Lincoln had to go.  They could not work together, and Lincoln was not going anywhere.

I think I have fairly represented Ethan Rafuse’s presentation here.  Hopefully those in attendance left with some food for thought.