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"Worst Battlefield Commander? McClellan" Topic

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American Civil War

996 hits since 18 Jul 2018
©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian18 Jul 2018 5:32 a.m. PST

You voted for George McClellan! TMP link

2nd place: Juan Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana
3rd place: Ambrose Burnside

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP18 Jul 2018 8:56 a.m. PST

McClellan had no real disasters. He just couldn't exploit success.

Dynaman878918 Jul 2018 10:24 a.m. PST

The only reason he didn't have a disaster is due to running away too quickly.

Personal logo John the Greater Supporting Member of TMP18 Jul 2018 10:24 a.m. PST

The poll had a field crowded with potential first prize "winners."

McClellan was a pretty good commander until he got to the battlefield and then he seemed paralyzed. Not a good trait in an army commander.

But worst ever? Let the discussion begin.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP18 Jul 2018 10:31 a.m. PST

I based my vote for McClellan on what he COULD have accomplished -vs- what he did accomplish.

He COULD have ended the war in September of 1862.

But he didn't.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP18 Jul 2018 11:25 a.m. PST

Sadly, many Battlefield commanders suffer from 'The Peter principle'!

Big Red Supporting Member of TMP18 Jul 2018 12:50 p.m. PST

McClellan had Burnside and others to help temper his accomplishments – a bridge by any other name…

Burnside also helped out Grant a bunch in 1864.

donlowry18 Jul 2018 6:07 p.m. PST

right up there with Braxton Bragg.

langobard Supporting Member of TMP19 Jul 2018 1:40 a.m. PST

A, um, "quality" field to chose from, I went with Burnside, but can't really argue with McClellan :)

Garde de Paris Supporting Member of TMP19 Jul 2018 10:04 a.m. PST

This is NOT my era of interest, but this is too harsh for McClellan. Shelby Foote in his 3-volume masterpiece cites the when Robert E. Lee was asked about the Union General who worried him most, responded McClellan.

In the peninsula, Pinkerton detectives; captured Confederate, Confederate "deserters" and whoever convinced him that the Confederates had an army of over 200,000 against his 125,000.

He inflicted more casualties on the Confederates in the Peninsula campaign than he suffered, and really tore them up at Malvern Hill.

Dynaman878919 Jul 2018 11:36 a.m. PST

Every soldier that died under McClellan's leadership died for nothing since he was never willing to due what was needed to win. As for Lee's quote, even he can be wrong.

catavar19 Jul 2018 12:10 p.m. PST

I can see your point, yet I believe many of the men who fought under him felt otherwise. Maybe he thought that the south would eventually grow tired of the conflict and (eventually) voluntarily return to the fold, until then the less casualties the better? I have a hard time understanding some of his decisions otherwise.

Bill N19 Jul 2018 12:29 p.m. PST

He inflicted more casualties on the Confederates in the Peninsula campaign than he suffered, and really tore them up at Malvern Hill.

Did he, or did his subordinates? Maybe its how historians present it. Reading about the Seven Days it sounds like McClellan was frequently leaving the management of the individual battles to his subordinates. Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill are usually presented as Porter's battles.

67thtigers Inactive Member19 Jul 2018 2:33 p.m. PST

With the help of statistics we know McClellan was probably the most effective battlefield commander the US had. I'll make a few points.

1. Strength estimates

Until ca. June '62 the estimates being forwarded to McClellan were spot on. By June '62 the estimated number of enemy troops was about 150,000 Present at Richmond. To this was added an estimate of 30,000 under Jackson from the valley and there was some intelligence that Beauregard had brought 20,000 from Corinth.

The 20,000 from Corinth never materialised, there was some double counting of units moving back and forward, and Pinkerton's list included 36 regiments that weren't at Richmond. This explains how the count got ca. 20-25% higher than reality (because these estimates were all aggregate present, not lower categories).

However, Lee really did have a larger army than McClellan by the Seven Days. The rebels had effected a much better concentration, and if you were to rewind to ca. Seven Pines the two forces were roughly equal.

2. Who commanded the Seven Days Battles.

In order:

Oak Grove McClellan commanded from Redoubt No. 3.

Beaver Dam Creek McClellan was at Porter's HQ on the left bank and commanded the action. The same day the Federals made an offensive move at Garnett' Hill, using Smith's division. Whilst planned for, McClellan did not command this movement.

Gaines Mill once the new position at Boatswain's Creek had been established McClellan left Porter in command there and returned to GHQ at the Trent House once a telegraph wire had been run from Porter's new HQ to the Trent House. Thus Porter tactically commanded, and McClellan was trying to free up reinforcements from his other commanders to send there.

Savage's Station McClellan had moved half his army south of the White Oak and established his HQ by the river crossing connecting the two halves of his army. Sumner and Heintzelman fought the two covering actions, in communication with McClellan. Heintzelman withdrew of schedule but Sumner refused the order. McClellan wrote an order relieving Sumner and sent Col. Key to move Sumner with the note in his pocket, and authority to exercise it. Sumner then moved.

Glendale McClellan stationed himself on Malvern Hill in good contact with all his corps. Around 1600 he correctly judged Lee had no intent on attacking Glendale and rode to sort out the Navy's demands that the army must retreat to Dancing Point (i.e. ca. 30 miles further than Harrisons). During his absence one rebel brigadier (Jenkins) exceeded his orders to advance some skirmishers to suppress a battery and instead charged. This caused a series of small uncoordinated actions over the next three hours, and McClellan missed half of it. He was talking to the Navy and when the news broke of the attack he sent a series of messages to move reinforcements and got himself back to his CP ASAP, but it took him an hour to get back.

Malvern Hill McClellan is in command for the whole action. Initially it's entirely commanded by Couch until things starting getting too hot. McClellan strips several brigades from other points in the line and tells Porter to lead them to shore up the defence. He remains at Malvern House with a reserve division (McCall's) in hand to commit if needed.

Big Red Supporting Member of TMP19 Jul 2018 3:02 p.m. PST

He was a hands off type of leader. It was his style to gave his subordinates the job and let them conduct their command with little interference.

This is one of the reasons he had so much trouble with Hallack, Lincoln (when he ran out of patience) and Congress who felt it was their duty to interfere.

When his subordinates did well, they were given the credit, when they did poorly or abysmally, he was blamed. Of course he was the CinC and was ultimately responsible for the conduct of The Army of the Potomac. After he was removed from command how long did those corps commanders remain before they too were replaced or retired?

In a similar way to Montgomery, he was one of those persons who make a great boss and a lousy subordinate.

He was also a "soft" war general. He believed if he could defeat the South with minimal damage to both sides that reconciliation would be much easier.

Korvessa19 Jul 2018 9:42 p.m. PST

Shouldn't there be several Roman generals on this list?
Any of the 3 that got smoked by Hannibal come to mind.

67thtigers Inactive Member20 Jul 2018 1:13 a.m. PST

Or Varus…

KeithRK20 Jul 2018 5:44 a.m. PST

I'm really having a hard time accepting that as head of a major army, McClellan is a worse battlefield commander than McDowell, Hood, Banks or Burnside.

donlowry20 Jul 2018 8:32 a.m. PST

When was McClellan ever ON the battlefield?

KeithRK20 Jul 2018 8:56 a.m. PST

Well, what is meant by ON the battlefield then?

Personally leading troops while under fire?

In command of an army during a battle and giving orders to subordinate commanders?

Trajanus20 Jul 2018 10:08 a.m. PST

Can't possibly be worse than Hood and I'm no McClellan fan!

Dynaman878920 Jul 2018 12:56 p.m. PST

You got a point there, Hood just wasn't given enough time to "shine" to make it to the top spot but he probably fought just as many battles as McClellan IN that short time…

Bill N20 Jul 2018 1:05 p.m. PST

@67th-That is not quite how Porter describes Beaverdam Creek and Malvern Hill.

According to Porter McClellan arrived at Porter's HQ at Beaverdam Creek after Porter had deployed his command and worked out the plan for defense. Both men were present during the Confederate attack, but Porter does not indicate either of them providing instructions to Porter's subordinates.

Porter says that McClellan ordered him to take up the position on Malvern Hill, he placed Crouch's troops under Porter's command and he approved the dispositions of Porter and Crouch's men early in the morning before the battle. After that he does not mention further involvement by McClellan. Sumner and Heintzelman arrived after Porter and Crouch, and deployed behind Crouch. Sumner was the senior of the corps commanders. Porter mentions at one point Sumner ordered Porter to pull his lines back (which Porter did not do). At another point in the battle Porter mentions sending a request for two brigades of reinforcements to Sumner, which resulted in two brigades from his and Heintzelman's corps being sent to reinforce Porter. If McClellan was on the field, why would Sumner be ordering Porter to change his position, and why would Porter be asking Sumner for reinforcements? To be fair Porter does indicate he did not actually exercise command over Crouch's division, so a more accurate assessment would be that Malvern Hill was Porter and Crouch's fight, with Sumner being the senior commander present.

Porter was not adverse to McClellan. He gives McClellan credit for directing Porter to take up the position at Gaines Mill to allow him to confront the threat from Jackson. He did not dispute the wisdom of McClellan's order to withdraw from the position at Malvern Hill. So I doubt Porter was deliberately downplaying McClellan's role at either Beaver Dam Creek or Malvern Hill.

67thtigers Inactive Member21 Jul 2018 10:35 a.m. PST

Beaver Dam Creek

McClellan had warned Porter of the coming attack, but had his own attack planned for the 26th. This was the 1st day of the Battle for Garnett's Hill. The rebels did not put up a strong resistance and around noon McClellan moved over to Porter. The rebels would put in a divisional attack on the new position the next day.

Garnett's Hill was a point d'appui for the attack on Old Tavern. McClellan planned to move 6 batteries onto the hill (which he did on the 27th) and then make a general assault on the fortifications at Old Tavern once the artillery had broken up the defences. To accomplish this he'd withdrawn 6th Corps from the left bank; 1st Corps had nominally replaced 6th, but only one division had yet arrived.

La Comte de Paris accompanied McClellan. He observed that Porter's HQ was extremely nervous. Reynolds, whose brigade was detached to watch the road Jackson was expected to come down is sending his signals direct to McClellan.

How many tactical decisions McClellan made is unknown. McClellan was not a micromanager. However, he was making the big decisions.

As to Malvern – it's worth remembering that Porter took up a position on Malvern on the 30th. 5th Corps anchored the left of the Federal battleline and 6th Corps the right. The night of the 30th Franklin abandoned his position without orders and started retreating towards Charles City.

McClellan finds this out sometime around midnight. He scrambles to withdraw to a new line as Jackson is now across the White Oak. Heintzelman had already found out and at midnight also ordered a retreat, and Sumner followed. Heintzelman rode up Malvern Hill and found McClellan at Porter's HQ about 0100. McClellan pointed out where the incoming troops found be stationed. Staff officers were detailed to place divisions in their assigned locations. Heintzelman's diary records after this conversation McClellan rode out from Porter's HQ, and Heintzalman decided him and his staff should sleep and deal with things at dawn. Awake, he saw McClellan return to HQ, as he'd been out the whole night placing troops…

Franklin's 6th Corps are intercepted by a messenger from McClellan (Lt Newhall) and turn south. They complete their circuitous 19 mile march at ca. 0900 the next morning. Franklin is told to turn his corps over and report to McClellan.

McClellan and his staff rode over the whole position and adjusted lines. Around 0930, with Franklin in tow, McClellan goes to the USS Galena, leaving a written order placing Sumner in command during his absence. He was out of contract for a few hours once the Galena was around a bend in the river. In this period Sumner decided to come off the hill and attack Lee, and Porter refused without McClellan's permission. Returning ca. 1430-1500 McClellan endorses Porter's decision and resumes command of the army, having left Franklin at Harrison's.

McClellan starts another inspection of the lines which is interrupted by cannon shot – Huger's attack at 1600. McClellan returns to Porter's HQ at Malvern House. He strips several brigades out from elsewhere and forms a reserve.

Around 1800, DH Hill launches his attack. McClellan orders the reserve in. Porter leads the lead brigade (the Irish Brigade) forward personally. He objects to McClellan starting to come to the front with him. Porter assumes tactical command of the fight around 1830, after DH Hill is retreating. Magruder's 1900 attack is still to come.

corzin22 Jul 2018 7:13 a.m. PST

i would say Pope and Burnsides were worse than McClellan in the east alone.

23rdFusilier Supporting Member of TMP23 Jul 2018 7:33 a.m. PST

Back in the 1990's I was attending a course at Harper's Ferry WV. On the weekend I drove over to Antietam and spent the day walking the battlefield. I date my hatred of MaClellan to that day. He could have destroyed the entire Army of Northern Virginia that day and saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers by ending the war in 1862.

67thtigers Inactive Member23 Jul 2018 7:47 a.m. PST

How could he have destroyed the ANV?

As a staff exercise it's a really interesting TEWT. If memory serves no-one has been able to put together a better concept of operations.

AICUSV23 Jul 2018 3:53 p.m. PST

McClellan vs. Lee-if you truly look into the battles where McClellan fought Lee you see that Little Mac actually won most, he may have miss handled the win. If he continued to win victories this way, the South may well be an independent nation today. Grant vs. Lee – looking at these fights Lee usually came out on top, but those who have read the last chapter know how this match up turned out.

donlowry24 Jul 2018 9:15 a.m. PST

It's not who wins the most battles, it's who wins the last one.

steve1865 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member27 Jul 2018 1:43 p.m. PST

I feel Burnside gets unfair treatment. At Antietam he did not get orders to attack, until 10 AM then he had to get everything ready. If Mac had gave him orders to attack at dawn things would have turned out different. Mac did not like Burnside because Lincoln had offered Burnside command of AOP.
When he received command he out marched the "GREAT JACKSON "and got to Va. before him. Yes his attack was poorly thought out, but then so was Lee's at Gettysburg.
In the West Burnside took Knoxville and held it against Longstreet. Then at the crater Burnside's idea was good until Meade and Grant Changed the attack.

67thtigers Inactive Member28 Jul 2018 2:31 a.m. PST


Burnside was not in place at dawn on the 17th September, despite repeated orders. His first attack was launched at 0900, initiated by an 0800 order.

It was McClellan who outmarched the rebels. Burnside then took over and stopped for a week allowing the rebels to get out in front.

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