Why Did McClellan Let Lee Go?

Why Did McClellan Let Lee Go?

US Civil War

It is the historians’ myth-making that paints McClellan as “slow,” Sears being the leader of the pack, but he inherited the myth from earlier generations.

George McClellan, like General Lee, graduated second in his class at West Point. His superiors thought enough of him that he was selected to accompany senior Army officers to Sebastopol, in 1856, and observe the Allies’ siege operations against the Russian fortifications holding the place. He was hardly 36 years of age when he brought the Union army to the Peninsula. His siege of Yorktown, notwithstanding the bad press, was the correct military operation to perform, given the circumstances. Had he had the cooperation of the Navy, he might have passed an infantry force up York River to turn the place, but the cooperation did not materialize. 

At Cumberland Landing, on the Pamunkey River, McClellan made the decision which direction to move the army toward Richmond: to the left, across the peninsula to James River, or to the right, with White House as the army’s base. His choice was made on the basis of Lincoln’s repeated promise that, if he went right, the 30,000 men of McDowell’s corps would be sent to him, McDowell’s fall from a horse had delayed this happening, but by the time the front of the army arrived at the Chickahominy, McClellan was expecting McDowell to arrive.

Jackson’s Valley campaign had an effect here, distracting Lincoln from the decisive point, and McClellan’s politics and his immature character certainly played a part in the disastrous decision Lincoln made, to order the Army to return to Washington, while, at the same time, Lincoln tries to switch commanding generals. We give Lincoln slack here, because we know his mind was completely and intensely focused on keeping Washington secure, as he knew, as well as did General Lee, what political effect news of its occupation might have on the mind of Palmerston and his party.

McClellan’s fatal flaw that produced Lincoln’s animus was his politics. He had been adopted by the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, when he came to Washington, and while the Radicals were now seeing him as their enemy, the Democrats were embracing him, and all his friends, to the extent he had any, were Democrat money kings, and these men reinforced his view that the object of the war was to reconstitute the Union as it was, leaving slavery as an institution where it was, going on as before. 

McClellan riding through Frederick, Maryland, September 12, 1862 (From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

The record shows how he inserted himself into the political debate and assumed to speak politics to the President. This made Lincoln more insecure and resulted in his withholding McDowell when clearly the military situation demanded that McDowell come down, to block, or fall upon, any Confederate force that appeared, to attack the Union right at Beaver Dam Creek. And that decision resulted in McClellan moving to Harrison’s Landing, and from there he saw the true line of action correctly to be the line Petersburg to Richmond. But mounting the effort necessary to execute it, in 1862, under McClellan, as opposed to 1864, under Grant, was beyond Lincoln’s ken.

The problem of understanding McClellan is to understand the essential difference in his position and General Lee’s. It is purely a matter of the necessity to take risk. An example is Eisenhower’s decision, in December 1944, as he explained it, to “weaken” parts of his front to strengthen another part (Montgomery’s) in order to continue on the offensive, instead of simply digging into a defensive position and await being attacked while reinforcements arrive. Given Eisenhower’s public statements about Lee, it seems probable that he spent much time as a young soldier thinking about Lee’s actions, as, in 1944, he was in Lee’s position in June 1862. Lee taught Eisenhower that acting on the offensive is the better strategy than digging in, as though you may still lose doing the former, you will never win doing the latter. And this remains Army doctrine down to this day.

What Eisenhower is actually saying, is that he suspected that the enemy might have had behind their front, enough yet uncommitted force to mass it and overwhelm the point they attacked, penetrating his front and creating the risk they might cut his army in two. He calculated the risk, and obviously concluded that, given his overall strength, and the massive force support gathering behind him, that the risk “of giving the enemy the chance” was worth the benefit of maintaining the offensive. In essence he invited the enemy to show their hidden force and push it forward into a “pocket” his “weakness” created, which gave him the chance of closing the sack behind them.

Eisenhower was operating in the world of 1944, McClellan in the world of 1862. A slow, slow world compared to Eisenhower’s. Unlike Eisenhower, McClellan did not have the luxury of massive reserves available at the drop of the hat. Lincoln’s policy of controlling the reserves shows that.

In the Antietam Campaign, McClellan had good reason as a general to move “slowly” as this insured the enemy could not surprise him, flank him, or attack a weak point. McClellan understood the plain objective fact that, as long as he was concentrated and ready, the enemy, if he attacked, would not be successful, and the Union Army therefore would be intact to continue to be what it was primarily intended to be, from a strategic point of view: the force that at all costs and in all events was capable of blocking the enemy from occupying Washington. 

Lincoln with McClellan and staff after the Battle of Antietam. Notable figures (from left) are 5. Alexander S. Webb, Chief of Staff, V Corps; 6. McClellan;. 8. Dr. Jonathan Letterman; 10. Lincoln; 11. Henry J. Hunt; 12. Fitz John Porter; 15. Andrew A. Humphreys; 16. Capt. George Armstrong Custer…

The only possible way Great Britain would recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate Government under the law of nations, would be if its army occupied Washington. One needs only to read Palmerston’s letters to get that. He understood that, Lincoln understood that; but Lincoln, for a country lawyer a very hard man, wanted, like Lee, to strike blows. He knew he was stronger than the fellow he was trying to throw, so could outlast him and knock him down in the end. But, then, it was the soldier that had to stand in and do the work for him. And the soldier had his own agenda.

General Lee, on the other hand, understood the Confederacy could not achieve Great Britain’s recognition, because he knew his army could not possibly occupy Washington, that it was just a matter of time before the superior power of the adhering states overwhelmed the resources of the Confederate Government. In this circumstance, Lee had no choice but to take the risk that might in the outcome destroy his army, and with it the existence of Richmond as the Confederate capital. So, one general knows he must move fast, the other general knows there is no necessity to move fast: for the latter, the object is not to “win” a “winner-take-all battle, a “knock out blow” (which is silly nonsense), but to restrict the enemy’s movements toward Washington, and let time do its work.


This is the situation McClellan sees, having read the lost order

When McClellan moved west from Frederick, it is plain he expected that Jackson and Lee had the mass of the Confederate army behind South Mountain, with two lines of approach into the Middletown Valley which he had to cross. He had to choose which approach had behind it the enemy’s main body, and, while moving the necessary force to meet it (which is an 3 to 1 ratio), he has to be ready to receive an attack from one or the other of his flanks.

Moreover, he expects, as he moves from Frederick, that he will be met by the enemy in Middletown Valley, but, entering it, finding it empty, he moves his columns forward, his main body directed upon Turner’s Gap, and he is thinking he will find the ridge of the mountain held by the entirety of the enemy army. (As he engages, Halleck wires him, warning the enemy might have a force moving now on the right bank of the Potomac, flanking him, moving on the forts at Washington.)

The approach to Turner’s Gap is hardly a cake walk. The crown is 1,400 feet. You go up in three lines, on the national road it is, for the last third of the way, almost vertical in elevation with two sharp hair pin turns which will receive artillery shells lobbing down from above as your column marches. There is no room for a skirmish line going up. You must go, shelf to shelf to shelf.

On the south side (Bolivar Rd to Fox’s gap) it is a little easier, but still difficult to establish a skrimish line until you are almost at the crown. Same on the Mt Tabot road on the north side.

All the way up you are being heavily shelled, and you cannot get your artillery into action.

General George B. McClellan with staff & dignitaries (from left to right): Gen. George W. Morell, Lt. Col. A.V. Colburn, Gen. McClellan, Lt. Col. N.B. Sweitzer, Prince de Joinville (son of King Louis Phillippe of France), and on the very right—the prince’s nephew, Count de Paris

And McClellan thinks, reasonably, that you have a huge force of infantry up there which his will have to deal with when they finally reach near the top and can establish a battle line to press forward and engage. Hardly a surprise that, under the circumstances as he perceived them, McClellan’s army took the day hours of September 14, to gain the crown, at which point suddenly he realizes the enemy is evaporating, to his surprise abandoning the position instead of fighting to hold it in the night.

Once McClellan obtained possession of the gap, it was evening on the 14th. The next morning, he has the same problem going down the west slope, as he sees the enemy has taken a position behind Beaver Dam Creek that flows across the National Road and empties into the Antietam. He knows that the Ferry has surrendered, and that the detached enemy forces are somewhere coming to the enemy’s support. So, yes, he is moving “slowly” for the same reason he had been moving “slowly.”

There is no good reason, as a matter of military science, to be moving “rapidly.” (He can only come down the mountain in column; once at the bottom, he can deploy into line.) If he gets tricked, if his army gets disorganized, what is to prevent the enemy from marching for Washington? Just its appearance in front of the forts, ten days later by clipper ship the news will reach Palmerston’s government, and before later news arrives saying the enemy has retreated, Palmerston may have recognized the Confederate government and now there is no question the Federal Government is in serious trouble in its effort to conquer the seceded states.

Once McClellan engaged General Lee in the general battle, however, he is subject to legitimate criticism. His army certainly fought as hard and as courageously as Lee’s, but there is no good military reason why McClellan did not attack the enemy by the middle bridge with Porter’s corps at first light on the 18th. Eisenhower would have, MacArthur would have, Grant would have. Lee was waiting, certainly nervously, for McClellan to do it, at which point Lee knew his army was now on the razor’s edge and the retreat over the river would be desperate, as McClellan’s artillery would be on the ridge looking down on the ford as his columns waded across. Most of his wagons by morning were already over the river, he anticipating the attack, but it did not come, and Lee knew his gamble had won. 

McClellan didn’t attack, because he feared the enemy had been reinforced in the night as much as he had been; the fear was engendered by his real experience with General Lee during the Seven Days, when Lee pressed him and pressed him and threw thousands of young Americans at his fortified front at Malvern hill, throwing them into the storm of the tiers of Union artillery ringing the hill. (Lee played smash-mouth football as well as Harbaugh.)

One must recognize the reality that, at Frederick, Lee’s army now had but 33,000 soldiers present for duty, and that McClellan did not know this, though some reports might have made him wonder. What McClellan knew for certain was, that at the Chickahominy, Lee apparently had a bottomless well of manpower available to replace the massive losses he was taking at Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill, and he had no reason to think the bottomless well was not still at Lee’s beck and call and that he would use it.

Finally, McClellan never asked Lincoln, or suggested, that Lincoln “sue for peace.” McClellan knew Lincoln could not fail to conquer the seceded states the “slow” way. But General Lee did suggest to his President, twice, that he sue for peace; the first time was on September 5 or so, 1862, when he wrote Davis and said, “Hey, we can’t win this war, this is about the best time I can get for you to sue for peace.” The second time, was in the run up to his movement to Gettysburg. Davis did not make the attempt, because he knew Lincoln would never accept a “peace” in which the seceded states were not again the property of the Federal Government. (By 1864-65, now all but down and out, Davis allowed an overture to be made, to meet with Lincoln to discuss peace, but he knew he was wasting his time.)

McClellan lost the chance to have, in the historians’ book, the pride of place Grant holds, because of his politics. Had he not been such a jerk to Lincoln during his few months living at Washington, and kept himself clean completely from politics, demonstrating total commitment to destroying the military resistance in his front, Lincoln might have found the faith to trust him with McDowell and even trust him to cross James River and establish his base at City Point and press on toward Richmond. So, yes, this defect in the character of the man ruined him. (It didn’t help that his wife published his personal letters after his death.)

The Julian Scott portrait of McClellan in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

In conclusion, the reason young McClellan let the enemy go, is his legitimate mature respect for General Lee. The power of the defense, in the tactical sense, cannot be disrespected. In the Civil War, given the state of the military firing power, how it operated in mass, to successfully penetrate the enemy’s defensive line in a general battle required you to mass at least three times, if not five times, the number of men at the specific point in the enemy’s line you have decided to strike. Awesome undertaking. Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, for example, or Grant at Vicksburg, or at Petersburg; very dangerous and difficult to do, as repulsed, you must quick shift yourself to the defensive and stop the wave coming at you like a comber.

Lee was an aloof guy, through his thirty-year career. Everyone commented on his reserve, though with the ladies he shined and cooed, and they loved him. He and Mary had eight children, all the while he was mostly gone to obscure places alone.

When he went to Texas, it is plain, he knew, like all of them knew, the war was coming on, and he wanted to participate, wanted to use his knowledge, experience, and art, to fight an army in the field. McClellan not so much; he got a degree, hung around awhile and then was a civilian, using the help of his friends, to advance financially in the world. Then, came the war and he became suddenly the darling boy. R.E. Lee? He was rejoicing in the opportunity to perform as a soldier, defending his native state from invasion. I doubt I would have ordered Porter forward. Grant, in a heartbeat.

See, to George, it came down to the body bags.

The horrible casualties, all the dead young Americans swelling on the field, the agony of the wounded, the call for surgeons, for mothers. No, Mac’s stomach turned when he saw it, and he knew, from experience, that General Lee was capable of watching the men die, and not flinch for fighting the army to its annihilation. And so, he flinched, and that is his failing, and that justifies Lincoln grabbing on to Grant and going forward to the bitter end.

Why Did McClellan Let Lee Go?

Written by Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has tried over seventy serious injury cases to jury verdict, winning 67% of the time. He has successfully argued cases before the California courts of appeal and argued before the Supreme Court and the Federal courts. Furthermore, he has many articles published in legal journals such as For the Defense, The Advocate, and the Los Angeles Lawyer. He is 78 and not a civil war “buff.”

US Civil War

Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor Eric Foner