Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Rise of George B. McClellan: "Whatever it may be I will try to do my duty to the army and to the country"

On October 30, 1861, George McClellan was on the verge of the greatest accomplishment of his life. As tides of unease were growing in the north, major changes were in the works for the Union war effort. Winfield Scott, who only trailed Washington on the list of the greatest American generals at that time, was advanced in years and poor in health. Scott's inability to take command in the field significantly hampered his abilities as general-in-chief of the Union forces. While Scott's career was more decorated and remarkable than any other officer of the time, north or south, it was drawing to a quick end. And who would it be to replace such a man? None other than the "Young Napoleon", a man whose youth and vigor were the perfect solution to Scott's age and ailments.

The contrasts between these two men ran deeper than age and health. In August, 1861, McClellan, the rising star of the Union armies, had proposed a grandiose plan to Lincoln, outlining a strategy encompassing all the theaters of the war. The crux of the plan rested on McClellan moving an army of over 270,000 men directly against Richmond, taking the Confederate capital by sheer numerical force. Other aspects of the plan involved Union forces moving down the Mississippi River, moving from Kansas into Texas, and liberating Eastern Tennessee and driving to take Memphis. Such a plan was bold, no doubt, but it also stepped on the toes of the current general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. Scott had already been overruled by Lincoln on two major events: the resupplying of Fort Sumter and the Union advance toward Manassas (both of which Scott had opposed). Further inflaming the situation were telegrams which McClellan sent to Lincoln greatly exaggerating Confederate troop strengths in Virginia. McClellan's estimates of troops also contributed to fears over a Confederate invasion of Maryland in September of 1861 (one year exactly before the Antietam Campaign). After several months of political fighting and bickering over policy and the strength of the enemy, in late October, it appeared as though McClellan would be elevated to overall command of Union forces. On October 19, McClellan said as much in a letter to his wife: "I seems to be pretty well settled that I will be Commander in Chief within a week. General Scott proposed to retire in favor of Halleck (General Henry Halleck, who became general-in-chief the following year). The President and cabinet have determined to accept his retirement, but not in favor of Halleck."1.

Just a few days later, on October 30, McClellan again described his views on the matter in a letter to his wife. He went on at some length concerning his feelings about his role in the conflict, speaking of God's intentions for him during the war. He displays semblances of humility in the letter, seemingly odd from a man who so many view only as a narcissist:

… You may have heard from the papers etc. of the small row that is going on just now between General Scott and myself—in which the vox populi is coming out strongly on my side. The affair had got among the soldiers, and I hear that officers and men all declare that they will fight under no one but “Our George,” as the scamps have taken it into their heads to call me. I ought to take good care of these men, for I believe they love me from the bottom of their hearts. I can see it in their faces when I pass among them. I presume the Scott war will culminate this week—and as it is now very clear that the people will not permit me to be passed over it seems easy to predict the result.
Whatever it may be I will try to do my duty to the army and to the country—with God’s help and a single eye to the right I hope that I may succeed. I appreciate all the difficulties in my path—the impatience of the people, the venality and bad faith of the politicians, the gross neglect that has occurred in obtaining arms, clothing, etc.—and also I feel in my innermost soul how small is my ability in comparison with the gigantic dimension of the task, and that, even if I had the greatest intellect that was ever given to man, the result remains in the hands of God. I do not feel that I am an instrument worthy of the great task, but I do feel that I did not seek it—it was thrust upon me. I was called to it, my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end, and I know that God can accomplish the greatest results with the weakest instruments—therein lies my hope. I feel too that, much as we live in the North have erred, the rebels have been far worse than we—they seem to have deserted from the great cardinal virtue.2

The very next day, on October 31, 1861, Winfield Scott retired from the army. On November 1, Abraham Lincoln elevated George Brinton McClellan to commander of all Union armies. Upon entering his new role as General-in-Chief, McClellan famously remarked, "I can do it all." That same day, in General Order 19, General-in-Chief McClellan, McClellan made note of the awesome responsibility which now fell upon his shoulders: "In the midst of the difficulties which encompass and divide the nation, hesitation and self distrust may well accompany the assumption of so vast a responsibility; but confiding as I do that Providence will favor ours as the just cause, I cannot doubt that success will crown our efforts and sacrifices."3 McClellan certainly had large shoes to fill, yet his confidence in his abilities, as well as his trust in God, gave him cause to believe that only success could result from his elevation to command. On November 2, 1861, McClellan wrote to his wife to tell her of the new duties which he had recently assumed, as well as the frenetic pace at which he had been working to begin his tenure as General-in-Chief:
I have been at work with scarcely one minute's rest ever since I arose yesterday morning--nearly 18 hours. I find the "Army" just about as much disorganized as was the Army of the Potomac when I assumed command--everything at sixes and sevens--no system, no order--perfect chaos. I can and will reduce it to order--I will soon have it working smoothly.4

Thus, the Union war effort had received new life and direction under its new commander, George B. McClellan. What lay in store for McClellan and his army, no one knew; yet, 150 years ago, hope was high in Washington and throughout the North that the "Young Napoleon" would deliver victories befitting his promising moniker.

1. James McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 51.
2.  Stephen Sears, Ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1989), 112-113.
3. Ibid., 122
4. Ibid., 123

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