Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review - "Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam" by Steven Stotelmyer

[Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam by Steven R. Stotelmyer (Savas Beatie, 2019). Hardcover, 15 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,272/288. ISBN:978-1-61121-304-1. $32.95]

In the minds of George Brinton McClellan's most bitter military detractors and political enemies, the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac was always excessively reluctant to advance, slow on the march, timid in battle, and never personally present near the fighting. Heightened by McClellan's shocking defeat on the Virginia Peninsula and perceived role in the Second Bull Run disaster, criticism in the highest quarters reached fever pitch by the conclusion of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. Modern professional and avocational historians alike have largely followed suit, and their collective interpretations in turn have had a profound effect on popular opinion. However, the germ of what might be considered a revisionist movement in McClellan scholarship has also emerged in recent decades, with two of the most persuasive moderate voices being historians Joseph Harsh and Ethan Rafuse. A new addition to this group of dissenters is Steven Stotelmyer, whose book Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam also operates on lines of revisionist reasoning that have gained increased traction in at least some circles. The five essays inside Stotelmyer's study present a body of evidence that underpins a host of thoughtful arguments that challenge the legitimacy of many of the most serious charges historically levied against the general's conduct in Maryland.

The classic story of McClellan's most immediate reaction to being handed on September 13 the famous captured copy of Robert E. Lee's Special Orders No. 191 (issued by the Confederate commander on September 9 for an operation against Harpers Ferry having an expected end date of September 12) is one of empty bluster. As the tale goes, instead of immediately following through on his alleged boast about using the captured order to either whip Bobby Lee or go home, McClellan on cue proceeded to delay as much as eighteen hours before getting his army on the road to taking advantage of the intelligence coup of the century. According to Stotelmyer, nearly everything about this treasured Civil War episode, from its exceptionality to its details, is either wrong or greatly exaggerated. In support of his claim that capturing the enemy's plans was not only not extraordinary but rather common during the Civil War, the author cites five instances of one side intercepting the operational plans of the other during the previous month alone! The author challenges those who continue to assert that McClellan sat on his hands by noting that McClellan already knew through his own army intelligence reports that Lee had divided his army and the Army of the Potomac was already in motion that day executing its existing marching orders from the 12th. According to Stotelmyer, the army remained on the move (though hampered by the colossal traffic jam at Frederick that was unavoidable given that seemingly every military-suitable road in western Maryland converged on the city) throughout the period of McClellan's alleged inactivity. Far from dawdling at the front, Ninth Corps cleared the town and was even doing a night march to complete its movement to Middletown, the route to which passed through a defended Hagan's Gap that needed to be first cleared by Pleasonton's cavalry.

Stotelmyer builds a pretty strong case that McClellan was already setting up what would become the Battle of South Mountain when he received Lee's order. He even goes so far as to claim that the capturing of S.O. No. 191 "did not materially affect" (pg. 44) McClellan's conduct of the campaign. Stotelmyer's idea that the special orders (which were incomplete, outdated by the 13th, and in part contradicted confirmed intelligence) had a cautionary effect more than anything else makes counterintuitive sense on some level. On a higher level of consideration, Stotelmyer makes a good point that petty arguments about McClellan's alleged slowness (he counters those criticisms as well) unfairly, even intentionally, cloud an impressive overall feat of campaign management. On the fly and over just fifteen days, McClellan organized a new army composed of disparate elements (including a large proportion of green troops as well as veterans demoralized by the crushing defeat just days earlier at Second Manassas), set up logistics support for a new offensive campaign, and won two battles (South Mountain and Antietam). Weighed against this accomplishment, the disappointing fact that Antietam did not result in the much desired but only rarely achieved wholesale destruction of the defending army rather pales in significance.

The second chapter reevaluates the rank and role of the Battle of South Mountain in the campaign historiography, arguing that the series of engagements fought at the South Mountain passes were not a mere "prelude" to Antietam but rather together comprised a major battle in its own right. According to Stotelmyer, it was this battle that was the turning point of the campaign and did more than anything else to set up the epic confrontation at Antietam three days later. While the author makes a strong push for raising the stature of the Union victory at South Mountain, which was directed with skill by McClellan and swiftly hit Lee's army before it was prepared, the discussion is muddied a bit by semantics tangents and might be shortchanging the sophistication of the popular appreciation and understanding of South Mountain. On the other hand, at least on the last point, the author, in his capacity as certified Antietam and South Mountain guide, presumably has gained that impression of popular underappreciation through regular interactions with park patrons.

The next essay addresses the activities of the Union army on September 15, again revisiting negative impressions regarding McClellan's pace and tempo of operations. The author effectively counters arguments that the army should have been on the road before or at dawn by pointing out that there was a dense fog on the ground during those early hours of the 15th. Temporarily blinded, McClellan could not be certain that Lee's army had retreated and was not positioned immediately below to strike the head of the Union army debouching from the mountain passes. Thus, even though the distance from the South Mountain passes to Sharpsburg was admittedly short, a march to Sharpsburg that would have had any chance of meeting and defeating Lee's army in detail would have required a rapid march on the order of Hill's celebrated (but attended with very heavy straggling) movement from Harpers Ferry. Stotelmyer also notes that two key elements of McClellan's march plan (Ninth Corps under Burnside/Cox and Franklin's Sixth Corps) did not meet expectations. Burnside and Cox were late getting their troops moving, which caused a cascading traffic jam down the road through Fox's Gap that affected the leading elements of Porter's supporting Fifth Corps. To the south, General Franklin, who declined to exercise the discretion that his orders allowed and instead remained around Crampton's Gap and Pleasant Valley, failed to press forward at all. Only Joe Hooker's First Corps, recently detached from Burnside's wing, got on the road as expected and made good time.

Some have blamed McClellan for not properly informing Burnside of his plans for the day, but the author cites some pretty persuasive circumstantial evidence suggesting that McClellan did indeed keep Burnside in the loop. It seems more likely than not that Burnside was informed early in the day about the new command rearrangements and corps marching orders. In trying to explain Burnside's tardy movements, Stotelmyer suggests that the usually amiable Burnside may have been miffed at his perceived lack of credit for the South Mountain victory and demotion from wing commander [just who exercised direct command of Ninth Corps, or thought he did, is another matter!]. The author also believes that the political cloud hanging over Franklin from the Second Bull Run debacle inhibited that general's initiative on the 15th. In seeking to explain the less than ideal marching performances of both columns, these are only conjectures, but they are at least reasonably formulated ones. Army commander McClellan remains ultimately responsible for the result, but it does appear to go against the overall evidence when one argues that McClellan organized a timid pursuit for the 15th. In the end, the race to catch Lee divided and at a disadvantage was essentially over by midday when the Confederates formed a strong line behind the west bank of Antietam Creek and much of McClellan's pursuing army was still struggling westward on the area's unhelpful road network.

The author's contention that McClellan would surely have attacked on the 15th if he had perceived a major advantage by doing so is, of course, an untestable historical hypothesis. But what of the 16th, which is only addressed tangentially? The main battle did not begin the day after the armies positioned themselves opposite each other on the 15th but rather two days later. Though there was fighting on the 16th (enough for some to consider Antietam a three-day battle, September 16-18), the events of that day and how they affected the course of the Maryland Campaign are not substantively addressed in any of the essays. While the book is not intended to be a comprehensive reexamination of each and every topic of contested Maryland Campaign historiography, most readers will undoubtedly be interested to know the author's thoughts on what ended up happening on the 16th and how that should impact how we might reevaluate McClellan's overall conduct of the battle.

While the previous essay suggests how General Franklin's post-South Mountain command behavior might have been negatively affected by the partisan political fallout from Second Bull Run, the fourth chapter revisits the most exhaustively addressed example of political persecution having a major role in the perception of the Maryland Campaign. This, of course, is the case brought against Fifth Corps commander and close McClellan associate Fitz-John Porter. Like others have before him, Stotelmyer presents a defensible portrait of Porter as a general unjustifiably victimized by bad-faith critics in the army, press, and government. Unfortunately, while the author avoids turning Porter into a martyred hero, his countering the Porter-McClellan critics with his own conspiracy allegations and suggestions of villainous motivations unnecessarily weakens his arguments in places.

The chapter improves when it effectively puts to rest the still pervasive popular belief that McClellan held back a large reserve (some 15-20,000 fresh men) on the late afternoon of the 17th when it was obvious to everyone that the Confederate center was ripe for the picking. In truth, Porter had only two of his three divisions present that day and heavy detachments made earlier in support of faltering efforts elsewhere on the field meant that there was no true reserve behind the center. This left Porter with only 3-4,000 uncommitted men in line at the front and available for offensive action there. While one can argue that McClellan and Porter still could have attacked with what was at hand (perhaps with support of some kind from Pleasonton's cavalry), but such a movement was hardly the army-splitting slam dunk that many deem it to have been. But what of Franklin's Sixth Corps, the army's other alleged "reserve?" Though not the focus of the chapter, the Sixth Corps was also divided after it arrived, with Smith's Division sent into action on the Union right. The remaining division, Slocum's, was not actively engaged, but Stotelmyer cites distinctions of semantics to rather weakly argue that it also was not in reserve. Citing this parceling out of Fifth and Sixth Corps, critics could maintain with some justification that the army's lack of a true reserve for exploiting gains was largely McClellan's own fault, but then they could not at the same time assert that McClellan did not utilize all parts of his army. Even so, the myth of the existence of a huge, unutilized reserve should really be regarded as objectively debunked at this point, yet it remains one of the most popular criticisms of McClellan's generalship at Antietam.

The fifth and final chapter addresses the post-Antietam events that led up to McClellan's removal from command. As the traditional story goes, McClellan's army was soon well supplied and equipped for a new offensive yet the commanding general's typical "slows" delayed the resumption of hostilities, losing vital weeks of good campaigning weather while also allowing Lee's army to outmarch it. Lincoln finally had enough and relieved McClellan, replacing him with General Burnside. Stotelmyer sees this as yet another case when the McClellan critics have it all wrong. Many tend to miss the important point that the Army of the Potomac was embarking on a major new campaign, not just a short extension of the existing one, which made organization and resupply essential and immediate advance deep into Virginia inadvisable until the ad-hoc logistical arrangements of the Maryland Campaign were fixed. Abundant evidence is presented that the army was badly deficient in supplies and accoutrements of all kinds (particularly shoes and clothing) during the weeks following Antietam even though the administration and quartermaster department both insisted that those requirements had been forwarded to McClellan's army. The author's research determined that the latter's claims were not outright misrepresentations. The supply requisitions were technically shipped, but they never reached McClellan. Instead, the supplies were either stacked up along Washington railroad sidings or were issued to the troops around the capital. The question then remains, was this a mere logistical snafu or a deliberate attempt to discredit McClellan. The author leans heavily toward the latter, strongly suggesting that a scheming Secretary Stanton likely orchestrated the withholding of supplies to engineer McClellan's removal when the army could not move on the president's timetable. Though one might argue that Stanton was not above such underhanded measures in pursuit of his goals, this does seem like conspiratorial overreach. It unnecessarily weakens an otherwise excellent essay, especially if the reader believes in the old adage about discounting deliberate malfeasance in matters that can be simply and better explained by incompetence. On the other hand, if the U.S. Army did anything better than any military organization in the world it was logistics, and it does seem incredible that such a chain of managerial chaos could have existed right at the nerve center of nation's war effort. Stotelmyer also argues that when the Army of the Potomac did finally move, it did not do so lethargically but rather effectively interposed itself between the two halves of Lee's army in northern Virginia. It would be going too far to suggest that a major victory was at hand when McClellan was dismissed, but the author's opinion that the promising position that McClellan had maneuvered his army into by early November was a solid indicator that his relief was politically, rather than performance, motivated has some merit. The author believes that Lincoln's action and its timing offer conclusive proof the president never had any intention of leaving Little Mac in command of the Army of the Potomac past the fall elections.

Stotelmyer never directly states whether he believes McClellan to have been a commander capable of leading the Union war effort in the East to final victory, but he clearly sees the general as the right man for the job when it came to achieving the more immediate goals of the Maryland Campaign. Books like this one often attract dismissive reactions from readers who casually accuse a writer of staking out contrarian conclusions and arguing backwards, only citing supporting evidence and minimizing (or outright suppressing) sources that might mount a challenge. While sometimes leaning toward provocative conclusions having only tenuous documentary support, Stotelmyer is clearly not an author deserving of that brand of reproach. With its generally formidable arguments and analysis, Too Useful to Sacrifice is a strongly recommended title for Maryland Campaign readers and McClellan critics, advocates, and nonpartisan students alike.

13 comments:

  1. Drew:

    So Abraham Lincoln and other contemporary critics back then simply had it all wrong when they accused McClellan of having the "slows?" Count me as a skeptic, though admittedly McClellan's damning and pompous letters to his wife do not make him a sympathetic figure in my view and makes it hard to be objective. Still, Savas Beatie is an excellent publisher and as I learned previously from its Sam Hood's book on his ancestor it is important to keep an important mind. So I will no doubt buy the book and make up my own mind. Thanks for the review.

    John

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    1. John,
      Also keep in mind that the book is only concerned with the Maryland Campaign, only a very brief part of McClellan's tenure in the East. That still leaves plenty of other ground to criticize McClellan.

      Drew

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    2. Drew:

      Thanks for this thorough and insightful review. I would add Thoma Clemens to the list of those who have reassessed to one degree or another McClellan’s handling of the Antietam Campaign without providing fodder for the McClellan “acolytes” to challenge traditional assessments of his conduct in the Peninsula and Second Bull Run Campaigns. Stotelmyer seems to have done an equally careful job of focusing narrowly on Maryland. In particular this appears in his analysis of Porter and the issue of whether McClellan failed to commit decisive Fifth Corps reserves to swing the battle. While some “McClellan Math” may be involved in further shrinking the number of troops available, Stotelmyer makes a good case for rejecting the alleged communication between McClellan and Porter and for explaining the Pope-driven motivation behind that theme. In doing so he avoids the trap some have fallen into (such as Anders) of converting Porter into a sort of heroic victim based on Pope’s meritless charges. The reality is that Porter’s performance at Second Bull Run was thoroughly mediocre and his correspondence with Kennedy and with Marble skated a thin line on sedition and violation of the then-Articles of War. While there is room to disagree with Stotelmyer on some of his conclusions, he has done a solid job of presenting legitimate points for discussion.

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    3. I'm not saying it has to be or should be a positive defense like this one, but it would be great to get a 'McClellan and the big questions of the Peninsula Campaign' version, too.

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  2. Thanks for the in-depth review, Drew. I was skeptical from the start about this manuscript when it arrived, but after digging in and hearing from other Antietam heavyweights like Tom Clemens and Ted Alexander that this was the real deal, and author Steve S knows of what he writes, I determined to give it a go.

    Thus far it has been selling well, garnering mostly very favorable reviews, and if your review is any indication, will have an impact on our understanding of the campaign.

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  3. Thank you for the thoughtful, in depth, and positive review. As I like to tell people I am a recovering McClellan basher who believed most of the common stereotypes and myths most of my adult life. As an Antietam and South Mountain Battlefield Guide I still come in contact with these negative beliefs on almost a daily basis. Over the years I kept discovering things that didn't quite fit into the popular narratives of the Maryland Campaign. Thanks to Mr. Savas I was given the opportunity to share what I learned with others. I know it is an uphill battle all the way and your favorable endorsement helps make the struggle a little easier.
    Once again, my sincerest thanks.
    Steven R. Stotelmyer

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  4. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. I recently returned from Antietam and was interested in picking this up. I thought I heard somewhere that the author was working on another Antietam related book?

    Don

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  5. McClellan's foray into Loudoun--which led directly to his replacement--was almost comically slow.

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    1. I wish that part of the book was more developed.

      Are you working on anything?

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  6. Drew,
    I'm currently reading Dennis Frye's "Antietam Shadows", and am enjoying it greatly. He's another one who changed his view on McClellan over time.

    Phil LeDuc

    p.s. - Great to meet Ted Savas at the recent West Coast Civil War Conference.

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    1. Hey Phil--good to meet you as well and thanks for coming to the conference. See you at next year's. :)

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  7. Drew: I agree that something focusing on the Peninsula Campaign would be useful. I note that there has been much less in the way of "revision" by the professionals regarding that campaign, as compared to the work on Maryland. That's probably for good reason because, beyond the eternal flapping surrounding McDowell and whether or not he would be dispatched to McClellan, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot more to turn over - McClellan's numerous, shifting, and always vastly inflated estimates of Confederate strength; his failure to develop effective intelligence; his failure to develop an effective cavalry function; his stalling in early April; his strained correspondence with his supervisors, and more - all seem to have been challenged only by those with fewer credentials.

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    1. John,
      I think that's certainly part of it, but the vast gulf in interest level between the Maryland and Peninsula campaigns (which irks me, and you, to no end) probably also has something to do with it.

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