Monday, February 20, 2023

Review - " The Tale Untwisted: General George B. McClellan, the Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders " by Thorp & Rossino

[The Tale Untwisted: General George B. McClellan, the Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders by Gene M. Thorp & Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2023). Softcover, 17 maps, figures, appendix section, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,136/183. ISBN:978-1-61121-622-6. $18.95]

The case being much the same with the earlier Peninsula Campaign, controversies attached to every stage of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, both fair and unfair, have dogged General George B. McClellan's historical record for over a century and a half. To the chagrin of McClellan supporters, tradition has it that the general received a found copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 early on September 13 then proceeded to mull things over for as much as eighteen hours before compounding that initial indecision by responding not with alacrity but an overabundance of caution, ultimately throwing away the once in a lifetime opportunity provided by that amazing intelligence bonanza. The problem with this story line, too often passed down uncritically through the decades, is that none of it is true. In their book The Tale Untwisted: General George B. McClellan, the Maryland Campaign, and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders, authors Gene Thorp and Alexander Rossino sharply and convincingly argue that McClellan responded to the Lost Orders both rapidly and with poised confidence, and his corps commanders, issued orders aggressive in tone and expectation, moved forward to engage the enemy as rapidly as one could expect given the bottlenecks and terrain obstacles ahead of them.

Even the general's harshest critics typically concede that McClellan, in hastily reconstituting a cohesive, mobile, and battle ready army from a jumbled and demoralized collection of existing formations and an infusion of fresh levies, achieved an organizational feat perhaps no other leader could have accomplished within the same time frame. Thorp and Rossino add to this the lesser appreciated fact that many of the divisions had to conduct long and exhausting approach marches from their camps in northern Virginia just to reach McClellan's new strike force assembling outside the capital in Maryland.

In a relatively brief study of less than 150 pages, Thorp and Rossino offer readers a masterful summary of the period September 7-15, exploring at each stage the when and where of what McClellan knew of the enemy's intentions, his series of orders to principal subordinates, and the positions of each major element of his army in relation to those of his opponent. Clarity abounds in the narrative, but the book's dynamic and highly detailed maps (many of which are two-page spreads) provide what amounts to a daily military chessboard. The combination considerably enhances reader understanding of decisions and events. Additionally, selective use of brigade symbols also helps readers judge weight of force at a glance. Taken together, maps and text completely demolish the allegation that McClellan's army marched only "six miles a day" in Maryland. The origins of that canard the authors trace first to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and then more popularly to William Swinton's 1864 election propaganda.

Through a meticulous recounting of the events of September 13 by way of judicious examination of an array of sources offering key information about time and place, the best evidence clearly supports the conclusion that McClellan received the Lost Orders after noon (perhaps around 1pm) and, after due consideration of its contents, quickly responded. Ordering General Alfred Pleasonton to seek out confirmation of the information contained in the Lost Orders (which was four days old by the 13th), McClellan, without waiting to hear back from his cavalry eyes and ears, adjusted his existing marching orders and sent at midnight his controversial "trophies" telegram to Lincoln and the War Department. The commonly disseminated interpretation, most prominently advanced by Stephen Sears, that the "trophies" telegram was transmitted at noon is so convincingly refuted that the need for its permanent retirement is unquestionable. Hand in hand with that is the equally strong imperative to discard the accusation of excessive dawdling. Indeed, McClellan's army was constantly in motion during the week-long period examined in the book

Given that the Army of the Potomac was on the move and already in the midst of an early yet already self-assured response to Lee's incursion into Maryland, some have argued against the importance of the Lost Orders. Thorp and Rossino are sympathetic to that notion, but only to a small degree. Their explanation of the ways in which the Lost Orders reshaped McClellan's mindset and plans going forward from September 13 offers a persuasive argument, one admitted later by the general himself, that the intercepted intelligence had a significant impact on how the army conducted its affairs between then and the fall of Harpers Ferry.

The general's alleged case of the "slows" has also been used to shift a lion's share of blame for the ignominious Harpers Ferry surrender upon McClellan's shoulders. Thorp and Rossino more properly place the burden of responsibility upon Halleck and post commander Col. Dixon Miles, with a nod to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson's skillful and aggressive investment of the town. Halleck ignored McClellan's advice regarding the best disposition of the post's defenders, and he waited until it was too late before handing McClellan authority over the garrison. Miles, as every observer then and now justifiably believes, was in over his head and badly botched his arrangements for holding Harpers Ferry, essentially trapping himself inside an indefensible bowl. In addition, after informing those responsible for his relief that he would hold out for 48 hours, Miles surrendered after only a day. As this book's keen analysis of events demonstrates, the force assigned to rescue Harpers Ferry, General William Franklin's Sixth Corps, had little chance of doing so under that sharply cropped time frame.

Found in the appendix section is a rather detailed summary of telegraphic communications sent over September 6-13, its in-depth look at the "trophies" telegram supplemented by cautionary general discussion of Civil War telegraph transcription errors. Also included is an Army of the Potomac strength table and the Lost Order text (the last accompanied by an excellent map tracing the actual movements of those parts of Lee's army mentioned in the order).

Thorp and Rossino's study ends on September 15, with the main body of McClellan's army converging on Antietam Creek and Lee's army still widely divided between Sharpsburg and the Harpers Ferry environs. What followed during September 16, the September 17 Battle of Antietam, and the post-battle Union pursuit of Lee's army still fuel McClellan critics, but The Tale Untwisted makes it abundantly clear that, contrary to long-held belief, the preceding week was a rather superb one for Little Mac. Much in the way of insightful revisionism within the Civil War literature diminishes itself through contrarian overreach and attacking tone directed toward principal proponents of the established view; however, there's little cause for complaint on those grounds here (though one target might disagree!). In research, argumentation, and overall presentation, Thorp and Rossino's study shows how going about the process of changing minds influenced by generations of printed misinformation is properly done. Theirs is a refreshing and essential new addition to the 1862 Maryland Campaign literature.


  1. Drew--many thanks for taking the time and trouble to read and review this important book. Rossino has finished the Confederate side of Special Orders 191, and will publish it next year. My hope is the readers with any interest at all in the topic will read this carefully and think for themselves. -- Theodore P. Savas.

  2. Thank you very much for the detailed and thorough review of our book. The evidence is clear that Little Mac performed much better in Maryland than we've all been told for more than 160 years. We sincerely hope that the myth of his "slows" can now be thrown into the dustbin of history and McClellan's reputation seen in its proper light, at least insofar as his work up to the Battle of Antietam is concerned.

  3. Drew: I fully concur with your positive review. The authors have thoroughly researched this topic and their resulting analysis is insightful and impeccable. This book is a paradigm of how to undertake the objective revision of accepted history, It is tightly limited to the issue at hand and avoids the unfortunate tendency of some to steer too hard in the "revision" direction. The book's credibility is enhanced because it does not attempt to expand a new view of McClellan in the Maryland Campaign beyond the 24 or so hours covered. As you imply, there are other aspects of McClellan's handling of the campaign which justifiably warrant strong criticism.

    1. Some perhaps, but overall, I think that McClellan really performed very well in Maryland. It is to his enormous credit that they came as close to dealing a crushing blow to the Army of Northern Virginia as they did.

    2. Without turning this into a thread about McClellan's overall performance, there are valid critiques regarding September 16, the execution of the attack(s) on September 17 (notwithstanding McClellan's self-infatuated report to Ellen about the views of those whose judgment he "trusted"), and September 18. My point stands that the authors of this excellent study stayed tightly focused on his response to acquiring the "Lost Orders".

    3. The book actually does cover McClellan’s actions from September 7th through September 15th, in general terms and he comes out quite well.

      We don’t have to go into too much depth on it, but I will say that I don’t think that the criticisms levied at McClellan for his actions on the 16th of September are at all borne out by the evidence. I will cite you to a discussion in which some coverage of it has been provided. I could go into much more depth, but that serves as a basic starting point.

      The way that things played out on the 17th and the 18th was very unfortunate, though, to be sure.


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