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Little Mac and Second Manassas

CWTDec2010About a month ago, Harry Smeltzer and others saw fit to call my attention to an article in the December 2010 Civil War Times Illustrated by Edward H. Bonekemper III that offered a very critical recounting of George McClellan’s conduct during the Second Manassas Campaign. My initial impulse was to do the response that Harry urged me to prepare here at Civil Warriors. Then, however, Chris Howland, Dana Shoaf’s right-hand man at CWT, contacted me and asked if I wanted to do a response in a letter to the magazine.

I agreed, but found that the 100-150 word limit for the letter was insufficient to contain all my thoughts on the subject. When I told him this, Chris, after accepting a very brief 100 or so word response for the printed edition (it appears in the just-published February 2011 CWT), kindly invited me to prepare a longer response that would accompany Bonekemper’s article when it was posted on I accepted the invitation and the article and response have just appeared. They can be accessed by clicking here.

My response, entitled “Little Mac Acting Badly–A Response”, begins on window/page 6. Enjoy!

Comments (5) to “Little Mac and Second Manassas”

  1. I did enjoy; thank you. There was a time when I saw McClellan as the villain of 2nd Bull Run; there was then a time when I saw Pope as failing regardless of what McClellan did; finally I came to see Halleck as the real problem (ad I suppose Lee had something to do with it also).

  2. Ethan: A few years back I started an article, never finished: “Everything I used to think about Second Manassas but don’t any more…” The crux of it was my treatment of McClellan. It’s too much to get into here, but suffice to say I feel strongly that my interpretation of his role in Second Manassas was too focused on his personality, and did not sufficiently address the forces at work that affected both his actions and attitudes. Mind you, I’ve not come over to Tom Clemens’s dark side when it comes to McClellan, but I do agree entirely with the concluding paragraph in your rebuttal. Nice job.

  3. Ethan–

    Very interesting and thorough rebuttal. I also felt that Bonekemper’s article was a bit imbalanced. I was actually moved to write a letter to Civil War Times in response, where I focused more on what I perceived were McClellan’s fears about movement on Washington. As I said,
    Bonekemper presents convincing evidence that General George McClellan purposely disobeyed orders to undermine General John Pope and ensure that he would be retained as the “savior of the Union.” However, the article downplays another aspect of this unfortunate episode; namely, McClellan’s own exaggerated fears that the Confederates were possibly planning to attack the nation’s capital. On August 28, 1862, McClellan informed General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that various sources reported that “the enemy with 120,000 men intend advancing on the forts near Arlington and Chain Bridge, with a view of attacking Washington & Baltimore.” As McClellan confirmed in a subsequent letter to his wife, “there was a terrible scare in Washington” that night when “[a] rumor got out that Lee was advancing rapidly on the Chain Bridge with 150,000 men….I did not get 5 minutes consecutive sleep all night–so thick were the telegrams!” McClellan, always cautious and inclined to imagine worst case scenarios where he was outnumbered, seemed to believe that General Robert E. Lee might be trying to get his army between Pope and Washington. McClellan’s paranoia about Lee’s forces may at least in part explain why McClellan held back the Second and Sixth Corps until the last possible minute. He was determined to keep the capital safe, even if in his twisted logic that involved leaving Pope to fend for himself. (I recently blogged about this episode, focusing on the disposition of Edwin Sumner’s forces around Chain Bridge, at I am far from a McClellan apologist, but Bonekemper’s article seems to overlook any plausible justification for McClellan’s decisions at the time.

  4. Ethan,

    Congratulations on a very well measured response. However I do not believe you have asked the question whether it was even possible for sixth army corps to reinforce Pope.

    Neither Bonekemper nor you discuss the movement of Taylor’s force* detached from Hancock’s sixth corps** on the 27th who ran into AP Hill’s division at Union Mills that day, forestalling the entire notion of reinforcing Pope and resetting Halleck’s Main Effort to regaining and protecting Bull Run Bridge.

    Indeed, in McClellan’s War you argue this event is pivotal to the events that followed:

    “Taylor’s catastrophe was a major turning point in the campaign, for it would provide McClellan the rationale he needed to adopt a stance on the forwarding of troops that would compromise Pope’s ability to fulfil the administration’s desire for a victory….”.

    This does appear to have been a catastrophe; sixth corps has around 11,200 PFD (Harsh, Confederate Tide Rising, pg 183) and maybe an effective strength of 8,500 (see Franklin estimating that only 75-80% of his PFD was “effective strength” a few weeks later in B&L Vol 2, pg 595). The disaster at Bull Run bridge has cost sixth corps a full third of their combat strength, at least temporarily. The ability of the remaining 6,000 bayonets to force a passage through Jackson’s and AP Hill’s Divisions with cavalry and artillery (maybe 18,000 effectives, taking the estimate from Harsh, Confederate Tide Rising, pg 182) through a defile is frankly nil. Whether McClellan’s motivations were pure or dark, not pushing there was the correct military decision, if not the correct one for McClellan’s political career***.

    There is a sudden change in tone in McClellan’s despatches to Halleck with the receipt of this news. On the morning of 27th he is sending messages to send forward not only 6th Corps, but also to bring up 2nd Corps to follow and is sending transports down to Yorktown to fetch Couch’s division of 4th Corps up as well (OR 12(2) pgs 688-90). Indeed Halleck also rallies to defend McClellan from an attempt to place the blame for the disaster on him (ibid pg 690). McClellan’s immediate reaction is to hold fast to the fortifications and order up the whole of 4th Corps as well. Halleck agrees and also suggests moving Burnside to Alexandria as well (ibid pg 691). McClellan calls in every available cavalry regiment from the Peninsula (ibid pg 693). Halleck and McClellan seem to be agreeing that a new army (2nd, 4th, 6th and 9th Corps) be concentrated in the vicinity of Alexandria. Thus by nightfall on the 27th/28th Halleck’s orders are that 6th Corps will not march.

    The next morning Halleck has changed his mind, or rather had it changed for him. He enquires why Franklin hasn’t advanced, and finally gives a definite order for Franklin to move at 3.30pm on the 28th, which arrives probably at ca. 4.30pm and which McClellan sends a reply to basically reiterating the contents of the despatches of the previous day (ibid pg 709). Halleck responds Franklin must move and McClellan replies that Franklin will march at 6.00am the 29th and that 2nd Corps will be available to follow if Halleck agrees (he does).

    Franklin does start moving on schedule (now having five batteries). It is not however a route march. Franklin is advancing to contact against a superior enemy force, and of course it is not quick. Halleck’s orders, filtered down through several command levels are to stop at Annandale if there is found to be an enemy force in the way. Smith reaches Annandale before 12pm (and Franklin hasn’t yet left Alexandria, he is chasing down wagons). Smith has only 10 rounds per gun (and 40 balls per musket), not enough even to put up a defence, and receives word that the large force to their front is now at Fairfax Court House****. Several months later Franklin will say McClellan told Smith to stop, and he’ll repeat this in Battles and Leaders, but it isn’t true. Franklin isn’t at the front when Smith stops, nor is McClellan (who never leaves Alexandria that day). Smith stops of his own cognisance but is obeying Halleck’s orders relayed down the chain of command. McClellan moves to protect Smith from Halleck’s fury for having done so whilst correcting the deficiency that stopped him advancing on the enemy (20 wagons taken from Banks are loaded with ammunition and resupply Smith).

    We don’t know what recces &c. Smith carried out but Franklin is able to write to his wife that night “we are all safe and no enemy in sight or hearing” (Franklin papers as quoted in Snell, To the First and Last, pg 163). So it seems likely patrols had been pushed out to Fairfax Court House. The next day they marched at 6.00am, were ordered forward from Fairfax Court House at 01.30pm (detaching a brigade and a battery at the intersection of the Warrenton and Little River Pikes, fully 1/5th of his combat power), and came upon the shattered throngs of Pope’s army at Cub run ca. 06.00pm, from whence he decided to retreat to Centreville without any orders (although he would later claim that he was ordered to, see Snell, pgs 164-5).

    Every order Halleck made was obeyed, but Halleck tended to “suggest” rather than order, and McClellan regarded these as negotiable (the same applies to Lincoln).

    McClellan does not seem reluctant to assist Pope. He does have a very low opinion of his abilities as a General (borne out in his “letters” to his wife of 22nd July and 10th August as quoted in Hennesey, Return to Bull Run, pgs 241-2), and is glad that he has been called upon to save Pope (letters of 21st, 23rd and 24th August, ibid). He however believes the best military action is for them is for a junction closer to Washington and indeed tries to force the issue in his 29th August despatch to Lincoln, whilst carrying out what he believes is the inferior plan. He can’t be held liable for the problems in the field as Halleck had forbidden him to go forward of Alexandria, lest he and Pope meet and seniority would require Pope to yield command to McClellan.

    Franklin was just slow and hesitant, as he would be at Crampton’s Gap a few weeks later and at Fredericksburg a few months after that. Baldy Smith too was cautious, but rightly so given the condition of his command and the fact that the enemy in his way was no phantasmagoria.

    Now, could Franklin have reached Pope in time to save him? No. There was always a superior enemy force blocking the route until the afternoon of the 28th, when they moved west to join in the main fight. Even Lee’s 1,000 sabres and 8 guns (Pelham’s large horse battery) would have proved an impossible obstacle for Smith’s division in its condition. There was every possibility that Lee’s army would have smashed Franklin too, leading to no “Chantilly Fumble” (Harsh’s turn of phrase) and the sought after total destruction of a Federal Army.

    * Haupt reports the force at 3,000 men of mainly Taylor’s brigade and eight guns (Haupt’s telegraph of 27th August; OR 12(2) pg 697 &c. and Key’s telegraph of the same day, ibid pg 697, the guns were all lost), but appears to have forgotten 2 Ohio regiments attached bringing the force to 4,000 (Rafuse, McClellan’s War, fn18 to pg 259)

    ** OR 12(2) pg 694, see despatch signed “Winf’d S. Hancock, Brigadier-General commanding Sixth Corps”. Franklin was at this time in Washington consulting Halleck directly (arriving 4pm 24th and not returning to his command until the 28th (Snell, From the First to the Last, pg 159)), and Hancock was senior GOC present. He was so out of the loop that McClellan, not yet arrived at Alexandra, knew of the defeat half a day before Franklin.

    *** Stanton starts gathering evidence against McClellan &c. As early as the 28th August (OR 12(2) pg 706), this would lead of course to the abortive Coup d’état by the Radical Republicans which Gideon Welles squashed on 2nd September (Tagg, The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln pg 308-9 and Tap, Over Lincoln’s Shoulder pg 132-3). One of Lincoln’s reasons for keeping McClellan was likely his loyalty to Lincoln in his capacity as Commander in Chief. After all, McClellan had obeyed ever order given to him with no public protest, even those we now know from his personal correspondence he seethed with anger over.

    **** There is an enemy force there, Fitzhugh Lee’s Cavalry Brigade, with Ewell’s division of infantry backing it in the Centreville/ Bristoe Station area. They withdraw during the early afternoon to close up with Jackson at Groveton.

  5. Bryn: you are right. There is no overstating the impact Taylor\’s disaster had on McClellan–and understandably so. It was validation of McClellan\’s cautious approach.