McClellan versus Lee

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The essential difference between Lee and McClellan was that the former established cordial relations with his political masters, and that Lee’s military outlook was offensive, not defensive. Although his methods have often been compared by historians to those of Napoleon, Lee was essentially Scott’s pupil. He took the latter’s methods and developed them further in scale and intensity. Given the Confederacy’s overall strategic, industrial, and logistical weakness when compared with the Union, Lee appreciated that time was not on its side. He was therefore prepared to accept great risks, was keen to disperse his force (sometimes for logistic reasons) and then concentrate at the decisive point, making the most of mobility. He would maneuver near the enemy to demoralize and confuse him rather than withdraw, as Johnston invariably did. Consequently, Lee was prepared to fight for the initiative, not wait for the inevitable accumulation of massive Union numerical and material superiority that, McClellan calculated, would overwhelm weaker Southern armies. Lee sought a decision in the Confederacy’s favor; he did not believe the Confederacy could enjoy the luxury of attempting just to avoid defeat.

These dynamic methods imposed great physical and psychological strain on Lee. His chief of staff, Colonel R. H. Chilton, who had served under Lee on the Great Plains, was an amiable nonentity who simply issued orders. This placed more work on Lee’s shoulders, and it is perhaps not surprising that he relied heavily on oral orders. He never shied away from taking decisions, placed himself at the most convenient point where he could take them, and disdained councils of war. He had inherited Scott’s view that, once the commanding general had issued orders, subordinates should carry them out in their own way. Over the next year he would modify this approach. For instance, in September, 1862, he personally directed Confederate tactics at the battle of Antietam. Soldiers largely responded to his cool leadership and record of success; aware of the effect of his presence at the front, he tended to ration his appearances to increase their tonic effect during dire emergencies. But, unlike McClellan, Lee actually enjoyed the intellectual and moral challenges posed by field command.

The contrasting fortunes of Lee and McClellan indicate how important field command was for contemporaries in estimating the abilities of a commander. McClellan, for all his talents, was temperamentally unsuited for the moral challenges posed by the command of an army. He could plan but not carry through his ideas into practice. He was timorous and hesitant and was gripped by an obsession that he was greatly outnumbered by the Confederates; such a misconception led to the greatest possible misappreciation of the potential of his army by comparison with the Confederate, and fatal misjudgments about the current of battle. Certainly, the view that he was outnumbered was an important self-justifying link in the circular argument that underwrote his defensive schemes. In a very real sense, McClellan did not command. His interpretation of Scott’s methods was simply to abandon his subordinates to fight their own battles. During the Seven Days’ battles (June 26-July 1, 1862) Fitz-John Porter’s Fifth Corps was left unsupported to bear the main burden of the fighting. Moreover, McClellan absented himself from the battlefield. While the battle of Malvern Hill was raging, it was rumored that he was on board a river steamer on the James River. His admirers dismissed rumors circulating in Washington, DC, to this effect as a vicious calumny. Yet although he was not relaxing (as critics claimed), he had virtually abandoned the battlefield, abdicated any semblance of responsibility for its movements, and was preoccupied with administrative trivia. During the Seven Days’ battles Union forces won a number of tactical successes, notably at Mechanicsville and Malvern Hill, but, lacking a directing intelligence which could relate them to an overarching operational design, the result was a major strategic defeat for the Union cause, and the dashing of the high hopes for McClellan’s “grand campaign.”

Nor did McClellan learn from experience. In the Antietam campaign in September, 1862, he enjoyed the inestimable advantage of discovering Lee’s entire plan and the distribution of his forces from the famous “lost order.” Yet, due to laggard movements, overcaution and wasted time-not least the unaccountable waste of an entire day before McClellan launched his attack at Antietam on September 17-Lee was allowed to concentrate his army and prepare for the Union attack. McClellan’s disjointed efforts were repulsed and the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army was frittered away through inertia. McClellan simply lacked the moral qualities of decisiveness and faith in his own judgment that contribute to dynamic action. He failed to harness the fighting power at his disposal and employ it to secure his military objectives. As a battlefield commander McClellan still remained an ambitious captain bewildered by his weighty responsibilities; field command was not as easy as Scott had made it look in 1846-47. McClellan’s two campaigns neither restored his fortunes nor resulted in his reappointment as general-in-chief. On July 11, 1862, that position had been offered by Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck after the fall of Memphis, Tennessee. Halleck accepted, but admitted that he did not know what his duties involved.

Lee’s experience was exactly the opposite. Success at field command resulted in the Army of Northern Virginia enshrining the hopes of the Confederacy, and Lee became influential as a result. The reason for his success was simple; he commanded confidently, although not as effortlessly as he sometimes made it look. He is sometimes criticized by historians for a certain meekness, yet Lee was a skillful manager of men. His loose leadership style suited the strong personalities of his subordinates. Although tensions existed within his army, for instance between his two corps commanders, Stonewall Jackson and Longstreet, and between Jackson and his subordinates (especially with A. P. Hill), Lee managed to persuade his rather vain subordinates to work together. The Army of Northern Virginia was not crippled, as the Army of Tennessee had been throughout 1862, by petty and factious disputes between the commanding general, Braxton Bragg, and his subordinates, Leonidas Polk and William J. Hardee. In October, 1863, most of the army’s generals signed a petition asking for Bragg’s dismissal. This curious affair prevented the Army of Tennessee from benefiting from the success of the Chickamauga campaign, and demanded the personal attention of Jefferson Davis to sort out, which he did by siding with Bragg, who began an ill-advised purge of his critics. Southern generals-and here the experience of Scott’s many quarrels was salutary-needed to be directed with tact. Lee had tact in abundance, but Bragg (and Stonewall Jackson, for that matter) sorely lacked it.

Lee’s force of character, and determination to secure the objectives he set himself, demonstrated that Scott’s system could be made to work even with untrained staffs and much larger armies (that were more difficult to command) than the small force that Scott himself had directed in Mexico. Nevertheless, Lee would modify it. In June, 1862, Lee briefed his subordinates on his plans to relieve Richmond by striking at McClellan’s lines of communications by a turning movement that would involve a junction with Jackson’s troops from the Shenandoah Valley on the battlefield, among a number of other complex movements. Having outlined this concept, Lee then left the room so that his subordinates could discuss his plan and work out the movement details among themselves without reference to him. The errors that frustrated Lee’s scheme to destroy McClellan’s army proved to him such a degree of latitude was excessive, and Lee never repeated the exercise.

Moreover, the campaign indicated (despite an uncharacteristic lassitude) that Lee had found in Jackson an executive officer of incomparable talent. If McClellan had found a subordinate of similar energy his generalship might have prospered, but McClellan’s protégés tended to mirror his own weaknesses. Jackson thrived when given responsibility and a long rein. Although very different in character from Lee, Jackson shared his military outlook, and the conviction that daring, deception, and demoralizing maneuvers that resulted from surprise could splinter Union numerical strength, and allow much more skillful Confederate forces to achieve local operational superiority and defeat Union forces in detail. In 1862 Confederate forces commanded by Lee and Jackson had the nerve to undertake operations based on calculated risks. Throughout the Seven Days Lee never once convened his subordinates in council. Such councils tend to take a cautious view and expend precious time, as Jackson discovered when he convened his only council of war in the Shenandoah Valley. “That is the last council of war I will ever hold!” he exclaimed. Jackson could have spoken for Lee when he once snapped at an anxious staff officer, “Never take counsel of your fears.” In 1862-63 Lee was able to frame audacious plans, guessing (correctly as it turned out) that Union commanders invariably took such ill-advised counsel.

The results for the Confederacy were a string of operational successes in the East but these could not be translated into a strategic dividend. The command system was part of the reason for this failure. Lee’s victories increased his influence (which reached its height in May/June, 1863) but not his power within the circles of the Davis administration. (His suggestion, for example, that Beauregard command a new force on his right was ignored.) By 1863 and 1864 Davis came to rely on his advice; and needless to say, it was heavily influenced by his perspectives and responsibilities as an army commander. The appointment of Braxton Bragg as Davis’s advisor “Commanding the Armies of the Confederate States” in February, 1864, only accentuated the muddle and ambiguity of the Confederate command system. Bragg’s power did not extend to Lee (who was his senior) or the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee was not general-in-chief, and Davis’s informal methods of working while retaining all powers of decision in his own hands meant that Lee did not have the time to devote to matters outside his department. Davis’s requests could also be importunate. For instance, at the height of his anxieties as to whether Grant had crossed the James River on June 15, 1864, Davis asked Lee to recommend a successor to Leonidas Polk, who had been killed at Pine Mountain, Georgia, the day before. Lee declined, pleading lack of knowledge. Such opinions, expressed in his correspondence, used to be adduced by some historians as evidence of Lee’s parochialism. But it was the system that was at fault. It overemphasized field command and expected too much of its practitioners, and neglected to provide for the coordinating duties of higher levels of command. Significantly, neither Joseph E. Johnston nor P. G. T. Beauregard did more than Lee (in many ways did much less) when given command of the Department of the West in 1863 and 1864 respectively. They assumed that their duties were purely advisory. Given such constraints, Lee could not fulfill a role that the system was not designed to carry out.

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