Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Carefully Considered Plan

Wherein McClellan heroically sticks his nose in other people's business
The object of the present war differs from those in which nations are usually engaged, mainly in this: that the purpose of ordinary war is to conquer a peace and make a treaty on advantageous terms; in this contest it has become necessary to crush a population sufficiently numerous, intelligent, and warlike to constitute a nation; we have not only to defeat their armed and organized forces in the field but to display such an overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists, especially those of the governing aristocratic class, of the utter impossibility of resistance.
McClellan's Headquarters, the house of George Wilkes
on 19th Street and Pennsylvania Ave, NW
The sentiment would not have been out of character for a zealous Republican supporter of President Lincoln, such as Senator (and Colonel) Edward Baker the day before in the U.S. Senate, but the author of those words on August 2 was Major General (only twenty-four hours before officially officially) George B. McClellan. McClellan could not be criticized for a lack of effort in the week since he had taken command of the Military Division of the Potomac, encompassing the Departments of Washington and Northeastern Virginia.

"I was in the saddle nearly 12 hours yesterday," he wrote his wife on the evening of August 1 about yet another day of riding from camp to camp seeing his men and surveying the ground around Washington. "I broke down your Father [Randolph March, who McClellan has made chief of staff] and sent Seth [Williams, his adjutant] home... neither of them having been out all day." McClellan's trips had more purpose than gloating over his father-in-law and assistant, though. He was preparing an army to fight a great war being envisioned in his head.

It was a memorandum for the Cabinet that McClellan had begun with the above paragraph setting out the object of the war. Perhaps in a dig at Winfield Scott's derided and discarded "Anaconda" Plan which focused on blockade of waterways (including the Mississippi) until cooler heads prevailed in the south, McClellan believed the opportunity for a peaceful settlement had long passed, and he said so in his memo.
The contest began with a class; now it is with a people. Our military success can alone restore the former issue. By thoroughly defeating their armies, taking their strong places, and pursuing a rigidly protective policy as to private property [meaning, especially, slaves] and unarmed persons, and a lenient course as to common soldiers, we may well hope for the permanent restoration of a peaceful Union; but in the first instance the authority of the Government must be supported by overwhelming physical force.
The implicit criticism of Scott - in fact, the very writing of the strategy memo, a realm Scott believed to be his own - was deliberate. McClellan had proposed a strong movement on Richmond, Virginia in April, before its referendum had even ratified the secession convention's decision, and received back a polite, but condescending explanation of all the plan's flaws. When Scott had brought McClellan east following Bull Run, he thought that it was to find a field commander who could organize and control the men under him. But McClellan aspired to much much more.

The same day he wrote the memo, McClellan told his wife about a small spat with the general-in-chief in which he read larger omens.
Genl Scott has been trying to work a traverse to have Emory made inspector general of my army & of the army--I respectfully declined the favor & perhaps disgusted the old man, who by the by, is fast becoming very slow & very old. He cannot long retain command I think--when he retires I am sure to succeed him, unless in the mean time I lose a battle--which I do not expect to do.
It was perhaps with this in mind that when McClellan's memo turned to specifics of strategy, he tracked closely with Lincoln's July 27 memo. Like Lincoln, he proposed a "strong movement" down the Mississippi River and completely securing Missouri. Also like Lincoln, he wanted a movement from Ohio down into East Tennessee (though McClellan couldn't stop himself from noting it must wait until "it becomes perfectly clear that Kentucky is cordially united with us", a caveat Lincoln hadn't either thought of or cared about).

But unlike Lincoln, McClellan did not envision his army as simply holding the line to defend Washington. "The rebels have chosen Virginia as their battlefield," he wrote, "and it seems proper for us to make the first great struggle there..." The other two thrusts into the South existed "to diminish the resistance there [in Virginia] offered us..." In combination with these units, he said, "I propose with the force which I have requested, not only to drive the enemy out of Virginia and occupy Richmond, but to occupy Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Pensacola, and New Orleans..." He was way outside his jurisdiction now, not making recommendations but planning a campaign for war-wide victory. "...in other words [I propose] to move into the heart of the enemy's country, and crush out this rebellion in its very heart."

In his letter to his wife, he showed a messianic belief in himself, displaying complete confidence in his own ability to save the Union and none in anyone else. "I shall carry this thing on 'en grand' & crush the rebels in one campaign--I flatter myself that Beauregard has gained his last victory--we need success & must have it--I will leave nothing undone to gain it."

McClellan was utterly driven to implement the only plans he believed could work to save the country, his, and matters of rank and jurisdiction appeared frivolous in comparison. Which is why his memo includes advice on things he knew well that were not his responsibility ("It cannot  be ignored that the construction of railroads has introduced a new and very important element to war..."), as well as things he knew nothing about ("An essential feature of the plan of operations will be the employment of a strong naval force, to protect the movement of a fleet of transports...").

Perhaps in the most bizarre move, he finished with a matter micro-managing the Cabinet itself. "In conclusion, I would submit that the exigencies of the treasury may be lessened by making only partial payments to our troops when in the enemy's country and by giving the obligations of the United States for such supplies as may there be obtainable."

"Rode over the river," he told his wife when recounting August 1 for her in his evening letter. "Looked at some of the works & inspected 3 or 4 regts--worked at organizing Brigades--just got thro' with that. I handed to the Presdt tonight a carefully considered plan for conducting the war on a large scale."

He would present it to the Cabinet, including Winfield Scott, the next morning at 10:00 am.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 71-76.

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