Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Idiot and a Dotard

In which McClellan inadvertently pens his most famous quotation

It's not entirely clear what got George McClellan, major general commanding the Military Division of the Potomac, so upset on August 16, but he was in a fit for sure. He issued a General Order banning all passes to go beyond Union lines into Virginia (before, a not-uncommon practice) and what looked like orders to Brigadier General William Rosecrans, who commanded the army in western Virginia that McClellan formerly commanded, urging him to (ironically) stop asking for more soldiers and strike boldly at the Confederates near him. McClellan, of course, had no authority to issue such orders and similar circumstances had caused the now-simmering feud between him and the army's real commander, Winfield Scott. He had, however, refrained from labeling his headquarters an "army" in deference to the old general.

Whatever the cause, McClellan penned a sentence that historians since its accidental publishing have been unable to refrain quoting: "I am here in a terrible place--the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force--the Presdt is an idiot, the old General in his dotage--they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs."

Given the lack of embellishing information and the frequency with which the one line is pulled out, here's a re-type of the most full version I can find, short of going into the Library of Congress's manuscript room. It comes from Sears, pp. 85-86.
. . . I am here in a terrible place: the enemy have from three to four times my force; the President is an idiot, the old general in his dotage, they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs. Most of my troops are demoralized by the defeat at Bull Run; some regiments even mutinous. I have probably stopped that; but you see my position is not pleasant. . .

I have, I believe made the best possible disposition of the few men under my command; will quietly await events, and, if the enemy attacks, will try to make my movements as rapid and desperate as may be. If my men will only fight I think I can thrash him, notwithstanding the disparity of numbers. As it is, I trust to God to give success to our arms, though He is not wont to aid those who refuse to aid themselves...

I am weary of all this. I have no ambition in the present affairs; only wish to save my country, and find the incapables around me will not permit it. They sit on the verge of the precipice, and cannot realize what they see. Their reply to everything is, “Impossible! Impossible!” They think nothing possible which is against their wishes.

6 p.m. .. . Gen. Scott is at last opening his eyes to the fact that I am right and that we are in imminent danger.  Providence is aiding me by heavy rains, which are swelling the Potomac, which may be impassable for a week; if so we are saved. If Beauregard comes down upon us soon I have everything ready to make a manoeuvre which will be decisive. Give me two weeks and I will defy Beauregard; in a week the chances will be at least even.

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