Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Two Napoleons

Wherein McClellan follows the usurper's example

Prince Napoleon, in 1860
On August 3, after a grueling morning presenting his new strategy to the Cabinet and a busy afternoon of memo writing, George McClellan joined the President for a state dinner in honor of Prince Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte. Prince Napoleon, as he was known, was the cousin of Napoleon III, the reigning Emperor of France, and the grandson of the brother (Jerome) of the renowned Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom McClellan was often compared in the North (and G.T. Beauregard in the South). For McClellan, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

"I dined at the Presdt' yesterday," he wrote his wife, Mary Ellen. "I suppose some 40 were present--Prince Napoleon & his staff, French Minister, English ditto, Cabinet, some Senators, Genl Scott & myself."

Today the French are the butt of jokes about their military prowess, but in 1861 they were regarded as the world's premier fighting nation. Only a generation before, the French had fought a coalition of nearly every European country, conquering all of them (though the British will insist that the Treaty of Amiens was not an admission of defeat, merely a cease-fire). It was the triumphant campaigns of Napoleon as interpreted by his admirer and former aide Henri Jomini that American cadets studied at West Point (to the degree they studied anything beyond engineering), and it was these Napoleonic strategies and tactics that would guide the decisions of nearly all generals in the war, both North and South (today, military thinkers prefer Prussian Carl von Clausewitz to Jomini, but while On War had been published already in 1861, it had not yet been translated to English and wouldn't win the attention of Americans until after the Prussians decimated the French in 1870).

Jomini's work is distilled into nine principles by Eicher and Eicher in Civil War High Commands. They are:
  1. Objective: The destruction of the enemy force.
  2. Offensive: Only an offensive operation can achieve decisive result, but an offensive is usually more costly than a defensive.
  3. Simplicity: Complete organization is required so that directions and orders may be communicated and understood without ambiguity and difficulty. Responsibility should be compartmentalized and made specific.
  4. Unity of Command: For complete cooperation, forces must be coordinated with respect to tactics and logistics. Simultaneous tactical operations were often termed "concentration in time".
  5. Mass: Troops and firepower must be concentrated on decisive points of combat, termed "concentration in space".
  6. Economy of Force: Minimum necessary and essential means must be used at all important points except where the maximum force is employed at the decisive point.
  7. Maneuver: Forces must be moved to maximum advantage consistent with the terrain. Flanking and envelopment moves are usually superior to frontal attacks, depending on the strength of the defensive positions.
  8. Surprise: Striking an enemy force "in detail" or while in motion to change position, or on open terrain will surprise and confuse a defense.
  9. Security: An adequate defense is required to protect bases, camps, fortifications, and supply lines.
Taken together, these principles made "the European way of war." It was a war of offensive maneuver in order to bring the most troops ("mass") to one place ("space") at the exact right time (uhm, "time"). McClellan's memo of August 2 envisioned this ideal perfectly, with a hammer blow from a massive army of over 250,000 from Virginia, after stretching out Confederate defenses over the Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.

It was also utterly unfeasible. By the time that number of troops had been assembled and trained around Washington in a way that did not abandon Missouri and Kentucky to the Confederacy, Northern public opinion would have soured on the war. Unlike Clausewitz, Jomini - and by extension, McClellan - did not worry about the support of people or political leaders for warfare. The general who gave victories, it was expected, would make the people and politicians happy, and they would give him whatever he wanted, leading to more victories, in a reinforcing cycle of martial admiration.

McClellan hadn't pulled this theory out of thin air, he had been meticulously taught it throughout his entire U.S. Army experience. He learned to admire Napoleon at West Point, saw sharp contrasts between "professional" and "volunteer" military strategies and behavior in the Mexican War (no doubt sharply reinforced by the fussy, professional Winfield Scott), and was dispatched by the United States government to observe a "real war" in the Crimea so that he could bring the knowledge back home for dissemination. But more than even Scott, who was willing to fudge to get the results he wanted (and who remembered Napoleon's campaigns as current events), McClellan strove for the "ideal type" in warfare.

It was in this dream of European-style professionalism that McClellan had spent the afternoon drafting a memo for his brigade commanders about how to fight and train. It entrusted his brigade commanders with the responsibility to "establish schools of instruction" in which they would "personally instruct & drill all the field officers [colonels, lt. colonels, and majors] & as many of the Capts and Lts as possible, at least one hour every day." The officers would not only learn all the drills and technical responsibilities, but also tactics and "customs" of a proper army. "Particular attention is enjoined to the duties of sentinels & the various forms of ceremony etc prescribed by regulations."

McClellan believed that well-ordered parades and proper uniform standards weren't a matter of cosmetics, but established a habit of discipline and a pride in service (a similar belief had earned Scott the unflattering nickname "Fuss and Feathers"). On a larger level he wanted to establish a new esprit de corps ("spirit of the body [of men]"), to separate from the stigma of Bull Run and the ninety-day militia army that had fought it. In early August, he took to calling his men the Army of the Potomac, named after the Military Division he commanded, but Scott objected. The system was set up so that "army" was a term for an organized group of men in a "department" and thus McClellan could command two separate armies, the Army of Northeastern Virginia which would be re-created under Irvin McDowell if needed, and the Army of Washington which would be created under Joseph Mansfield, but not both as a single army. It mattered most (but not solely) because Scott hadn't authorized McClellan to do it.

McClellan also had found himself blocked by Scott in another of his attempts to make the U.S. Army and Volunteers more European. He had asked Members of Congress to authorize him to have an extensive staff that would receive pay, instead of just the few that McDowell had taken to Manassas and volunteer aides-de-camp. Scott was adamantly opposed, reminding McClellan somewhat disingenuously that he had only had two aides in the Mexican campaign (he didn't count his slew of personal engineers, a group that included the young McClellan, as well as Beauregard and Robert E. Lee). No doubt the general-in-chief was also thinking of using experienced men as brigade commanders, rather than as staffers. McClellan was thinking about building something unseen in America since the British burned the White House: a real army.

If McClellan discussed any of this with Prince Napoleon, he didn't relay it to Mary Ellen.
Mrs. Lincoln doesn't shine particularly as a hostess. The dinner was not especially interesting; rather long, & rather tedious as such things generally are. I was placed between Col. Pisani, one of the Prince's aides, who spoke no English, & a member of the Legation who laboured under the delusion that he spoke our native tongue with fluency. I had some long talks with the Prince, who speaks English very much as the Frenchmen do in the old English comedies. He is an intelligent man, but not prepossessing...
McClellan likely wrote his account the morning of the 4th, because he makes no mention of a noontime event that would have longterm consequences. It is summarized in a telegram sent to the Commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, in Sandy Hook, MD. Addressed from the "Head Quarters, Army of the Potomac" at 2:30 pm, it read:
Information has been received which goes to show that the enemy may attack us within the next forty-eight hours. Please direct all your guards to exercise the utmost vigilance and hold your command ready to move at the shortest notice, with cooked rations for two days ready. Telegraph to me at least four times a day.
Banks, of course, was not under McClellan's command, but the news he had received put him so much on edge that he disregarded military protocol, as Napoleon had done in his early days, and by so doing saved the Republic (until he destroyed it by making himself Emperor). He sent a similar message to the commanders that did report to him (here is McDowell's copy). But the message to Banks was McClellan clearly overstepping his authority.

McClellan had ended the letter to Mary Ellen that morning with a thought that must have been on his mind when he made the decision: "It made me feel a little strangely last evening when I went in to the Presdt's with the old General leaning on me--the old veteran (Scott) & his young successor; I could see that many marked the contrast."

Print Sources:
  • Eicher and Eicher, 56-57
  • Sears, 76-79

No comments:

Post a Comment