Unfurl Those Colors!

McClellan, Sumner, and the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign
By Marion V. Armstrong Jr.

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2008 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-8005-2

Chapter One



On Saturday, 6 September 1862, the weather across central Maryland and northern Virginia was sunny, warm, and dry, as perfect a day as could be expected during that delightful, late summer time of the year. The military forecast, though, was unsettled, and the very air was charged with the electricity of an approaching storm.

In the otherwise lazy Federal camps in and about Washington, D.C., it had been rumored for the past two days that Confederate forces were crossing the Potomac River from Virginia into Maryland above Seneca Mills using the crossing sites at Edward's, White's, and Noland's Ferries. The strength of this Confederate force was reported as being from 30,000 to 50,000 men. What it would do in Maryland was purely a matter of speculation. The move might be a feint to draw Federal forces out of Virginia in order to weaken the fortifications south of the Potomac and make Washington vulnerable to direct attack from that quarter. It might be the beginning of a quick strike on the city from the north to take place before Federal forces could be redeployed from Virginia to defend the capital in that direction. A third possibility was that this Confederate force might attempt to cut off the nation's capital from direct land communication with the northern states by severing the roads and railroads north of the city and occupying nearby Baltimore. Finally, the crossing might be simply a raid into Maryland, foreshadowing a Confederate incursion into Pennsylvania during the harvest and election season.

Whatever the movement or its objectives, it had been made possible by the defeat of Federal Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia on the plains of Manassas a little over a week before. Following that failure, Pope had withdrawn his weary and demoralized army to the fortifications of Washington, supported by a rear guard made up of several corps sent to him from the Army of the Potomac, which was just returning to northern Virginia from its own failed summer-long campaign on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. The victorious Confederates aggressively followed Pope's retreating army, but on 3 September suddenly broke contact and disappeared to the northwest in the direction of Leesburg. Rumors and the fear of some sort of incursion into Maryland immediately began to permeate the thinking of high-level Federal commanders.

On the first of September as the extent of Pope's defeat and the emerging military crisis became apparent, President Abraham Lincoln directed the army general-in-chief, Major General Henry W. Halleck, to place the Army of the Potomac commander, Major General George Brinton McClellan, in overall command of the defenses of Washington. The following morning, in a meeting that included the president, Halleck, and McClellan, the latter's command authority was extended to take in all Federal troops in and around Washington, specifically including those army corps that had previously been under the command of Pope. That same day, the president, acting through Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, ordered Halleck to organize a force capable of taking the field, a force separate from that required for manning the defenses of Washington. Accordingly, on the third, Halleck issued orders for McClellan to assemble from the army corps then in the vicinity of Washington, a "movable army" that would be prepared to take the field to counter any Confederate move into Maryland.


The president's selection of McClellan as the commander of Federal forces in and about Washington during this crisis was made with the greatest reluctance. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Wells, Lincoln admitted during a 2 September cabinet meeting that McClellan was not the general to be trusted in command of an army in the field conducting an offensive campaign. A few days later, Lincoln confided to his private secretary, John Hay, his reason for selecting McClellan. "There is no man in the army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he." But Lincoln then told Hay, "If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight." Lincoln's words revealed that he felt that the developing crisis demanded a general who could quickly bring discipline and organization to the recently defeated Federal armies. But his words also reveal that he recognized that the greater need was for a fighting general who could assertively direct a field army in a campaign of rapid maneuver. In selecting McClellan, though, Lincoln was settling for a general who had shown himself to be less a fighting general than a general whose talents lay in his ability to organize.

McClellan began reaching the summit of his military career a little over a year earlier, when, in the aftermath of the first Federal disaster on the plains of Manassas in July 1861, he was called to Washington and given command of the Department of the Potomac comprising the defenses of Washington and the recently defeated army of Brigadier General Irwin McDowell. Upon arrival in Washington, McClellan quickly concluded that the burden of saving the Union had been placed squarely on his shoulders. He wrote his wife, Mary Ellen, "I find myself in a new & strange position here-Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me-by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land."

As the power of the land, McClellan's first task was the creation of an army through which he could exercise that power, and at that point there probably was no one on the Federal side better suited to the challenge. McClellan was, to say the least, intellectually gifted. He had begun his military career in June 1842, when at the young age of fifteen he became a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, after having already completed two years of study at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1846, he graduated second in his class of fifty-nine, a class that included twenty men who would become general officers during the Civil War.

As the most-promising officers always did, McClellan took his commission in the prestigious and elite Corps of Engineers, and was fortunate in being assigned to an engineer company then being organized at West Point for service in Mexico. The company was eventually attached to Winfield Scott's army for the 1847 campaign to Mexico City, placing McClellan in the middle of what proved to be the most important American military experience prior to the Civil War. McClellan's performance during that campaign was exemplary, and he received brevet promotions to first lieutenant and captain.

After the war, McClellan and his company returned to West Point, where he remained until 1851 when he was reassigned to Fort Delaware, a coastal defensive work under construction at the head of Delaware Bay. His time at Fort Delaware was short and notable only for his translation and preparation of a new manual of bayonet exercises for the army. In the spring of 1852, he was reassigned as second-in-command to Captain Randolph B. Marcy on an expedition to explore the sources of the Red River in northern Texas, and then to direct a survey of rivers and harbors along the Texas coast, the first assignment in which he was the officer in charge.

As he completed this assignment in the spring of 1853, McClellan was offered the opportunity to organize and lead an expedition to find a route through the Cascade Mountains for the transcontinental railroad. The Cascade expedition brought him the notice of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who the following year selected him for a semi- secret voyage aboard the frigate Columbia to find a naval anchorage and coaling station in Santa Domingo. Although nothing tangible came from the Santa Domingo voyage, McClellan was able to write that Davis "expressed himself as being very much pleased with the result of my summer's work, & the manner in which it had been conducted." Davis continued to direct McClellan's assignments and next had him studying railroad construction techniques and costs. In 1855, Davis selected McClellan, now a captain of cavalry, for a trip to Europe along with two more senior officers to study the organization, methods, and equipment of the great continental armies. The trip took them to the major capitals of Europe as well as to the siege of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. McClellan's 1857 report, The Seat of War in Europe in 1855 and 1856, established him as the American authority on the organization and management of large armies.

Unable to find advancement in an army that relied on seniority for promotion, McClellan resigned his commission in early 1857 to become the chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. Within a year, his talent for organization and management brought him appointment as one of the road's vice presidents. During the Panic of 1857, he was made chairman of the committee established to keep the road from financial ruin, and he kept the railroad in operation without cutting service until the panic subsided in 1858. Not all railroads were so fortunate. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad was forced into receivership by the financial crisis, which led its directors in 1860 to offer McClellan the position of superintendent, and then the presidency of the road's eastern division at Cincinnati. This is where McClellan found himself when the forces of the provisional Confederate government fired on Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861.

As a distinguished military professional and experienced executive, McClellan's services were much sought after by the governors of Ohio, New York, and his home state of Pennsylvania. On 23 April, he accepted an appointment as commander of Ohio forces. Only a month later, however, he was appointed a major general in the regular army, and given command of the newly formed Department of the Ohio with headquarters at Cincinnati. From there, McClellan directed the organization, equipping, and training of forces from the western states, and during June and July orchestrated a campaign across the Ohio River into western Virginia that secured control of that vital area for the Union. Although he personally directed no battles during the campaign, McClellan's success in western Virginia made him the only successful Federal commander anywhere and prompted the government to call him to Washington in the wake of the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run.

McClellan immediately began to use his considerable talent for organization and management to bring order from the chaos created by the defeat of McDowell's army. When he took command on 27 July 1861, McClellan found in the vicinity of Washington some fifty thousand infantry, supported by fewer than one thousand cavalry and nine batteries of field artillery with only thirty guns. The regiments and batteries that had been a part of McDowell's army were organized as provisional brigades, but among the rest there was a "general want of discipline and organization." McClellan's first step was to organize the infantry into brigades of four regiments each. To handle the new troops just arriving in Washington, he established camps of instruction for the issuance of arms and equipment, and to provide "some elementary instruction before assigning them permanently to brigades." After a time-it would not be until October-"when the organization of the brigades was well established and the troops somewhat disciplined and instructed, divisions of three brigades each were gradually formed." When new batteries of artillery arrived, "they were also retained in Washington until their armament and equipment were complete and their instruction sufficiently advanced to justify their being assigned to divisions." Similar procedures were followed in organizing the cavalry. It was during this period that McClellan began the development of a European style staff to assist him in building and managing his army.

The result of McClellan's efforts during the summer and autumn of 1861 was the creation of the Army of the Potomac, the largest, best-equipped, and best-trained army that the United States had ever possessed. By February 1862, McClellan could report that this army consisted of fourteen divisions with a total infantry strength of 154,913, supported by 307 guns. McClellan's efforts during this period made him the most-celebrated American military figure since Washington. When Winfield Scott retired in November 1861, Lincoln appointed McClellan the new general-in-chief.


Aside from his intellectual brilliance and his considerable talent for organization and management, McClellan had a number of faults of character that better fitted him to the role of organizer and planner than to that of field army commander. These faults, as well as McClellan's talents, began to show during the fall and winter of 1861 as he was organizing the Federal war effort and the Army of the Potomac. First was a penchant for always seeing his situation and the situation of the Army of the Potomac as more dire than it really was. This led McClellan to continually overestimate the strength and capabilities of the enemy, and to fatalistically see himself and the Army of the Potomac as the last great hope of the nation. If he failed, if the Army of the Potomac failed, then the South would prevail and the Union fall. Second was his inability to accept direction from above, especially when that direction came from civilian authorities, and especially when those authorities did not completely agree with his assessments. For McClellan the greater enemies soon became those above him in the administration who opposed or impeded his plans in any way. If he failed, it would be their doing, not his. Last was that McClellan, the engineer, was a meticulous planner who by temperament and training sought to eliminate risk as a factor that could interfere with the execution of his plans. A solid plan was paramount, and the plan could only be carried out if conditions were exactly right. Having to react or improvise to constantly changing operational situations was not a part of his genius. Collectively, these faults made McClellan overly cautious and slow in action. These were the faults that made Lincoln lament in September 1862 that McClellan, despite all of his organizational ability, was not the man for the command of an army in the field.

Shortly after his arrival in Washington in the summer of 1861, Lincoln asked McClellan to outline a plan for the conduct of the war. McClellan responded on 2 August with a strategy calling for the massing of forces and a decisive battle. In the aftermath of First Bull Run, McClellan argued the problem was no longer a simple rebellion, but a full-scale war in which "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," he wrote, "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." The operational army to carry out this strategy would have to consist of not less than 250 infantry regiments, 100 field artillery batteries, 28 regiments of cavalry, and 5 regiments of engineers; in all an army of 273,000 men. The decisive battle, when it came, would be in Virginia, chosen by the rebels themselves "as their battle-field." Once the main rebel army was defeated, Richmond would be occupied followed by "Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans; in other words to move into the heart of the enemy's country, and crush out this rebellion in its very heart." It would not, however, be a war against the people of the South. By "pursuing a rigidly protective policy as to private property and unarmed persons, and a lenient course as to private soldiers, we may well hope for a permanent restoration of a peace-full Union."

McClellan's strategy for the conduct of the war quickly brought him into conflict with the then-general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Scott had his own plan for the conduct of the war that proposed economic rather than military subjugation of the South. Dubbed by the newspapers the "Anaconda Plan," its principal features were "a complete blockade of the [South's] Atlantic and Gulf ports" in conjunction with "a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean ... so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan." The army for the expedition down the Mississippi would not need to be more than eighty thousand strong and would be supported by a fleet of steam gunboats and transports to carry the army's personnel, equipment, and supplies.


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