Monday, June 06, 2011

McClellan - The best commander of the Army of the Potomac?

From Edmund Palfry's, "Antietam and Fredericksburg":

These pages contain many outspoken criticisms of his [McClellan] military career. They are the expression of conclusions arrived at with deliberation by one who began as a passionate enthusiast for him, who has made his campaigns the subject of much study and thought, and who has sought only to compare the facts of those campaigns with the established principles of the military art. There is no occasion to repeat those criticisms here, but it may be well to add to them what the writer has said in another place in print, that there was in McClellan a sort of incapacity of doing anything till an ideal completeness of preparation was reached, and that the prevalence of the commander-in-chief idea was always pernicious to him, so that, from first to last, he never made his personal presence felt on a battle-field. With the further remark that he seems to have been totally devoid of ability to form a just estimate of the numerical strength of his opponent, our adverse criticisms come to an end, and it is a relief to keep silence no longer from good words.

It is little to say that his character was reputable, but it is true. He was a courteous gentleman. Not a word was ever said against his way of life nor his personal integrity. No orgies disgraced headquarters while he was in command. His capacity and energy as an organizer are universally recognized. He was an excellent strategist and in many respects an excellent soldier. He did not use his own troops with sufficient promptness, thoroughness and vigor, to achieve great and decisive results, but he was oftener successful than unsuccessful with them, and he so conducted affairs that they never suffered heavily without inflicting heavy loss upon their adversaries

It may appear a strange statement to follow the other matter which this volume contains, but it is none the less true, that there are strong grounds for believing that he was the best commander the Army of the Potomac ever had. No one would think for a moment of comparing Pope or Burnside or Hooker with him. The great service which Meade rendered his country at Gettysburg, and the elevated character of the man, are adverse to too close a scrutiny of his military ability. As for Grant, with his grim tenacity, his hard sense, and his absolute insensibility to wounds and death, it may well be admitted that he was a good general for a rich and populous country in a contest with a poor and thinly peopled land, but let any educated soldier ask himself what the result would have been if Grant had had only Southern resources and Southern numbers to rely on and use, and what will the answer be? While the Confederacy was young and fresh and rich, and its armies were numerous, McClellan fought a good, wary, damaging, respectable fight against it. He was not so quick in learning to attack as Joe Johnston and Lee and Jackson were, but South Mountain and the Antietam showed that he had learned the lesson, and with longer possession of command, greater things might fairly have been expected of him. Not to mention such lamentable failures as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, it is easy to believe that with him in command, the Army of the Potomac would never have seen such dark days as those of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor.

At the same time it must be admitted that, in such a war as the War of Secession, it would probably have been impossible to retain in command of the Army of the Potomac a man who was not only a Democrat, but the probable Democratic candidate for the Presidency at the next election, and that his removal was therefore only a question of time. A growing familiarity with his history as a soldier increases the disposition to regard him with respect and gratitude, and to believe, while recognizing the limitations of his nature, that his failure to accomplish more was partly his misfortune and not altogether his fault.

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