Civil War Buff Takes On McClellan's Critics

Sep 20, 2012
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Many historians will tell you that General George McClellan fumbled away the chance to win the Civil War 150 years ago this week at the Battle of Antietam in western Maryland. Handed the precious gift of his enemy's plans, he moved too slowly, they say, failed to use his advantage in numbers, conducted the battle ineptly, declined to attack again the next day, and then allowed Robert E. Lee and the army of Northern Virginia to slip away across the Potomac. President Lincoln fired McClellan a few weeks afterwards and defeated him two years later when they ran against each other for president in 1864.

Earlier this month, Gene Thorp argued that McClellan has been unfairly maligned. Antietam was a Union victory after all and a rare loss for Robert E. Lee. Students of the Civil War, is it time to reevaluate George McClellan? 800-989-8255. Email: And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Gene Thorp is a cartographer for The Washington Post. His piece "In Defense of McClellan at Antietam" ran earlier this month, and he joins us in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

GENE THORP: It is absolutely a delight to be here. Thank you for bringing me onboard.

CONAN: And defending George McClellan at Antietam, it's a difficult task.

THORP: Oh, yes. Indeed, it is. If I can just get you to listen for just a second to look at the facts, I think that helps a lot.

CONAN: Well, one of the big charges is special orders 191. This shows how Lee has divided up his army into five separate parts and shows McClellan where they're going to be. He's handed this rare piece of intelligence and the historians say, then, failed to do anything for the next day.

THORP: Yeah. Well, actually, they say failed to do anything for the next 18 hours. And I think there's two main points on this. One is, you know, when he actually received these orders and could actually do something about them, which is there's contention between it being at 12:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. But the real issue is once he had these orders, was it 15 or 18 hours that he did nothing? And I think the facts really show for themselves that there were troops that were on the move. McClellan had about half of his army in the morning on the move. The other half of the army was on the move in the evening specifically because of those orders.

And there are dozens of accounts that show that around 3:30 in the afternoon, the 9th Corps, about 13,000 men, started marching out to meet the Confederate Army. And it, you know, took them time to get there. They had one road to get there, and that road was full. So I'm not clear as to what other historians expected McClellan to do on that one road if it was already full with other troops well into the early morning hours, unless, I don't know, maybe they could've sat on each other's shoulders and fit half the people in and the other half in there, I don't know.

CONAN: McClellan had many good attributes. He was a great trainer of men. His troops loved him. Little Mac, they cheered when he was reappointed to head the army of the Potomac. And then he also had some not so great attributes, for example, always inflating the sides of his enemy. He refused to move because he believed reports that he was always outnumbered when, in fact, he always had more men than the opponent.

THORP: For the most part, he had more men than the opponent. At the very beginning of the Antietam campaign, it's important to understand that he, you know, this number of 87,000 troops, which he went into the Battle of Antietam with, that was at the end of this two-week reorganization process where Washington was feeding him new troops. So at the very, very beginning, the troops that he had under his command immediately after Manassas to go against Confederates were probably around 60,000 men. And I'm saying that Lee had probably around 75,000, which is another - another point of contention is this ratio difference that we talk about. Most people say that Lee had only about 40,000 men and I think, you know, if you say - try and breakdown why that number, I believe, is far too low.

CONAN: Well, OK. Then he failed to use a third of his army in the battle.

THORP: That's what a lot of people say. I'm not exactly clear as to what that means by using a third of the army.

CONAN: There were two corps he never ordered into the fight.

THORP: What corps were those? The 6th Corps had troops that were on the frontline. Irwin's brigade had - I believe it was Irwin's brigade was engaged over by the Dunker Church. There were also some 6th Corps units that were involved in the Sunken Road. And also the 5th Corps, the entire 5th Corps was not even there. One of the divisions was still on the march. They marched 60 miles in three days. They wouldn't get there until the 18th. Another division, Morell's division, had just arrived, which is the only reserve that McClellan had. And then Sykes' division, the Third Division, was actually across the river and advancing up towards the center, alongside of Burnside's troops.

Now, when Burnside's, you know, offensive fell apart because of A.P. Hill coming in on his flank, well, you know, well, what was that one division supposed to do?

CONAN: Well, Burnside's - well, we can go through this a lot of different ways, but the tactics on the day, he had - armies were lined up parallel, across Antietam Creek for the most part. And then there was an attack in the north, and then an attack in the center, and then an attack in the south. At any time, had any of those two attacks been coordinated, Robert E. Lee would not have been able to shuttle his men back and forth to the point of danger.

THORP: Well, I think you have to look at maybe the 10 o'clock period from, say, 9 or 10 o'clock, all the way through about 1 o'clock. There was fighting along the entire front. I mean, we learned - you know, it's very convenient to teach people that there are three phases in that battle. But if you sit down and you look at the maps and you go through the battle from that period, you've got fighting at Burnside Bridge. You've got fighting at Sunken Road. You've got fighting in the West Woods, all simultaneously going on. And this is war, and this is Robert E. Lee. He's not a pushover.

If you're dealing with Robert E. Lee having larger numbers than we're talking about, McClellan has a lot of inexperienced troops, probably around a quarter of his troops. And when I mean inexperienced, I mean not like they've been - they haven't even really been trained. The officers haven't been trained. Basically, amongst all those gun roar - gun - the firing of guns and the sound of battle, these guys have to somehow perform when they don't even know necessarily - or just learned how to fire a gun. And the officers don't even know how to give orders.

CONAN: We're talking with Gene Thorp, a contrarian, about the Battle of Antietam, which was fought 150 years ago this past week. 800-989-8255. Civil War historians, email And we'll start with Sean(ph), Sean with us from Crestwood in Kentucky.

SEAN: Well, I find it interesting anyone being able to excuse McClellan for his performance. And it's not just me, because Lincoln did relieve him of command after that. And there were several reasons, but if you want to push one of the biggest that doesn't get a lot of - talked about, when Pope was involved in Second Manassas, McClellan was specifically ordered to come to his relief. And, yes, many of the troops were worn out, like same with the South. They come from the same Peninsular Campaign, and they had actually taken heavier losses than the Union. And he deliberately did not send any reinforcements.

And, in fact, there was a Cabinet meeting, and so this is not my personal opinion. The Lincoln Cabinet actually met and thought about relieving him there. Some people were pushing for him to be charged with dereliction of duty, but Lincoln felt - and, obviously, was what happened at Antietam - that McClellan was the one person who could pull this together, because he exceeded in getting troops that were green and had been used fairly hard due to his incompetency in the Peninsular Campaign, getting them back into service.

CONAN: Well, you got a lot there. Let's let Gene Thorp have at it.

THORP: Well, yeah. There is a lot there. But, I mean, one of the things I want to turn around here, and when - you know, the Lincoln administration has to take blame, if we're going to go back before Antietam. I wrote another piece about this, the first piece in the contrarian view of McClellan, which is linked on the piece that I did just a couple of weeks ago.

And, you know, one thing I want to point out is that McClellan and the other Union commanders had some serious issues to deal with in the spring of 1862. I mean, you've got - what happened was you had one Amy of the Potomac, which is under the command of McClellan, and that got broken up into five separate armies, none of which - or at least the coordination of which had to be done by Lincoln and Stanton. They chose to do that, and neither of them had any kind of significant military experience. They botched 1862 in the spring. That's part of the reason.

Another thing in 1862 that often gets overlooked is that Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, he shut down all new recruiting of Union troops and sent them to the frontline at the same time that the Confederates had initiated a draft. So you've got the Union Army shrinking in size at the same time the Confederate Army is exponentially growing.

Now, if can really quickly address your Bull Run comment about how McClellan did not...

CONAN: The Second Manassas.

The Second - well, Second Manassas, Second Bull Run. I guess it depends on which side of the Potomac you're on.

I know, but usually Second Manassas - Bull Run and Second Manassas. But go ahead. Go ahead.

THORP: But McClellan did ship his troops up. And there's - if you go into the details - and I challenge to find a historic report that shows, you know, what - someone who's actually done the research on this, of McClellan pulling the troops of the Peninsula. He got two full corps, the Fifth Corps and the Third Corps, up to Pope to use. And then Pope, not watching his rear, the main supply line that these troops were coming in on the railroad was cut off by Jackson. Pope let that happened. That was not McClellan's problem.

McClellan was still sending troops through Taylor's brigade of Franklin's Sixth Corps. The Sixth Corps was coming through, got ambushed, about 1,500 men. They had no cannons - which is a big issue as to why McClellan would not move forward - got ambushed by 25,000 Confederates with artillery and cavalry.

If you have an interest - if you have cannon and your opponent doesn't, you can just sit back and shell them and not take any losses whatsoever. Well, McClellan was still working on getting that artillery coming up for the Sixth Corps, so he refused to send more troops out to be slaughtered without artillery. I think that's a pretty clear-cut case. Look it up in the official records.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom, Tom with us from Washington County, Maryland.

TOM: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Tom. Go ahead.

TOM: Well, I think people do overlook the victory that McClellan won at Antietam. I mean, his after-action report states that he captured 39 Confederate flags, 13 cannons, 12,000 small arms, 6,000 prisoners and lost none. And yet, we've somehow parsed this victory into some sort of tactical draw, and that's a...

CONAN: Well...

TOM: ...tactical draw. Every other battlefield in Civil War, practically, is a tactical draw.

THORP: Gettysburg.

CONAN: The - however, the day after the battle, Robert E. Lee is sitting there - excuse me, Tom - with his back to the Potomac, and General McClellan declines to give him battle.

THORP: I want to point out that from the diaries that I have read, there was a truce on the 18th. And that truce, from what I have read from accounts of diaries on the battlefield many Union troops wrote that on that day - so this is very good primary reporting - that the Confederate lines, they put out that flag of truce. They used that truce to bury their dead, and then that night is when they slipped away. So he was being civilized, I guess, by allowing for the troops to be able to bury their dead, and Lee took advantage of it. And there's plenty of other cases in which the Confederates would do things like that.

CONAN: A day of civility that led to three more years of war.

THORP: Well, I mean, I don't think that Lee was a pushover, again. I mean, his position was a very good position. He was surrounded on three sides by significant boundaries: two sides of the Potomac, and then one side, he's got Antietam Creek. So he's just got this low ridge right around where the cornfield is, and West Woods that he has to defend. I mean, it was a close battle. He could have lost it, but it is war.

And, you know, again, I want to just take a look and say, you know, it seems absurd that the Confederates would only have some 35,000 men at that point in time, when throughout the rest of the war, they didn't have that many men after all the attrition of the next three years of war until Sayler's Creek and Appomattox. How is that possible? I think historians really need to look at those numbers and see how much of that is the Confederates making excuses.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much. The other point, of course, Antietam enough of a victory for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that he had sitting in his desk for several months. We're talking with Gene Thorp, a Washington Post cartographer - mapmaker, of course. And he's defending George McClellan and the Battle of Antietam 150 years ago this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's get Paul on the line, Paul with us from Panama City.

PAUL: Hey, Mr. Conan. Good to speak to you again.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: A lot of us recognize McClellan's faults in that he was too cautious, and he tended to overestimate the enemy's strength. But I believe that both of those were exacerbated by his most critical fault: verbal or very vocal overblown sense of self-worth. Your guest understands what I'm talking about, and all the slights that he offered to Lincoln. But I believe that secretly and very quietly, McClellan was very self-conscious about whether or not he would be able to carry his functions through, and that bled - that bled over into his over-cautiousness and caused him to lose more opportunities because of that. I'll listen off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Paul. Thanks very much for the call. He did write some contemptuous things about the ape, as he called him, President Lincoln.

THORP: Yes, but those are also contemptuous things to his wife. And I would imagine that most people, when you're dealing with your own conversations, Twitter and Facebook or just in a conversation with your own wife, you're going to say some things about, you know, people that maybe you really didn't want published. And that was one of the things, I think, which has been - just cursed McClellan for all this time, is that those - it's a very wonderful thing to see - have some insights, because he's very open about his thoughts and his feelings. But, you know, these are his personal insights which were published.

And, you know, you cannot - if you put what he's saying, many times, in context with what was actually going on and happening to him and happening to these people, I mean, you've got to put yourself in his position: Nothing like the casualties that were experienced in this war had ever been experienced before. And some of the casualties and some of the failures that happened were as a direct response, as I had mentioned before, when Lincoln and Stanton were running all five of the armies around - in the Piedmont region. You know, because of some of those decisions, thousands of people were dying, and McClellan, certainly, was very ticked off about that.

CONAN: There is another point you make, that historians have tended to be colored by their pro-Lincoln sentiments and what happened in the campaign of 1864.

THORP: Yeah. I'm more of a military guy when it comes down to that. You know, I'll tell you what, though, I mean, yeah, I'm - and I'm not bashing Lincoln. I mean, I think, certainly, you can't argue against the Emancipation Proclamation and what amazing and what a huge effect it had on the war effort. I mean, McClellan was wrong on that, about, you know, what was going to happen in that situation. McClellan was fearful that there was going to be massive uprisings in the South and civilians were going to get killed and it's going to look really bad. But, in the end, that seriously helped the war effort.

And just as a country, as who we are, as defending, you know, what this country is about, it started to remove that mark of slavery, which, you know, you can't knock Lincoln on that.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in, and let's go to David. David, we just have a minute or so, in Ann Arbor.

DAVID: Yeah. Well, I guess real quickly: I disagree with most of what your guest says, but the primary point I want to make is he's overlooking McClellan's ineptitude in the days after the Battle of South Mountain. September 14th, 1862, McClellan, after sauntering up to South Mountain, smashed, eventually, Longstreet's corps guarding the passes. Jackson's corps, the other half of Lee's army, was still down at Harper's Ferry. Longstreet retreated behind Antietam Creek. It took McClellan two days to get into position to attack at Antietam Creek. And by then, most of Jackson's corps had come up to help defend the position.

I think his numbers are wildly wrong, by the way. The numbers at Antietam on October - I'm sorry, on September 17th is something closer to 90,000 Union soldiers and about 40,000 Confederate soldiers. And those two facts is his failure to take advantage of the Battle of South Mountain and his failure to take advantage his huge...

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, David, but I want to give the last 20 seconds to Gene Thorp.

THORP: Well, I mean, I disagree that he moved slowly after to South Mountain. And you had mentioned that he sauntered to South Mountain. He moved his men as quickly to South Mountain as possible. If you go on the website, go to the article, click on the graphic, look down at the bottom, I've sourced the information of all the units, and you can see how they were moving forward to get to the front. And the same goes for the 15th and 16th. He did engage, in the evening of the 16th, at Antietam.

CONAN: All right. Well, there's - David, thanks very much for the call. And there's a link to the articles that Gene Thorp is talking about at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Gene Thorp, defending the indefensible. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Tomorrow, Ira Flatow's here with TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.