Friday, June 15, 2012

"Petulant" Burnside at Antietam?

The person who opined that all had been said about everything having to do with the Civil War was only partially correct. For example, McClellan criticized Burnside for not crossing the “Burnside Bridge” in an expeditious fashion. That truly has been said time and time again. The crossing was to take place at 08:00 and he said he sent the order in plenty of time but Burnside didn’t attempt a crossing until after 10:00. Burnside, on the other hand, said he didn’t receive the order until about 10:00.

William Marvel in Burnside refutes Martin Schenck’s article “Burnside’s Bridge” (from the Dec 1956 ed of Civil War History) in writing “It bears noting that Schenck’s conclusions are drawn from rather superficial research: he employed only five sources of which only one Confederate memoir and the OR were not secondary works. [“OR” stands for War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. GPO, 1880-1901]

“From the latter documents he used none of the correspondence, relying almost exclusively upon McClellan’s second report; therefore some of his most essential facts were distorted. For all of that Schenck’s article marked the beginning of the myth that Burnside lost the day at Antietam through his own petulance.”

Marvel writes “Thanks to McClellan’s corruption of the facts, the truth did not emerge until the last volumes of the OR went to press, years after both Burnside and McClellan were dead; therein appears a copy of McClellan’s order, bearing a heading of 9:10 A.M.

“If the message was copied down at 9:10, it was probably finished and in the courier’s hand by 9:20. Given the urgency of a pitched battle, and assuming the horseman was familiar with the haphazard road network (which was not necessarily so), he would have covered the distance to Burnside’s position at a moderate gallop, breaking gait for at least six turns of ninety degrees or more. That would have brought him to the vicinity of Benjamin’s battery no earlier than 9:30. If he had to ask directions or double back from a wrong turn, he could easily have been delayed until 10:00.”

Also, it is pertinent that McClellan didn’t allow his Corps commanders to position their own men. He sent staff officers out to do that. He sent “Captain James Duane “to post Burnside’s divisions.” Marvel writes “Possibly McClellan meant no particular offense by this, for General Cox observed the habit of delegating field commanders’ duties to members of the general staff was all too common in McClellan’s army: Cox disliked it because it tended to rob the various generals of self-confidence and independence of spirit.”

Stackpole doesn’t focus on Burnside to any extent. He is more concerned with McClellan’s inadequacies. McClellan sat a significant distance away viewing the battle through binoculars. He accepted information about Burnside and the bridge from his staff officers.

The Bridge would only permit four across passage. Furthermore the Confederates had a good field of fire on it. He was led to believe (as was verified by General Cox who had the same understanding) that the bridge crossing was to be nothing more than a diversion. But if Burnside needed to get people across elsewhere in order to chase the Confederate bridge defenders away, he was to use a river crossing found by Captain Duane. When Burnside’s men tried to use it they found it much too deep so they had to keep trying other likely places further south. Another group went north to attempt to find a crossing using the same trial and error approach.

Better evidence than that available to Schenck suggests that it was another of McClellan’s failures rather than Burnsides that prevented Burnside from getting across the bridge at 08:00

Why would McClellan have it in for his old West Point buddy Burnside? McClellan had a very strong motive. Lincoln as is well known didn’t like McClellan. He thought he was a good organizer and good at building an army but no fighter. He kept trying to get Burnside to accept McClellan’s job. Burnside turned the job down largely through loyalty to his friend, but if McClellan could thoroughly discredit Burnside then perhaps Lincoln would leave him in command. That can’t be proved but it seems a more creditable theory than Burnside’s petulance.

1 comment:

67th Tigers said...

Regarding the 8 am order - it's worth reading Daoust's analysis on the matter at

I think he conclusively proves the existence of the 8 am order, by demonstrating that Burnside/Cox were already moving before McClellan penned the 9.10 order.

Cox of course casts a long shadow over the interpretation of Antietam. Large parts of Carman's work were taken on Cox's say so, and Cox of course seems to have defended himself and his chief.