Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Joseph Harsh on McClellan's alleged "slows"

Someone sent me Joseph Harsh's 1970 doctoral dissertation, the first chapter of which became the article, "The McClellan Go Around." The dissertation is on line at

The Dissertation is entitled "George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative: An Introduction to the Conservative Strategy in the Civil War: April -- August 1861.

In the discussions on this thread and probably any thread on McClellan will include the same negative assertions, assertions that according to Harsh do "not bear up under scrutiny." Here are two examples:

The Lost orders: McClellan "pursued a conscious and purposeful strategy from start to finish. Perceiving Lee's strategic options, McClellan throttled them one by one. The campaign's turning point came as early as September 11th. And, on the evening of the 12th, Federal intelligence informed McClellan that Lee had split his army. The 'lost orders,' found the next morning, simply filled in the details. McClellan incorporated this new information into his planning, but he continued to follow the strategy with which he had started his campaign. In the end, he beat Lee at Lee's own game, and that was no mean achievement."

"Historians have caricatured him by exaggerating certain supposedly prominent traits of his personality into a full-blown interpretation of the man and his conduct. The result is a bad history in two ways; it is oversimplified in general and it is inaccurate in several of its parts.

"For illustration of the oversimplification, one need look no further than the major recurring theme in the critics' assessment of McClellan's generalship: his slowness. Here again the viewpoint is that of Lincoln, who once remarked that McClellan 'has got the slows'. Almost unanimously , historians have agreed. There is nothing improper, of course, in an historian concluding that a military action was conducted more slowly than the circumstances of a particular situation permitted. But it is another thing altogether for the historian to judge the cause of the slowness to lie in the personality of the commander without ever inquiring what reasons he might have had for acting as he did. And yet this is what has happened to McClellan.

"To write simply that 'McClellan conducted the siege of Yorktown cautiously,' for instance, could lead to a broad analysis of all the factors producing the caution. But to write, as is nearly always the case, that 'the ever-cautious McClellan wasted nearly a month besieging Yorktown,' is to combine description and explanation in a way that shuts out further inquirry. After such a statement, no one is left wondering why the siege lasted for a month. It was because the Union commander was 'by nature slow.'"

". . . Not only was slowness an inadequate explanation of McClellan's actions, it is also inaccurate as a total assessment of his generalship. To believe that slowness was part of the very fiber of McClellan's being, it is necessary to ignore or misrepresent five significant contradictions. In his first campaign in Western Virginia, not only was he not slow, but he acted with a vigor, efficiency and speed unrivaled by any other commander on either side during the same period. One month and three days after his appointment, McClellan had organized and equipped a field army, marched it into enemy country, and won a campaign. In another month and a half he secured the mountain counties of Virginia to the Union cause.

"In his conduct of the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan has been roundly criticized for his slowness. Yet that campaign lasted scarcely two months from its start to its abortive finish. And on three separate occasions McClellan moved his army with what in fairness must be called alacrity: the four-day amphibious operation carrying the army to the Yorktown peninsula; the fighting change of base during the last week of June; and the removal of the Army from the James at the close of the campaign. Granted that these were not movements directed against the enemy. But the West Virginia Campaign was. And so, too, was the Maryland Campaign.

"Nowhere has the question of slowness been more abused than in the latter. On September 2, 1862, McClellan was reinstated to command the disorganized, dispirited, and chaotically intermingled fragments of five separate armies. Within a week a field army which was still sorting out its horses and wagons and leavened by a high percentage of raw troops that had been snatched directly from the mustering-in ceremonies, marched into Maryland. In another week McClellan brought Lee to bay at Antietam Creek and inflicted upon him the severest casualty rate ever suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia in the bloodiest day's battle of the entire war.

"The fairest conclusion to be drawn from all of this would not be that McClellan was slow, but rather that sometimes he acted slowly and sometimes he acted rapidly; and that some other explanation in addition to slowness is needed to explain his military conduct. . . ."

COMMENT: As Rowland and Harsh tell us, almost no one has reexamined the poorly thought out and argued assertions against McClellan. Also, there may be little market for a reexamination of McClellan in these modern days. The person who sent me Harsh's dissertation urged me to read the entire thing and not just the first chapter, but why didn't Harsh publish the "entire thing"? He died some time ago; so it isn't going to be published unless someone else does it.

Rowland did publish his George B. McClellan and Civil War History," but in 1998. I don't gather it was terribly popular or widely read. Why, I wonder not?

McClellan as both Rowland and Harsh write deserves criticism in certain areas, but his psychology and peccadilloes are not among them -- at least not if one concludes that the possession of them makes him unique. Whatever criticism is selected, Rowland can describe other generals who did or thought or wrote equivalent things.

The one area where a few more, it seems to me, are taking him more seriously than hitherto is in the realm of his strategy. I have seen reviews where authors like Harsh are finding McClellan quite good.

2 comments: said...

Great Museum what a wonderful place. Being a lover of history, it was full of artifacts some pretty current. Free museum was totally shocked on the amount of historical pieces were in a small shop

Mannie Gentile said...

Amen brother.

I rangered at Antietam for almost nine years. Countering the Steven Sears version of McClellan was the rock that we continually pushed up the hill.