Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lee, McClellan Declare Armistice/Demand An End To Hostilities: Or, How The War COULD Have Ended After Antietam. . .

"If only McClellan had followed up his victory and destroyed Lee's Army, the war would have ended in September 1862."

Or so goes one of the most persistent beliefs that has increasingly gained currency regarding the day-long bloodletting along the banks of the Antietam Creek. While such a thought totally neglects the fact that the Civil War extended far beyond the Eastern Theatre and involved more armies than just the AoP and ANV, yet, the idea that the nation could have avoided three more years of bloodshed had Little Mac been more aggressive still has a good number of adherents and its true believers, mostly among the McClellan-bashers. Indeed, the belief still ranks among the most common statements I overhear while working at the Park.

True, McClellan's forces may have had a great opportunity to inflict a crippling, perhaps fatal blow to Lee's severely thinned Army of Northern Virginia had they attacked on September 18. But the notion that the entire conflict could have been brought to a close had they done so is, in a word, nonsensical.

In his August 1863 Official Report on the battle, McClellan went to great lengths to explain why he did not renew the attack:

"Whether to renew the attack on the 18th or to defer it, even with the risk of the enemy's retirement, was the question before me.
After a night of anxious deliberation, and a full and careful survey of the situation and condition of our army, the strength and position of the enemy. I concluded that the success of an attack on the 18th was not certain. I am aware of the fact that under ordinary circumstances a general is expected to risk a battle if he has a reasonable prospect of success; but at this critical juncture I should have had a narrow view of the condition of the country had I been willing to hazard another battle with less than an absolute assurance of success. At that moment--Virginia lost, Washington menaced, Maryland invaded--the national cause could afford no risks of defeat. One battle lost and almost all would have been lost. Lee's army might then have marched, as it pleased, on Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York. It could have levied its supplies from a fertile and undevastated country, extorted tribute from wealthy and populous cities, and nowhere east of the Alleghanies was there another organized force able to arrest its march.
The following are among the considerations which led me to doubt the certainty of success in attacking before the 19th:
The troops were greatly overcome by the fatigue and exhaustion attendant upon the long-continued and severely contested battle of the 17th, together with the long day and night marches to which they had been subjected during the previous three days. The supply trains were in the rear, and many of the troops had suffered from hunger. They required rest and refreshment."

And so it was that Lee slipped away with his shattered command on the night of September 18. By the following morning, his army had reached the safe soil of Virginia.

I discovered this morning, however, that McClellan did, indeed, have a scheme for bringing about the cessation of hostilities, at least according to General James Longstreet. . .

I spent most of the morning at the park's library, searching through the archives for information on the elusive Confederate Captain John Penn and the actions of the Stonewall Division during the opening hours of the battle of Antietam when I came across a rather interesting letter, published originally in the Baltimore Sun in January 1904 and reprinted in the Southern Historical Society Papers (Vol. 31, pgs. 45-47). The letter was written by a fellow named Benjamin Keiley, the seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, who presumably had much interaction with General James Longstreet in the post-war years. If the content of Mr. Keiley's letter is to be believed, then George McClellan did, indeed, attempt to end the war after Antietam, not by leading his army in an epic assault against Lee, but rather by meeting with his opponent, and jointly demanding of Lincoln and Davis an end to the conflict and the restoration of peace.

That McClellan ever truly envisioned such a step and even went so far as to contact Lee about the possibility of carrying it out is very, and I mean very, hard to believe. Yet it is one of those things that many, again especially the McClellan-bashers, would accept at face value and repeat as gospel.
According to Mr. Keiley,
"General Longstreet told me more than once that immediately after the battle at Sharpsburg, or Antietam, while he was in General Lee's tent, the General handed him a letter which he had just received from General McClellan, the commander of the Federal armies. General Lee gave General Longstreet a copy of the letter and asked him to give it his serious attention, and on the following morning advise him (General Lee) what he ought to do in the matter. The letter from General McClellan proposed an interview between himself and General Lee. General Longstreet said to me: 'I told General Lee that in my judgment there was no other construction to be placed on it save one, and that was the General McClellan wanted to end the war then and there.'
"General Lee said, 'That idea occurs to me also, but President Davis, and not General Lee, is the one to whom such a message must be sent.'
"General Longstreet took the letter to his own quarters, where he found General T.R.R. Cobb, of this State. He gave it to General Cobb, pledging him to observe secrecy with regard to it, but not saying a word as to the construction he placed on it.
"After reading the letter attentively General Cobb said there was no doubt in his mind that General McClellan wanted General Lee to help in the restoration of the Union by marching into Washington with the combined forces. General Longstreet told me of the circumstances more than once, and always added that he thoroughly coincided with General Cobb's views, but that General Lee, for the reason stated, declined to meet General McClellan.
"The copy which General Lee gave General Longstreet was sent, after the war, to Colonel Marshall. I tried to get it from Colonel Marshall, who told me he had mislaid it and could never find it. I do not know, of course, what became of the original letter.
"I forgot to say that General Longstreet strongly advised General Lee to meet General McClellan in order that he might know definitively what McClellan wanted."

Post-War Image of Longstreet. . .spinner of yarns?

Hmmmm. . . .
Admittedly, I do not know much at all about Benjamin Keiley, but it seems highly unlikely that he would have wholly fabricated such a story out of the blue. That Longstreet, in his advancing years would have told such a story, however, has a ring of truth to it. Yet nowhere else does this supposed letter from McClellan appear in the historical record; at least nowhere I am aware of, not even in Longstreet's memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox. By 1904, McClellan and Lee were both long dead, and so, too, was T.R.R. Cobb, killed in action at Fredericksburg, three months after Antietam. Interestingly enough, Keiley composed the letter on January 3, 1904. . .the very day after Longstreet passed away. And, naturally, the original letter and its copy had, by 1904, disappeared, the latter being misplaced by Colonel Marshall, one of Lee's staff officers.
It is likely that Longstreet was spinning some fantastic yarns meant to cast himself in the best light imaginable. His reputation had been destroyed following the war and he had become, unjustly, the scapegoat for the Confederacy's defeat. So here he was telling Keiley how he had urged Lee to meet with McClellan and perhaps broker a peace, which would have most certainly been on terms favorable to the South. The statement that Lee handed Longstreet a copy and sought his counsel also lacks credulity. It seems as if Longstreet was going to great lengths to show that the Marble Man sought his advice and relied upon it, more so than, say, Stonewall Jackson.
In writing this letter, Mr. Keiley, a loyal friend to the very end, may have very well been trying to resurrect Longstreet's tarnished image. Its implication was that had Lee just listened to Longstreet, things might have turned out far more favorably to the South.
Does that sound familiar?


Anonymous said...

An interesting letter, but even if McClellan wrote such a thing I don't think Lee would have gone along. After all, in 1865 Lee would only negotiate the surrender of his own army, not the entire Confederacy, so I don't think he would have agreed to an armistice without any input from the Confederate government.(Obviously he didn't if the letter from McClellan actually existed). As it was, McClellan supposedly put out feelers about a march on Washington and didn't have any takers. This just seems like one of those oddball "uh yeah that's interesting" tidbits of information that you file away and never speak of again.

While the destruction of the ANV would not have outright led to the end of the war, I'm one of those that believe that the war would have ended soon afterwards. The failures of Bragg's invasion of East Tennessee and Kentucky and the Dorn/Price offensive at Corinth along with the end of the South's principle army would have left the Confederacy in pretty bad shape. I can't imagine that the Lincoln Administration would have been willing to parole Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet. Richmond's days, (as well as the states of Virginia and North and South Carolina), would have been numbered. Economically those states produced about a third of the Confederacy's manufactured goods and about a third of its manpower and politically the loss of Richmond would have been disasterous, (not much chance of foriegn recognition if you lose your capital city and seat of government). Who would be left to save the Confederate States of America? Beauregard? Bragg? I don't think so. With the possibility of the Emancipation Proclamation maybe permanently ending slavery, the CSA would have been smart to get out while the gettin was good. But then they never did the smart things; so who knows? Anyway there's my bucket of what ifs.

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

I know what if's are fruitless exercises, but. . .

Imagine the terms McClellan would have offered Lee had they met on 9/19-9/20 or so?
I shudder at the thought. . .I can't picture McClellan taking the guidance of Lincoln in doing so.

In the end, there were many thousands of ANV soldiers still in VA (Lee's army more than doubled from 9/18-10/10/62 while in the Shenandoah), and Lee was only in command of the ANV at that point for just 3 months, so had he been destroyed, Jeff D. would have no doubt replaced him at the helm with someone else. . .maybe Joe Johnston after recovering from his Seven Pines' wound. . .who would have tried to pick up the pieces somehow.
And, it was McClellan he was up against. . .not one to follow up the imagined destruction of Lee's army by launching a lightning raid into Virginia to capture Richmond.

Oh, those what if's. . .fun, but in the end, pointless.

Anonymous said...

McClellan probably would have offered the Union as it was, (he pretty much outlined his ideas in the Harrison Landing letter). The Radical Republicans would have probably tried McClellan for treason, but McClellan would have been the great hero of the Union and Lincoln would have been some rube from Illinois so who knows what would have happened.

While Lee's army regained its strength in a matter of weeks after Antietam, that's because the army as an organization itself was still intact. Even if the Confederacy could have quickly replaced the soldiers themselves with sufficient numbers, without the organization and the officers it would have been a very different matter. Pulling existing regiments and brigades from other parts of the Confederacy would have been scraping the bottom of the barrel and would have taxed Confederate logistics to the breaking point. It wouldn't have only been replacing manpower that would have been a problem but also firearms, artillery, transportation, medical supplies, food and fodder. Lee had enough problems supplying his army in the Spring of 1863, I don't think Johnston would have had any better luck in a crisis in the Winter of 1862. Johnston also didn't do so well relieving Vicksburg when the odds were slightly better, I'm not sure he could have saved Richmond when the odds would have been against him.

But as you have said its pointless, (but fun), to talk about what ifs.


Anonymous said...


There is another reason for thinking this is a fabrication.

While there is ample reason to speculate why McClellan supporters, had they known of this offer, to keep it secret; what incentive do the Rebels have for doing so? In fact, the opposite is true: it would be useful propaganda, either to inspire the south to additional efforts or to strengthen the postwar case that Antietam was actually a Confederate victory. And how convenient that Marshall 'mislaid' the only copy of a blockbuster of a document.

I think it's a crock, invented either by Keiley or by Longstreet in his dotage.

Anonymous said...

I know a little of Bishop Keiley’s background (research back in happy times when Savannah my sunny home), but just enough to make me more curious.
Keiley was born in Petersburg, Va, and served in the Army of Northern Virginia for a time (I don’t know the regiment unfortunately). My notes do not indicate a commission of any sort. He had a long life goal of entering the priesthood, but apparently put that on hold for the war. Bishop Keiley studied for the priesthood in Italy.
His brother, Anthony M. Keiley, was an active Democrat in Petersburg and Richmond politics to include a term as Richmond’s mayor. Anthony apparently had some correspondence with Robert E. Lee, but I know of no connections of that to his brother, the bishop. And was the minister to Italy for the Cleveland administration about the same time his brother was undertaking his studies.
Bishop Keiley’s major life endeavor was to rebuild the Savannah Cathedral (destroyed in a fire just at the close of the 19th Century), and pay off the debts incurred from that. As rebuilt, the cathedral included much old world artwork and craftsmanship. Certainly was not an inexpensive operation.
I don’t see any connection tangible between Bishop Keiley and Longstreet simply based on his presence in Savannah. However, I’d speculate that the Keileys and Longstreet were familiar to a degree from wartime circles in Richmond. Is it possible Longstreet had turned to a “trusted acquaintance” in his dotage as a sounding board for some wild story? Perhaps floating a tale he considered using as a petard against Jubal Early or Lafayette McLaws? I wouldn’t rule it out.

John David Hoptak said...

I agree with you. . .
Thanks for all the info on Bishop Keiley. It does seem Longstreet may have been confiding in order to defend against the attacks of Early, et al. Probably did not imagine Keiley would "go public" with it. . .

Anonymous said...

The Bishop had another brother, John M. Keiley. If my hand written notes from years back are right, John served on the staff of Gen. Longstreet during the war. Sorry I can't narrow it down to a date, time, or specific funciton.


John David Hoptak said...

Craig. . .
Hmmm, interesting.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion.

There is a reference to "John M. Keiley" that states... "Maj. John M. Keiley, of Brooklyn, brother of that A. M. Keiley whose appointment as minister to Austria
made so much trouble for President Cleveland. He had been chief of Longstreet's staff..."

A reference to Keiley can be found on this page...

Robert Moore

Anonymous said...

It may actually be John D. Kieley (died in 1901). See here...

He apparently served as the Chief Quartermaster under Longstreet. See also here...

Benjamin J. Kieley was his brother. For a photo (and a reference to him serving as a Confederate chaplain) of B.J.K., see here...

John David Hoptak said...

Excellent stuff.
Thank you for the information!

Robert Moore said...

John, My pleasure. I love doing stuff like this. As a matter of fact, if anyone has a copy of the 1st Va. Inf. from HE Howard's series, take a look to see if J.D. K. shows up with more info. In the Soldiers & Sailors System, I see that one John D. Keiley is listed as a member of Williams' Rifles (Co. C), 1st Va. Inf. If it is the same guy, there might be some info about his rise to the staff.

Now, as for that claim that Jackson had an illegitimate daughter... anyone have a subscription to I have an idea on how we can either dismiss this altogehter or figure out of there actually might be something to it.

John David Hoptak said...

Now that is an interesting prospect. I do not have a subscription, but maybe someone out there does and would like to see where this goes.
Maybe we should put the call out!

Anonymous said...


John D. Keiley was a Major and Quartermaster on Longstreet's staff in 1863-1864. He may have left the staff while Longstreet was convalescing from May-Oct '64. He was never Longstreet's Chief of Staff, but Moxley Sorrel was, and Sorrel was from -- Savannah.

Anything written about Longstreet in the Southern Historical Society Papers should not be considered credible evidence regarding him, since the SHSPs were the engine used by Early, et al., to systematically destroy Longstreet's reputation. After studying Longstreet for the past 10 years it is my opinion that Longsteet may have related some type of story to Keily, but I think it very interesting Keiley didn't mention it until Longstreet was dead.

Another aspect in this--it appears that Keiley entered the priesthood, i. e., the Catholic Church? Longstreet converted to Catholicism towards the end of his life. Longstreet may have known Keiley from any number of associations.