Friday, September 9, 2011

“Here is a paper with which I will be bashed and vilified for for generations to come:” Some (generally rambling) Thoughts on Special Orders No. 191

A Clipping Of Special Orders No. 191. . .penned on September 9, 1862, and used to bash McClellan ever since.

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September 9 is an important date for students of the September 1862 Maryland Campaign, for it was the date on which General Lee dictated what became Special Orders No. 191, his plan of operations for the continuance of the campaign after first crossing the Potomac and moving north to Frederick. Following the instructions spelled out in 191, the Army of Northern Virginia began evacuating Frederick the following morning—September 10—then began spreading out across western Maryland and portions of northern Virginia (today West Virginia) in order to both continue with the movement northward and force the evacuation of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. Several days later, of course, and just hours after the final elements of Lee’s army left town, George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac arrived in Frederick and on the morning of September 13, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana happened upon the famous—or infamous—lost copy of Special Orders No. 191. Making its way up the chain of command, 191 ultimately landed in the hands of George McClellan.

Ever since this document has been used as even more ammunition for generations of historians and "Monday moring quarterbacks" to further bash McClellan for his supposed failure not to immediately capitalize upon this “amazing” discovery and not to achieve a “decisive” win during the campaign.

But Special Orders No. 191 contained outdated and inaccurate information that may have hindered McClellan more than it helped him. And, 191 or not, the fact of the matter was that McClellan and his men did emerge victorious during this consequential campaign.

Less than two weeks earlier, McClellan had been called upon (again) to take the helm of the Federal forces gathering in Washington in what was perhaps the darkest days of the Union war effort. . .and for a general typically characterized as slow and cautious, he immediately went to work, consolidating and organizing a new Army of the Potomac, which now included John Pope’s Army of Virginia and Burnside’s Ninth Corps, and setting off north and west from Washington in pursuit of Lee’s invading columns. A master strategist, McClellan realized that Lee’s overriding purpose of the invasion was to draw the Army of the Potomac to battle, and not to capture Harrisburg or Baltimore nor to attack Washington, as so many of the nation’s leaders feared were Lee’s intentions. Satisfied that Lee was heading west from Frederick, McClellan moved quick. . .so quick, in fact, that he caught General Lee entirely off-guard and unaware, ultimately forcing Lee onto the defensive at South Mountain. Even before McClellan was handed 191, his plan was to continue pushing west from Frederick and across the South Mountain range. Portions of army, including his cavalry and the Ninth Army Corps, were already advanced west of Frederick, and inching their way toward South Mountain with orders to continue their way across the following day.

George McClellan's Triumphant Arrival in Frederick, MD, September 13, 1862

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Special Orders No. 191 placed Jackson’s command at Martinsburg, (West) Virginia, and Longstreet’s command at Boonsboro, Maryland, at the western base of South Mountain. There was nothing in the document that dictated that either Jackson move toward Harpers Ferry--which he did after the Federal garrison retreated there from Martinsburg--and Longstreet take his command to Hagerstown, which Lee directed on the morning of September 11. As far as McClellan was concerned, and as was spelled out in 191, Longstreet’s entire command was still at Boonsboro along with D.H. Hill’s Division, which is why he ordered the bulk of his army toward Turner’s Gap, which traversed South Mountain just east of Boonsboro.

Special Orders No. 191 also stated that Lee wished his entire operation to be concluded and his army reunited by the afternoon of September 12, the day before McClellan received 191. It was only necessary, then, that he determine whether or not the Army of Northern Virginia was still following this timetable, or whether they had fallen behind schedule. Finally, Special Orders No. 191, of course, made no mention as to Lee’s numbers; it only told McClellan that Lee had ordered the wide separation of his army across many miles of largely unfriendly territory, an order, believed McClellan, that only confirmed the reports he had been receiving that he was up against tremendous numbers.

History always mentions this paranoia of McClellan’s—that he was outnumbered. Seldom is the tremendous pressure that was resting on McClellan’s shoulders discussed. Of course, we know the outcome of the war—that in the spring of 1865 the Union emerged triumphant. But in mid-September 1862 things were very much undecided and had Lee won another victory following a summer’s worth of success, who's to say but the Confederacy might have very well prevailed, especially with a victory fought on Union territory and with Great Britain at that point leaning very close to recognizing the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. It would have at least brought them one step closer to victory. . .

Still, despite the tremendous pressure he was under, the fact was, McClellan moved aggressively throughout the entirety of the Maryland Campaign and within two weeks—following a lamentable season of defeats—led the Union army to victory at both South Mountain and Antietam, drove Lee out of Maryland, wrestled the initiative from his opponent (who firmly held it since the Seven Days’ Battles in late June-early July), and kept Washington and Pennsylvania safe. As my friend and historian Tom Clemens often points out, from September 14-September 19, George McClellan planned and executed three offensive actions (South Mountain--Antietam--Shepherdstown), two of which resulting in victory.

This does not, by any means, sound like the actions of a timid general.

In terms of military consequences, the outcomes of the Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and the Gettysburg Campaign of July 1863 were very much similar: Lee's invasion repulsed with heavy loss, Lee holding his ground the day following the fight, Lee getting across the Potomac to fight another day. Yet, while history always declares Gettysburg a Union victory, too often Antietam is portrayed as a tactical "draw." Yet when we consider not only the military consequences of the two campaigns but also their social, diplomatic, and political ramifications, the Maryland Campaign--with the resultant Emancipation Proclamation--must emerge as far more consequential.

But it seems that history, for the most part, is simply not yet willing to credit McClellan with anything; thus, while Meade earned a win at Gettysburg, McClellan, at best, earned a "draw."

Perhaps we need to rethink this; perhaps it is time we more fully appreciate the thoughts of Lee himself who after the war claimed McClellan as his most feared opponent. Perhaps we need to wonder why it is McClellan earned a "draw" at Antietam. The argument goes that it is because he did not follow up his victory and attack Lee again. Following this logic, then, why is, say, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville not considered to be "draws." After all, Lee did not follow up these victories by assuming or re-assuming offensive actions. . .did he not also "allow" the Federals to escape across either the Rappahannock and Rapidan the same as McClellan and Meade "allowed" Lee to escape after Antietam and Gettysburg? Further, to say the war would have ended ignores the fact that there were still tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers still in Virginia and completely ignores the fact that this civil war extended far, far beyond the confines of its Eastern Theater.

Finally, perhaps it is time we rethink the value of Special Orders No. 191, examining it not by what we know now, but instead by what McClellan knew then. Doing so forces us to reexamine not only the Maryland Campaign of September 1862 but also the military career and legacy of George McClellan.

Just my (generally rambling) thoughts. . .


Sharon Murray said...

Don't you think McClellan could have achieved a more decisive victory at both South Mountain and Antietam with the resources he had on hand?

John David Hoptak said...

I would argue the victory was decisive enough. Few if any Civil War battles resulted in the complete destruction of an army, and Mac did use the resources he had in the best way possible, or at least the best way he believed possible. . .his objective was to win, and this he achieved. We can also ask why other Union victories of the war were not more decisive; seldom is the question asked why Lee's victories were not more decisive.

Harry said...

Welcome to the dark side, John!

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Harry. You've done much over the years to pull me over. . . He was still a jerk, though, for lying in his August '63 report in his efforts at backstabbing good old Burnside! Still, he was the victor in Maryland and to him should go the glory.

Chris Evans said...

I try to be fair to McClellan but as you say he is not a likable guy. I still can't wrap my head around that he was a great general.