Things you didn’t know about the Civil War, part 2
- The Union army had some pretty bad commanders in the early years of the war. General McClellan was beloved by his men but hated by Lincoln for his obsession with preparedness, drilling endlessly and keeping his soldiers out of the fight until he had as many men and supplies as he possibly could. Lincoln started the war deferring to McClellan’s superior knowledge but eventually became exasperated with the man’s primadonna-isms, eventually saying “If General McClellan does not want to use the army I would like to borrow it”. In 1862 he was called before Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase and a large group of important politicians to explain his plan, but he refused, saying only that he had one. When Lincoln sent him an order and mentioned that the Confederates “will probably use time as advantageously as you can” McClellan wrote about it to his wife “I was much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself.” He constantly overestimated the Confederate numbers and refused to engage in battle. He often boasted and complained at the same time. After the Battle of Gaine’s Mill he sent a message to Washington saying “Had I 20,000 or 10,000 fresh troops to use tomorrow I could take Richmond, but I have not a man in reserve . . . I have lost this battle because my force was roo small . . . I again repeat that i am not responsible for this . . . If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that i owe no thanks to you, or to any other person in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.” And that was after he withheld vitally needed help to others during the battle. After one battle when the Union army looked particularly in danger, the general wrote a letter to Lincoln telling him his position was very strong, and followed it up with a letter full of advice to the president about freeing slaves and how to spin the war. Lincoln immediately made moves to remove McClellan from his post upon reading the letter, but it would take time.
- After that Lincoln brought in General Pope, another bad leader. He came into his appointment making a speech in which he basically laid out the law. He was coming from the West where the army fights Mexicans and Indians, it’s offense all the time and no more pussyfooting around. He derided the commanders for their pre-occupation with such concepts as “taking strong positions and holding them”, “lines of retreat”, and “bases of supplies”. He was, in a word, X-treme. He said all those things on June 22, 1862. By August 28 he was in the thick of things and ‘badly in need of rations and forage”. He desperately pled for supplies from McClellan, who replied that he “will have all the wagons in Alexandria loaded with rations for your troops and all the cars also, as soon as you will send a cavalry excort to Alexandria as a guard to the train.” This was at a time when McClellan was not fighting. Lincoln believed that McClellan “really wanted [Pope] to fail.” Pope, as desperate as he was, decided to go off the boards and break contact with Washington in order to avoid disastrous conflict with the Confederate forces. The ensuing battle is known as Second Bull Run. With the Confederates moving in, Pope started to make some disasters of his own. He sent an order to General Porter to march nine miles at night. It took him six hours, due to the incredible darkness that night and he missed the battle, but more importantly he received the message two hours late because of bad communication. Pope heard about the next morning’s battle at 10pm that night. He sent many orders that were never received. That was Pope’s major problem. It got him canned and put McClellan back on his high horse and besmirched Lincoln’s good name for a while.
- At one point during Second Bull Run some Confederates ran out of ammunition and fought by throwing stones.
- Robert E. Lee’s tactical weakness was his tendency to send infantry against heavily fortified artillery installments, a move that he repeated at both the Battle of Malvern Hill and Gettysburg. Imagine that. D.H. Hill said “It was not war – it was murder. More than half the casualties were from field pieces – an unprecedented thing in warfare.” Colonel William Averell describes the fog lifting the morning after the Malvern Hill.
“Our ears had been filled with agonizing cries from thousands before the fog was lifted, but now our eyes saw an apalling spectacle upon the slopes down to the woodlands half a mile away. over 5,000 dead and wounded were on the ground, in every attitude of distress. A third of them were dead or dying, but enough were alive and moving to give the ground a singular crawling effect.”