Northern Editorial after the Battle of Antietam
In the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia squared off against Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862. It was the single bloodiest day in the military history of the United States, with both armies suffering a combined 23,000 casualties. Even though McClellan’s army outnumbered Lee’s by 2-1, the savage fighting ended after 12 hours in a draw.
The Southern army, after having fought so well against a numerically superior foe, ended its invasion of Maryland and crossed the Potomac River back into the safety of Virginia the next day. McClellan, after keeping about a third of his army in reserve during the Battle of Antietam for fear of a counterattack that never came, then compounded his habitual caution by keeping his huge army in check and meekly letting his foe retire unmolested.
Undaunted, McClellan declared he had won a great victory. President Abraham Lincoln did not see it that way. Dismayed that McClellan failed to defeat Lee despite having a much larger army, and furious that McClellan let the Southern army retreat without any attempt to stop them, Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, all but ending the young general’s military career and turning the two men into bitter rivals (McClellan, in fact, contested Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election).
McClellan was not without his supporters, however. The following editorial from a Northern newspaper extolled the general’s virtues, declaring “he comes out of the great battle of Antietam a conqueror!” and adding: “His star now shines in the splendor of success.”
This editorial was published by the Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) on Sept. 25, 1862:
“The facts show how differently the President and Major General Halleck—and, we may now add, the Secretary of War—estimate McClellan from what certain journalists do. The Government earnestly sought McClellan’s services, turning to him as their chief reliance and hope in the terrible strait to which General Pope’s blunders had brought them. Hours were spent in earnest conversation on the subject, in pressing the matter upon the young General, and the result was a better understanding all round, and a hearty and perfect accord between them all. The result has shown the wisdom of the Government’s selection, by demonstrating the ability of the brave and army-worshipped chieftain to organize victory. General McClellan himself may well feel an honest pride in thus having justified the confidence of the Government and covered his assailants and persecutors with perpetual shame.”—New York Commercial Advertiser, Republican.
The result of the campaign of the Antietam is a justification to the country of the confidence which the [Union] Army of Virginia placed in General McClellan. As, after defeat and retreat, he sat in his tent, captain of a hundred men, the cabal who had pursued him allowed him to be clever in organizing an army and extraordinary in planning fortifications, but held that, being affected with “mud on the brain,” he had hardly military competency enough to lead a brigade. When he was ordered to the command of the Army of Virginia the set avowed that he would dig and not fight; and nothing was too severe to be said of the President for this selection of such a doomed General in such a crisis. The soldiers, however, saw, at every step of his career, masterly ability in handling men, in union with sound judgment as to what the army could do, and what it would have been murder to put it upon doing. They said he was the only General who could lead them.
General McClellan, we have heard military critics say, in carrying out plans, has committed no great military error, and though he failed to take Richmond, he made the best out of the material which he had to do with. He did not hurl his troops upon the vast entrenchments at Manassas; he did not essay to scale the strong lines at Yorktown; he did not, after Fair Oaks, throw one wing of his army into Richmond at extreme peril to the other wing, and hence of destruction; he did not make the desperate dash of a desperate commander from Harrison’s Landing; he has done nothing of the desperate sort, or for mere personal reputation. It was the conclusion of civilians, as to field work, that he could organize an army, handle it splendidly, but when he led it on to a certain point, that he had not the decision to go still on, but there stopped and let the golden opportunity pass by; and this was judged in spite of the brilliant preface of his vigorous campaign in Western Virginia, where there were dash, boldness and vigor at every step. Because of this, any number of editorial major-generals went further and alleged that he was not fit for a high command and had lost the public confidence. If the electric bursts of applause at the sounding of his name at public meetings everywhere meant anything, there was absolutely nothing in the assumption that he had lost his hold on the popular heart; while officers and men, with their all at stake, actually rose in faith in his genius for war as they saw him act in critical moments, when to falter for a moment was to fail forever, even though the result was not victory. They then, when ordinary men stood appalled at the turn of the battle, saw him cool, collected, ever with a cheerful smile on his countenance, ever self-poised; and ever infusing confidence as by intuition he took in the situation, and read his commands in slow, deliberate speech, that brought order out of confusion and turned danger into safety. Thus, in the terrible trial of the movement to Harrison’s Landing, he seemed ubiquitous. “We were sometimes sorely pressed and in very tight places,” a General said, “and would assemble to consult, when General McClellan, with a few staff, would be seen coming up, when we would all begin together: ‘One at a time, gentlemen, if you please,’ he would say, as calmly as on dress parade; and, after hearing of the positions, would give instantly the orders that straightened things out. Off then the General would dash to do the same thing elsewhere.” “We knew nothing as to combinations,” a gallant officer on this field said to us, “but we believed our General knew what he was about and we obeyed his orders, and this saved us!” Thus was it that confidence of rank and file grew as opportunity developed capacity. And where the civilian saw hesitation and pause, the military eye saw an intuitive judgment that, with the force at command, it was murder to attempt the unattainable.
The genius for war is now, and has been, rare among men, even among warlike nations. It was a long step from Marlborough to Wellington and it is doubtful whether England had had so many good officers, in the interval, as a year has developed in our civil war. We have, with…many devoted, chivalrous and able commanders, handling regiments, brigades, corps d’armee nobly, who have won deathless fame. Some have met the soldiers’ coveted death and gone to their reward, while others remain to receive testimonials of a people’s love and gratitude; but it is the military judgment that but few have exhibited the rare power to organize, handle and conduct a great army. Of the deceased, General Stevens is said to have evinced extraordinary capacity for war. And we have heard names mentioned of Generals now serving at the West of similar intuitive power. But, of the Army of Virginia, officers unite in saying that Gen. McClellan was the only General who could handle it successfully. Before us is a mss. letter from a resolute and accomplished fighting Colonel, of four pages, written after Gen. Pope’s retreat and before the Antietam campaign, which pleads, as if for life, for the reinstatement of McClellan: “McClellan is the only man capable, and who has the confidence of the men; depend upon it McClellan is the man.” This is out of no political sympathy, for the writer is a Republican; out of no man-worship, for he is above it; but it is an intelligent judgment based on experience in the most solemn of all hours in which man can act; and he pleads that his life might be put in the competent hands of the General whom he knew. He does this while he sounds the praises of other Generals which are on every lip. Such is the written and oral voice of all candid observers. It is but a recognition that the rare gift of a genius for war has been bestowed on George B. McClellan.
The successful commander of an American army must have the moral quality that wins confidence no less than the intellect that commands respect; and every revelation of Gen. McClellan shows that he is one of the magnetic men. He draws men to him and inspires them with confidence. This is not born out of adulation; newspapers cannot write it up; it is the tribute paid to character, which develops as naturally as the flower and reveals a true man, the presence of whom the common soldier feels instinctively as he sees him act. McClellan, with the cardinal quality of sincerity, infuses faith into men. They believe in him, obey willingly, promptly, wholly, and will follow him to the death; and this makes him as much the soul of the Army of Virginia as Napoleon ever was of the Army of France. Those who have served under and thus know him, feel a personal interest in his reputation, and resent an unjust aspersion on him as they would a personal affront. We state facts. Such soldiers are all about us in citizen’s and in military dress, in the streets, in the shops, in the cars [trains], in the hotels; and they are apt to be impulsive, to deal in epithets and sometimes harder things. These men who, for country’s sake, have stood with their lives in their hands, under McClellan, on hearing calumniators of him—whether they be United States Senators, abolition Judges, or common sour-faced fanatics—roll out indignant, rough, withering rebukes that make the cold-blooded slanderers slink off like whipped spaniels. This, we repeat, is one of the common facts of the time. It is daily becoming more hazardous to term the General either a traitor or a nobody; for an honest and unpretending soldier may be hard by who is moved to a prompt expression of his love and gratitude to his commander.
The campaign of the Antietam in reality has been the Western Virginia campaign enlarged. General McClellan, at the head of the army so recently disorganized, made up in a great degree of raw recruits, moved boldly forward upon the rebel army as it was in the flush of victory, until within striking distance, when he struck hard, blow following blow, skillfully, vigorously, with masterly combination until the scales were turned and the rebels retreated. He stood emphatically by his army. He looked after them as though, to use the words of one of his orders, they were his children. He personally surveyed the ground on which they were to fight. He was with them night and day at work. He rode through the ranks when the death shots were falling. He rallied broken columns. He was ever received with the wildest enthusiasm and inspired a wonderful confidence. After thus acting he comes out of the great battle of Antietam a conqueror! His own account is modest. The District Attorney of Philadelphia telegraphs: “I was on the battlefield and saw it all. It was a decisive victory and a splendid triumph. General McClellan’s modesty has prevented him from letting the American people know what the army has really accomplished.”
“When I see the life of a great man, who has deserved well of his country, after having struggled through all the opposition of prejudice and envy, breaking out with lustre, and shining forth in all the splendor of success, I close my book, and am a happy man for a whole evening.” Addison’s remark will apply to the present period of the career of McClellan. His past at least is secure. He has patiently struggled through opprobrium. His star now shines in the splendor of success. It is the success of as holy a cause as the Providence of God ever committed to the conduct of man.
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