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Rafuse
Summer-Autumn 2001
pp. 153-164
Copyright 2001 by the Ohio Historical Society. All rights reserved.
This article is presented page by page with footnotes according to the original print version. If a sentence seems to end abruptly, scroll down to continue with the next page.

Impractical? Unforgivable? Another Look at George B. McClellan's First Strategic Plan

By Ethan S. Rafuse

 

 

Maj. Gen. George McClellan. (SC3535, Ohio Historical Society Collections.)


Four days after assuming command of the forces the state of Ohio was raising in response to President Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861, call for 75,000 troops to suppress the Southern rebellion, Major General George B. McClellan wrote a letter to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposing a movement on Richmond from Ohio via the Kanawha Valley. When the letter reached his desk, Scott forwarded it to the president along with a note harshly criticizing McClellan's proposal for operations. Historians have endorsed and echoed his criticisms ever since. In the foremost study of Civil War strategy, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones write of "Scott dispos[ing] of the young general's plan by pointing out that McClellan had ignored logistics, an unforgivable omission for an experienced soldier turned railroad executive!" "In light of his reputation as a first-rate military intellect," asserts leading McClellan scholar Stephen W. Sears, "[the plan] was surprisingly impractical." One of Scott's recent biographers, John S. D. Eisenhower, dismisses McClellan's plans as "utterly unrealistic."1

To be sure, Scott and these writers had reason to react to McClellan's plan the way they did, for there was much to criticize. Yet in their rush to dismiss it and—in the case of the historians—join the legions of scholars who have

Ethan S. Rafuse received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy. He is the author of numerous articles, essays, and reviews on Civil War-era topics and his current projects include a forthcoming book on the First Manassas Campaign and the revision of his dissertation, a study of George B. McClellan, for publication.

 

1. Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana, Ill., 1983), 37; Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York, 1988), 75; John S.D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of Winfield Scott (New York, 1997), 386. The other recently published Scott biography, Timothy D. Johnson's Winfield Scott: The Quest For Military Glory (Lawrence, Kans., 1998), does not mention McClellan's plan at all. McClellan's most vigorous defender, Warren W. Hassler, Jr., mentions it in passing, but does not analyze its merits or Scott's response to it. Hassler, General George B. McClellan: Shield ofthe Union (Baton Rouge, La., 1957), 5. The plan is completely ignored in the most recent book published on McClellan, Thomas J. Rowland's George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman (Kent, Ohio, 1998).


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found flaws in McClellan's general military acumen, Scott and the plan's twentieth-century critics have paid insufficient attention to the particular circumstances McClellan faced when it was written. This essay will reconsider McClellan's plan, not to argue that it was in fact a masterpiece of strategy—that it certainly was not—but to describe the formidable and complex administrative, operational, and political problems the young general faced at the time. The influence of these factors must be taken into account in any assessment of McClellan's actions in April 1861, especially his efforts to formulate strategy.

McClellan's road to fame in the American Civil War began in Columbus, Ohio, on April 23, 1861.2 During the week after Lincoln's call for troops, Ohio governor William Dennison commenced a frantic search for a professional military man to take command of his state's forces. McClellan, who had proven himself an officer of great promise before he left the army in 1 857 and was residing in Cincinnati when the rebellion broke out, was high on Dennison's list of possible candidates. But rumors that the thirty-four-year-old railroad executive was being considered for command of troops in his native Pennsylvania led Dennison to first pursue Major Irvin McDowell for the position. Unfortunately for Dennison, McDowell's hands were already quite full helping General Scott manage affairs in Washington at the time.3

 

2. Sears, George B. McClellan, 68-94; William Staff Myers, A Study in Personality: General George Brinton McClellan (New York, 1934), 157-98; and Hassler, General George B. McClellan, 3-19, all offer fine treatments of McClellan's service in Ohio, although the best by far is in Joseph L. Harsh, "George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative: An Introduction to the Conservative Strategy in the Civil War: April-August 1861" (Ph.D. diss., Rice University, 1970), 148-83.

3. On April 18, Dennison had sent a message to West Pointer Orlando Poe, then stationed in Michigan, requesting his presence in Ohio. Poe was not able to leave his post until the twenty-seventh and did not arrive in Columbus until the twenty-ninth, but there is no evidence that the governor considered anyone but McDowell or McClellan for overall command of


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Upon learning that McClellan would be traveling to Harrisburg on April 23 to discuss the matter of the Pennsylvania command with Governor Andrew Curtin, Dennison asked him to break off his trip at Columbus and report on the state of affairs in Cincinnati. McClellan agreed and arrived at the state capital on the morning of the twenty-third. Jacob D. Cox, one of three ignorant in things military but politically well-connected men Dennison had appointed brigadier generals of militia, met McClellan at the train station and quickly ushered the young railroad executive to the State House. Cox attended the meeting between the governor and McClellan that followed shortly afterward, during which the matter of the Ohio command came up. McClellan, in Cox's words, assured Dennison that he "fully understood the difficulties there would be before him, and . . . had confidence that if a few weeks' time for preparation were given he would be able to put the Ohio division into reasonable form for taking the field." Dennison then formally offered him the command. To the governor's delight, McClellan, who was concerned over a false report indicating that the post for which he was being considered in Pennsylvania was chief of engineers rather than overall command, accepted.4

 

troops. Poe was subsequently assigned to McClellan's staff and became one of his most trusted advisors during his service west of the Appalachians. Dennison to Poe, April 18, 1861, Orlando Metcalfe Poe Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., box 4\folder 6; Poe to McClellan, April 26, 27, 1861, Department of the Ohio telegram book, Record Group 393, part 1, entry 883, Records of the United States Continental Commands, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter cited as McClellan telegrams, NA); Poe to Brent, April 29, 1861, Poe Papers, box 2\folder 3. An unfounded rumor circulated around Columbus in mid-April that McClellan would return to service in the regular army as a topographical engineer. Ohio State Journal, April 16, 1862.

4. Eugene H. Roseboom, The Civil War Era, 1850-1873 (Columbus, Ohio, 1944), 384; George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story: The War for the Union, The Soldiers Who Fought It, The Civilians Who Directed It, and His Relations to It and to Them, ed. William C. Prime (New York, 1887), 40-41; McClellan to Patterson, April 18, 1861, in Stephen W. Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (New York, 1989), 5; Jacob D. Cox, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, 2 vols. (New York, 1900), 1: 8-10. The other general officers Dennison appointed were Newton Schleich and Joshua Bates. The appointment of Bates, a nominal Democrat, was evidently based on his holding a senior rank in the militia. He would serve primarily in administrative posts. Cox, a leading Republican, would have a solid military career, eventually rising to command of a corps. Schleich, on the other hand, a leader in the Ohio Democracy at the beginning of the war, would prove ill-suited to the task of leading men in battle. During operations in western Virginia, McClellan, after complaining to his wife that Schleich "knows nothing," would remove him from command just before the battle of Rich Mountain. Schleich later returned to uniform as commander of the Sixty-first Ohio Infantry. During the Second Bull Run Campaign, he abandoned his command during a skirmish and was subsequently dismissed from the service. Emilius 0. Randall and Daniel J. Ryan, History of Ohio: The Rise and Progress of an American State, 6 vols. (New York, 1912), 4: 167; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, May 1, 1861; Joshua H. Bates, "Ohio's Preparations for the War," Sketches of War History, 1861-1865: Papers Read Before the Ohio Commmandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1883-1886, 6 vols. (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1888), 1: 128-29 (hereafter cited as MOLLUS [Ohio]); McClellan to his wife, July 3, 1861, in Sears, ed., Civil War


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McClellan's decision was a godsend to Dennison. Although popular excitement made it easy to find the bodies necessary to fill Ohio's quota under Lincoln's April 15 call for three months' volunteers, their sheer numbers overwhelmed what little military infrastructure existed in the state. Although efforts had been made by Dennison's predecessor, Salmon P. Chase, to improve the state's military preparedness by supporting the formation of local volunteer companies, these were little more than paradeground units. There was precious little infrastructure to support them or provision for their organization into regiments in any case. And it quickly became evident that Dennison and Adjutant General Henry B. Carrington lacked the administrative ability, military knowledge, or political stature to impose order and efficiency on the Buckeye State's mobilization. To make matters worse, Dennison, afraid of dampening public enthusiasm, decided to accept any and all who volunteered. Before long, he had enough men to form over twice as many regiments as Washington had authorized and far more than the state was capable of handling. By April 23, eager recruits were all over Columbus. Some had been dumped in hastily established Camp Harrison on the state fairgrounds—a facility so inadequate it would be abandoned only a month later. But many remained in the city. Directionless and clueless, they fed themselves at restaurants and quartered in hotels at state expense. In their efforts to procure equipment, inexperienced state officials paid contractors whatever they demanded—a problem that ultimately led the legislature to request the removal of the quartermaster general and commissary general.5

After receiving his appointment as major general from Dennison, McClellan immediately went to work and by the night of April 23 had taken the measure of his new command. "The material," he reported to General Scott at the end of his first day on the job, "is superb, but has no organization or discipline . . . . I find myself, General, in the position of Comdg Officer with nothing but men." He proposed establishing his headquarters and a camp of instruction near Cincinnati, requested "at least 10,000 stand of arms in addition to those now ordered here . . . the corresponding accoutrements and . . . at least 5,000,000 cartridges," ordered a supply of camp equipment for 20,000 men, and asked that Fitz John Porter and other professional

 

Papers of George B. McClellan, 44; McGroarty to Schimmelfinnig, September 13, 1862, U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts. (Washington, D.C., 1880-1901), series 1, 12.2: 308-09. Hereafter cited as OR, all references are to series 1 unless otherwise noted.

5. Roseboom, The Civil War Era, 1850-1873, 383-85; Thomas C. Mulligan, "Ohio Goes To War: Efforts of the State of Ohio to Raise and Equip Troops For the Civil War," (MA. thesis: Ohio State University, 1989), 15-18, 22-23; Harsh, "George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative," 150-51; Bates, "Ohio's Preparations for the War," MOLLUS [Ohio], 1: 128-29; George M. Finch, "In the Beginning," ibid., 218-23.


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Governer William Dennison. (SC2373, Ohio Historical Society Collections.)

officers be assigned to his command. He also requested confirmation as to his objectives, which he presumed to be "the protection of Cincinnati and the line of the Ohio . . . or a movement in advance should political events require it," while doing nothing to antagonize the inhabitants of Virginia and Kentucky while they sorted out their respective fates.6

If the disordered state of affairs was the most pressing concern for the new general, his isolation from policy makers in Washington quickly became evident as well. Communication between Washington and Columbus was highly precarious during the first few weeks after McClellan assumed command. Virginia's secession on April 17

and riots in Baltimore two days later cut off telegraph communication, McClellan did not trust the mails, and by April 26 no word had been heard from messengers Dennison had sent to Washington several days before. Thus McClellan decided to send his April 23 report to Washington via Aaron F. Perry, a Cincinnati lawyer and former law partner of Dennison's.7

Transportation snags caused by the Baltimore riots prevented Perry from reaching Washington until late on April 24. He found the capital preoccupied with its own problems and had a hard time locating anyone interested in his message. He finally left it with a clerk at the War Department and, after spending the next day and a half engaged in a fruitless search for information, returned to Ohio. Upon encountering McClellan and Dennison, Perry was "speared . . . mercilessly with questions." Perry told them he had no information to give, other than that they were essentially on their own. Not until a week after it was written did Washington reply to McClellan's April 23 report. In that message, McClellan found little more information

 

6. McClellan to Scott, April 23, 1861, in Sears, ed. Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 7-9.

7. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story, 42-43. Perry later recalled the document he was entrusted to carry was a "plan of campaign for the capture of Richmond, Virginia," suggesting it was McClellan's April 27 letter. Aaron Perry, "A Chapter in Interstate Diplomacy," MOLLUS [Ohio], 1 : 345-55. In his diary Dennison's military secretary recorded that Perry departed on April 26 and returned on May 4. William T. Coggeshall Diary, entries for April 26, May 4, 1861, William T. Coggeshall Papers, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois.


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than that Scott was "greatly pleased" at his ascension to command in Ohio, "regrets it will not be possible to place at your disposal the officers for whom you ask," and offered encouragement.8

By the time he received this note, McClellan had already done a great deal toward imposing order on the situation in Ohio. The task was truly awesome, for not only did McClellan have to create an army from scratch, but there were a multitude of errors committed before his appointment to correct as well. Both tasks were greatly complicated during his first two weeks in command by economy-minded members of the state legislature, who held up passage of a bill drafted under McClellan's supervision to improve the state's military organization until May 8.9

The lack of trained officers and staff was perhaps the general's greatest problem. Although the situation was alleviated somewhat by the arrival of West Pointers William S. Rosecrans on April 26 and Orlando M. Poe on April 29, McClellan was compelled to attend personally to nearly every single detail of the state's mobilization. Everything from the construction of barracks, the establishment of efficient systems of supply and training schedules, and the coordination of troop movements to correspondence with arsenals regarding the acquisition of heavy guns and negotiations with contractors for lumber, coal, and clothing demanded his personal attention.10

Although he had yet to receive a response to his April 23 message, four days later McClellan sent another report to Washington describing his activities and administrative intentions. He informed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas that he expected to have twenty-four regiments organized within two weeks and that he had established Camp Dennison near Cincinnati, explaining that its location in the Little Miami River Valley with convenient access to both the Queen City and Columbus would enable him to "move the command rapidly to any point where it may be required." He also told Thomas that his immediate goal was "to concentrate the whole command in this camp & to thoroughly organize, discipline & drill them. By the end of six weeks I hope they will be in condition to act efficiently in any direction."11

Although the task of forging Ohio's armed mobs into an army worthy of

 

8. Perry, "A Chapter in Interstate Diplomacy," 345-55; Harsh, "George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative," 159; Townsend to McClellan, April 30, 1861, OR, 51.1: 342-43.

9. Cincinnati Daily Commercial, May 4, 8, 9, 1861.

10. Rosecrans to McClellan, April 25, 27, 28, May 2, 1861, McClellan telegrams, NA; Clement to McClellan, April 27, 1861, ibid.; Dennison to McClellan, April 28, 30, 1861, ibid.; Symington to McClellan, April 25, 1861; Lippencott to McClellan, April 26, 1861, ibid.; Mordecai to McClellan, April 25, 1861, ibid.; Wittlsey to McClellan, April 30, 1861, ibid; McClellan to Woodward, April 26, 1861, George B. McClellan Papers, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois; McClellan to Rosecrans, April 27, 1861, (two telegrams) ibid.

11. McClellan to Thomas, April 27, 1861, in Sears, ed. Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 14-15.


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the name was far from finished, on April 27 McClellan decided to turn his active mind to the question of what he might do with his command. That day he wrote and sent to Scott the letter laying out his much-maligned Kanawha plan. First, he advised Scott that he believed the immediate outbreak of hostilities along the line of the Ohio River must be avoided to allow time for "the North West to make the requisite preparations" and a prompt movement to relieve the pressure on Washington. Therefore he first proposed stationing garrisons at the junction of the Illinois Central and Ohio and Mississippi Railroads in Illinois, Cincinnati, Cairo, and various other points to ensure their security.12

McClellan then noted that "the North West has ample resources to furnish 80,000 men for active operations" and "proposed to cross the Ohio" with such a force "and move up the valley of the Great Kanawha on Richmond." Such a movement, he predicted, "could not fail to relieve Washington, as well as secure the destruction of the Southern Army if aided by a decided advance on the Eastern line." But, should Kentucky "assume a hostile position," he proposed that the 80,000 man army should instead "march straight on Nashville, and thence act according to circumstances." Should a decisive victory be won in the course of this latter operation, he envisioned moving "on Montgomery, aided by a vigorous movement on the Eastern line, towards Charleston and Augusta." "The 2nd line of operations," he advised Scott, "could be the most decisive." He closed the letter by repeating his call for large-scale assistance from the government. "Even to maintain the defensive," he wrote, "we must be largely assisted. We are very badly supplied at present . . . a vast population, eager to fight, are rendered powerless by the want of arms—the nation thus deprived of their aid."13

On May 2 McClellan's message reached Scott, who then forwarded it to President Lincoln with a note attached identifying what the Commanding General saw as serious flaws in the proposed plan of operations. Scott first noted that Ohio's quota under Lincoln's call for troops was 10,000; yet McClellan presumed "having 30,000, and wants arms & c. for 80,000." Such a force, Scott protested, could not be organized from among the threemonths men before their terms of enlistment expired. The general then asserted: "A march upon Richmond from the Ohio would probably insure

 

12. McClellan to Scott, April 27, 1861, ibid., 12-13. Dennison, perhaps out of concern over the lack of attention McClellan's first letter had received, also wrote to Lincoln on April 27 to endorse, and urge the President to give full attention to, the plan of operations contained in McClellan's letter of that day. Dennison to Lincoln, April 27, 1861, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., volume 43\reel 21.

13. McClellan to Scott,, April 27, 1861, in Sears, ed. Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 12-13.


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the revolt of Western Virginia, which if left alone will soon be five of seven [border states] for the Union." Scott next took McClellan to task for "eschew[ing] water transportation by the Ohio and Mississippi in favor of long, tedious, and break down (of men, horses, and wagons) marches." Last, but not least, he protested that McClellan's plan envisioned: "subdu[ingl the seceded States by piece-meal instead of enveloping them all (nearly) at once by a cordon of posts on the Mississippi . . . and by blockading ships. For the cordon a number of men equal to one of the general's columns would probably suffice, and the transportation of men and all supplies by water is about a fifth of the land cost."14

That Scott had identified some serious flaws in McClellan's scheme of operations—particularly in regard to the logistical nightmare that an operation across the mountains entailed—is undeniable. Yet to assess fairly McClellan's letter it must be viewed in the context of the specific strategic problem he confronted in April 1 861 . First, it must be noted that McClellan identified the Kanawha movement as less preferable to an operation directly south into Tennessee. Moreover, it is also clear that in putting forward the Kanawha plan, the general insisted that a precondition for carrying it out rather than a move south was that when the time for active operations finally came, the political situation in Kentucky would be too delicate for a movement in that direction to be prudent.15

Kentucky was critical to the Union cause. To lose the Bluegrass State to the Confederacy would dramatically complicate the strategic problem confronting the North. Not only would the Confederacy obtain a river boundary and the task of restoring the Union by invading and conquering the South become much more difficult, but southern armies would gain a valuable base for conducting raids and invasions into the Northwest as well. The effect of Kentucky's secession on the other border states, Lincoln recognized, would be equally, if not more, significant. "I think to lose Kentucky," he would write in September 1861, "is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us."16

Torn between economic and sentimental ties to her sister slave states and a deep attachment to the Union, Kentucky desperately hoped the nation could

 

14. Winfield Scott, May 2, 1861, endorsement of McClellan to Scott, April 27, 1861, OR, 51.1: 339.

15. In a draft of the April 27 letter, McClellan noted the fact that one of the merits of a movement on the Kanawha was that it "avoids infringing on the soil of Kentucky & Tenn." George B. McClellan, Draft of letter to Winfield Scott, April 1861, George Brinton McClellan (Sr.) Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., [container] A11\reel 5.

16. Lowell H. Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 1975), 2-3; Lincoln to Browning, September 22, 1861, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953-55), 4: 532.


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find a peaceful solution to the sectional conflict over slavery. In the 1860

election the state's electoral votes went to Constitutional Union candidate John Bell rather than to native sons Lincoln and John C. Breckinridge. When the Deep South, acting upon the state rights doctrines contained in the 1798 Kentucky Resolutions, left the Union, Kentuckians rallied behind the efforts of their senior senator, John J. Crittenden, to forge a Union-saving compromise. With the failure of compromise efforts and the fall of Fort Sumter, they found themselves in a situation they had long dreaded and sought to put off making a choice between the North and South. Supporting neither secession nor coercion (in response to Lincoln's call for troops Governor Benah Magoffin replied, "Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states"), on May 16 the state legislature would pass a resolution declaring Kentucky would take no part in the war and instead adopted a position of "strict neutrality." Kentucky's "neutrality" became "official" when Magoffin endorsed the resolutions four days later.17

Union policymakers could not, of course, accept this proclamation of neutrality as legitimate without conceding the principle of state sovereignty Lincoln had called out troops to quash. The president decided, however, not to press the issue with the Kentuckians, hoping that a policy of moderation and restraint would give them the encouragement they needed to figure out their interests would be best served by siding with the Union. Fortunately, he had a commander in Ohio who recognized the virtues of patience and restraint.18

Scott's argument that a movement "upon Richmond from the Ohio would probably insure the revolt of Western Virginia" is also highly debatable.19 Like their Kentucky neighbors, the people of western Virginia enjoyed the right to own slaves and were divided over the question of secession. Yet this region of small farmers and mountaineers was economically and culturally oriented toward the industrial North rather than the agricultural South, and the number of people who actually owned slaves in the counties west of the Shenandoah Valley was small. More widely held were long-standing grievances against the eastern counties of the Old Dominion that dominated Virginia politics and consistently used their power to benefit the tidewater region at the expense of the western counties. Although by no means absent, secessionists, as the votes of delegates from the region at the Virginia state

 

17. Harrison, Civil War in Kentucky, 1-9; E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (Chapel Hill, NC., 1926), 1-55. Magoffin to Cameron, April 15, 1861, OR, ser. 3, 1: 70.

18. Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 53-54; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, (New York, 1995), 299-300; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988), 294-95.

19. Winfield Scott, May 2, 1861, endorsement McClellan to Scott, April 27, 1861, OR, 51.1: 339.


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convention held on April 17 demonstrated (thirty-two of the forty-seven delegates from what eventually became West Virginia voted against secession), were clearly in the minority in western Virginia.20

The situation in western Virginia also differed from that in Kentucky in that the question of secession had already for all intents and purposes been settled. Unlike in Kentucky, where the commitment to nonprovocation was somewhat open-ended and the balance between moderation to assure the noncommitted and firmness to encourage active Unionists was a much more delicate one, the actions of the Virginia convention, the resistance of the western Virginians to secession, and the scheduling of a popular referendum on the convention's actions for May 23, greatly clarified the situation for Union policy makers. Some form of assertive action would in all probability be necessary to save the western Virginia Unionists and the timetable for such action was relatively clear. In preparation, as he carried out the same policy of restraint toward his eastern flank as he had for his southern, McClellan began developing an extensive network of informants and spies to keep him informed of developments.21

The evidence is also strong that McClellan's implicit belief that by May 1 861 failure to take action in western Virginia would do more to harm than help the Union cause in that area was more correct than Scott's contrary assumption. Virginia's fate had for all intents and purposes been settled on April 17 when the state convention voted for secession and commenced military preparations. By April 27 the question was what to do to relieve the Unionist regions in the western counties of the state and counter the threat posed to them and Washington by secessionists in the east. And it was to solve these particular problems that McClellan, with operations in Kentucky impracticable for the present, formulated his Kanawha movement.

If McClellan's plan did not meet with the approval of the Commanding General, it did have the salutary effect of prompting Scott to let him in on the ends toward which strategic planning was being directed at Army headquarters. On May 3, Scott composed his first direct message to his young subordinate. In this letter, he laid out his "own views, supported by certain facts of which you should be advised." First, Scott informed McClellan that his operational thinking was not based on figuring out how

 

20. Boyd B. Stutler, West Virginia in the Civil War (Charleston, W. Va., 1963), 2-3, 6, 8; Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: The Upper South in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC., 1989), 56-60, 159-63; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 298-99.

21. Hazard to McClellan, May 3, 1861, McClellan Papers, Al l\reel 5; Citizens of Gallipolis to McClellan, April 29, 1861, ibid.; Sherbade to McClellan, ibid., B6\reel 46; Poe to Brent, May 1, 7, 12, 13, 1861, Poe Papers, box 2\container 3; McClellan to Townsend, May 14, 1861, OR, 51.1: 377; McClellan to Dennison, May 13, 1861, in Sears, ed. Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 19.


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to make the best use of the three-months militia, but on having the regular army expanded by 25,000 and enlisting 60,000 volunteers for three years. Then he proceeded to lay out his own strategy for restoring the Union, which even before it was transmitted to McClellan had received the label by which it has come down in history, the "Anaconda."22

Although his efforts to prevent a military contest between the government and the South by steering Lincoln to a policy of nonconfrontation over Forts Sumter and Pickens had failed, Scott still did not believe military force was the proper means for restoring the Union. In Scott's mind, a war to conquer the South would be neither short nor easy. Even should the North emerge triumphant in such a war, Scott believed it could do so only through a massive military effort that would entail inevitable setbacks and inflict such horrific destruction that the worst passions in the populace of both sections would be unleashed. "Invade the South at any point," he warned policymakers after the call for troops, "[and] I will guarantee that at the end of the year you will be further from a settlement than you are now."23

Instead of a full-scale invasion of the South, Scott advised McClellan it was his intention that the government would impose "a complete blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports," combined with "a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean, with a cordon of posts at proper points . . . to envelop the insurgent States." The movement on the Mississippi, in which he advised McClellan "it is not improbable you may be invited to take an important part" (orders combining Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio into a single command, the Department of the Ohio, with McClellan as its head, had in fact been drafted in Washington the very day Scott wrote this letter), would take place after "four months and a half of instruction in camps prior to (say) November 10." The objective of the Anaconda Plan was to employ

 

22. Scott to McClellan, May 3, 1861, OR, 51.1: 369-70. Scott's ideas began circulating around Washington before he sent them to McClellan. During his trip to the capital to deliver McClellan's April 23 message, Perry heard rumors that "our public men were said to be impatient of a plan which contemplated expenditure of so much time, life, and money . . . . They called it humorously, Scott's Great Anaconda." But this was all Perry learned of the state of military planning and preparations in the capital. Peny, "A Chapter in Interstate Diplomacy," 354.

23. For good discussions of the Anaconda, see Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 385-87; Johnson, Winfield Scott, 226-28; Harsh, "George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative," 85-94; and Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 28. Scott quote in Edward D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States (New York, 1884), 56. In a meeting with Seward, Chase, and Cameron, Scott, in response to a prediction that a war between the North and South would be a short one, opined that such a conflict would in fact last three years and result in the ultimate triumph of Union arms. He also added that "for a long time thereafter, it will require the exercise of the full powers of the Federal Government to restrain the fury of the non-combatants!" Charles Winslow Elliot, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (New York, 1937),718.


George B. McClellan's First Strategic Plan
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economic pressure to convince Southerners of the folly of secession, sparing the nation the tremendous destruction and the South the challenge to honor a full-scale invasion would involve. "Cut off from the luxuries to which the people are accustomed; and ... not having been exasperated by attacks made on them," Scott predicted to policymakers in Washington that in the South, "The Union spirit will assert itself; those who are on the fence will descend on the Union side, and I will guarantee that in one year from this time all difficulties will be settled."24

Upon receiving Scott's letter on May 7, McClellan immediately wrote back thanking "the General under whom I first learned the art of war" for taking him into his confidence. He then advised Scott that he could "rest satisfied that I will leave nothing undone to assist in carrying out your plans . . . . I fully appreciate the wisdom of your intentions & recognize the propriety of all your military dispositions." In his response, McClellan also addressed Scott's expression of concern (included perhaps to cool the evident ardor of young McClellan for active operations) that "the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends . . . urg[ing] instant and vigorous action, regardless, I fear of consequences" could undermine the implementation of a reasoned, conciliatory policy that would reconstruct the Union with a minimum of bloodshed. McClellan proclaimed Scott's concern about popular passions to be "entirely correct" and assured him he would "do all I can to reconcile public feeling here to the necessary delay . . . and will quietly urge the necessity of preparation. "25

It has not been the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that McClellan was the great military genius of the Civil War, or to argue that his Kanawha plan was a masterpiece of military science that would have brought a quick and certain victory to the Union cause had it been implemented. This assuredly was not the case and Scott and historians in fact identified some significant practical flaws in McClellan's first attempt to formulate strategy. Rather, this essay's objective has been to call attention to the complex and delicate political and operational situation McClellan faced at the time he wrote the letter to Scott proposing the plan, a situation that severely limited his options. In the final analysis, it is to these, rather than to a failure of reason or underappreciation of military realities on McClellan's part, that most of the problems with his first strategic plan should be attributed. It may have been impractical; the thinking behind it was not unforgivable.

 

24. Scott to McClellan, May 3, 1861, OR, 51.1: 369-70. Three weeks later, Scott provided McClellan with further details, and asked for his views, on the proposed Mississippi expedition. Scott to McClellan, May 21, 1861, ibid., 387. Scott's "guarantee" is in Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War, 55-56.

25. McClellan to Scott, May 7, 1861, in Sears, ed. Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 16; Scott to McClellan, May 3, 1861, OR, 51.1: 370.