Stare Down; or, Was Antietam a Draw and Was George McClellan Really in Charge?

Published:May 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

We are at work editing our entry on the Maryland Campaign, which culminated in the titanic Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Perhaps strangely, we didn’t include this on our original list of Civil War entries—it didn’t happen in Virginia, after all. The comparatively minor Battle of Shepherdstown, which ended the campaign, did, so we wrote it up. But over the years our thinking has changed, and to understand the war in Virginia from 1861 to 1865, you really do have to write about Antietam.

So, in editing our contributor Thomas G. Clemens‘s fine entry (or in mis-editing it, if you wish), I described the battle as a “draw” on the battlefield, if also a strategic victory for the Union. This is not an unprecedented claim, as this source and this source and this source suggest. (It goes without saying that not all sources are created equal, of course.) Anyway, Tom—who has edited and annotated Ezra Carman‘s classic book on Antietam—responded:

By strict definition nearly every Civil War battle was a draw, but usually “victory” was awarded to whichever army held the field at the end of the battle. If Gettysburg is a Union victory, where Meade merely held the field, then how can Antietam be a “draw” when McClellan AGGRESSIVELY attacked Lee all day long and, like at Gettysburg, Lee took a day to organize his army and withdrew the next day? I dare you to describe Gettysburg as a “draw”!!!!

I will not! Instead, we shall call Antietam “one of the most pivotal Union strategic victories of the American Civil War.”

I had another question, though. The conventional narrative of this part of the war goes like this: George McClellan really screwed up with the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles, so Abraham Lincoln fired him, put John Pope in charge and then, after Second Manassas, fired him. When Robert E. Lee marched north, Lincoln offered the top job to Ambrose E. Burnside, who said, more or less, no way, José. So that left Lincoln with McClellan, and despite the furious objections of his cabinet, the president, tail between his legs, offered Little Mac his command back.

Not true! says the blogger Dimitri Rotov, who has put together an interesting list of Frequently Asserted Claims about McClellan. Long story short, McClellan was always in command of the Army of the Potomac, and it was only at the start of the Maryland Campaign that Lincoln, in fact, limited his authority by placing him in charge of Washington’s defenses only. When McClellan took to the field in pursuit of Lee, he did so “without orders or authority.” Which, in its way, is an even more interesting story.

And it may be true, but as Tom Clemens reminds me, Lincoln and his general-in-chief, Henry W. Halleck, visited McClellan on September 5, and it was then that they verbally ordered Little Mac into the field. That they didn’t write anything down allowed both Lincoln and Halleck to later accuse the other of having been the one to issue the order.

“Unless some undiscovered fly on the wall or note appears, this version is as close as we’ll get to what really happened,” Tom tells me. Not that all that detail will make it into our Antietam entry, but it’s nice to have it straight in my head anyway.

AFTER THE JUMP: How the historian Stephen W. Sears, who will never be accused of much liking McClellan, narrates this part of the Antietam story.

IMAGE: Detail of Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan, October 3, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, by Alexander Gardner (Library of Congress)

From Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (1983) by Stephen W. Sears, pages 77–78:

In later years, General McClellan liked to send chills up his listeners’ spines by relating that when he led the Army of the Potomac into the field after Lee in these early days of September he was overstepping orders limiting him to the defense of Washington, risking court-martial and a probable death sentence. His brave confrontation with martyrdom made a good story, but in fact it was another of the fictions he spun so effortlessly. Halleck told another story. “The assignment of General McClellan to the command of the army in the field, just prior to the Maryland campaign, was made verbally by the President at General McClellan’s own house, in my presence,” he explained to Senator [Benjamin Franklin] Wade’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. “He said to him, ‘General, you will take command of the forces in the field.'” Halleck added that Lincoln had been debating the question “for two or three days.” Diarist Gideon Welles put a different light on the assignment. The president told him on September 8, he wrote, that “Halleck selected McClellan to command troops against the Maryland invasion. I could not have done it, said he, for I can never feel confident that he will do anything.”

Someone was lying!