McClellan’s West Virginia Campaign
Soldiers! I have heard there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and share it with you.
–George B. McClellan
The day after Bull Run, July 22, the wreckage of McDowell’s army came slogging into Washington in bits and pieces, all of them muddy, wet and weary. The poet Whitman was a witness. The streets were “all over motley with these defeated soldiers–queer-looking objects, strange eyes and faces, drench’d (the steady rain drizzles on all day) and fearfully worn, hungry, haggard, and blister’d in the feet.” In Willard’s Hotel Whitman heard officers explaining to one another how they happened to return to the capital without their commands. Whitman described the common soldier with compassion, but the self-serving artifices of these officers incensed him: “There you are, shoulder-straps! But where are your companies? Where are your men? Incompetents! never tell of the chances of battle, of getting stray’d, and the like…. Sneak, blow, put on airs, there in Willard’s sumptuous parlors and barrooms, or anywhere–no explanation shall save you. Bull Run is your work; had you been half or one-tenth worth your men, this would never have happened.”
In truth, the common soldier, virtually untrained, had made a good stand-up fight at Bull Run. From the first collision on the Sudley Road to the collapse and rout on the Union right, he had been in the fight for nearly eight hours–a terrible day’s work. That he was badly led was unarguably true. Many failures were at the top. Patterson had been baffled in the Valley and never reached the field–or even knew that he was urgently needed on the field. McDowell had not managed to get nearly a quarter of his army into the battle at all (nor, for that matter, did Beauregard). A critical opportunity in front of the Henry House failed because no one could coordinate the pieces of the attack. Many failures were at the company and regimental level as units got lost, disorganized, confused. There were no noncommissioned officers yet who knew what to do when officers were put out of the fight. No one had time to learn, let alone master, all the complex evolutions of moving men on the battlefield. McDowell had not been given the time to make an army. George B. McClellan would be given both the time and the immense resources of the federal government to do so.
George Brinton McClellan was just thirty-five when he was called upon, as he said, to save his country. Short, darkly handsome, compactly and powerfully built, he looked the part of the “Young Napoleon,” as the journalists called him, and he liked to be photographed with a hand tucked in his coat front in the proper Napoleonic manner. A West Pointer (second in his class), he had been breveted for gallantry as an engineer in Mexico. Able, energetic, and ambitious, he had left the peacetime army (in which advancement was notoriously slow) to become chief engineer and vice-president of the Illinois Central Railroad. At thirty-two he was president of the Eastern Division of the Ohio and Mississippi. When the war came, he was appointed Major General of Volunteers and sent to the mountains of western Virginia. Some thought that he carried “an indefinable air of success about him, and something of the ‘man of destiny.'”
In May McClellan commanded the Department of the Ohio (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, western Virginia and Pennsylvania). Western Virginia represented a strategic opportunity because whoever controlled it controlled the vital rail line eastward to Baltimore; it was also a political opportunity because disaffected mountaineers were on the verge of seceding from Virginia. On May 26 in Cincinnati McClellan prepared to send his troops into Virginia to take advantage of the opportunity. But first he issued a proclamation. (He seems to have enjoyed proclaiming nearly as much as reviewing.) The proclamation called on the mountaineers to sever their connection with traitorous Virginia and demonstrate their “faith and loyalty” to the Union. It was received with much cheering and waving. Then McClellan sent a column south to Philippi. There, on the night of June 3, the Federals struck a small, untrained, poorly armed, wholly unprepared Confederate force. (Apparently, the Rebels had even failed to post pickets.) It wasn’t much of a fight. The Rebels went fleeing back toward the mountains in the rainy night, and the Yanks heartily enjoyed what they remembered as “the Philippi Races.” The next day McClellan himself reached the field. He first prepared an address to the troops (printed up on a portable press that went where the general went). “Soldiers!” he wrote, “I have heard there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and share it with you. I fear now but one thing–that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel.”
At this point the foemen, whatever their fitness, were led by Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, who fell back, marching up the Tygart Valley toward the mountains. Attempting to defend Virginia from an invasion from the rear, he divided his army to block the passes at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill. McClellan moved part of his force against Garnett at Laurel Hill; then with the main body he moved on Rich Mountain. Once opposite the Confederates there, he sent Brigadier William S. Rosecrans to strike the Rebels in flank. (“No prospect of a brilliant victory,” McClellan explained, “shall induce me to depart from my intention of gaining success by maneuvering rather than by fighting.”) Rosecrans’s column, after a tough climb up steep slopes, came down completely in the Confederate rear, and sent rag-tag rebels scattering in confusion with hardly a fight. With Rich Mountain lost, Garnett could hardly hope to hold Laurel Hill, and he retreated northward over the Cheat River, where he was himself killed in a rear-guard action. It was the end, as McClellan wrote in his battle report, of a “brief but brilliant campaign.” His portable press went to work printing out a lofty victory address: “Soldiers of the Army of the West! I am more than satisfied with you. You have annihilated two armies, commanded by educated and experienced soldiers, intrenched in mountain fastnesses at their leisure…. You have proved that Union men… are more than a match for our misguided and erring brethren…. In the future I still may have greater demands to make upon you, and still greater sacrifices for you to offer. It will be my care to provide for you to the extent of my ability; but I know now that by your valor and endurance you will accomplish all that is asked.”
Without question, McClellan had handled his army with a high degree of competence, and had won an important victory, securing the Baltimore and Ohio line and helping take West Virginia out of the Confederacy. But there is much in this campaign that casts a long shadow over the kind of general McClellan would become when he came to high command in the east. First, there was something skewed in McClellan’s perception of things. When he came to Philippi, he had spoken of sharing the place of danger. But so sudden was the Confederate collapse that there had been but a handful of Rebel dead. The Federals lost not a single trooper. McClellan had spoken of valor and sacrifice and endurance, but the men had not seen much of these virtues. They still thought of “a day of battle as one of rare sport.” (Experience would teach them better.) Then there was McClellan’s inflation of the enemy’s numbers and fitness. Although he outnumbered Garnett fully two to one, he seems to have believed that he had actually annihilated two large, experienced, and battle-worthy armies. The fitness of those armies Garnett well knew; he had just twenty-three companies of infantry “in a miserable condition as to arms, clothing, equipments, instruction and discipline.” Further, McClellan’s inflation of enemy strength seems to be more than simply the fighter’s natural tendency to suppose that the fellow he’s just beaten was truly a tough opponent. What McClellan imagined, he believed. Finally, and perhaps most telling, was McClellan’s plan of campaign to win by maneuver, not by combat. As he wrote to his wife just before Rich Mountain, he hoped “to clear [the Rebels] out of West Virginia and liberate the country without bloodshed, if possible.” The general wanted to be the sort of warrior who could win battles without fighting.
One footnote is worth considering here. One of McClellan’s subordinates, General T. A. Morris, moving out of Philippi toward the mountains, sent to McClellan asking for reinforcements. The general returned a curt dispatch: “Do not ask for further reinforcements. If you do I shall take it as a request to be relieved from your command…. I must have generals under me who are willing to risk as much as I am, and to be content to risk their lives and reputations with such means as I can give them.” In consequence of McClellan’s mountain victory, Lincoln would call him to Washington to organize the Army of the Potomac, which would be the great achievement of McClellan’s career. But among the many trials Lincoln endured through the early war years would be McClellan’s ceaseless call for reinforcements and his unwillingness to risks lives and reputations with such means as Lincoln could give him.