Thursday, July 28, 2016

Antietam by Richard Slotkin

McClellan's overestimate of enemy strength was fabulous in scale, and the errors that produced it were systematic. McClellan typically credited Confederates on his front with two or three times their actual strength. Every military operation McClellan undertook, from his arrival in Washington to the end of the Antietam campaign, would be premised on the belief that the enemy heavily outnumbered him. Because the War Department did not have its own intelligence apparatus, it had no independent means of checking McClellan's estimates.

McClellan's earliest force estimates were based on Confederate newspaper reports and civilian rumors, but he soon put in place an intelligence service commanded by the railroad detective Allan Pinkerton. Although Pinkerton's methods were effective against rear-area subversives liker the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle and the Baltimore "Blood Tubs", he was out of his depth in the field of military intelligence. His operatives did succeed in infiltrating Confederate offices, obtaining army paperwork, and gathering rumors about Rebel operations; but they did not know how to distinguish units that existed merely on paper from regiments fully manned, equipped, and ready for battle.. They could tell McClellan the number of regiments officially credited to Lee's army but not the actual strength of these nits. This failure was not entirely their fault, however -  Confederate accounting methods were so slipshod that even an army commander like Lee could not be absolutely  certain of the number of troops in his command.  Never-the-less, the result was an astounding overestimate of the Rebel forces in Virginia.

(In their meeting on September 22 , after the battle, Lincoln completely bamboozled Pinkerton in regards to his estimation and intentions  to McClellan. "Pinkerton was disarmed by his own and McClellan's belief that the president was not very intelligent.")

Pinkerton's information might have been useful had it been subject to critical analysis by an intelligence staff and supplemented by other forms of intelligence gathering - scouting by cavalry, or the use of large units for a reconnaissance- in-force, the taking and questioning of POWs, and assessment of their state of equipment, health and training, and so forth. an analysis of the Federal army's own difficulty raising troops, equipping them, and maintaining regiments at full strength would have suggested how unlikely it was that the Confederates were raising a larger army - given that the North had a larger White population to draw on, and far better resources for transporting and supplying its armies. But since McClellan insisted on being his own chief of intelligence, there was no independent staff review. McClellan also read all intelligence through the distorting lens of his conviction that he and his army were the Republic's sole hope of salvation  against the twin threats of Secession and Radical Republicanism) and must run no risk of defeat. It followed that in estimating the opposition he must always err on the side of caution, basing his moves on the assumption that the enemy force was as large as it  could conceivably be. Field reports that suggested the enemy in his front was at less than maximum possible strength were characteristically discounted. He never tested these strength estimates by matching them against the known limitations of Confederate manpower, production, and transportation.

[At Antietam he withheld or too cautiously deployed reserves at crucial times in the battle thus failing to exploit breakthroughs on the right, center and left of his lines. He failed to recognize and make use of his advantage in numbers and the reports of his own line commanders on the weakness of the enemy's positions after the day of the battle thus allowing Lee to stand his ground unmolested all day and to retreat with impunity the next day. ]

Questionable judgments were also being made on the other side of Antietam Creek. Lee had been too sanguine about the speed with which Jackson's force could join him at Sharpsburg, so for the whole of September 16 he had faced McClellan with a force less than half as large. His assumption that McClellan would not immediately attack in force proved correct, but his army's situation on September 17 would have been only fractionally better than it had been the day before.  All his labor and daring since September 14 had only succeeded in putting his army in an extremely dangerous position, faced with an enemy twice its strength, with its back to a river crossed by two difficult fords. To achieve a meaningful victory, Lee had not only to defend his lines but to drive the larger army back and force it to retreat behind South Mountain. If at the end of the day McClellan simply held his very strong position on the high ground east of the creek, Lee would have little choice but to retreat to Virginia. It has been said, and is certainly true, that Lee understood McClellan's weaknesses as a battlefield tactician, and believed he could exploit these ( by means of the excellent lines of communications he maintained with his line commanders) to win a victory. But that seems a slim reed on which to rest the fate of an army and, potentially, a nation.

Still, the possibility exists that Lee was unaware just how far his original force had been diminished by combat and straggling (he did not established an adequate  system of accounting for the real strength of his regiments until after Antietam). Lee's troops, however, were not only weak in numbers, their physical strength had been compromised by weeks of hard marching and a bad or inadequate diet, in addition to the ordinary debilitating effects of bad sanitation and polluted drinking water. Most of Lee's men had been subsisting on unripe or uncooked corn and unripe fruit, which gave them the "gripes" and the "squitters". Diarrhea and dysentery were endemic in the Rebel camps. After the fighting their abandoned battle lines could be traced in rows of loose and bloody feces.

By his excessive caution, his refusal to move until every risk had been minimized, McClellan had revealed his fear of losing control of the action. In contrast, Lee understood and accepted the fact that battle is chaos and was a 'connoisseur' of this chaos. At least he believed that his own skill as a commander, the experience and skill of his chief subordinates, the efficacy of his command system, and the superior morale of his troops would allow him to ride that chaos; and that the weaknesses of McClellan, his generals and his army made them liable to a loss of control, and a cascade of failures leading to defeat.

The strategist does what he can to create a situation in which victory is likely and the gains in battle are commensurate with the risks. But battle is the violent collision of two highly complex human systems, driven by different impulses, organized indifferent ways, with different strengths and solidarities. The outcome may turn on actions far down the chain of command, surprising local successes that boost the advantage and morale of one side, wreck the prospects and demoralize the other. . . 

September 17 was the costliest day of combat in American history, leaving 25 thousand Americans dead or wounded. That Lee's army retreated meant that the battle was a tactical victory for the Union. But the sound and fury, the immense cost in death suffering, and grief, had not resolved the strategic crisis. Hardly anyone was entirely happy with the result apart from George McClellan and his supporters- they believed he had vouchsafed his position as sole savior of the Republic. Lincoln had still not effected the strategic transformation envisioned in early July: the shift from a strategy of conciliation to a war of subjection, in which restoration of the Union was linked to general emancipation - a shift that required the permanent sidelining of General McClellan.  Victory at Antietam fulfilled one condition for issuing an emancipation proclamation, but that same victory also seemed to aggrandize McClellan, who opposed emancipation and was attempting the thwart Lincoln's policies.

In the end, however, McClellan's political advisors decided  that it was the general's duty  to submit to the president's proclamation and quietly continue to do his duty as a soldier, that any form of opposition by McClellan to the president's decree  would be perceived  by Democrats as a military usurpation. To weaken McClellan's position, Lincoln and his Secretary John Hay began feeding criticisms of the general's performance to Republican journals . One of Lincoln's favorite criticisms o McClellan - that he was "an auger to dull to take hold" - started popping up (without attribution) in the Tribune.  Lincoln also authorized John Hay to begin a secret journalistic campaign to expose McClellan's flaws as a general, thus preparing the public mind for his removal. Hay's method was one Lincoln had used often against opponents: he satirized the general, deflated him by ridicule.

Above all it was McClellan's inactivity after the Battle of Antietam  which doomed his future as the top general in the Union Army,  dramatically demonstrated during three days in October when General Lee unleashed Jeb Stuart's cavalry for a spectacular raid that took him up into Pennsylvania and all around McClellan's Army.

[ Lincoln is renowned for his ability to manage the "Team of Rivals" that constituted his government, but in1862 his strategic transformation was nearly wrecked by his inability to get his cabinet officers and his generals   to cooperate with him and each other.]

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