McClellan, and Other Leaders Who Got It Wrong

 

Officers of the 69th Infantry New York, at Fort Corcoran, VA, with Col. Michael Corcoran. (Mathew Brady/NARA)

American history is replete with examples of military leaders making foolish and erroneous declarations.

Perhaps none did so more frequently and with such significant consequences than George B. McClellan, arguably the worst commander in U.S. military history, a man who never missed an opportunity to be wrong with a spectacular inability to recognize it.

As Major General of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, McClellan was poised to bring a swift end to the American Civil War, yet his astounding proclivity for misjudgment was unparalleled. That is, until last week, when 140 former military and national security officers penned an open letter to Congress about the events of January 6 at the Capital.

In classic McClellan style, they managed to get almost everything wrong, and dangerously so. As Ricochet member Jim George explains in greater detail in another post, this letter is full of lies from top to bottom. At this point, all Americans should question the integrity of any government institution or its officers.

But this isn’t new.

“I am utterly amazed to find so little real faith and courage under difficulties among public leaders and men of intelligence.”

John Nicolay, Secretary to President Lincoln, 1862

We civilians tend to think of the military as the last bastion of honor and professionalism in government, an organization above petty politics that rejects the nonsensical whims of blowhards of all persuasions.

Truth be told, every veteran just rolled their eyes reading that. They know better than anyone that the more you study the military, the more you realize it is just as populated by dingbats as any organization.

In fact, given its size and mission, the U.S. military and national security apparatus may host the largest collection of dingbats on earth – in sheer numbers that is, not in proportion to the whole; that distinction is still held by Congress, Hollywood, and the teachers’ unions – and in that order.

Like General McClellan, these individuals will be condemned by the cold facts of history but I’m not willing to wait that long. They need to be called out now, their lies need to be sacked before they can manifest into unholy action against the very country they claim to care about. Failure to do so will cost actual physical lives.

“War is not just armies, and battlefields, and clever campaigns laid out on a map and ratified in blood. It is a resort to force, to be sure, but which is to say that men have temporarily abandoned the effort to exert a reasoned control over events.”

Bruce Catton, Terrible Swift Sword

Losing reasoned control over events is exactly what those 144 former military and national security officers have done. It’s a deadly and contagious virus among policymakers that leads them to fail to examine the reality around them. Perhaps they’re simply deceived. But leaders are held with a higher standard by God and by man. Blindly accepting squeamish reports of cowards and sycophants will cost lives. Like McClellan, they will end up cowering and retreating from forces that don’t even exist.  Or worse, targeting the wrong individuals.

In the summer of 1862 with nearly a two-to-one advantage, McClellan was prepared to take the Confederate capital of Richmond. Confederate General Robert E. Lee feared this, but he also knew McClellan. Lee decided to thin his lines in front of Richmond to next to nothing and throw the bulk of his army into McClellan’s flank, deceiving his opponent into overestimating Confederate strength and scaring McClellan into a retreat.

With Confederate defenders thinned along thirteen miles, Richmond was there for the taking. Had McClellan advanced, he would have easily overwhelmed the capital’s minuscule defenses, arrested the Confederate government, and likely ended the war three years early. But instead, McClellan took the bait. He abandoned his fortified position and, calling for even more reinforcements, characteristically blamed everyone else for his ineptitude:

“I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this, and I say it with the earnestness of a general who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today…If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington.”

George B. McClellan, message to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton (June 28, 1862)

Failure is often the result of bad information. But just as often, it’s the result of plain old timidity.

The loss of reasoned control over events has infected much of our leadership. We can defeat this virus the way we defeat all enemies, with intelligence. Ride out and see for yourself if the reports are accurate or artificially (perhaps intentionally) inflated. Does the data line up with reality? Use your instinct, trust your eyes, verify their claims, and get that information to the leaders who need it. Be willing to stand on reason no matter what the so-called experts claim, and give your leaders the intelligence they need – or find new leaders.

It’s getting harder and harder to discern the truth every day, but for all the static and competing claims blanketing the airwaves you can always rely on your God-given ability to reason. Don’t be afraid to confront those vile prognosticators whenever they pop up, no matter what credentials they sport, even if those credentials include five stars on the shoulder of a once-respectable leader. History will put them in their proper place eventually. But for those on the front lines defending liberty, unchecked lies are a cost too great to bear.

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  1. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    So true. History is repeating itself. The media is doing the job of incompetent intelligence sources, filling their heads with lies and bad information, including deceptive polling. The Congress has become a danger. It fears the people it represents, isolating itself with walls and security rather than moderating its actions. Congress knows its actions are unpopular, but it pursues the will of those in power rather than the citizens that takes priority. It won’t end well. 

    • #1
  2. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Well said, Vince.

    • #2
  3. dukenaltum Coolidge
    dukenaltum
    @dukenaltum
    • #3
  4. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Vince Guerra: Perhaps none did so more frequently and with such significant consequences than George B. McClellan, arguably the worst commander in U.S. military history, a man who never missed an opportunity to be wrong with a spectacular inability to recognize it.

    That couldn’t be more wrong.

    Benedict Arnold was far worse.

    Outside of  traitors, I can name several that are far worse than McClellan.  McClellan may have lacked aggressiveness much of the time, but not all the time.  His sin was political ambition and he didn’t share Lincoln’s thirst for the blood of his former countrymen.  It can be argued that over time, his policies would still have resulted in a Union victory, but with less bloodshed.

    Here’s a list of commanders worse than McClellan:

    William Bainbridge ran the USS Philadelphia aground on an uncharted reef, but instead of working intelligently to free the ship, he surrendered the ship and crew to the Barbary pirates who had been circling the ship and trying but failing to hit it with their cannon for five hours.  A few hours after surrendering, the tide lifted the Philadelphia off the reef and she was towed into harbor intact.  Bainbridge continued to make an ass of himself in captivity and in future assignments.

    Arnold Schwarzkopf defeated the Iraqi army and then let them all escape.  To be fair, the squeamish loser, Colin Powell took all the credit and none of the blame.  I won’t list Powell because he never commanded troops in combat.

    Vice Admiral Ghormley, the overall commander of the Guadalcanal campaign, until replaced by Bull Halsey, was much worse than McClellan.  Ghormley had no interest in understanding the strategic or tactical situation.  He almost never left his cozy bungalow and certainly never visited Guadalcanal.  His wikipedia page is unrelentingly brutal in its criticism.  

    Any four star general in the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns.  They did not take aggressive actions, and allowed the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice crew to hamstring them.  They instituted a bureaucratic war with unit rotations turned into an administrative engine to drive the war, rather than the war driving manpower needs, resulting in an unending war over backwards, or in Afghanistan, primitive enemies.

    General Walton Walker’s poor leadership led to the US forces being nearly annihilated before the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade shored them up in the Pusan Perimeter.  He continued to direct the forces in Korea through the debacle with the Chinese intervening across the Yalu River.  Sadly he died in a car accident.  In his defense, a lot of his monumentally bad decisions were influenced by even worse direction from that coward Doug MacArthur.

    I’m sure there are any number of other commanders that deserve to be labeled as worse than McClellan, but the absolute worst commander in US history of a major command is William Westmoreland with a close second going to that idiot Elmo Zumwalt.  The two of them couldn’t have done a worse job in Vietnam.

    • #4
  5. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’m sure there are any number of other commanders that deserve to be labeled as worse than McClellan,

    Surely there are, but McClellan’s propensity to sit on his heels prolonged the war and thus created a far greater body count than any of those others combined. My criteria for worst is the bad decisions he made, the unnecessary cost they created, and the lack of acknowledgement of having done so. 

    • #5
  6. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’m sure there are any number of other commanders that deserve to be labeled as worse than McClellan,

    Surely there are, but McClellan’s propensity to sit on his heels prolonged the war and thus created a far greater body count than any of those others combined. My criteria for worst is the bad decisions he made, the unnecessary cost they created, and the lack of acknowledgement of having done so.

    He didn’t always do that.  You have to remember as well that had he risked the army early on, that the brilliance of the southern generals, who were at their greatest material strength of the war, may have been disastrous to the entire war effort.  Let’s say McClellan went on the offensive and a sizable Confederate force got around him in the confusion and into Washington DC.  

    It’s similar to how some accuse naval officers of not being aggressive enough.  But if the naval commander is aggressive and gets critical ships disabled or sunk, the fleet is now unable to stop the enemy at all.  McClellan’s methods were not wrong.  They would have yielded slower but surer results.  It wasn’t necessary to risk the Union army to such as extent in order to defeat the Confederacy.  The difference is that it didn’t align with Lincoln’s plans.  

    • #6
  7. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Let’s say McClellan went on the offensive and a sizable Confederate force got around him in the confusion and into Washington DC.  

    The Confederacy never had the capability (supplies, logistics, transportation) to sustain an offensive far into enemy territory, which became clear at Gettysburg, and would have been so much earlier had McClellan had the testicular fortitude to fight instead of just parade. 

    • #7
  8. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Skyler (View Comment):
    The difference is that it didn’t align with Lincoln’s plans.

    This is true, McClellan had no intention of winning the war. His dispatch to Lincoln regarding his war aims made it clear he was only interested in adopting the Southern States conditions for avoiding it. It was then that everyone realized McClellan needed to go, except for the the Confederacy that is.

    • #8
  9. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    The difference is that it didn’t align with Lincoln’s plans.

    This is true, McClellan had no intention of winning the war. His dispatch to Lincoln regarding his war aims made it clear he was only interested in adopting the Southern States conditions for avoiding it. It was then that everyone realized McClellan needed to go, except for the the Confederacy that is.

    That wasn’t a bad strategy.  It would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.  This doesn’t make him a bad commander, only someone with a different, if better, view of the strategy.

    • #9
  10. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Arnold Schwarzkopf defeated the Iraqi army and then let them all escape.  To be fair, the squeamish loser, Colin Powell took all the credit and none of the blame.  I won’t list Powell because he never commanded troops in combat.

    Wasn’t it George H. W. Bush’s decision to do that?

    • #10
  11. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    The difference is that it didn’t align with Lincoln’s plans.

    This is true, McClellan had no intention of winning the war. His dispatch to Lincoln regarding his war aims made it clear he was only interested in adopting the Southern States conditions for avoiding it. It was then that everyone realized McClellan needed to go, except for the the Confederacy that is.

    That wasn’t a bad strategy. It would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. This doesn’t make him a bad commander, only someone with a different, if better, view of the strategy.

    Not fighting a war usually does save lives, depending on who stands to benefit from maintaining the status quo, something were seeing play out every day. 

    • #11
  12. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    BastiatJunior (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Arnold Schwarzkopf defeated the Iraqi army and then let them all escape. To be fair, the squeamish loser, Colin Powell took all the credit and none of the blame. I won’t list Powell because he never commanded troops in combat.

    Wasn’t it George H. W. Bush’s decision to do that?

    Ultimately, of course.  This is probably the weakest on my list.

    • #12
  13. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    Skyler (View Comment):

    BastiatJunior (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Arnold Schwarzkopf defeated the Iraqi army and then let them all escape. To be fair, the squeamish loser, Colin Powell took all the credit and none of the blame. I won’t list Powell because he never commanded troops in combat.

    Wasn’t it George H. W. Bush’s decision to do that?

    Ultimately, of course. This is probably the weakest on my list.

    And why in the world are you calling him Arnold?!  For Schwarzenegger?

    H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. was a great general from what I remember.  Besides that what the first big fight in the shadow of the Vietnam War with a huge coalition that included countries like Syria, France, Egypt, most of Europe, and most of the Arab/Islamic world.

    Burnside, Pope, McDowell, and the political generals were probably as bad or worse than McClellan.

    • #13
  14. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):

    And why in the world are you calling him Arnold?!  For Schwarzenegger?

     

    Oh, that was really dumb.  So sorry, Norman!

    • #14
  15. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    There won’t be many books written about great leadership in today’s warfighting. The politicians never learn and interfere, the ROE is too restrictive, not killing the enemy seems to be the goal, and we have drifted far from Geneva, restraining ourselves even more than is necessary. The ICC would restrain us even more and don’t think Biden and the left don’t have joining that as one of their goals.

    • #15
  16. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    EHerring (View Comment):

    The ICC would restrain us even more and don’t think Biden and the left don’t have joining that as one of their goals.

    Fortunately, they don’t have sufficient control of the Senate to ratify such a treaty.  If they join it will only be as an executive order, or possibly even by statute, and it will be much easier to overturn by subsequent Congresses with a more favorable President.

    Using executive orders as a proxy for a treaty is an especially bad habit cultivated by Obama.  I expect Biden/Harris to continue that practice.

    • #16
  17. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Skyler (View Comment):

    EHerring (View Comment):

    The ICC would restrain us even more and don’t think Biden and the left don’t have joining that as one of their goals.

    Fortunately, they don’t have sufficient control of the Senate to ratify such a treaty. If they join it will only be as an executive order, or possibly even by statute, and it will be much easier to overturn by subsequent Congresses with a more favorable President.

    Using executive orders as a proxy for a treaty is an especially bad habit cultivated by Obama. I expect Biden/Harris to continue that practice.

    I expect them to use EOs. You must win back the Senate, RINO-proof win, to overturn and they are trying to ensure we never win it back. I wouldn’t put it past them to do the EO then try to hand Trump over to the ICC. I wouldn’t put anything past their ruthless clutches.

    • #17