Academic journal article Civil War History

McClellan and Halleck at War: The Struggle for Control of the Union War Effort in the West, November 1861-March 1862

Academic journal article Civil War History

McClellan and Halleck at War: The Struggle for Control of the Union War Effort in the West, November 1861-March 1862

Article excerpt

On November 1, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed thirty-four-year-old George Brinton McClellan general in chief of the United States Army. The move was not unexpected. McClellan had known for some time that Brevet Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott's twenty-year tenure as commanding general was coming to an end. He also knew that Lincoln was considering no other man for Scott's replacement. Yet near the end of the meeting in which he informed McClellan of his promotion, Lincoln felt compelled to wonder out loud if overseeing the organization and operations of the western armies and the Army of the Potomac might be too much for any one man to handle. According to Lincoln's secretary, John Hay, McClellan quietly assured the president, "I can do it all." (1)

Much has been written about McClellan's tenure as commanding general of the United States Army from November 1861 to March 1862. The deterioration of the general's relationship with Lincoln, his clashes with congressional Republicans, and the inactivity of the Army of the Potomac during this period have all attracted much attention from historians seeking to understand the Union war effort. This essay will examine an aspect of McClellan's endeavors as commanding general that has yet to receive the same level of scrutiny: his efforts to direct the war west of the Appalachian Mountains. (2) Operations in Kentucky and Tennessee were taken into account in McClellan's comprehensive grand strategy, but the general faced obstacles in ensuring that those operations were directed toward the strategic and operational objectives he deemed most critical to the Union war effort.

One of the greatest problems McClellan encountered as he endeavored to direct the war in the West was Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. The tendency of historians studying this relationship--and most command relationships during the Civil War, for that matter--has been to focus on how the personalities of the two men limited their cooperation. (3) Traditionally, problems in the McClellan-Halleck relationship have been attributed to a clash of two monumental egotists who, among their many defects as military men, were afflicted with a myopia that rendered them incapable of seeing beyond their own needs and unable to conceive of the Union war effort as a whole. To be sure, McClellan and Halleck both had high opinions of themselves and were, naturally, most sensitive to the particular needs of their own commands. Yet there are two other factors that deserve greater consideration from historians seeking to understand this important command relationship and the war in the West in early 1862. The first is the fundamentally different analyses McClellan and Halleck made of the military problem facing the North, from which flowed conflicting views on strategic and operational priorities in the West. In early 1862, the two men found themselves in conflict as each endeavored to ensure operations in Kentucky and Tennessee were directed toward objectives that corresponded with his particular vision of Union strategy. The second factor that would compromise seriously McClellan's efforts was the institutional weakness of the office of general in chief--a problem that made nearly inevitable his ultimate defeat in the struggle with Halleck for control of the Union war effort in the West.

On October 31, one day before his appointment to replace Scott, McClellan laid out in a letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron what he wanted to do once he was general in chief. McClellan advised his superiors that, if they shared his desire to avoid a winter of inactivity, they should have Union forces west of the Appalachian Mountains assume a strictly defensive posture and send whatever troops not needed for that purpose to the Army of the Potomac. Virginia, he unambiguously stated, was where the North must keep its "attention and efforts.., fixed upon [as] the vital point of the war where the issue of the great contest is to be decided. …

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