150 years ago as the smoke cleared from Fair Oaks battlefield came news that would irrevocably change the tenor, tone, and tenacity of the Civil War – the Confederate commander, Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded; Jefferson Davis‘s military adviser, Robert E. Lee, took over what was soon to become the Army of Northern Virgina.
Lee’s appointment and subsequent success not only finished off a succession of Union generals, it doomed the South – made it an all out war that was only going to end with the abolition of slavery, two things that were not at all clear on May 31, 1862.
Below – how the news of Lee’s appointment was perceived by McClellan – all of McClellan’s comments are historically accurate; lucky for him and his post-war political career, none of the remarks were published in his lifetime.
I spoke to a psychologist about McClellan and his opinion of Lee – “Textbook projection”, was his instant reaction. Within two months, William – decades before Freud – will come to the same conclusion . . . and then some.
June, 1862: The Telegraph War
“Thank God it’s not Beauregard,” the Commander of the Army of the Potomac intoned with something just sort of glee, that day’s Richmond Times smudging his fingers while he brandished it like a lost spelunker his torch.
“Why not Beauregard?” Joinville asked in the manner of one not expecting an answer.
Though he had to know one was forthcoming – if not from a still pale Mac, then certainly Fitz John Porter who hesitated only to swallow his coffee, “Simple, Prince,” the very expansiveness of his response telling in and of itself, “With this appointment the Rebels have committed to defensive operations before Richmond. Beauregard would only be wasted in such passivity, he’ll be wherever they decide to mount their offensive.”
“And this General Lee?” Joinville persisted.
“Robert E. Lee,” McClellan snapped the paper down in derision, “they call him Granny Lee, the King of Spades, over there,” he made a brief nod northwest, “for his propensity to dig in wherever he goes.”
“A defensive specialist, then?” Joinville looked across the room for confirmation.
“Damn fine engineer,” Baldy Smith, as usual the voice of moderation, “built the St. Louis levees, Fort Pulaski, commanded West -”
“Defense, defense, defense,” Porter interrupted what would have been a lengthy curriculum vitae with a combination of dismissiveness and final judgment.
“Don’t forget flood control,” I added in a mutter – to smiles from Joinville and Baldy, a short scowl from Fitzy and a blank stare from Mac.
“So, this Lee -” Joinville, falsely optimistic he would be allowed to complete a sentence.
“Is timid, cautious to a fault,” Mac, smiling to diffuse the cutting off of royalty, “cannot perform under heavy responsibility,” he took a breath, then a sip of coffee while he held the room, “and he is most certainly not as resolute as Joseph E – if he’s resolute at all.”
“Where’s this coming from, Mac?” Baldy asked with a disarming chuckle, “Lee was a whirlwind in Mexico, he -”
“Wasn’t in command, was he?” Porter, rhetorically.
McClellan’s hand made a sweeping motion of agreement, “Oh, the man is brave and energetic to a fault . . . but he wants in moral firmness, the ability to act – rest assured, gentlemen, he shall shortly rue those faults.”
“We are attacking then?” Baldy asked, tossed a knowing look my way – or what I took to be a knowing look.
“Soon, I’ve asked for McCall’s division to be rushed up, make up our loses, keep the odds where they are. I’ve already ordered the siege guns up from Yorktown . . . “ He let that hang while he went back to his coffee.
“And then?” Baldy, out of coffee himself and in a peculiarly irritable mood.
“We push forward, reduce their lines, works, take Richmond,” Mac relayed as if still the railroad president discoursing on a new line, then seemed to realize it and added, “oh, Lee’s a fine engineer, it won’t be easy, but it’s down to science and mathematics now and they’re both in our favor from here on in.”
“That’s a hell of a sweeping statement, Mac,” Baldy pointed out.
“Makes it no less true,” Mac breezily replied while his eyes burned into General Smith.
“They’ve a lot of troops behind those works,” Fitz John endeavored to enlighten further, flushed by Mac’s confidence, “once we tighten our grip I’ve no doubt they’ll begin to draw them away as the inevitable becomes apparent – we’ll take Richmond, regroup, go out and meet Beauregard, end the damn thing.”
“Why do we want Richmond if we leave their army intact?” I said slowly with at least some of the deference the lowest ranking, non-royal, man in the room should display.
“Willie,” Mac, almost kindly, “it’s their capitol.”
I ignored the patronizing tone, “Right, and if their army escapes, what do we accomplish beyond possibly embarrassing them in Europe?”
“They won’t surrender,” Baldy picked up my torch, “not while they have an army – hell, armies. This isn’t about cities, Mac, else the war in the west would have ended when New Orleans fell.”
“New Orleans isn’t a capitol,” Porter petulantly pointed out.
“Napoleon took Moscow,” I was not about to be deterred, “how’d that work out?” Joinville dipped his mug in my direction.
“This isn’t Russia,” Porter helpfully explained, “our enemy speaks our language, their land is our land, they’ll be no scorched earth tactics here,” he shook his handsome, woolly head, smiled widely, “you always complicate things, you know that, Willie?”
“Always throwing history at us,” Mac seconded, “I think you sometimes forget we are making it.”
“As long as we’re not repeating it,” I persisted to frowns and a change of subject – the scintillating topic of siege warfare. Baldy was trapped – as the grim look he sported clearly attested; Joinville and I were not and quietly muttered polite excuses and efficiently escaped.
Outside in a cloudy, completely still, somewhat ominous morning we walked down a farmer’s lane, deserted farmhouse to the left, an old graveyard to the right, a crudely lettered sign over the entrance: ‘COME ALONG YANK – THERE’S PLENTY OF ROOM TO BURY YOU’.
“Why is that still up?” Joinville asked.
“It appeals to the soldiers’ fatalistic sense of humor,’ I said fatalistically.
“Does it?” He asked dubiously, “Or is it just you?”
“I’m not in charge of graveyard protocol.”
“Perhaps no one is, hence the continued existence of that troubling sign.”
“It troubles me a mere sign troubles you so.”
He waved that away with a Gallic eyebrow raise and sigh, “I do not believe I have ever heard General McClellan speak so . . . uncomplimentary about a rebel officer.”
I stopped for a moment to consider, “Now that you mention it, it’s an odium usually reserved for Tom Jackson – he of non-aristocratic birth.”
I laughed without mirth, “The most base of all reasons to deride the gifted – envy.”
“Envy?” He seemed shocked our general could suffer base emotion.
“Sure, it’s an emotion we mortals not in line to accede to thrones are prone to.”
“You know, William, I heard a wonderfully descriptive colloquialism the other day that I think does you justice.”
“Keep talking to the rank and file and they won’t let you back in France.”
“That is not a current concern, unfortunately,” he said wistfully, “now why would George be jealous of this Lee?”
“You mean aside the fact he is tall, extraordinarily handsome, from the oldest Virginia stock, son of a Revolutionary hero of the first order, married to George Washington’s great-granddaughter, wealthy – ”
“This going to continue much longer?”
“Absolutely,” I assured him, “the perfect cadet – grades, disciplinary record that will never be equaled; brilliant engineer; hero of Cerro Gordo; list of escapades worthy of Dumas.”
“Impressive,” Joinville agreed, “Yet – “
“After Sumter,” I figured the good prince was used to being interrupted at that point, “with Scott’s strong recommendation, Lincoln offered Lee command of all Union forces.”
“He turned down George’s position,” comprehension began to dawn, “and was Scott’s choice to succeed him.”
“Would have personally draped the mantle over Lee’s shoulders.”
“That is – “
“Joinville,” I said with force, held his eyes, “you cannot possibly underestimate what Scott was – the ‘First Soldier of the United States’ in name, fact, myth. A little luck, he could have been president. And Lee was the Chosen One, the favored son.”
“I understand, William,” he averred with a touch of pique at my over-explanation, “though I am confused – “
“I am confused,” he spit with a dirty glance, “such accolades, such … respect and yet …”
“Mac thinks he’s weak,” I thoughtfully filled in the pause.
“Well, he’s not,” I said with resignation, “unless somewhere between Mexico City and here he lost his audacity and smarts.”
“Scott didn’t think so.”
“What about you?”
“Then our general – “
“May be as wrong about Lee as he was about Tom Jackson.”
“That could prove troubling.”
“The word of the day, Prince.”