McClellan and Me


Although this sounds like the title of a children’s book, it isn’t.  It was yet another lesson from history that smacked me in the face in the middle of yesterday’s snowy run.  As 2013 was winding down, I was facing two major issues.  One, is the refocusing from being a full time engineer and part time doctoral student to a full time doctoral student.  Second was letting go of all the fear and insecurity that goes with this change.  It reminded me of a history lesson from the American Civil War.  When I realized what I am about to write, I was a bit ashamed at my forgetfulness. 

In late July 1861, two large and very inexperienced armies collided in northern Virginia about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.  The Confederate forces were defending on some hills whereas the Union forces approached and began to get the upper hand.  The soldiers were green although some of the generals were experienced from the Mexican War.  As you may know, the Union forces pressed against the Confederate forces and were on the verge of winning this first major battle.  Instead, like two drunken strutting boys fighting, the one pushed up against the wall, beaten and bloodied, stood his ground and punched hard right back.  The seeming victor then fell back a step and turned and ran.  This is how the First Battle of Bull Run ended – with the Union forces collapsing in a rout and running all the way back to D.C., in what came to be known as the Great Skedaddle.  The Confederate forces were so exhausted and green they couldn’t pursue the enemy to Washington and possibly win the war. 

With the Union forces in the east broken, their general was fired and a new one was brought in.  That new general was George McClellan.  He remade that army in the remainder of 1861.  He was a veteran and a master at planning and training.  He gave the Union army of the Potomac back their pride and made them professionals. 

In the spring of 1862, the Confederate forces in the east were in trouble.  40,000 Union troops were unleashed in the Shenandoah Valley, about 150 west of the Confederate capital of Richmond, and some 100,000 more landed at Yorktown, VA.  Both armies were to converge at Richmond, decisively destroy the enemy, and end the war.  But a very capable and brilliant tactician, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, tied up the 40,000 troops in the west and defeated them in detail over a period of two months.

Meanwhile, the vast planning and training that McClellan had instilled in his army was almost for naught.  For two months, the Union forces took forever it seemed to march up the James Peninsula and attack Richmond.  He was convinced he was outnumbered.  A Lincoln cabinet member said “If I gave him a million men, he would sit back down in the mud and convince himself the enemy had two million.”  The Union forces actually far outnumbered their enemy but they took too long, held back too much, and McClellan’s caution proved to be a burden.  He was replaced and the next general, who was much more aggressive, nearly lost the army in a massive battle in August of 1862.  McClellan was brought back and seemed determined to destroy Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee decided to invade the North and hopefully win a strategic victory on northern soil and perhaps persuade Britain and France to join in the war on the side of the South.  But history doesn’t always go according to plan.  A copy of Lee’s detailed marching orders fell into the hands of the Union forces.  McClellan did understand the need to move swiftly and use the plans to defeat Lee since Lee had split his smaller army into three widely spaced columns.  McClellan was quoted as saying, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”  However, the Union army continued to move too slowly to take advantage of the details.  Eventually by mid-September, both armies faced each other.  Lee hastily assembled his army, with the exception of 3,300 troops, on a low hill with the Potomac River at his back and Antietam creek to the front.  It was not the best arrangement but Lee could only hope for the best and pray that McClellan acted as Lee hoped, “he is a capable by very cautious general.”  Lee’s assessment was nice as it turned out.   Lee’s remaining troops were 17 miles away at Harper’s Ferry and were rushing to march to the Confederate position.  But it was too late.

On the morning of September 17, 1862, the Union forces started the battle with a massive attack on the Confederate force’s left flank.  From dawn until about 10:30 am, the battle swayed back and forth and the Rebels nearly broke.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Union army did nothing.  They were ordered to stay put which allowed the Rebels to shift forces to the left and repel the Union forces back.  It was close and the Rebels were shaken.  Jackson, around 11 in the morning said, “God has been merciful to us this day,” while 8,000 of his troops lay as casualties on the field.  He knew, as Lee knew, it could have been worse. 

Around 11am, the Union forces stopped the attack on the left and came up to split the Confederate center.  And nearly split them they did.  After taking heavy losses, the Union forces crushed the defenses in “Bloody Lane” and were repelled only because McClellan, again, refused to commit his superior forces to support the breakthroughs on either the left or the center.

Around 3 in the afternoon, the battle again shifted.  This time to the right flank.  Any fool could have seen it coming and the Union forces had to get across a bridge that was in the line of sight of Confederate forces.  After about an hour and a half, the Union forces got across the bridge and were starting to make some headway when the 3,300 rebels from Harpers Ferry arrived and drive them back.  As night fell, it was clear that both armies were bloodied but the Rebels held the field.

McClellan was convinced again that he was outnumbered even though indications were strong that he wasn’t.  One of his own generals stated his entire corps outnumbered the entire Rebel army facing him.  Although it was an exaggeration, the thought was accurate:  McClellan had the numbers and firepower to win.  He simply didn’t fully commit to the battle.  And this was his fatal flaw.  Shortly after the battle, he was permanently replaced. 

In the movie, “Gettysburg,” there was a scene where Lee was riding his First Corp Commander, General Longstreet.  He told him something, probably for the benefit of the viewer, that McClellan never understood.  “To be a good soldier, you have to love the army.  To be a good commander, you have to be willing to commit the thing you love to death.  And that is the great trick.  When you fight, hold nothing back.  You have to totally commit.”

I don’t know why I was replaying this battle in my head.  I must have been zoning out trying not to think of my freezing hands or something.  But it did come to me.  For several years, I have been working as a full-time engineer and a part-time graduate student.  I did my Masters this way.  And I have been slogging my way through my Doctorate the same way.  I saved money.  I planned as best as I could.  I started getting my confidence that I could do this after a couple of rough classes. 

Then I lost my job, two actually.  Neither was my fault but just bad luck.  I was scared of losing my savings, my house, my feeling of security, my schooling, everything.  In a sense, I had become my own McClellan.  I was convinced of all the dangers and was fighting cautiously to hold my pursuits and my security at the same time.  I had split my forces and committing them piecemeal like McClellan at Antietam.  When I realized this, I was on a hill running through several inches of snow with a totally grey sky with light, fine snowflakes falling.  And in that moment, I was both ashamed and relieved.  I was ashamed to realize that I became someone that failed when it really mattered.  I was relieved that I had committed to a more aggressive and risky endeavor in the last few weeks.  Savings be dammed.  Stop worrying about everything. Worry about a job later.  Worry about losing the house later, after this year’s scholastic goal is completed.  Don’t fear the big changes.  Time is running out.  I’m 43 and not getting younger.  The future is still bright. 

I have done everything I can to do this doctorate.  But all my planning has come apart this year.  I have lost two jobs and still have this massive amount of work to do before being ready for the dissertation.  The graduate research and dissertation work are starting to blend together and the time for half measures and cautious fighting are over.  It has to be total commitment for now.  No more piecemeal efforts and fear of what might be.  You can’t win by planning alone.  One needs to plan AND execute a fierce effort with everything.  McClellan needs to go by the wayside and a new general needs to take over. 

I learned all this years ago in war readings and military classes.  Why and more importantly, how could I forget all this?  And on the return leg of my run, another general came to mind:  Sherman.

You may remember Sherman as the general that was given a match and made Georgia burn.  Like McClellan he was a master of planning.  But he was unlike McClellan in he was a fighter.  He wasn’t the best at it and he nearly lost his army by committing it at the wrong time and the wrong place.  But he recovered, destroyed the Confederate western armies, sacked Atlanta, and marched to the sea.  He, as much as Grant in the east, won the Civil War.  It took planning, luck, flexibility, and the courage to commit everything and be ready to lose it all.

And this may be where I am now with my doctorate.  Part-time may no longer work at least for now.  I need a full-time commitment to get through to completing a very large objective.  Onto Richmond.  Onto Atlanta.  With a bit of luck, skill, and effort, I may make it.  At least I got the right mindset in place.  McClellan is fired.  Sherman is hired.  Gimme a match.  Let’s light a fire and force a march!

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