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UPDATE: Check out Ethan Rafuse's response at the end of this article!
Major General George B. McClellan's candid letters to his wife and peevish exchanges with Union Army General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck during the Second Bull Run Campaign chronicle the Army of the Potomac commander's disingenuousness—and also underscore his shocking unwillingness to support a fellow Federal officer in peril. That sorry state of affairs led directly to the Union defeat at Manassas in late August 1862.
McClellan had started off the Northern war effort that spring with great promise when his Peninsula Campaign reached the outskirts of Richmond. But Robert E. Lee's aggressive Rebel counterthrust had pushed McClellan back during the Seven Days' Battles, and by early July the Army of the Potomac was cooling its heels at Harrison's Landing on the James River.
To try to keep the Rebels off balance and counter McClellan's lack of success, the Northern high command created the Army of Virginia in late June, assigning Maj. Gen. John Pope as its commander and ordering him to put pressure on Richmond from the west. President Abraham Lincoln also hoped Pope and McClellan would cooperate. But thanks to McClellan, that would be a forlorn hope.
On July 10, McClellan wrote his wife Mary Ellen that he actually saw an upside to his failure to capture the Southern capital: "If I had succeeded in taking Richmond now the fanatics of the North might have been too powerful & reunion impossible. However that may be I am sure that it is all for the best." The next day he wrote her that supporters had been urging him to "march on Washington & assume the Govt!!"
On July 18, again writing Mary Ellen, McClellan expressed his disloyalty to the Lincoln administration and determination to fight only for policies he approved of: "I owe no gratitude to any but my own soldiers here—none to the Govt or to the country. I have done my best for my country—I expect nothing in return—they are my debtors, not I theirs…." On the 20th, after learning that Henry Halleck had been appointed general-in-chief of the Union Army, McClellan threatened: "I cannot remain permanently in the army after this slight. I must of course stick to this army so long as I am necessary to it, or until the Govt adopts a policy in regard to the war that I cannot conscientiously affirm…."
Meanwhile Pope had moved his 45,000-man army across the Rapidan River toward Gordonsville and the Virginia Central Railroad—a maneuver that could trap Lee's army between McClellan's forces and his own. In response, Lee sent generals "Stonewall" Jackson and then A.P. Hill away from Richmond and toward Pope.
When Halleck conferred with McClellan in Virginia on July 26, McClellan told him that with 20,000 reinforcements he could resume the offensive against Lee's "200,000" troops. But by the time Halleck returned to Washington, McClellan had written changing the number of reinforcements he envisioned needing to between 50,000 and 55,000. At that point Halleck realized a merger of McClellan and Pope's armies was imperative. On July 30, Halleck ordered McClellan to evacuate his sick and wounded from the Peninsula, and on August 3 the general-in-chief ordered him to immediately move his troops to support Pope on the Rappahannock River line.
But even before McClellan received that order he had decided not to obey it. On July 31 he told Mary Ellen, "if they send me the order I dread I will make one last desperate appeal before obeying it & then let matters take their course…."
That same day Halleck ordered Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, at Newport News, to join Pope on the Rappahannock. Burnside reported the following day that his troops were rapidly embarking and would arrive at Aquia Creek the next day.
Halleck found McClellan far less responsive. On August 3, Halleck again telegraphed McClellan to move his army, but McClellan responded: "Your telegram…caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced, for I am convinced that the order to withdraw this Army to Aquia Creek will prove disastrous…."
McClellan requested the order be rescinded and asked to be reinforced, adding, "If my counsel does not prevail I will with a sad heart obey your orders to the utmost of my power…." The next day Halleck responded that the order would not be rescinded, and on the 6th told McClellan, "I have no re-enforcements to send you." That same day Halleck also wrote: "You, general, certainly could not have been more pained at receiving my order than I was at the necessity of issuing it," then added that with "200,000" troops between McClellan's 90,000 and Pope's 40,000, Lee posed a serious risk. Halleck reasoned, "You are 30 miles from Richmond and General Pope 80 or 90, with the enemy directly between you, ready to fall with his superior numbers upon one or the other, as he may elect." McClellan's own inflated estimates of Confederate strength were now working against him.
From August 4 to 7, McClellan did not move. On August 8, he wrote Mary Ellen that the withdrawal orders were "as bad as they can be & that I regard them as almost fatal to our cause." He told her that he was trying to induce the enemy to attack him so that he could "beat them & follow them up to Richmond." He added, "I shall of course obey the orders unless the enemy gives me a very good opening…."
On August 7, Halleck pleaded, "I must beg of you, general, to hurry along this movement…." In an August 10 telegram, the general-in-chief again urged quick action: "The enemy is crossing the Rapidan in large force….There must be no further delay in your movements" and asked Little Mac to explain his delay.
Shortly thereafter, McClellan told Mary Ellen: "I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week—& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be—such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him….." Explaining his plan to move on Richmond in defiance of his orders, he added, "If I succeed in my coup everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet…."
Given that McClellan's perceived enemies were Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Halleck, his statement—as well as his plan to disobey his orders—seemingly bordered on treason. Though McClellan explained to Mary Ellen that he was reluctantly giving up his plan to attack Richmond, he gleefully anticipated having the last laugh: "I think the result of their machinations will be that Pope will be badly thrashed within two days & that they will be very glad to turn over the redemption of their affairs to me." McClellan was hoping for a Union defeat.
The Army of Northern Virginia, meanwhile was on the move while McClellan's troops still sat at Harrison's Landing. Lee had sent "Stonewall" Jackson's Wing to the northwest, where it tangled with and defeated a portion of Pope's army at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Lee then followed Jackson with Longstreet's Wing, arriving in Gordonsville on August 15. After Rebel troopers captured plans for McClellan's reinforcement of Pope's forces during a raid on Catlett Station, Lee realized he needed to keep moving quickly before he faced the united Union forces. By August 24, Lee had devised a daring plan for Jackson to sweep around Pope's right flank that would leave Pope desperate for reinforcements.
On August 12, as the Confederates were in the midst of their shift to the west, an impatient Halleck complained to McClellan that "nearly every available steam vessel in the country" was at McClellan's disposal and he could see no reason why the Army of the Potomac was not on the move. Responding that night, McClellan claimed that his army could not be moved in less than a month, adding: "If Washington is in danger now this army can scarcely arrive in time to save it. It is in much better position to do so from here than from Aquia."
Halleck promptly rejoined: "According to your own accounts, there is now no difficulty in withdrawing your forces. Do so with all possible rapidity." At 11 p.m. on August 14, McClellan wired Halleck, "Movement has commenced by land and water." It had taken him more than 15 days to evacuate his sick and more than 11 days to start moving toward Pope.
By August 20, McClellan had finally reached Fort Monroe. The next day he gloated in a letter to Mary Ellen: "I believe I have triumphed! Just received a telegram from Halleck stating that Pope and Burnside are very hard pressed—urging me to push forward reinforcements, & to come myself as soon as I possibly can!…Now they are in trouble they seem to want the 'Quaker,' the 'procrastinator,' the 'coward' & the 'traitor'!"
Writing on August 22, McClellan told his wife: "I think they are pretty well scared in Washn & probably with good reason. I am confident that the disposition to be made of me will depend entirely upon the state of their nerves in Washn….Their sending for me to go to Washn only indicates a temporary alarm—if they are at all reassured you will see that they will soon get rid of me." The next day he added: "I take it for granted that my orders will be as disagreeable as it is possible to make them—unless Pope is beaten, in which case they may want me to save Washn again. Nothing but their fear will induce them to give me any command of importance or to treat me otherwise than with discourtesy…."
On August 26, Stonewall had started his 24,000 "foot cavalry" northwest from the Rappahannock on a long march to Salem, Va., then headed east through Thoroughfare Gap in the Blue Ridge. They marched 54 miles in 36 hours. Confederate cavalry captured Bristoe Station by the evening of August 26, cutting Pope's communications with Washington and clearing the way to attack the Union supply depot at Manassas. By early on the 28th, Jackson's men were hidden behind an unfinished railroad cut north of the old Manassas battlefield, awaiting Lee's arrival.
Pope rushed back toward Manassas hoping to trap Jackson. But Jackson's force launched a surprise attack on the Union troops in the Battle of Brawner's Farm on August 28, a small fight that would draw Pope into a larger battle on Lee's terms. Lee and Longstreet advanced with 30,000 troops through Thoroughfare Gap on the morning of the 29th. When Longstreet's Wing came onto the field that morning, they extended Jackson's line to the south, a dangerous and hidden threat to Pope.
Pope launched a series of costly frontal assaults on Jackson's troops on August 29, as Longstreet was getting into position. Jackson's troops rebuffed the attacks.
McClellan could have been there to help Pope, but he deliberately failed him. McClellan had moved north to Alexandria by August 27 and reported to Mary Ellen that he had heard a general engagement was probable that day or the next near Warrenton. That same morning Halleck gave him the first of six direct orders to move some of his own troops toward the scene of the expected battle. In a 10 a.m. telegram, Halleck ordered McClellan to have Brig. Gen. William Franklin's VI Corps march in the direction of Manassas "as soon as possible." McClellan responded that he had sent orders to Franklin "to prepare to march with his corps at once" and to report to McClellan about his transportation. Halleck put McClellan in charge of sending troops out from Alexandria, not realizing that Franklin's corps had not yet marched.
After receiving copies of dispatches stating that a major battle was imminent, McClellan recommended to Halleck that Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner's II Corps be transferred from Aquia to Alexandria "to move out with Franklin to Centreville or vicinity…." Early that same afternoon Halleck approved bringing up Sumner's corps, which otherwise could have marched directly toward Manassas without coming under McClellan's direction. Had McClellan promptly moved those 25,000 troops from Alexandria to Manassas, he could have enhanced Pope's chances for victory.
At noon on the 27th, as Jackson was moving from Manassas to the railroad cut, Halleck advised McClellan of the enemy's location and repeated his earlier order to get Franklin's corps moving. That afternoon McClellan sent a barrage of telegrams stating why he could not or should not do as ordered. Halleck responded: "As you must be aware, more than three-quarters of my time is taken up with the raising of new troops and matters in the West. I have no time for details. You will therefore, as ranking general in the field, direct as you deem best…." McClellan then chose to ignore the earlier orders to advance Franklin and Sumner.
At 6 p.m. on the 27th, McClellan reported to Halleck that he had received a copy of Pope's 10 a.m. wire to Halleck requesting all forces be sent to Pope's right, northwest of Manassas. McClellan said that he had 12,800 men and the 1st Connecticut Artillery, which he recommended keeping for the defense of Washington. He added, however, his men were ready to move "at a moment's notice to any point you may indicate." Halleck did not respond. He may have thought his earlier two orders to advance Franklin were sufficient, particularly since McClellan had received a request from Pope about the destination of reinforcements. He may also have assumed that McClellan was acting in good faith. He would soon find out otherwise.
Later on the morning of the 28th, McClellan wired Halleck that Pope should retreat to Washington—which seems to have alerted the general-in-chief to McClellan's disobedience of earlier orders. Halleck then took matters into his own hands, wiring Franklin at 12:40 p.m. "to move with your corps to-day toward Manassas Junction, to drive the enemy from the railroad." A defiant McClellan responded to Halleck 20 minutes later that "The moment Franklin can be started with a reasonable amount of artillery he shall go." At 3:30 Halleck wired him back, "Not a moment must be lost in pushing as large a force as possible toward Manassas, so as to communicate with Pope before the enemy is re-enforced."
McClellan still did not budge. At 4:10 that afternoon he telegraphed Halleck that Franklin was still in no condition to move but might be the next morning, adding that Pope should cut through to Washington. Following his receipt of Halleck's "not a moment must be lost" wire, McClellan defied his commander once again, responding: "Your dispatch received. Neither Franklin nor Sumner's corps is now in condition to move and fight a battle. It would be a sacrifice to send them out now."
While fighting flared at Brawner's Farm that evening (August 28), the situation deteriorated. At 7:40 p.m. Halleck wired McClellan: "There must be no further delay in moving Franklin's corps toward Manassas. They must go to-morrow morning, ready or not ready. If we delay too long to get ready there will be no necessity to go at all, for Pope will either be defeated or be victorious without our aid." At 10 p.m. McClellan replied that Franklin's corps had been ordered to march at 6 a.m. He also reported that Sumner's 14,000 infantry had arrived with no artillery or cavalry and would be held awaiting further orders. He specifically stated, "If you wish any of them to move toward Manassas please inform me." Just 51⁄2 hours earlier Halleck had ordered him not to lose a minute in forwarding as many troops as possible toward Manassas, orders McClellan had disobeyed.
As Pope attacked Jackson on the morning of August 29, McClellan reported that Franklin's corps was finally in motion, adding: "Meagher's brigade [part of Sumner's corps] is still at Aquia. If he moves in support of Franklin, it leaves us without any reliable troops in and near Washington. Yet Franklin is too weak alone. What shall be done?"
Less than three hours later, McClellan opined to Halleck, "I really think [Franklin] ought not under present circumstances, to advance beyond Annandale," less than halfway to Manassas. Halleck objected: "I want Franklin's corps to go far enough to find out something about the enemy….Our people must move more actively and find out where the enemy is. I am tired of guesses."
That afternoon, while the fighting raged at Manassas, Lincoln telegraphed McClellan: "What news from direction of Mannassas [sic] Junction?" Clearly hoping to have Lincoln second-guess Halleck's orders, McClellan told the president he had reports the enemy was retiring, then outlined the options as he saw them and requested orders: "I am clear that one of two courses should be adopted—1st To concentrate all our available forces to open communication with Pope—2nd To leave Pope to get out of his scrape & at once use all our means to make the Capital perfectly safe. No middle course will now answer. Tell me what you wish me to do & I will do all in my power to accomplish it. I wish to know what my orders & authority are—I ask for nothing, but will obey whatever orders you give. I only ask a prompt decision that I may at once give the necessary orders. It will not do to delay longer."
McClellan was asking the president for new orders despite the fact that for the last three days Halleck had been specifically ordering him to move toward Pope. Lincoln cautiously responded that the first alternative was best, but deferred to Halleck. Ultimately, McClellan halted Franklin's corps at Annandale, within hearing of the fighting at Manassas.
Late on the afternoon of the 29th, as Lee and Longstreet discussed when to send in Longstreet's troops, McClellan sent Halleck a defiant message: "Before receiving the President's message I had put Sumner's corps in motion toward Arlington and the Chain Bridge [north and northwest instead of west toward Manassas], not having received any reply from you. The movement is still under your control in either direction, though now under progress, as stated."
At 7:50 p.m. on August 29, an angry Halleck wired McClellan: "I have just been told that Franklin's corps stopped at Annandale, and that he was this evening in Alexandria. This is all contrary to my orders; investigate and report the facts of this disobedience. That corps must push forward, as I directed."
Responding at 8 p.m., McClellan said, "It was not safe for Franklin to move beyond Annandale, under the circumstances, until we knew what was at Vienna." He admitted Franklin had been with him until 1 p.m. arranging for supplies—proof that the corps commander had not moved with his troops when they supposedly marched at 6 a.m. He added: "Please give distinct orders in reference to Franklin's movements of to-morrow….In regard to tomorrow's movements I desire definite instructions as it is not agreeable to me to be accused of disobeying orders when I have simply exercised the discretion you committed to me."
The climax of Second Bull Run came on the afternoon of August 30, when Pope ordered an all-out attack on Jackson. Longstreet, however, launched a full-scale infantry assault of his own, sweeping the Federals from the field.
Following the catastrophe at Manassas, Lincoln had to decide who would command Union forces in the East. Speaking to his cabinet, the president characterized McClellan's behavior as "shocking" and "atrocious." But over their almost unanimous opposition Lincoln placed McClellan in command of all Washington-area troops.
His rationale? Lincoln believed McClellan was needed in that time of chaos because of his organizational skills. He told John Hay, "McClellan has acted badly in this matter, but we must use what tools we have." Little Mac had repeatedly disobeyed orders, and was perhaps guilty of a bit of treason. But he had achieved his goal. He was in charge.
Little Mac Acting Badly?—A Response
In the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times, Edward H. Bonekemper III laid out a powerful indictment of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan for his conduct during the Second Manassas Campaign. Lamentably, while generally correct that August 1862 was a dark episode in McClellan's military career—and indeed the entire Civil War—in his zeal to condemn the general, Bonekemper omits several important points that must be taken into account; not to exonerate McClellan, but to provide a more complete and balanced understanding of the whole episode.
First, Bonekemper's analysis seems to be based on a presumption that the task of transferring tens of thousands of men to northern Virginia was merely a matter of will, rather than a complex operation that required time and could not just be improvised on the spot. There is, to be sure, no question that McClellan was unenthusiastic about the order to leave Harrison's Landing and transfer his command back to northern Virginia. He had good reason to be. As would be demonstrated by Ulysses S. Grant's operations in 1864-65, the James River really was the best line of operations for the Union army in Virginia. Union naval superiority ensured secure logistics, the operational initiative and the relative freedom to maneuver and operate both north and south of the great river, while giving Confederate armies limited ability for maneuver. Indeed, these factors would lead Robert E. Lee to develop a decided preference for operating in northern and central Virginia, where Confederate armies would have room to take advantage of the greater maneuverability that smaller armies enjoy and the fact that Federal operational flexibility would be limited by dependence on railroads—all of which would be vividly illustrated by the Second Manassas Campaign.
Of course, even if he was right and Washington was wrong on the merits of the case, it was McClellan's duty to obey orders as promptly as was feasible. Did he? Bonekemper argues no, seemingly on the premise that if the general had just been agreeable, the rapid transfer of the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula to northern Virginia was something that could be improvised at the proverbial snap of a finger.
It is an old axiom that "amateurs talk strategy, while professionals talk logistics," but one that it seems worthwhile to keep in mind here. Even had McClellan been enthusiastic about the operation, and however simple it may seem on a map to pick up and move tens of thousands of men and their materiel from Harrison's Landing to northern Virginia, in the real world such a thing cannot be improvised or done quickly. After all, even when McClellan was in a better frame of mind regarding the wisdom of the move, it took weeks to plan and execute the transfer of the Army of the Potomac to the tip of the Peninsula in March-April 1862. (Serious planning began in late February, execution began in mid-March, and operations against Yorktown by three corps began in early April.) That it would take weeks in August 1862 to get the army back to northern Virginia and actively engaged in operations distinguished by a high degree of fluidity is hardly unreasonable, especially in light of the fact that four corps (not counting Ambrose Burnside's command) were making the move instead of three; they started the movement farther up the Peninsula and much closer to the enemy, and part of the army engaged during this time in operations against Malvern Hill and Coggins Point. Indeed, the difficulty of the logistical task is suggested by the fact that for all the deliberation that went into the move from the Peninsula that so tried Lincoln's and Halleck's patience in 1862 (and Bonekemper's in 2010), quartermasters were still laboring to sort out baggage in Alexandria after Lee's army had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland in early September.
Bonekemper is on much more solid ground in his condemnation of McClellan's controversial handling of William B. Franklin's corps. Upon reaching Alexandria on August 27 McClellan was well aware of what his superiors wanted, and unquestionably dragged his feet on complying. Moreover, to his eternal discredit, McClellan was clearly content to leave Pope and, more important, thousands of Union soldiers out to dry. (And if any general in 1862 could testify to what it felt like to be left to "twist in the wind," it was McClellan. After all, it was the very same president who complained about McClellan's conduct during the Second Manassas Campaign who had withheld troops during the Peninsula Campaign—and arguably for far less cause and with greater effects on the course and outcome of the campaign.) Then, of course, there was the smug satisfaction with which McClellan picked up his army after Second Manassas and stood by while John Pope was personally humiliated at Upton's Hill on September 2.
Nonetheless, a full and truly fair assessment of this episode requires acknowledgment of the fact that, for all the ugliness in his writings and personal conduct during this time, McClellan in fact had legitimate military grounds for his handling of Franklin's command and a sound operational argument for having Pope move toward his reinforcements rather than vice versa. For the Federals, arguably the most important thing to accomplish from an operational standpoint in August 1862 was to unify Pope's and McClellan's forces before the Confederates could take advantage of their interior lines to defeat Pope. Whether that task was completed on the Manassas or Centreville side of Bull Run, from a purely military standpoint, was not especially significant.
Moreover, the hazards of acting against one's better judgment in sending forces out to Pope was vividly illustrated by two important incidents in the last week of August; neither of which Bonekemper mentions but had to be critical in shaping McClellan's thinking. The first involved Fitz John Porter's corps. When it reached Aquia Creek, McClellan promptly sent it marching north and west to link up with Pope along the Rappahannock River. However, when Porter reached the point where he and McClellan had been told they would find elements from Pope's army, they found it abandoned. We now know that this was a consequence of Pope's effort to respond to the opportunity presented by part of Jackson's command being for a time isolated and trapped on the Federal side of the river, that Federal authorities elsewhere were ignorant of this because the Catlett's Station raid had prevented this information from being fully reported to Washington and (there being no direct communication between Falmouth and Pope) forwarded to Aquia Creek, and no harm was done to Porter's command. But, being ignorant of much of this at the time, it would not have been at all surprising for doubts to be planted or reinforced in McClellan's mind about the wisdom of sending forces out to Pope and for him to be intensely skeptical moving forward about the reliability of assurances that it could be done safely.
While the problems Porter encountered as he marched to join Pope resulted in no serious harm to his command, the same could not be said of what happened to George Taylor's brigade on August 27. That morning, Federal authorities dispatched Taylor's brigade from Alexandria to investigate disturbances in the vicinity of Manassas Junction. Taylor then promptly stumbled into an ambush by Stonewall Jackson's command that pulverized his command. That those who argued there was no significant force between Alexandria and Centreville were correct on August 29 is evident to us today. But after Porter's and Taylor's experiences—and the fact that the Confederates had twice in less than a week gotten a considerable force into Pope's rear to interpose themselves between him and Washington—McClellan could certainly be forgiven for doubting assurances that sending Franklin out from Alexandria would be a hazard-free endeavor and acting conservatively.
Then, of course, there is the question of whether Franklin's command would have done any good had McClellan fully complied with the wishes of his superiors. Would its arrival on August 28 or 29 have tipped the tide of battle on the plains of Manassas in Pope's favor? It is impossible to answer this question with any degree of certainty, but it is hard to see how the presence of another corps could have hurt Federal prospects at Second Manassas. At the same time, Pope appears to have had more than enough force on hand without Franklin to avoid being driven from the field at Second Manassas—at least until Irvin McDowell stripped the Federal position south of the Warrenton Turnpike just as James Longstreet began his assault on August 30. (I further addressed the particular matter of Pope's conduct and merits, unavoidably going further into the subject of McClellan's conduct, in a January 2006 guest post on Eric Wittenberg's blog, which can be found here: http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=94.)
Of course, you cannot escape the fact that, right or wrong, McClellan should have complied with the clearly expressed wishes of his superiors in regard to Franklin's corps. That Halleck unwisely gave him discretion on the matter at a critical moment is to Halleck's discredit; and given that Halleck's appointment—indeed, the whole lousy situation in August 1862—was Lincoln's call, to the president's discredit as well. When a guy clearly objects to something you have told him to do and then you give him discretion in the matter . . . what do you think he is going to do? Then, add in the fact that the thing you want the guy to do is against his professional judgment, involves supporting a policy turn he has made abundantly clear he believes will be to the detriment of the country and cause, and involves helping another individual whose appointment and conduct since his appointment had been one calculated personal and professional insult after another. In light of all of this, are we really supposed to be shocked that McClellan, given sufficient cause (which he was), adopted the wrong–but nonetheless operationally defensible—course of action he did?
In sum, Bonekemper is correct that McClellan (in Lincoln's words) "acted badly" in August 1862. He is also correct that the general's personal motives and interests—and the decidedly unsavory tone of his personal correspondence—are a big part of this very, very sad story. They are not, however, the entire story. If a truly fair assessment is to be made of McClellan's conduct (warts and all) a more comprehensive understanding of the factors at work must be provided than what is offered in Bonekemper's essay.
Ed Bonekemper, author of McClellan and Failure, teaches at Muhlenberg College. This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. Ethan S. Rafuse is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the author of McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union (2005).
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