18 April 2006
As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading Edwin C. Fishel’s The Secret War for the Union : The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). In particular, I was hoping to gain some insight into how General McClellan arrived at the strength figures he used for General Lee’s forces in Maryland in 1862.
I’m about halfway through, just past The Battle, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to finish.
This is one dry read. You’ve got to be truly dedicated to slog through it. It is a book which could have used a strong editor. I’d say 1/2 to 2/3 of the text is redundant or otherwise unnecessary. There is little structure – the book has been one seemingly endless, chronological string of anectodes and factoids.
There are gems of new and important discovery, but they play hard-to-get. I’m probably going to miss many by not staying to the end.
That aside, how did McClellan come to a grossly inflated figure for the size of the army facing his at Sharpsburg?
All by himself.
Fishel concludes he made the numbers up. Largely out of thin air. For reasons not made clear.
As he had done since coming east in 1861, McClellan personally produced strength figures for his opponents much larger the actual. Part of the inflation was, at least early-on, an intentional strategy, meant to allow for Confederate units that must have been “missed” by his spies and scouts.
The general wasn’t operating in an vacuum, though. Since mid-1861 he had information analyzed and presented to him by Pinkerton and others.
Though there were some poor sources and bad information, Pinkerton based his early reports on rational methods like counting the enemy’s units, and got pretty close to reality. McClellan then enhanced those figures before announcing them. By mid-1862 Pinkerton was simply padding his own estimates to get to the numbers his boss wanted to see. By then he’d also stopped building them from the bottom-up, and was throwing around generalities from dubious sources.
This all sounds hard to believe, but, if true, horrifying.
[There were, of course, lots of people in September 1862 worried about a very large Confederate Army, not just McClellan]
In any case, Mr Fishel gets me no closer to understanding why George McClellan acted as he did on the Maryland Campaign. He just prompts more questions.
While I’m at it, I have a bone to pick specific to Mr Fishel’s treatment of the Maryland Campaign in Secret War . After discussing the first days of September, with juicy detail new to me, he apparently ran out of new information to share. Rather than skipping ahead, however, he plowed on, summarizing the events of the rest of the month in the same tired generalities one usually hears about the Campaign. You know the ones: how slowly General McClellan moved his army, how wily was General Lee, how nearly crushed was the Rebellion, if only … &etc.
Where did these come from? Most of the references for the Antietam chapter are to Srephen W. Sears: Landscape Turned Red (Houghton Mifflin, 1983). Next in frequency are Sears’ (ed.) Papers of George B. McClellan, and his essay The Last Word on the Lost Order. Fishel also cites the OR and McClellan Papers in parallel, but I’d bet those are as he found them cited by Sears.
Wait, there’s more. Sears wrote the forward to Fishel’s book. They have the same publisher. (Doh!)
Don’t get me wrong. I love Landscape Turned Red. An excellent story well told; in my opinion the best narrative of the battle ever. But it has some factual problems and omissions, and is hardly a primary source. Not to mention the almost pathological foaming-at-the-mouth approach Sears takes on anything McClellan.
Granted, Mr. Fishel is more spook than scholar, but this is lame.
My experience here ties in with a couple of current threads elsewhere in the ACW blogosphere. Sean and others are challenging Dimitri about his notion of the “Centennial” writers’ version of the Civil War – Stephen Sears being of that class – and Eric has recently posted about the importance of primary sources and not counting on the interpretation of your predescessors.