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.

Fishel book cover

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.

5 Responses to “Fishel: Secret War for the Union”

  1. Dimitri Rotov says:


    I reviewed Fishel’s book here long ago:

    With regard to McClellan’s estimates and Fishel, his book shows that Pinkerton achieved a very high enemy unit identification rate – something in the high eighties or low nineties percentile IIRC. He and McClellan then established an across the board fill rate for these units. It was a conservative fill rate – under 80% – and because they defined the enemy command much differently than modern historians do, it included all units accessible to Virginia’s defenders.

    You have to mine this out of Fishel. In the main text McClellan is just falsifying numbers. In the appendix analysing those numbers, Fishel tells a different story – that the high fill rates applied across all the units identified and hypothetically available, produced high estimates.

    Here’s is the trickster game historians play with McClellan on the Peninsula. They pretend that McClellan is estimating Johnston’s (or Lee’s) forces. He is not: he is identifying every unit *in theatre* that can be used against him and applying a fill rate to that unit.

    The second trick one sees ad nauseum is the attribution to McClellan of intelligence he is passing through “raw.” try to find an estimate that McClellan has produced and submitted that he endorses. That’s a very tall order.

    The reader generally is a victim of authorial misrepresentation or erroneous generalization. Meanwhile, Sears spoke about Fishel’s work and used his research before the book was published – he is a

    He is generally passing on raw intel just as he is receiving raw intel from Stanton, Curtin, Wool, whomever – and all of it is innacurate.

    Is it worth my posting on this?

    It seems arcane and people’s minds are made up.

  2. Brian Downey says:

    Thanks Dimitri,

    I could prob have skipped most of my commentary had I seen your review first. I’ll keep the book a little longer to try some of the mining you mention.

    Have no fear that it’s worth your posting on this. I appreciate it – good to have your point of view.


  3. Sean Dail says:


    Thanks for the mention. It’s true that I have been “challenging” Dimitri on his “Centennial” writers notion, but it’s mostly that I’m trying to understand what he’s saying and who he includes in the group. I follow him on Sears and I understand why, as a McClellan guy, he finds Sears’ work distasteful. But I can’t go from there to Gary Gallagher and some of the other writers that he apparently places within his “Centennial” moniker. I’ve taken it about as far as I can, but I’m hoping that Dimitri will be more specific. And coming from me that is truthfully more of a request than a challenge.


  4. Dimitri Rotov says:

    I need to do a better job explaining what I mean by “Centennial.”

  5. Dave Kelly says:


    I think Fishel’s chief contribution is to elaborate on how frustratingly amateurish the intelligence process was at that point in the war.

    McClellan and his staff apparatus gets no brownie points for their mishandling or deliberate politicizing of “raw” data. GBM was insistent on taking the indirect approach to Richmond and effectively lied to the the other members of the national command as to the level of effort required to pull off his campaign.

    To sustain the lie and “force” the administration to shift more troops to his front he insessently played with the numbers and baffled Washington; to his own regret. (Steven Newton in his Seven Pines study relates how Joe Johnston played the same game with Davis.)

    Trying to be fair to the historical characters interpreting strengths of enemy forces can easily go awry if raw data is based on such lugubrious means as pass times of columns and faulty assignations of higher order command structure. Both sides consistently overestimated strengths to the end of the war by 25-50%.
    That seems odd when all you have to do, lacking confirmed data, is look at statistical returns of your own regiments and apply the same weights to an opponent to get closer to reality.

Please Leave a Reply