Sumner as Queeg?

30 August 2006

This post properly belongs as a comment on Dimitri Rotov’s blog, which doesn’t offer that facility.

I’ve been following Dimitri’s series on the appointments of McClellan’s Corps commanders. Intriguing material, though I confess I’m not sure what most of it means. Probably because I lack the background in the more subtle political machinations within the Lincoln Administration. I’m learning.

Yesterday, I read his related piece called Sumner, McClellan, Johnston, and Davis which deals with the relationship(s) between George McClellan and Edwin Sumner.

At the time of the Crimean War, Edwin V. Sumner was the commander of the First U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Joe Johnston was his lieutenant colonel and George McClellan one of his captains (i.e. squadron commanders).

Dimitri notes that Johnston thought very little of Sumner, and was convinced the old fool had it all wrong when it came to the new Cavalry arm and managing his Regiment. So Johnston suggests McClellan–then on the Commission to the Crimean War–work up doctrine for how US Cavalry should be run, and feed it to the War Department. McClellan having the ear of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Someone must save the Cavalry from Sumner, but McClellan and Johnston are disappointed in their quest.

Davis, says Dimitri,

… foreshadowing the typology of stubborness that has become an ACW cliche, refused to be moved by McClellan’s overtures. Sumner would remain undisturbed by new thinking.

… Odd to think that Sumner was, in his way, the root cause of McClellan’s resignation.

So there you have it. Sumner the mismanaging, bumbling old man; Davis too stubborn to recognize the Future; Johnston the instigator; and McClellan, Army visionary, becomes the victim, after trying to do the right thing.

As I read Dimitri’s post, though, quite a different image jumped to my mind.

still from the movie the Caine Mutiny: (L to R) Keefer, Maryk, Queeg by MacMurray, Johnson, Bogart
still from the Caine Mutiny, 1954
[plot summary]

Yes, I know it’s only a movie.

In it, USS Caine’s commanding officer Lt. Commander Philip Queeg is seen by his officers and crew as incompetent, cowardly, eventually crazy. Goaded for months by a brother officer Lt. Keefer, the XO, Lt Maryk, relieves the Captain during a typhoon believing him to be no longer fit to command and a danger to the safety of the ship.

Maryk is charged with mutiny, but acquitted after the court sees Queeg behave irrationally on the witness stand.

The defense lawyer (Lt Greenwald), however, believes the officers were wrong from the beginning for failing to support the Captain and “military integrity”. In a film high point he rants

Greenwald: When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no! We knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys, tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg.

Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men.

Greenwald: He didn’t endanger anybody’s life! You did! All of you! You’re a fine bunch of officers …

Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you?

Maryk: Yes, we did.

Greenwald: You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon?

OK, so the Sumner-Johnston-McClellan situation Dimitri describes probably wasn’t as dramatic as Queeg-Keefer-Maryk, but it does raise some of the same questions.

Even if we accept the premise that Colonel Sumner was a doddering incompetent, what was Captain McClellan’s responsibility to his commanding officer? To the First Cavalry, and his chain of command?

Dimitri isn’t clear how hard either Johnston or McClellan tried to work with Sumner to see their views become policy or effect change. Perhaps Johnston had given up from the beginning, but where does this put McClellan?

No doubt the old Regular Army was in many ways hidebound and insensitive to some clever young officers, but under what circumstances, then or now, is the kind of end-around Dimitri describes acceptable in a professional military organization?

The arrogance of Johnston and McClellan as painted is almost overwhelming, and supports the general impression I think many people have of one or both of them today. I’m a long way from seeing Davis and Sumner as the ‘bad guys’ here.

7 Responses to “Sumner as Queeg?”

  1. scott s. says:

    Well, this certainly brings up some good questions of pre-war relationships. One thing I wondered about this, was what made fellow-engineer Johnston an expert on cavalry, or even on Sumner? As far as McClellan, I have to assume he knew nothing about cavalry before his appointment to the commission, except what any American officer might know, with the possible exception of things picked up from Mahan at West Point as commander of the Company of Engineers.

    I think maybe more needs to be done IRT Davis/Sumner. Davis had served with Sumner in the Dragoons, and seems to have continued his interest in mounted forces and tactics. As a US Senator, he was involved in forming Army policy in using mounted troops in executing the Indian policy. I assume he drew some conclusions, resulting in the creation of cavalry vs additional dragoons. So I have to also assume that in Sumner, he saw something that he liked (as he had done with favorite AS Johnston in the other Cav regiment). Unless Sumner had been pressed on him by other political forces, or part of a compromise which allowed appointment of Johnston.

  2. Brian Downey says:

    Thanks Scott, interesting questions. ‘Above my paygrade’, to be sure.

  3. Brian Downey says:

    Also, Dimitri has posted a follow-on in Sumner, McClellan, Johnston, Davis, and Hardee. More good material from Matthew Moten’s Delafield Commission book.

    Dimitri makes the case that McClellan and Johnston (and maybe Jefferson Davis) weren’t going to include Sumner in the decision process, anyway.

    Not because he was stupid, but because he was an old soldier set in his ways.

    OK, I understand why McClellan and Johnston thought they needed to bypass Sumner. I still see it as fundamentally wrong. Still smell arrogance, too.

    You’re a junior Army officer. Don’t like the way things are going? Talk to your boss. You put it to your chain of command.

    The boss still doesn’t get it? Request higher authority review. There are procedures for that. Procedures in place for a good reason. Good order and discipline, for example.

    Still not satisfied? Get over it. Become a civilian. Write a book. Run for office.

  4. Harry says:


    Is chain of command sacrosanct? Does it work both ways? Can you see where this is going?

    We might also keep in mind that what Johnston and Davis were thinking about was not just the 1st US Cavalry regiment (Sumner’s domain), but the Cavalry arm as a whole. Certainly no one expected McClellan to come back from Europe and report his findings to Sumner.

    I don’t see this “scheme” as nefarious.


  5. Harry says:

    “Johnston and Davis” above should read “Johnston and McClellan”, though I’m sure Davis was considering the Cavalry arm as well.


  6. Mitch H. says:

    Keep in mind that “the whole Cavalry arm” in question consisted of the 1st & 2nd Cavalry Regiments, just-established. The 1st Cavalry was, in effect, half of the arm’s establishment. And Johnston – who bounced from the artillery to the topographical engineers to the cavalry to, just before the war, quartermaster general – apparently fancied himself the 19th century equivalent of an MBA – capable of “managing”, regardless of how much he knew about the business at hand.

    The picture that Dimitri draws of McClellan & Johnston’s conniving only adds to the impression left by Rafuse & Beatie, of what seems to be McClellan’s serious issues with authority, and tells me a lot more about McClellan & Johnston than it does about Sumner, who even here is still something of a hollow blank in his own story.

    I still don’t have a clear picture of who Sumner was. How did he react to his conspiring officers? What were things like in the 1st Cavalry? I have some picture of what things were like in the 2nd Cavalry – Freeman’s portrait in the first volume of his biography of Lee’s dreary slog of court-martials and paperwork, punctuated by reports of other officers’ excursions against bandits and Indians, is quite evocative.

  7. Harry says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding what “coniving” was going on here. McClellan was detached to serve on the commission. Are we to accept that he was somehow expected to not make any recommendations regarding cavalry without “going through” Sumner? Maybe we need to see what his orders were. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he was assigned to the commission by Sumner. Mac was also expected to make observations and recommendations regarding infantry. Was he bypassing every infantry officer of higher rank in doing so?

    And note that it was not uncommon for the creme of the officer corps, the engineers, to spend some time in the cavalry. Lee himself was assigned there for a time, though he spent precious little of it actually in the field.


Please Leave a Reply