Lee vs. McClellan: The First Campaign

by Clayton Newell, Washington, Regnery, 1996


"Workmanlike" is the term that comes to mind with respect to Lee vs. McClellan and those who have done higher study in the military service schools will soon recognize the dry style strapped to a stiffly sequential chronology. There are just a few analytical nuggets, although the chief among them is hammered home repeatedly: that McClellan was a theatre commander (probably the first in the war) who operated a theatre of war as a theatre of war (in the modern sense) and implemented operational-level warfare where Lee did not or could not, sometimes for political reasons.

Now this line of analysis puts the author under a plum orchard in a bumper harvest season. But like a well-disciplined sentry ordered not to loot, he does not touch the bounty. Not even a single fruit.

For instance, the advantages McClellan held over Lee in Western Virginia were exactly reversed in subsequent match-ups. Where Lee had been tortured by politically appointed subordinates, divided commands and his government's political poltergeists, in 1862 the shoe would be on the other foot. The standard of comparison would then be, which general handled it more successfully? This plum is left on the tree. They all are.

Newell does do a little dramatic foreshadowing at the end of his book. He takes the template of McClellan's later failures (as understood by such as Catton, Williams, Sears) and retrofits them to 1861 as an afterthought. The results are grotesque. This final gesture, keeping his nose clean in front of the tribunal of authorized McClellan interpreters, undos much of the effect of the entire book, which is to present a campaign that advanced the science of warfare.

This is the only study of the Western Virginia campaign available. Whatever its merits, it will be around for a long time.

Note: Newell pairs off Lee and McClellan based on Lee's status as general-in-chief of Virginia forces during McClellan's invasion. Some regard this as improper, as Lee was not directed to exercise personal command in the theatre until McClellan left for Washington. Newell's approach is convincing, as he shows the many decisions which Lee made in trying to stem the McClellan crisis.

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(c) 1998 The McClellan Society