Mission Command Paper: General McClellan and the Battle of Antietam

Pages: 27 (4616 words) Published: December 10, 2014





03 FEBRUARY 2014

Building a movement always challenges the status quo. Leaders must act, they must willingly risk the things they love and unfortunately, many leaders are frozen by the lethargy of indecision i. Union General George B. McClellan, who was meticulous in his planning and preparations, was also known for not aggressively challenging his opponents on a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of the enemy and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points ii. At no time was this more evident during the only battle of the Civil War in which McClellan led his troops from start to finish. His performance during the bloody Battle of Antietam blunted General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, but also allowed him to eke out a precarious tactical draw and avoid destruction despite being grossly outnumbered on the battlefield iii. His missteps challenged the principles of building cohesive teams thru mutual trust, creating shared understanding, and above all, accepting prudent risks. As a result, McClellan’s leadership skills during battles were highly questioned by President Abraham Lincoln, who eventually removed him from command iv. President Lincoln was violently opposed to appointing McClelland commander of the Union Army prior to the Battle of Antietam. The President knew of McClellan’s opposition to his policies, anti-slavery in general. Not appointing him at this critical juncture would have been met with hostility and mistrust v. Although Lincoln well understood the danger inherent in McClellan’s hostility to his own government and policies, he also knew McClellan was the only general to get the Union Army in shape in time to resist Lee’s invasion of Maryland vi. His appointment of McClellan was an act of moral courage, equaled to his decision to fire McClellan after his performance at Antietam. The McClellan decision was as grueling as any Abraham Lincoln took during his presidency. A particular irony in Lincoln’s decision could not have escaped the President. In his White House desk was the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, its issuance awaiting a propitious moment – a battlefield victory, say – to render a revolutionary change to the war vii. Also in his desk was a recent letter from General McClellan proposing a reform of the Union war policy. “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment, as it will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.” viii. And now, it was General McClellan’s who was entrusted with gaining that propitious moment. DESCRIPTION OF THE BATTLE

On Sep. 3, 1862, General Robert E. Lee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate two weeks later along Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, in a day that would see more battlefield carnage than any other in America’s historyix. When identifying turning points during the Civil War, many analysts and war buffs typically point to Gettysburg. Yet the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg in Confederate lexicon) resulted in more pivotal changes, across a broader spectrum of events – military, political, diplomatic, and societal – than any other battle of the war x. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that Antietam, if evaluated in purely military terms, was not decisive at all. Indeed, it took place by happenstance xi.

Following the South’s victory at Second Bull Run, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, about 55,000 men, entered the state of Maryland. Emboldened by success, the Confederate leadership intended to...

Citations: 4. Bernard Cornwell. The Bloody Ground. (Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), 350.
5. Keith D. Dickson. The Civil War for Dummies. (Wiley Publishing Inc. 2001), 158 – 159.
6. Shelby Foote. The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. (Random House Inc. 1958), 696.
7. Webb Garrison. Civil War Tales: Unusual, Interesting Stories of the Turbulent Era When Americans Waged War on Americans. (Rutlege Hill Press, 1988), 134.
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