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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Robert E. Lee's Most Capable Opponent?

Per General Lee himself, the Union commander who proved to be his most skilled nemesis was George Brinton McClellan.

"By all odds!" Marse Robert stated, quite emphatically.

Okay, I will gladly concede that McClellan built the Army of the Potomac into an impressive fighting force, providing for it and rallying it after two dismaying defeats (First and Second Manassas).

The rally following the second battle was especially impressive, since the Union army had not only been defeated decisively at Second Manassas, it was deeply demoralized by the loss. a battlefield commander, McClellan was tentative and always convinced he was heavily outnumbered. After every battle of the Seven Days, he retreated despite holding the ground at the end of each one with the exception of Gaines's Mill. He threw just over half of his army into battle at Antietam, having a massive reserve that would have ended the War in 1862 had he but used it.

So...what was Lee thinking? I can't puzzle that one out, for the life of me.


  1. That is something that I've considered too.

    Could it be because Mac was a fellow Engineer like himself. Clearly, Mac was a very capable organizer but not a fighter and he let his politics affect how he fought Johnson and then Lee. Mac was a known quantity and he didn't expect him to make mistakes on the field.

  2. That's as good a guess as any. When battle finally came, McClellan was always prepared to fight it.

  3. It's also possible that Lee never said those words either. My (admittedly poor) recollection of the incident was published after Lee died in 1870. A newspaperman got lucky and caught a mellow post Appomattox Lee in a talkative mood and came up with that statement about Little Mac. I know there was a great deal of mis-remembered and flat out self serving lies common among post civil war participants and published histories. Not saying this fella lied but it's worth taking some of these supposed incidents with a grain of salt. Good discussion tho.

  4. I have always been mystified by Lee's comment, too.

    Part of me has thought like newguy,and questioned whether he even said it. Part of me wonders if he said it, but that it was distorted by the reporter, or misremembered. And part of me wondered if it wasn't the residue of resentment at Grant - the general who really was the capable field commander Lee faced - having beaten him, and a resentment perhaps of the kind of man Grant was, and the kind of warfare he waged.

    We may never know for certain.

  5. Sorry to be late. to this, but here's my bits of copper: Both men would have studied classical warfare in their training, especially the wars of Rome. With McClellan delaying, avoiding battle and waiting for the naval blockade to do its work, Lee may have seen him playing a Fabius Maximus to his Hannibal.

    1. That's the best argument I've heard for it--bravo! Robert E. Lee was always looking for a Cannae, but never got it.