Butchery and Burial (or, Sympathy for McClellan)
I wrote, some time ago, that Grant becomes the hero of Shelby Foote’s Civil War because “he fights, unlike his colleagues on either side, who dilly-dally, blundering into and through battle and prolonging the war, and he fights for the Union.” The war, in this telling, is tragic in the root sense of the word
not [because] it had to be fought at all, but that it continues without an end at hand while terrain, technology, and the incompetence and “honor” of the so-called great-men lead to increasing casualty rolls.
While I haven’t changed my mind about the perspective of Foote’s Narrative on Grant and Sherman compared to their lesser colleagues on both sides of battle, Foote himself presents a condemnation of McClellan (among others) that is too free of context. The Civil War, we’re often told, was fought with modern technology but archaic strategies—leading to its overwhelming bloodiness. This was, as Drew Gilpin Faust notes, not just a challenge to emotions—it was a logistical nightmare for which neither side was prepared.
Meade after Gettysburg and McClellan after Antietam are still criticized for not pouncing on the retreating Lee; instead, they sat to “lick their wounds,” or some such formulation. But these were two of the bloodiest battles of the war—and the victorious generals were suddenly left with a field littered with the dead and wounded of both sides. Faust writes, in This Republic of Suffering:
More often delay [in burial] resulted from the failure to mobilize necessary manpower and resources for the task. The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of combat in American history, left both Union and Confederate armies staggering. Lee slowly limped southward, leaving the field—and the dead of both sides—to the Union army. McClellan appeared to be paralyzed by the magnitude of the engagement and failed to take strategic advantage of his victory by pursuing the Confederate army. A similar paralysis seemed to grip his troops as they confronted the devastation before them. Twenty-three thousand men and untold numbers of horses and mules lay killed or wounded.
And at Gettysburg, Meade faced an even greater task:
By July 4, an estimated six million pounds of human flesh and animal carcasses lay strewn across the field in the summer heat, and a town of 2,400 grappled with 22,000 wounded who remained alive but in desperate condition.
“Responsibility for the dead,” she reminds us, “usually fell to the victor, for it was his army that held the field.” By the time of Gettysburg, generals had begun to delegate that responsibility to the townspeople; Grant, both from a desire to demoralize his enemy and for the sake of timing, refused to take it on at all—even in the midst of a stalemate. The sight of thousands dead does not, of course, absolve a commander of the need to strike a final blow to his enemy if it presents itself—as it did after Antietam and Gettysburg. But there was another responsibility there—the responsibility to the dead, either to be fulfilled or put off for a time. The inability to decisively reconcile or choose between these claims indicates a failure of generalship—but it was a very human failure, and its origins are to be found in something other than mere incompetence.