George B. McClellan’s Fuzzy Math and Opportune Egress

April 1, 1862 (Tuesday – All Fool’s Day)

George McClellan looking hard for those extra troops.

Washington was growing too hot for General George McClellan. The War Department were still meddling and just the previous day, Lincoln had bowed to political pressures and reduced McClellan’s Army of the Potomac by transferring General Blenker’s entire division, roughly 10,000 men, to Western Virginia. McClellan was determined to join the bulk of his army, gathered at Fortress Monroe, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula.

Prior to leaving, he had one job to do. When Lincoln gave McClellan permission to haul his entire army to the Peninsula, he did so with the stipulation that Washington be left “secure.” McClellan had to inform the War Department exactly how many men he had left in and around the capital for its defense.

This he quickly did and then quickly boarded the Commodore before he could be asked the details of his memorandum, even before the memorandum was received at the War Department. To his wife, he wrote that he was “very glad to get away from that sink iniquity.”1

Earlier, McClellan had told Secretary of War Stanton that there would be around 50,000 troops left in Washington. This wasn’t quite true.

In the dispatch he wrote before leaving, he stated that he left behind 55,500 men from his Army of the Potomac, which, when combined with the 18,000 of the regular Washington garrison, would give the capital a total 73,500 troops. This figure should have been more than enough to satisfy Lincoln and Stanton.

1862 arithmetic book not used by McClellan.

The figures, however, didn’t match reality. McClellan assured the President that there were 11,000 left at Manassas, 7,800 at Warrenton, 35,000 in the Shenandoah Valley , 1,400 on the lower Potomac and 22,000 in the forts around Washington.

To make these figures work, McClellan issued several orders, sending troops to places like Manassas, which was scarcely defended when he left on the Commodore. Here’s where the math got interesting. McClellan ordered 4,000 troops from Washington’s 22,000 to go to Manassas. And though the new figure at Washington was now 18,000, he still counted it at 22,000. The 4,000 en route to Manassas were counted as being at Manassas and were thus counted twice.

The 4,000 from Washington still didn’t match his total of 11,000 for Manassas, so he called upon 6,000 from Maryland and Pennsylvania. These troops, however, were still forming. To bring the number in Washington back to 22,000, he called up 4,000 from New York. But this summons was only a recommendation, and not an order.

To make mathematics even worse, McClellan counted the 7,800 at Warrenton twice. Once under the Warrenton column, and once under Manassas. He also counted Blenker’s division as part of the Shenandoah troops under General Banks.2 This was only temporarily true, as Stanton gave McClellan permission to place Blenker anywhere he saw fit, but only for as long as his (McClellan’s) “dispositions will permit.”3

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

If McClellan practiced honest mathematics, and discounted Blenker and the second counting of the Warrenton troops, it would leave Washington with the figure that he originally gave to Stanton: 50,000. This figure, too, is potentially misleading. When Lincoln told McClellan to “leave Washington secure,” what was meant? If by “Washington” Lincoln inferred Baltimore, Washington, Manassas and the entire Shenandoah Valley, then McClellan did little more than bomb a fairly important arithmetic exam. If, on the other hand, by “Washington” Lincoln meant Washington (and Manassas, which he specifically mentioned), McClellan was padding is figures.

Discounting Baltimore and the Shenandoah Valley, McClellan left but 22,000 in Washington and 7,800 in the Manassas area. This figure of less than 30,000 is a far cry from the total of 73,500 he tossed around in the report he filed right before boarding the Commodore. It was an even farther cry from the figure he gave in his memoirs after the war. “The administration actually retained about 134,000 for the defence of Washington,” wrote McClellan nearly a quarter century after the campaign, “leaving me but 85,000 for operations.”4 In reality, and by his own report of April 13, McClellan had nearly 110,000 fit for battle.5


Foote Plays a Dirty Trick on the Rebels at Island No. 10

Union Flag Officer Andrew Foote had determined to steam his gunships past the heavily-defended Island No. 10 during next foggy or stormy night. However, he was incredibly uncomfortable with this idea since it would most certainly be deadly for his fleet. The night of April 1 would prove to be stormy, but even before the tempest blew in, Foote had made arrangements for a sly bit of All Fool’s Day trickery of his own.

April 1 landing on Island No. 10.

He had decided to raid the island under the cover of darkness, and hoped to take out a few guns, giving his fleet an advantage. He selected fifty infantrymen from the 42nd Indiana and fifty sailors to make the raid. Col. George W. Roberts of the 42nd would lead them.

Around 11pm, as the rain fell in the darkness, the 100 men boarded five lifeboats and rowed with muffled oars across the Mississippi to the Confederate island. They would have been completely undetected by the Confederate pickets had a bolt of lightening not illuminated their presence. As they splashed through eighteen inches of water, the sentinels fired and retreated back into the island.

These were all the Confederates Roberts’ raiding party encountered. Quick as the lightening, they were on land, up over the parapets and spiking the guns, driving metal rods into the firing vents, disabling the artillery.

In thirty minutes, Roberts’ troops spiked six guns. They were back on land just as the storm came to ferocious life. Before dawn, a tornado twisted through the town of New Madrid and cut a swath along the river. It hit both the Confederate and Union camps, killing and wounding several.6

  1. To The Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  2. Mostly, I used the concise The Peninsula Campaign of 1862; A Military Analysis by Kevin Dougherty with J. Michael Moore, University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Also, Beatie’s Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign was used, but the way he arranges his figures is not incredibly understandable. However, Beatie tells the story behind the figures very well and his chapter “The Safety of Washington” is well worth the read. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p62. []
  4. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  5. Abraham Lincoln: A History by John George Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
  6. Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock, Alabama University Press, 1996. []
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George B. McClellan’s Fuzzy Math and Opportune Egress by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “George B. McClellan’s Fuzzy Math and Opportune Egress

  1. Anyone with a suggestion of a good PSYCHOLOGICAL study of McC? He is such a puzzle to me–hey–he is better off than the Jet Blue pilot–I think . . .

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