McClellan Claims a Victory (or a Defeat) Against “Vasty Superior Numbers”

July 5, 1862 (Saturday)

General George B. McClellan and his adherents were true believers. They believed with all their heart that the week-long string of victories followed immediately by retreats would be “acknowledged by all competent judges” as “unparalleled in the annals of war.” He was probably right, though maybe for all the wrong reasons.

Harrison Mansion, headquarters of General McClellan

McClellan was convinced that the Army of the Potomac’s retreat was merely a shift of base from the Chickahominy River to the James. Though he admitted that it was indeed a “retrograde movement,” the enemy had never driven his army from any battlefield. “We have lost no guns,” continued McClellan in a July 4th letter to President Lincoln, “except 25 in the field of battle…” and those were lost due to the enemy’s superior numbers.1

By this date, the papers in the north sympathetic to McClellan sang along with him, printing that McClellan’s 95,000 men had fought against 185,000 Rebels. Meanwhile, McClellan’s critics (mostly Radical Republicans) called for his dismissal.2

The Army of the Potomac’s “retrograde movement” was more or less orderly most of the time. Yet, though McClellan was calling for as many as 100,000 reinforcements, his army still outnumbered the Confederates (even if McClellan strongly disagreed). General Robert E. Lee celebrated the 4th of July with a letter to President Jefferson Davis, describing McClellan’s new position, backed up by naval gunboats on the James. Lee believed it was folly to attack with his bloodied army in such conditions.

Davis fully agreed, conceding that it was “a hard necessity to be compelled to allow him time to recover from his discomfiture and to receive reinforcements.”3

To McClellan, the campaign was either over or on indefinite hold. Though he had promised his soldiers in his July 4 address that his army “shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy,” he had no real idea (aside from massive amounts of fresh troops) how that would happen.4

Massive amounts of fresh troops were exactly what was on the mind of Lee and Davis. It was impossible to tell just how many troops the Army of the Potomac was receiving. Some ships had been spotted, but learning their content and destination was no simple task. Davis suggested using heavy artillery and fire shells against the boats, and even hinted at a night raid. Mostly, however, he wanted Lee to refit his force as he did his best to round up reinforcements in case McClellan made for Richmond once again. 5

Lee’s army was disorganized and disheveled. So much so that General Stonewall Jackson had to order his men to encamp and rest. Jackson learned that nearly half of his men were out of their ranks. Death, wounds, care for their comrades and various other labors had greatly dwindled his force. He, like Lee’s other commanders, had to see to his men. The battlefields may have fallen silent for the time being, the campaign may have stalled or even ended, but the marching, fighting, killing and dying was far from over.6

  1. Letter from George McClellan to President Lincoln, July 4, 1862. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p632. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p299. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p633. []
  6. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
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McClellan Claims a Victory (or a Defeat) Against “Vasty Superior Numbers” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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