If the historian is a talespinner, he has no choice but to gin up some numbers. He needs them to advance the drama. One side will be the underdog, the other the favorite. One leader will have used his resources wisely, one will have squandered advantages. Grades will be awarded by the historian based on these false ratios: for boldness, for relentlessness, for achievment, for good stewardship, for best effort. Take away the numbers and at least half of Civil War history loses all meaning and goes away.
As mentioned in previous posts (see below), Lincoln and McClellan were engaged in a long-running sub rosa dialog - one that could never be made public for political reasons - the outlines of which come to us in snippets of letters and conversation. The most famous bit involves Lincoln's comment about shoveling fleas across a barnyard, a remark stripped of its context (the dialog) in order to provide a witticism that bears no scrutiny.
The fleas were not made invisible on arrival at the AoP; the fleas either never arrived or wandered off their pile. The fleas are the agent, not the shoveler nor the pile across the barnyard. "Shoveling fleas" is about a special kind of manpower crisis, not a McClellan idiosyncracy.
Gideon Welles has an entry in his diary that summarizes the problem in a way even misguided readers of Centennial history can appreciate. In his entry for Sept. 8, 1862, Welles notes Lincoln called on him and while they were talking they were joined by a political appointee, Mr. Barney:
They [The Army of Virginia] were becoming reckless and untameable [Barney said]. In these remarks the President concurred, and said he was shocked to find that of 140,000 whom we were paying for in Pope's army only 60,000 could be found. McClellan brought away 93,000 from the Peninsula, but could not today count on over 45,000. As regarded demoralization, the President, there was no doubt that some of our men permitted themselves to be captured in order that they might leave on parole, get discharged and go home. Where there is such rottenness, is there not reason to fear for the country?(To understand how, on September 8, 1862, the President and his advisors could still be referring to the AoV as a standing, independent force, you need to scrape off a lot of bad history. Start here.)
Baselining Union strength
The Centennialist takes the payroll numbers and fudges to taste. These are the highest numbers available and therefore the worst. Fox did better; then Livermore improved on Fox by (a) counting which parts of a command were actually on the field and (b) discounting a fixed ratio for detachments and details. Livermore's adjustments show - among many other things - McClellan outnumbered in every battle from Williamsburg to Malvern Hill. But Livermore's numbers, again based on payrolls, were much, much too high, although they produced an apples-to-apples correlation to Rebel figures.
To give you an idea of the state of Civil War history, few authors have yet progressed to the level of using Livermore's rational adjustments of the irrational pay muster counts. And yet, the best figures we have are - and never, ever cite - are the Surgeon General's, published in the late 19th Century. Regimental surgeons compiled and averaged daily roll calls (soldiers present for duty) on a month-to-month basis. In calculating sickness, wounding, recovery, and death, the Surgeon General refused to use the politicized payroll garbage our Civil War historians eagerly ingest. When you count noses you get some sense of Lincoln's fleas and barnyard. I'll quote myself from 2003:
For example, notice the medical department's view of the manpower pool of the Army of the Potomac as it marches towards Richmond:
4/62 - 71,250
5/62 - 72,536
6/62 - 78,733
This is the total count of men available to McClellan to capture Richmond; this is before illness, wounds, malingering, battlefield desertion, and shirking. Doesn't match the pop history version of things, does it?
I go into this in a post called Numbers, Losses, and Surgeons.
Our Brave AWOLs introduced the Surgeon General's information. It mentions Lincoln's count of 30,000 Union stragglers within two hours of the start of Antietam and McClellan tasking Meade to show Lincoln the miserable state of strength in Hooker's corps at that battle.
The McClellan / Lincoln manpower dialogue: duly noted by Neely picks up more of the sub rosa strength communication between Lincoln and McClellan as reflected in the Union Divided. "Neely characterizes Lincoln as 'obsessed' with the disparity in AOP muster roll numbers and boots on the ground ..." Would that our historians were so obsessed. In Neely, we find a Lincoln of settled opinion on the matter: "Lincoln tells Browning that the absolute highest ratio of AOP strength that could be brought on to the field was 60 percent." There are more Lincoln anecdotes in the post.
I work through some Confederate strength issues in Historians as numerologists: what Mac saw. Why a Union commander could count 200,000 CSA enemy becomes immediately clear when we consider Joe Johnston's testimony and Pinkerton's excellent methodology. This much without even considering Governor Lechter's emergency drafts and militia mobilizations. The question passes from one of whether McClellan was simply outnumbered (Livermore) to a consideration of indications of how egregiously outnumbered he was.
With all their shootings and hangings, were the Rebels better at curtailing straggling and desertion? This post looks at the belief that the Union suffered less straggling than the Confederacy - a position I find counterintuitive. I argue my points in Confederate AWOLS: the glass is half full.
In Bloodlust of the Civil War historian we join Mark Neely, Jr., in a new book one chapter of which is devoted to analyzing why Civil War historians inflate and manipulate casualty counts. Our problem with numerologists practicing history goes far beyond strength calculations.