Viva Rafuse

My local Barnes & Noble last week had featured on a special table a new Civil War history by a new Civil War author in trade edition. New author, new book, trade deal, B&N showcase. Gives us all hope, doesn’t it?

It was a retelling of the oft-told tale. He had to tell it better. The blurbs praised the book in terms that made me uneasy. I flipped to the first McClellan reference. The adjective "pathological" featured prominently. Fearing pathogens, I dropped the book and wandered away.

The McClellan of Rafuse’s McClellan’s War is sensible, not pathological. He is centered in a way New Agers might envy, knowing his own limits and constantly choosing means and ends suited to those limits. I enjoy the novelty of a McClellan who is not "the Captain Queeg of the Civil War" (Sears).

It is hard to communicate, in a short post, how deft Rafuse is. He has to compress without injuring the facts, and he has to render in one or two brief sentences worlds of controversies with some similitude of justice. It will be hard to exceed him in this.

It may help to convey how sure-footed this author is by describing a place where he and I go our separate ways: his account of the command crisis of August 31 – September 5, 1862. This is a worst-case situation for any historian and is my litmus test for ACW writers. It represents – genre wide – the failure of basic research and reflection in this nonfiction genre. Rafuse gets more of the crisis’s individual parts correct than any other historian to date, excepting perhaps Harsh. I intend that as strong praise.

The general run of Civil War writing gives little sense that there was a command crisis at all. Pope loses a battle, is relieved and McClellan is "restored" (to what McClellan is restored varies from author to author). The timelines linked to these two events is either patchy or wrong, by and large.

Rafuse starts off recognizing that McClellan was appointed to the command of the Washington defenses, not to any army. Honoring this fact is foundational … and different. Those few authors who preceded Rafuse in doing this eventually, in the course of their stories, rationalize McClellan out of the defenses and into field command. This is made to happen in various ways, but never accurately, never through crisp historical writing with tidy timelines.

One literary device used to get McClellan to the field with the backing of Halleck and Lincoln is to fudge the line between commander of the Washington defenses and commander of all the troops in the Washington defenses. Another move involves assigning McClellan "implicit" authority. The fixing up of an "implicit" consent to McClellan’s field command in Maryland is a post facto writing fix. Whatever magic is used to transmute McClellan the defender into the commander of the campaign army, it all tends to lose track of John Pope after September 3 at the latest. I’m telling things out of order, however.

As McClellan settles into his new assignment as commander of the Washington defenses, Lincoln and Halleck begin interviewing for a leader of the field army that McClellan has been tasked with organizing. McClellan is to defend the capital; the field army commander – not McClellan, definitely not McClellan - will resume offensive operations as soon as practical. Burnside is interviewed again and turns Halleck and Lincoln down. We don’t know who else they interviewed but they visited with McClellan a number of times in this period, which perhaps cracks the door for "implicit" inferrals later.

McClellan, getting concerned about what appears to be a Maryland invasion, begins forcing the issue with Halleck. The bosses now having no candidate, Halleck tasks McClellan himself with appointing the field commander from among the generals in his sphere. Rafuse passes quietly over the back-and-forth over the selection of a field commander, as do almost all other historians I have read.

McClellan, in light of his tasking to appoint a field commander, forces the issue with the seemingly dramatic choice of John Pope – on September 5, he appoints Pope commander of the field army that he has begun posting outside the defenses to intercept Lee. You can read this in the OR, where it has always been.

Now, on to Pope’s situation as of Sept. 5, strange as it might be to consider Pope’s fortunes after Bull Run II. Reading Welles’ diary, Pope is the subject of what I would call extravagant comments made about his blamelessness by Lincoln. He is praised, others are blamed. It seems to me Pope will get another chance. Reading Welles diary, it seems very difficult to link his later relief with the aftermath of the defeat.

But Welles notes that Pope was souring his patrons by bringing charges. Welles notes in more than one place in his diary how poorly Pope served himself with Lincoln in his demands for the arrests of Franklin, Porter, McClellan and others. He is talked down to limiting his charges to fewer officers than he wanted to punish. It seems – this is my own inference – that Lincoln and Halleck would have preferred taking care of things more quietly.

Not having described this background, Rafuse does notice McClellan’s appointment of Pope on September 5, an observation beyond the powers of nearly all Civil War historians. Where else have you seen it? But Rafuse seems to read this order as if Pope has been ordered to the field in charge of the AoV. Not bad, but not right.

McClellan’s orders to Pope are clear and unambiguous – read them yourself - Pope commands in the field. And the orders to Pope have a context – McClellan was directed to name a commander of the field army. More generally, McClellan had also earlier been assured by Halleck that when the forces were united, Mac would command Pope. On September 5, the armies are together and Mac commands Pope.

The McClellan/Pope team emerges. But it lasts only a short time.

If you have not followed the correspondence of "who will command the field army?" naturally the appointment of Pope will confuse. It is an odd event, given the story as received. One might speculate that this is an order to rejoin the AoV – the old command - for operations.

Rafuse does so and then supports this benign misinterpretation by excerpting a piece from one of Pope’s two messages directed over McClellan’s head. In Rafuse, Pope’s redacted message asks Command of what? – as if Pope were confused by the technical content of the order.
Rafuse then resolves this by capping it with what I believe is an inference – that Lincoln and Halleck had decided to liquidate the AoV and transfer its commander before McClellan issued his command to Pope and that Pope’s reaction to McClellan’s command then triggered the disclosure of some Lincoln/Halleck decision that had already been taken but somehow not communicated.

I’m skeptical, but open to a case being made on those lines. It has to be more than an inference, however. The genesis of Lincoln’s decision about Pope and his army is unknown to me and I have searched for it; what is known is that Pope angrily appeals McClellan’s orders and is then relieved and transferred. If that is a false causality, the falsity needs to be proven. An inference cannot overturn it.

Read Pope’s response to McClellan’s orders. Feel the anger.

Pope could have kept quiet and taken to the field per McClellan’s orders. Consider: even if Lincoln had previously decided to remove him from Washington but failed to communicate the decision, once in the field, Pope could not have been recalled without damaging the Administration. Once in the field, he could also have built up his stock by modeling the cooperation he had previously demanded of McClellan.

On the morning of September 5, Pope had a future. His hectoring and insubordinate messages, read against the din and clamor he raised for arrests, painted him as that very thing he wanted quashed, purged, and excised.

John Hennesy and Ethan Rafuse both seem a little baffled by the Administration’s treatment of Pope. It’s because neither has worked through the command crisis, I think.

Now, leaving Pope to get out of his own scrape, we still have the problem of putting McClellan at the head of the field army in September of 1862. As mentioned, the general run of historian has no idea that this did not happen already by September 2.

Rafuse, to his credit, avoids that trap, but he attributes McClellan placing himself at the head of the army to an authorization given by Lincoln and/or Halleck on September 5. I personally know of no such authority and I find his reference to this event ambiguous and unsatisfying. I will look into this more. Crow pie is at the ready. I think this is one of those inferences, however.

Historians generally say that McClellan was empowered to take to the field. Mac says he was not. Certainly, there was never an order and the question devolves on whether or not, with the reassignment of Pope, Halleck and Lincoln had "resigned" themselves to a McClellan field command.

I don’t think so because no one expected McClellan to take to the field when he did. Not Lincoln, not Lee. There appeared to be time yet to appoint a field commander congenial to the Administration, especially given Halleck’s concept of the campaign as it unfolded – McClellan should stay close to Washington to guard against a rebel coup de main.

McClellan the rascal appointed himself general in command of the field army. McClellan the gentleman then paid a round of visits on the day he took to the field. He stopped to see Lincoln, Stanton, Seward, which would have given any of them a chance to object, cajole, postpone. They were not available, he left his card and was off. It seems an accidental fait accompli, unless they were collaborators in this failure to check him.

Yes, people took his telegrams from the field without demanding his recall. There is a latent approval there, worth analyzing. He left the charming Banks in command at Washington and Banks was so effective and well regarded that he actually leveraged himself into New Orleans afterward. Banks’ success as commander of the defenses sweetened the pill of McClellan’s command, sweetened Pope’s departure, and greased the skids of Ben Butler’s reassignment - something that needs closer attention someday. Rafuse, unfortunately, falls into the Centennial habit of viewing Banks’ appointment in Mac’s place as a stunt to get him out of McClellan’s field command. A shame.

But Rafuse, admirably, takes some trouble to point out that McClellan’s force is not the Army of the Potomac. Not nearly. Mac himself refers to it as such at a certain point and this reference, sentimental, morale-building, whatever it is, seems to authorize large numbers of historians to blindly follow suit. Reflection is needed. In Maryland, AoP is a label of convenience that is tremendously misleading.

Rafuse also does an excellent job summarizing the conflicting directions and pressures McClellan was subject to once in the field and like Harsh arrives at the conclusion that Mac neutralized the Maryland invasion even before the Lost Orders were found.

To summarize Rafuse vis a vis the command crisis, he: (1) understands that McClellan has been placed in command of D.C. and not restored to the command of an army (2) understands that Pope has not been relieved in the period of McClellan’s command of the defenses (3) notices that McClellan has ordered Pope to the field against Lee (4) notices that there is a problem explaining McClellan violating his orders by taking to the field himself and resolves this through the device of an "authorization meeting" of some sort, possibly inferential and (5) understands that McClellan has taken leadership of an amorphous, scarcely organized force – not the Army of the Potomac – and that in a few days of marches he has nullified the Maryland invasion without a single battle.

That is immense progress in Civil War history.

[Follow-up postings here and here.]