The McClellan / Lincoln manpower dialogue: duly noted by Neely

One of the many pleasant surprises in Mark Neely's The Union Divided is the fuss he makes on discovering the sub rosa manpower dialogue between Lincoln and McClellan.

The incidents I've collected on this for my own use complement rather than duplicate Neely's - a situation that tempts me to push this topic towards an article-length project. Needless to say, Union Divided appeared before this blog started and so I tender my complements to the author who "broke the story" to the fleas-across-the-barnyard crowd.

You have yoursleves, as readers, caught a glimpse of this exchange whenever pop historians trot out the Lincoln quote about sending men to McClellan being like shoveling fleas across a barnyard. It's a cute bit of imagery that plays into the wise-but-humorous Lincoln stereotype and it's generally deployed in a rundown of McClellan's peninsula manpower demands.

It makes no sense in that context, however, which caught my attention the first time I saw it. The imagery is about diminishing strength not increasing strength. Lincoln generally being someone who expressed himself as intended, it has to be taken at its meaning. It helps to know that this is one bit from an extended "offline" conversation in which the general presents the president with the horrifying reality of strength on the field.

Given the historian's love of utterly round numbers based on ludicrous muster roll figures, it may be another generation before our writers catch up to the core of the Lincoln / McClellan exchange on this. I'll quote an earlier post:
In speaking to some ladies after Antietam, Lincoln told them that McClellan lost 30,000 men to straggling within two hours of the start of the battle.

At the end of the battle on the Antietam, Mac had George Meade, then commanding Hooker's Corps, prepare a secret memo for Lincoln's visit telling how many men Hooker had brought into battle versus what the returns said he brought to bear. Here is Meade:

I prepared a statement showing that Hooker's corps on paper was thirty-one thousand five hundred strong; that of this number there were present for duty only twelve thousand, and of these, a numerical list, made on the day of battle after we came out of action, showed only seven thousand. Hence, while the United States were *paying* and the authorities at Washington were *relying* and basing their orders and plans on the belief that we had thirty-one thousand five hundred men, facts showed that we had in reality, on the field fighting, only nine thousand. As to the seven thousand that came out of the fight, we should add some two thousand killed and wounded in it. (Geo Meade, letter to his wife, 10/5/62)
Neely characterizes Lincoln as "obsessed" with the disparity in AOP muster roll numbers and boots on the ground and I think a case can be made for "obsession." Neely may err, however, by focusing this in the timeframe of the Maryland Campaign and McClellan's second Richmond drive when it can be found in summer correspondence.

On to Neely's incident collection.

First, he notes that Lincoln was soliciting strength numbers directly from McClellan's subordinates. This was very typical of Lincoln's unpleasant management style but it is untypical in its being systematic and topically focused.

Neely does not say this, so let me emphasize a point of my own. There is a point where Lincoln validates what McClellan has been telling him. He satisfies himself that McClellan's need for men arises from the very low AOP "participation levels" (my term). The low level of Union participation in combat dictates the need for a higher count of muster roll strength - and that is not something that can be openly discussed. And so Lincoln and McClellan carry on this quiet exchange about it.

McClellan was (predictably) much more discreet about this embarassment than Lincoln and so much of the evidence of their interactions on this comes from Lincolnian materials. Neely cites a letter in which Lincoln writes
The Army is constantly depleted by company officers who give their men leave of absence in the very face of the enemy , and on the eve of an engagement, which is almost as bad as desertion. At this very moment there are between seventy and one hundred thousand men absent on fulough from the Army of the Potomac.
Now, having internalized McClellan's dilemma, Lincoln needs an explanation for it. He rationalizes in this letter that the men are demoralized by McClellan's reliance on strategy - that hard fighting would keep them by the colors. All in all a rather startling demonstration of the distorting strength of Republican war fighting ideology on the mind of an ace lawyer, I would say.

But I may not have done his point justice. In a meeting with members of the Sanitary Commission, Lincoln begins a diatribe against McClellan on the same Radical lines. However in this particular rant, he suggests that absenteeism is so high because soldiers feel the war will be won by strategy and that therefore their suffering is not entirely necessary. In other words, McClellan can do it without their individual sacrifices. He again refers to the machinery of absenteeism as being the company furlough. (Elected officers in the army's overwhelmingly Republican regiments knew how to stay elected, indeed they did.)

In December, the month after McClellan's relief, Neely notes a Lincoln letter to Orville Browning which returns to the problem of absence with leave. Lincoln tells Browning that the absolute highest ratio of AOP strength that could be brought on to the field was 60%. He tells Browning that the combined armies before Antietam showed a muster roll strength of over 180,000 but that only 93,000 were present for duty.

Note that it is from the present for duty numbers that you begin to deduct for details, detachments, illness, and battlefield skulking and that Lincoln's 93,000 would include the capital defense forces not taken to the field against Lee.

Chilling stuff: an impossible manpower dilemma; an irrational boss who hates strategy and blames his leading general for absenteeism; a hardened veteran enemy with high morale and unified leadership.

That's my Civil War. Thank you, Mark Neely, for noticing it.