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“Ridiculous failure” - George McClellan and the Delafield Commission

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By John Laskey

 

Autumn 2006 sees the 150th anniversary of the end of the Crimean War, the conflict that to a large extent pre-figured the experiences of the American Civil War. The staging of this major European conflict did not go unnoticed by the United States government, which was keen to understand its lessons and to learn from them. Surprisingly however (and with hindsight) many of the major lessons of that earlier war were simply misunderstood or overlooked by the US authorities.

 

Those familiar with the cast of characters from the Civil War may find some irony in the key players involved in America’s quest for European military knowledge and also of its failure to grasp the deadly practical difficulties of the Crimean experience.


Some of this was due to the fact that the US military commission sent to observe the war was so delayed in its progress through Europe that it only arrived in the Crimea after an armistice had been signed. But readers of ‘Crossfire’ may also conclude that those most closely involved in the mission bore at least some responsibility for its failure to have any significant impact upon the ability of the United States to grasp any lessons for the forthcoming Civil War.

 

In April 1855, US Secretary of War (the same, later President of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis secretively summoned three specially chosen US army officers to Washington. He wanted them to form the US commission, which would go to the Crimean peninsula to find out about how modern European armies were fighting their wars. He gave them a long - in fact a rather too long list of things for their “specific attention”, covering a wide range of things: from medical and hospital arrangements to the new British secret weapon - the Lancaster gun. And even the use of camels for transport, including “their adoption to cold and mountainous conditions”. What Davis did not do is put this wish list into a coherent order of priorities, or give the commission’s members a chance to shape their investigations into a coherent and comprehensive report that could have delivered the US government a wider view of the European war-fighting experience. Given the diverse characters of the commission and their own particular ‘hobby-horses’ (and, it must be said, their lack of amity for each other) Davis’s direction was to have significant negative consequences upon the final product.

 

The officers were a diverse trio. It was to be led by the vinegary Richard Delafield (picture: third from left)- an engineer and former superintendent of West Point Military Academy with high scientific pretensions. Military ordnance was the specialism of Alfred Mordecai, a Jewish officer (picture: first on left). The last post to be filled needed to represent the army itself. Robert E Lee later expressed disappointment that the post had not fallen to him and it would certainly have been interesting if it had. Instead he gave the job to a 28 year-old former engineer, now cavalry officer who had already impressed Davis through some useful foreign intelligence work: George B McClellan (picture: first right).

 

The Prodigy

 

I have often wondered about the modern criticism of George McClellan’s generalship, compared with this popularity and standing during the Civil War. It seemed to me something on par with Douglas Haigh and ‘lions lead by donkeys’ school of history. But this critical view is very much upheld in popular writing about the war. Ken Burns’ Civil War series allowed McClellan’s sometimes arrogant writings to speak for themselves. Coupled with McClellan’s wartime record were his later, political challenges to Lincoln, which, in the Burns’s series at least, are made to represent the ‘defeatist’ party in the Presidential race of 1864. Lincoln’s saintly forbearance in the face of McClellan’s contempt completes the picture. McClellan’s goofiness is also picked up in modern fiction: Bernard Cornwall makes him appear as a vain, delusional, almost clown-like little man.

 

McClellan’s work on the Delafield Commission is a harbinger of some of the criticisms aimed at his Civil War service. But it also contains some hints of his sheer precocious cleverness. Some of the reasons, perhaps why in the eyes of a nation inexperienced in modern warfare, he may at first have appeared as a new American thinker, untroubled by antiquated models of military etiquette and theorising. His private and public words during the Commission provide a clear indication of his impatience and sometimes amazing capacity for learning and for hard work. It is clear that his positive contributions were often spoilt by his impatience with the foibles of his more experienced, though perhaps less gifted colleagues.

 

Americans In Paris

 

Armed with Davis’s wish list, the trio embarked for Liverpool in April 1855 with an admonition from Davis that they should stay in touch about their progress and preferably return to the US that November. As with many of Davis’s highly detailed plans, this was not how things worked out.

 

McClellan kept prosperity informed about the Commission’s work through letters to his future mother-in-law (which may seem strange by the standard of modern courtship, though it might not have seemed so at the time). In these, as in letters to his future wife during the Civil War, McClellan often vented his feelings about his contemporaries in a highly personal and revealing way. So Mrs Marcy soon learnt that Mordecai was “confirmed old fogie”, though he was careful to ensure that in public he gave his seniors “no reasonable grounds for suspicion or offence”. Unlike his future-famous contemporaries, McClellan’s papers were all very well preserved, which is perhaps why the volume of his occasional shrillness seems always turned up so high.

 

For his part Mordecai had the ear of Jefferson Davis – and on past him to President Franklin Pierce himself, through the connections of his wife Sara. Through this remarkable and well-connected woman, Alfred was able to keep Davis informed of the Commission’s progress (and occasional lack of it) something that Delafield’s more ponderous reliance on official channels could not match.

 

No clear plan

 

The Commissioners arrived in Britain to find that the pace of bureaucracy ground very slowly indeed and, were they to wait to see all they wished to there was a real risk that the war with Russia would end. In full dress uniform they were all formally presented to Queen Victoria (“humbug” wrote McClellan). But this was a necessary endorsement for their intended mission, including their eventual objective of visiting the British lines in the Crimea.

 

Though McClellan was distinctly unimpressed by his introduction to monarchy the Commissioners were to encounter quite a few more royal houses on their journey.

 

The team did get to note the Lancaster gun (which drew another “humbug” from McClellan, in private at least) but they were all dismayed at the groundswell of British public opinion against the war, its conduct and even those who were fighting for it. But the British authorities made no problems with their request to visit the lines, and Delafield’s team now needed to get the same recognition out of their French allies in order that the Commissioners might freely pass throughout the whole allied line. So they set off for Paris, intending to take in as much French military as they could along the way.

 

The attitude of the Americans to the French military was fairly typical of the mindset that permeated the military profession as represented by the three American officers. For many years the US military had been influenced by the writings of the Napoleonic era Baron Jomini, and perhaps the team expected some of the inspiration from that revered source to be apparent in their meeting with the great Emperor’s successor nephew, Napoleon III. They were to be very disillusioned.

 

The French obfuscated over granting permission for them to enter their lines in the Crimea. McClellan thought this was due to some bad feeling about a recent revelation of secret American designs upon Cuba, and the three officers got a correct but chilly reception from their French hosts. They felt snubbed and disillusioned when a second meeting arranged with the Emperor was cancelled, leaving them in the lurch.

 

So the Commission decided upon a sideways manoeuvre: to see if they might hurry on to the Crimea by getting to the lines of the allies’ Russian enemy. To this end they set off to Berlin and promptly got sucked in to a huge and rambling detour around parts of the Russian serf-empire, which took them further away than ever from the chance of seeing the war as Davis had intended.

 

In a sort of reverse of 20th century iron-curtain intrigues the three US Commissioners went to Prussia, intending to make contact with the Russians there. They caused quite a stir amongst the bourgeoisie of Berlin, especially when they appeared in their US army uniforms for the opera. In Berlin they made discrete contact with Lieutenant Colonel Obrescoff, (picture:second left, standing)a “gracious and well-connected” Russian officer whose clever stage management of the Americans had major consequences for the Report and for future US cavalry tactics.

 

Obrescoff was the key to their entry into late serf-era Russia. Early on in their travels there was a most unpleasant incident when a serf who got in the way of their carriage was savagely beaten, but they quickly put this impression aside when, upon reaching the Baltic port of Kronstadt they found the British fleet corked in, unable to bring its fighting strength to bear on the Russian defences. This evidence of the foremost sea power frustrated by advanced Russian engineering was a mirror image of the situation in the Crimea, and the Commissioners were suitably impressed.

 

At this point the tensions between Commissioners manifested themselves, with Mordecai arguing with Delafield over the latter’s preference to tour a succession of inland fortresses rather than stick to the original plan - and Davis’s admonitions - to make all haste to the Crimea before the war ended. In the meantime they all enjoyed a honeymoon with the Russian armed forces, and added the Czar to their long list of European monarchs encountered on their journey. In fact, this love-in, taken with the earlier manifestations of French hostility and British indifference had a major effect on all three Americans. They became quite converted to the Russian cause and were happy to have their photos taken alongside their patron Obrescoff . McClellan became particularly enamoured of the exotic Cossack light cavalry. Remarkable as it seems, in a very short time he applied his linguistic skills to the learning of Russian, in order to translate their handbook on cavalry tactics into English.

 

This became McClellan’s own ‘Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of Cavalry in the Time of War’ one of the real finds from the Commission’s tour that had a major impact on cavalry tactics and organisation during the Civil War.

 

In spite of their warm bear hug the Russians were no keener than their British and French enemies to give the Commissioners permission to go to the Crimea. In fact no permission was forthcoming from either of the belligerents when, in September 1855, the Commissioners decided to go there anyway, via Vienna and Constantinople. It was a difficult and frustrating journey, leading Mordecai to brand the whole affair a “ridiculous failure”. This view might have been compounded when, after arriving in the Crimea he fell ill. But it did lead him to personal treatment from Florence Nightingale herself, who impressed him.

 

The real frustration however was that the War was over by now, and the Commissioners heard no shots fired in anger. Even so, the French forbade them from approaching the Russian lines. This was made intolerable to the Commissioners when the French decided to give permission to another group of American officers who had not gone to the trouble of meeting Napoleon III for permission to do so.

 

In spite of McClellan’s friendly relations with the British soldiers he met, it was perhaps his new found Russophilia that convinced him that a war with England was inevitable.

 

When all three Commissioners travelled back via Austria, McClellan found there the cavalry saddle that, with very few adaptations, became associated with his name and added it to his bag of discoveries. Mordecai picked up another gem in France – a lightweight and durable 12lb cannon that could even fire howitzer shells, enabling the French to do away with all the different calibres and shapes that had made artillery logistics so difficult for centuries. When this revolutionary weapon came to be developed in the US, it tipped its hat to the French by being christened the ‘Napoleon’ gun.

 

When the Commissioners reached England for the return leg, they found permission awaiting them to visit arms factories, which they took advantage of before finally returning to the US in April 1856. All then went back to their respective homes. There was no collaboration in writing up the report, and McClellan in particular was quite late in writing up his findings. The result was a mess.

 

McClellan’s’ pre-Civil War military career effectively ended when, egged on by his friend Joseph Johnston, he went too far in telling Davis exactly how the US cavalry ought to be organised. Summoned to see Davis after a terse exchange of letters, McClellan quickly tendered his resignation from the army. After he took up a career on the railroads he couldn’t have foreseen his elevation to Civil War supremo, in opposition to his enemy Davis and friend Johnson.

 

The experience of the Commission certainly throws some interesting sidelights on McClellan’s character, helping us to understand why he so quickly rose to the top while, to some extent why his rise put him in the wrong place for history to judge him any kindlier.

 

Primary Sources

 

The Delafield Commission and the American Military Experience

 

- Matthew Moten (Texas A&M University Press 2000)

 

George B. McClellan & Civil War History

 

- Thomas J Rowland (Kent State University Press 1998)