Sunday, May 6, 2012

Stonewall and Little Mac, a study in contrasts from 150 years ago

Battle of Williamsburg from The Civil War Preservation Trust

During the first week of May, 1862, 150 years ago, two military campaigns were unfolding in Virginia that offer and interesting study in contrasts. Although about 175 miles apart as the crow flies -- and considerably further as the soldier marched -- Maj. Gen. George B. "Little Mac" McClellan's Peninsula Campaign and Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Valley campaign were intimately related and, before the campaigns ended, became intertwined.

Detail from OTR map showing the area around Williamsburg
The two campaigns are each the subject of a game in the classic Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series from Avalon Hill. Stonewall in the Valley, Volume IV in the game series, covers "The Full Campaign in the Shenandoah from March to June 1862. On to Richmond, Volume VI in the series, covers "The Peninsula Campaign April-July 1862.

The first thing one notes about these two game is the extraordinary length of time they cover in a game system that otherwise typically deals with campaigns measured in a few weeks. While each contains a number of scenarios depicting specific phases and incidents in the long campaigns, the grand campaign game needs to cope with not just a long period of time, but also the fact of the other campaign. One solution is to play both games simultaneously and that is an option covered -- but that takes up  a lot of space (five 22" by 32" maps) and time (SIV up to 14 hours and OTR up to 2 days).

More practical is to play each game on its own and use the in-game rules that account for the influence of the off-map campaigns.

Jackson's valley campaign is generally considered a masterpiece of maneuver warfare, as he tied down larger Union forces for most of the time and in the end was able to redeploy to the Richmond are to take part in that campaign as well. While Jackson didn't win every fight and he didn't always live up to expectations once he arrived with Lee's army, for the most part the key characteristic of his conduct was energy

In contrast, McClellan's defining characteristic, I think, was not so much lethargy as detachment. One thing that has always struck me about McClellan's conduct on the battlefield was how rarely he seemed to actually be near the fighting. I see no reason to think that this had to do with a lack of never but instead I think it reflected McClellan's view of his role -- as an overall coordinator and policy setter rather than a tactical commander. I don't think he was necessarily wrong in this as he was overzealous about it.  He usually seemed to be too far from the action to properly do the coordination part of his job and his corps commanders were, as  a result, pretty much on their own. The Battle of Williamsburg on May 5 illustrates this. While his subordinates fought a sharp fight, and several of them started to make their reputations here (Hooker as a division commander, Hancock "The Superb" as  a brigade commander) Little Mac was miles away and had little control over what was happening. As a result the Rebel arny managed to extricate itself from what could have been a tight spot.

In early May, however, these defining characteristics had not yet manifested themselves entirely.  Jackson was just starting his series of marches that would take the breath away from his opponents and earn his troops the sobriquet of "foot cavalry. And, while McClellan was already showing the "slows" that would come to define him to posterity, it wasn't yet clear how many opportunities it would cost him and the nation. After all, Johnston retreated from Williamsburg and McClellan's plan to get to Richmond seemed to be working.

Stay tuned.

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