by Paul D Windsor
On September 17, 1862, 85,000 Federal troops under McClellan faced 50,000 Confederate troops from the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee across a meandering stream outside the small, sleepy village of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The stream was called Antietam; the day was the bloodiest 24 Hour period in the American Civil War; and the Battle of Antietam, which began five days earlier in a quiet field outside Frederick, Maryland as the last best hope for a quick victory & peace, changed the course of the entire war – and ended the career of a cautious General.
Time and again in the game of Diplomacy, an ambitious General must weigh the decision to attack or defend, to be safe or go for the gusto, to proceed carefully and methodically or go hog wild. While there is no single answer to knowing when to be conservative and when to let it all hang out, from history we can watch as different commanders contemplate caution, learn some of what motivated their decisions, and observe the results. It is my hope that each reader will gain insights from these historical examples – ideas to apply to your Diplomacy play that you may find the sweet reward of victory. Well, at least in games I m NOT in.
War, like Diplomacy, is more than a battle between faceless armies, between bunches of plastic or wooden markers, or even between masses of men facing each other with deeds of courage and bravery. When the power of the Roman armies were reported to Hannibal after his crossing of the Alps he is reported to have replied What is this parroting of numbers? Give me one look into the mind of Flaminius” (the Roman Consul). Hannibal understood that war (and this is true of Diplomacy as well) at its heart was a battle between the minds of the commanding Generals.
Major General George Brinton McClellan was a man of contrasts. Only 36 years of age, he was commander of the jewel of the Union armies and believed that it was his destiny to save the Union. Loving the Union and deploring slavery he had no hate in him for the armies he was fighting and earnestly desired the day when South and North would once again stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers. Granted the largest and most powerful army of its time, he remained convinced that General Lee had a larger and more powerful force. Seeking peace, he feared the brutal victory that would alienate the South and prevent a negotiated peace. And above all he was saddled with the belief (shared with the War Department) that his task was also to ensure the safety of Washington. With all these conflicting forces at work in his mind, the Battle of Antietam played itself out.
Antietam was a case of missed opportunities for McClellan and the Union. Having a golden opportunity, with the Discovery of Confederate Special Orders 191 revealing that Lee had split his forces and that the Union army was in position to crush each piece in detail, McClellan hesitated a day before advancing. Federal forces then allowed inferior units to delay them at Crampton s Gap and Turner s Gap while General Lee succeeded in bringing a sizable portion of his army (tho still far less than the whole) together for a stand around the town of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862.
Some of the worst fighting of the day was around and through Mr. Miller s thriving 40 acre cornfield for possession of the high ground marked by the unprepossessing presence of a Dunker church building. The high ground commanded much of the Confederate defensive position and if it could be taken and held Lee s forces would be driven from the field with no where to go but into a trap between the Potomac River and the victorious Union army. In such a circumstance there can be little doubt that the Army of Northern Virginia would have been taken practically as a whole and with it all of McClellan s hopes and dreams could have been realized: restoration of the Union, a negotiated peace which left slavery untouched, reconciliation with the Southern states, and a hero s crown for the victor and savior of the nation. Within 36 hours Lee s army was retiring across the Potomac, living to fight on, and McClellan was letting him go.
In a series of attacks and counter attacks around the cornfield and along a nearby sunken road two entire Union Corps and much of a third contested with Confederate units under Stonewall Jackson, D.H. Hill, McLaws; Jubal Early, Hood, & JEB Stuart – and ground themselves into dust. The Southern lines held, it is true, but only by the narrowest of margins. Confederate General Longstreet, even years after the battle, agreed that as few as ten thousand fresh Federal troops could have swept the defenses and taken Lee s army & all it possessed.” Those ten thousand fresh Federals” were actually available in the Corp of General William Buel Franklin – ready and willing to fight. Unfortunately, Franklin s Corp was also the only remaining organized Federal command on the right side of the Union lines. The risk, if those forces committed to the attack and lost, that the Rebels would flank and sweep the Union position was too great for McClellan to countenance. Franklin s Corp was held back from a solid attack and was only used piecemeal to bolster faltering attacks elsewhere.
Elsewhere it was the same story: heavy fighting, heavy casualties on both sides. Union forces attacking weaker Confederate units in defensive positions, both sides tearing each other to bits, and Lee s lines holding only by grit and determination. A Union attack on the southern end of the line in the afternoon was on the verge of success and was beaten back only by the timely arrival of units from A.P. Hills Division – units which arrived in the nick of time only after making a forced march through the night and morning – units which were worn with weariness but gave their last efforts nonetheless to stop the Union advance. The Union commanders on the front lines realized how thin were the Confederate positions by late afternoon. Word was sent back begging that fresh troops come up for a final attack that would break Lee s army in pieces. Once again, those fresh forces were available: another entire Federal Corp under General Fitz-John Porter, held as a reserve, fresh and ready to go smashing things. For a time it seemed that McClellan might actually approve the attack this time – until, as it is recorded, Porter reminded the commanding General that he commanded the last reserve of the last army of the Republic” – and the attack was not made – and Lee held his position.
In the end, the battle was ironic. McClellan sought a smashing victory that would end the war on his own terms and crown himself the hero and savior of the Union. Time and again he had that victory within his grasp. But he also wanted to ensure that he would not lose and that Washington would be safe from Rebel forces. And seeking the safe path he lost the smashing win he desired, settling for driving Lee back into Virginia. Because he gained ONLY a tactical victory, the war would go on. Because he gained AT LEAST that victory, however, Lincoln was able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And that transformed the war into a struggle to abolish Slavery, a war which precluded a negotiated peace. And that was a war which McClellan simply could not wage. Seven weeks later, McClellan was relieved of his command.
And so a General, with victory in his grasp, allowed the fear of failure to paralyze his tactics and rob him of the glories he sought; and in the end to rob him of his career. May the ambitious Diplomat, in commanding HIS armies, beware of the caution that paralyzes.
In upcoming articles, the study of Caution – Used and Abused” will continue with other examples from history: Grant, in The Wilderness”; Bradley at Mortain, Avranches, and Argentan; Halsey & Nagumo at Midway”; and more. Stay tuned!
Reprinted from Diplomacy World 78