Bickering Generals

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

mssEC_01_020 - bickering_generals

The telegraph offered a revolutionary breakthrough in communications, however, no technology could ease personal tensions or alleviate turf wars. Two telegrams spotted by hungmung, one of our valiant volunteers, offer an intriguing insight into one of such conflict.

Both telegrams were received in Washington on February 7, 1862.  Both involved Henry W. Halleck (Alden), then the commander of the Department of the Missouri; George B. McClellan (Andes), the general-in-chief of Union armies; and Don Carlos Buell (Alvord), the head of the Department of the Ohio. The telegrams were part of a complicated but little known conflict over the course of action in the West.

Lincoln urged speedy occupation of the heavily Unionist Tennessee, but McClellan and his old friend Buell wanted instead to target Nashville. The heads of two Western departments, Halleck and Buell, could not get along. When Buell came up with a plan to launch a dual advance on the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers, Halleck dismissed the plan as “madness” on the grounds that the Union troops in the West were too scattered to provide for any sort of sustained campaign.

Things got even more complicated in late January 1862. McClellan, perhaps hoping to score some political points, proposed to shift the fighting to Kentucky and then move on to East Tennessee. Upon his request, the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent his Assistant Secretary Thomas A. Scott to explore the logistics of transferring some 60,000 troops from McClellan’s command to Buell’s headquarters in Louisville.

On January 29, McClellan fired off a telegram to Halleck warning him of the impending Confederate expedition into Kentucky. The next day, Halleck ordered Ulysses S. Grant to start immediately for Fort Henry.

At the same time Buell decided to go to East Tennessee after all. When Halleck, who was getting cold feet about the operation, asked Buell either to transfer some of his troops or to stage a diversion, Buell was less than enthusiastic, even after McClellan urged his friend to help Halleck by switching the line of attack from East Tennessee to Bowling Green, Ky.

In the second telegram, Buell telegraphed McClellan complaining about Halleck’s move which, although “right in its strategic bearing” had been commenced without “appreciation, preparation, or concert.” Now that it had “become of vast magnitude,” Buell noted that he was indeed contemplating “a change of the line to support” but warned that this sudden change of direction was “hazardous.”

The telegram appears in on pp. 587-588 of vol. 7 of the 1st Series of the Official Records. It is clear that the publication differs from the ledger record. For example, the phrase “without appreciation, preparation, or concert,” was edited to read “without appreciation – preparative or concert.”

Moreover, the publication does not include the telegram that, as the ledger shows, immediately preceded it.  The telegram at the top of the page was published some sixteen years later; it appears on p. 206 of vol. 52 (part I). It was also printed with errors: it seems to indicate that the telegram was sent from Washington, D.C. and addressed to an “L. Thomas.” As seen in the ledger, the telegram was in fact addressed to General George Thomas and sent from Buell’s headquarters in Louisville. Because the telegrams were printed out of sequence and with serious errors, the connection between them has long been overlooked.

As the ledger shows, Buell was indeed contemplating the transfer of some Ohio and Indiana regiments. Also, the published version of the telegram from Buell to McClellan features a time-stamp that seems to show it took almost 12 hours to transmit it: the message sent at midnight of February 6 was received at 11:30 a.m. of February 7. The ledger, however, shows no time stamp on this or the preceding telegram. In fact, there were only two more telegrams that similarly lacked the time stamp. All four were received on February 7 and all followed a confidential report from Thomas A. Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War to his boss Edwin M. Stanton.

That report, which also does not appear in OR, describes Scott’s effort to facilitate the confusing and bitter communications between Halleck’s and Buell’s departments. It appears that our telegrams were attached to the report. The ledger shows that the telegrams were received along with the report by a USMT operator in Washington at 1:30 a.m. rather than 11:30 a.m. of February 7.

Generals bickering on the battlefield is nothing new. What is interesting is to see how that bickering has been captured and then reinterpreted over time. These messages  offer a confirmation of the primary importance of our job here at Decoding the Civil War.

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One response to “Bickering Generals”

  1. Hunter S. Jones says :

    I love reading McClellan stories. Thanks!

    Like

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