|General George Brinton McClellan|
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
The standard view of Union General George B. McClellan is that he had good organizational skills but was a poor field general. For the first six months or so when he was in charge of the Union army in 1861-62, McClellan was very popular with his troops, including the 85th Pennsylvania regiment. As they trekked up the Virginia peninsula in the spring of 1862, morale was high and a quick victory was anticipated. The prevailing view was not IF Richmond fell but WHEN. McClellan's leadership was thought to be a key component of an impending Union victory in the war.
This positive view of "Little Mac" was shared by most of the men of the 85th Pennsylvania until McClellan unfairly shamed them (and the rest of their division led by General Silas Casey) for allegedly retreating like cowards at Seven Pines (VA) on May 31, 1862. Of course Casey's outnumbered troops had held off a substantial Confederate attack for several hours until help arrived, but this information never got to McClellan, who made his rash statement mainly based on the report of III Corps General Samuel Heintzelman.
Heintzelman, who was in charge of McClellan's two corps on the south side of the Chickahominy River that day when the Confederates attacked, apparently needed a scapegoat for being unprepared for the rebel offensive. General Casey became a convenient patsy.
The 85th Pennsylvania, in Casey's division (of Erasmus Keyes' IV Corps) was stationed far in front of the rest of Heintzelman's command, with flanks exposed. Casey's Division was McClellan's least experienced division, decimated by disease. Why McClellan would place them at the front of his 120,000 may army, just three miles from his goal of Richmond, the Confederate capital, is a mystery. Casey's men became an inviting target for General Joseph Johnston and his Confederate troops.
|Headstone of Private Joseph Wilgus|
Company B 85th PA
Seven Pines National Cemetery
On the second day of the two-day battle, which ended with no decisive winner, McClellan informed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that all of his troops had fought hard, with the exception of Casey's Division. Relying on Heintzelman's cover-my-rear-end assessment, McClellan said Casey's men "had given way unaccountably and discreditably." As if to emphasize his words, McClellan later stated in the same report, "With the exception of Casey's division, our men behaved splendidly."
McClellan's report, which went public on June 2 was based on Heintzelman's input. Besides Casey and Keyes who immediately voiced strenuous objections to the report, the press began to be seriously question McClellan's unjust claims. This prompted McClellan to backtrack two weeks after the battle, stating, "My dispatch...was based upon official statements made to me before I arrived on the battle-field...From statements made to me subsequently...I am induced to believe that portions of the division behaved well and made a most gallant stand against superior numbers..."
For the regiments involved like the 85th Pennsylvania, it was a case of too little, too late. Casey was soon sacked and spent the rest of the war in Washington, DC.
Coupled with McClellan's retreat from the Virginia peninsula a month later following the Seven Days' Battles, McClellan's reputation within the ranks of the 85th Pennsylvania took a severe hit.
Lieutenant John E. Michener of Company D, once a staunch supporter, of Little Mac, had this to say in a letter written home several months after the battle. Michener wrote the following to his brother and sister back home in Fredericktown, Washington County in August of 1862.
|Lieutenant John E. Michener|
"Madam rumor says that Burnside is likely to relieve McClellan of his command. Altho' I have ever been a friend of McClellan's, vindicating him whenever assailed, I have now lost confidence in him, believing him to be unequal for the great task before him. My ardent attachment to him had blinded my eyes to all his blundering errors of the past. Ye Gods! What has he done? Visit the rude cabins from Newport News to the Chickahominy Swamp and there view innumerable mounds --the unmarked spots, where rest the remains of patriotic soldiers! Then go to the battlefields of Fair Oaks [Seven Pines], Mechanicsville, White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, and as you gave upon the bleaching bones of the brave men that gave their lives to their County, you will have an answer! I am in favor of a man who is for a vigorous prosecution of this war. Pope and Burnside have both proven themselves active generals, and I would prefer being under either of them."
Part of Gordon's allegiance was political. Gordon's family back home in Greene County, PA, were loyal Democrats. Gordon's father, John, had run for county school superintendent several times as a Democrat. McClellan eventually ran against Abraham Lincoln as the candidate of the Democrat Party in the election of 1864 and lost, although he carried Gordon's home county of Greene County.
Part of Gordon's fealty may also have been that he missed the Battle of Seven Pines while recovering from a disease in a New York City hospital.
Nonetheless, here is a vignette imparted by Gordon as to McClellan's affection for the common soldier. The article was published about seven months after McClellan's death in October of 1885. It ironically was also published within a few days of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Pines.
The article was entitled, "McClellan's Kindness." Gordon rejoined his regiment at the beginning of August. The 85th regiment crossed the Chickahominy River on August 16, and General McClellan and his staff passed by on August 19.
|Sergeant M.L. Gordon|
"Reference is frequently made to the peculiar personal attachment which General McClellan’s troops had for him. The following incident may be worthy of record as illustrating one of the causes of this attachment:
“In August, 1862, during the march of the Army of the Potomac, from Harrison’s Landing to
"Presently the clanking of sabers told of the approach of a body of mounted men. Just as they reached us the leader drew up and said quietly: “Better cross to the other side lads, or you will be covered with dust.”
"It was a slight act, but it showed that the commander of the army – for such we recognized him to be, just as he and his staff moved on – was not indifferent to the comfort of the humblest soldier.”