Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Today in History, September 18: 1862 – Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory…again and for the last time. The Battle of Antietam in Maryland had drawn to a close the previous day. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, it can’t be said that either side “won” the battle, but it was a tactical victory for the Union. Lee had to retreat back to Virginia, Lincoln was able to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, and European powers decided not to recognize the Confederacy as a result. And yet, Union Major General George B. McClellan managed to let go of an advantage that could have ended the war much earlier, saving countless lives….

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, arguably the most fierce force the South had at it’s disposal, 43,000 strong, was exhausted, demoralized, and had it’s back to the Potomac River. McClellan, who had 50,000+ in his Union army, a third of which (the portion under his immediate control) had not engaged in the battle, and with thousands of fresh reinforcements arriving by the hour, refused to engage with Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape across the Potomac. He then refused for over a month to give chase. McClellan had an incredible ego, but it was not commensurate with his abilities. He had a persistent knack for overestimating his enemies. He assumed that Lee had 100,000 troops, which was a ridiculous assumption…he had done this several times in his career…if he’d had a million troops, he would have said his enemy had five. President Lincoln and Chief of Staff Henry Halleck implored McClellan repeatedly to use the army he commanded, but he made excuse after excuse and refused. Finally, on November 9th, Lincoln fired him for the final time. McClellan would run against the President in ’64 on a platform calling for an end to the war without achieving victory (a platform he reportedly denounced.)

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