As we look back at the Battle of Antietam and debate Union tactics, one question I don’t recall being given much attention (then by McClellan, now by historians) is “whither the Rebel 100,000?”
McClellan “knew” that Lee’s forces numbered 100,000 or more for the Maryland campaign. Nevertheless, he took the offensive on September 17 despite these alleged odds and, we now know, came within moments of overwhelming victory over Lee’s (actual about 45,000) men at several points. Overnight on September 18-19, Lee retreated to Virginia, meaning, McClellan later told his wife, that God had, “in his mercy, a second time made me the instrument for saving the nation.”
But did McClellan also wonder on September 18, “whither the Rebel 100,000?” That is, after September 17, did he or any of his key subordinates question his judgment about the numbers of his opponent? Would not they have logically asked themselves why Lee, if he had such a large number of men, retreated at all, but rather have launched a massive counter-attack with his huge reserves?
According to one eyewitness, McClellan’s aide David Strother, the Union army’s leadership could have seen the answer to those questions by simply looking at the battlefield on September 18. He wrote in his diary that day, “The enemy is…clearly in no condition to open the battle…I expressed my conviction that the enemy was beaten.” But nothing happened, and the battle was not renewed, McClellan having been diverted, in Strother’s opinion, by “weak-kneed counselors — respectable book soldiers — who concentrated all their wits in finding something to scare at.”
Jacob Cox, reviewing McClellan’s autobiography, McClellan’s Own Story, in “The Nation” magazine, noted that McClellan made no reference there to his judgment about troop numbers in the Maryland campaign. This fact, Cox wrote, was implicitly “an admittance of being wrong.”
As far as I know, McClellan never admitted being wrong. To have done so in September 1862 would perhaps have undercut both his victory and his reputation. Clearly he didn’t change his strategy or tactics — he still delayed and moved slowly until he was fired in early November. Perhaps, he still believed in the countless rebel reserves?