On 'Little Mac's' staff

Keogh (seated fourth from left) with General McClellan's staff and aides - October 1862

When Myles Keogh and Joseph O'Keeffe were requested by Major General George McClellan and arrived for duty from General Buford's staff on the 10th of September 1862, 'Little Mac' was already eight days in command of the Army of the Potomac, having been recalled by President Lincoln. McClellan's return, including the authority by which he deposed General Pope as overall commander, is still the subject of much debate.On the morning of the 2nd, McClellan says:  

"The President and General Halleck came to my house, when the President informed me that Colonel Kelton had returned from the front; that our affairs were in a bad condition; that the army was in full retreat upon the defences of Washington; the roads filled with stragglers, etc. He instructed me to take steps at once to stop and collect the stragglers; to place the works in a proper state of defence, and to go out to meet and take command of the army, when it approached the vicinity of the works, then to place the troops in the best position--committing everything to my hands." 

So far as appears, this verbal order of the President was the only one by which McClellan was reinstated in command, and there does not seem to have been any order issued by virtue of which the Army of Virginia ceased to exist. McClellan's first official act was to send a letter of suggestion, rather than command, to Pope, and he addressed it to "Major-General John Pope, Commanding Army of Virginia,'' and signed it "Geo. B. McClellan, Major-General United States Army." Eleven days later we find him dating a letter "Headquarters Army of the Potomac," and adding to his signature the words "Major-General Commanding.'' 

Keogh's and O'Keeffe's role as junior staffers would have included carrying messages from HQ to commanders in the field as well as accompanying McClellan as part of an escort as he travelled about the various sections of the army. Despite a search of official records, no mention of Myles Keogh was made in dispatches. However, Captain Joseph O'Keeffe is referenced in one dispatch giving some indication of the two Irish captain's usage at McClellan's headquarters; 

Major-General, Commanding Corps.September 15-11 a. m.
General GEORGE B. McCLELLAN, Commanding: 

GENERAL: I have received your dispatch by Captain O'Keeffe. The enemy is in large force in my front, in two lines of battle stretching across the valley, and a large column of artillery and infantry on the right of the valley looking toward Harper's Ferry. They outnumber me two to one. It will, of course, not answer to pursue the enemy under these circumstance. I shall communicate with Burnside as soon as possible. In the mean time I shall wait here until I learn what is the prospect of re-enforcement. I have not the force to justify an attack on the force I see in front. I have had a very close view of it, and its position is very strong.

Respectfully, 

W. B. FRANKLIN,Major-General.
 

The task of carrying messages was more than just delivering letters - commands on both sides relied on mounted messengers to bring information and carry orders to the commander actually engaged. A "galloper" who failed to find the recipient of his message could tip a battle one way or the other. According to his official records, McClellan sent three of his staff to Harpers Ferry with messages for the commanding officer, Colonel Miles. The mission was exceedingly dangerous as it would have required breaking through enemy lines during a siege – none could get through.
 
 
On more than one occasion, while McClellan was visiting troops in the field, he and his escort came under artillery fire. General McClellan rode his black horse, "Daniel Webster," which, on account of the difficulty of keeping pace with him, was better known to his staff as "that devil Dan"! It was also recorded that McClellan and his escort would ride among his troops at night – a dangerous practice that ultimately cost ‘Stonewall’ Jackson his life.

One of the benefits of being with the overall commander of the army in the field is the experience of seeing, at first hand, the orchestration of thousands of men as battles ebb and flow. Myles Keogh would have this experience during two major battles, firstly at South Mountain, September 14, 1862 - the prelude to Antietam

The Wise Farm At Fox's Gap, South Mountain


Union cavalry under Pleasanton found D.H. Hill's (CSA) division defending Turner's Gap on the morning of September 14th. By nine o'clock, J.D. Cox (US) attacked with his division and by noon the rest of IX Corps under Reno (US) arrived to press the attack through Fox's Gap. Hooker's 1st Corps (US) arrived later and attacked about a mile to the north. Burnside (US) commanding the right wing of McClellan's army (I and IX corps), soon appeared on the field to coordinate the operation. By 10 P.M. the Federals had succeeded by vigorous fighting in seizing the high ground commanding Turner's Gap, and the Confederates started withdrawing about midnight - General Reno (US) was killed as was the Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland, Jr. If the battle of South Mountain was fought to prevent the advance of McClellan, it was a failure on the part of the Confederates. If it was fought to save Lee's trains and artillery, and to reunite his scattered forces, it was a Confederate success. The former view was taken by the President of the United States, Abe Lincoln, for he telegraphed to General McClellan on the 15th of September: "God bless you and all with you. Destroy the rebel army, if possible."
 

Again at Antietam on the 17th September, Keogh and O'Keeffe would have been at the heart of the Union army engine house that was McClellan's HQ. One journalist later posted an account of the battle as it progressed, referring to 'Little Mac's' headquarters at the Pry mansion (pictured below as it was in 1862 and at present):


"Turning from the conflict on the right, I rode down the line, toward the center, forded the Antietam and ascended the hill east of it to the large square mansion of Mr. Pry, where General McClellan had established his headquarters. The general was sitting in an arm-chair in front of the house.

His staff were about him; their horses, saddled and bridled, were hitched to the trees and fences. Stakes had been driven in the earth in front of the house, to which were strapped the headquarters telescopes, through which a view of the operations and movements of the two armies could be obtained. It was a commanding situation. The panorama included fully two-thirds of the battle-field, from the woods by the Dunker Church southward to the hills below Sharpsburg."


Confederate dead on the east side of the Hagerstown Pike, Antietam Battlefield

Antietam was the bloodiest battle in the civil war as McClellan's army attacked while the Confederates were drawn up along Antietam Creek on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, inflicting some 10,300 casualties while losing almost 12,500 men. McClellan's natural caution, his belief that he was outnumbered and some poorly co-ordinated attacks allowed Lee to defend Union attacks and withdraw to Virginia. While the rebel Army of Northern Virginia remained a significant force, southern hopes of Maryland joining the Confederacy were dashed as was the possibility of foreign intervention on their behalf. Lincoln also had the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

To date, a debate has raged on whether McClellan lost an opportunity to win the war after Antietam by not pursuing Lee and crushing the withdrawing Rebels. George McClellan's achievement in turning a dispirited and dishevelled Union army - as it was after the tactical 'draw' of the Battle of Second Manassas - should not be underestimated; the fact that it occurred within a two week period adds to McClellan's reputation as a superb organiser and motivator of soldiers. The President told his assistant William O. Stoddard "Well, Stoddard, for organizing an army, for preparing an army for the field or for fighting a defensive campaign, I will back General McClellan against any general of modern times—I don't know but of ancient times also." 

Furthermore, from South Mountain to Antietam, General McClellan was in direct communication with Washington. It appears from the telegraphic correspondence which was carried on between Abraham Lincoln's general-in-chief, General Henry Halleck and McClellan, that while the latter believed that General Lee's object was the invasion of Pennsylvania, Halleck could not divest himself of the notion that Lee was about to play the Union army some slippery trick by turning its left, getting between it and Washington and Baltimore, and then taking each city by a coup-de-main.The following are extracts from some of General Halleck's dispatches: 

SEPT. 14.---" Scouts report a large force still on Virginia side of the Potomac, near Leesburg, If so, I fear you are exposing your left flank, and that the enemy can cross in your rear." 
SEPT. 16.---"I fear now more than ever that they [the enemy] will recross at Harper's Ferry, or below, and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington. . . ." 

These dispatches demonstrate that it was McClellan's duty as a subordinate to move slowly and cautiously in his advance, although he believed that the whole of Lee's army was in his front. It is little wonder that he continued to be cautious after the Battle of Antietam but this caution was causing frustration among the anti-McClellan political establishment in Washington prompting President Lincoln to visit army HQ in the field on October 1st.

General McClellan says in his general report: "His Excellency the President honored the Army of the Potomac with a visit, and remained several days, during which he went through the different encampments, reviewed the troops, and went over fire battle-fields of South Mountain and Antietam, I had the opportunity during this visit to describe to him the operations of the army since the time it left Washington, and gave him my reasons for not following the enemy after he crossed the Potomac." 

In "McClellan's Own Story" he says that the President "more than once assured me that he was fully satisfied with my whole course from the beginning: that the only fault he could possibly find was, that I was too prone to be sure that everything was ready before acting, but that my actions were all right when I started. I said to him that I thought a few experiments with those who acted before they were ready would probably convince him that in the end I consumed less time than they did." 

Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote in one of his anonymous newspaper dispatches: "The President's visit to the army was a wise and well-advised action, and Mr. Lincoln has, no doubt, obtained from personal observation and friendly consultation with his favorite general, a far better and clearer idea of the position and capabilities of the army, than he could ever have done from the garbled and unfair reports of either the friends or the enemies of McClellan." 

Nonetheless, after the President's return to Washington on the 5th of October, Halleck sent a telegraph to McClellan that signalled the beginning of the end of his military career - "The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south."

The damage to McClellan's military progress seems to have been done by Jackson’s occupation of Harpers Ferry but more particularly, by Stuart's cavalry, constantly sniping and causing an already poorly equipped Union cavalry untold trouble. Soon the Union cavalry ran out of fit horses and McClellan was, almost on a daily basis, writing in support of his cavalry department looking for a new supply of mounts.

On at least two occasions, McClellan cites this reason for not pursuing Lee, conscious of Stuart roaming the adjoining countryside with an almost free hand. His reasoned letters caused the President to curtly respond, enquiring "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?" Again McClellan replies in detail and with good military reasoning but Lincoln appears not to realise the current state of his army and, particularly, the all important cavalry wing.

McClellan was conscious that he was being ordered to invade the Confederate States "where the inhabitants furnished to the enemy every possible assistance". He continues, in response, to state that during such an action it was imperative to have "an efficient cavalry force". In McClellan's defence, records show that, apart from the cavalry picketing the river, there were only approximately 1000 horses available for service at the time of Lincoln's response. One can’t help wondering if McClellan conversed, informally of course, to his two cavalry captains, O'Keeffe & Keogh, about what was required for the efficient operation of his mounted wing, post-Antietam.

In short, Lincoln took a chance on McClellan, needed results and a quick end to the war but his army was in no state to produce. McClellan knew this and was in the progress of rebuilding. It all happened too slowly for the politicians and ‘Little Mac’ suffered the brunt of it. He was proven correct in later years because as the Union cavalry improved, so did the Union army’s performance on the battlefield. 



His manner of leaving was also cruel; his good friend, General Burnside, came to his tent and informed him that he was taking over (illustration above taken from Harper's Weekly, 1862). McClellan was told to go home to and await orders that never came.

"Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, November 10th, 1862.

In accordance with General Orders, No. 182, issued by the President of the United States, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac.

Patriotism, and the exercise of my every energy in the direction of this army, aided by the full and hearty cooperation of its officers and men, will, I hope, under the blessing of God, insure its success. Having been a sharer of the privations, and a witness of the bravery of the old Army of the Potomac in the Maryland campaign, and fully identified with them in their feelings of respect and esteem for General McClellan, entertained through a long and most friendly association with him, I feel that it is not as a stranger I assume command.

To the Ninth Army Corps, so long and intimately associated with me, I need say nothing: our histories are identical. With diffidence for myself, but with a proud confidence in the unswerving loyalty and determination of the gallant army now intrusted to my care, I accept its control, with the steadfast assurance that the just cause must prevail.

A.E. Burnside,
Major General Commanding."