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PINKERTON AND McCLELLAN: WHO DECEIVED WHOM? Edwin C. Fishel The best known intelligence failure of the Civil War is Allan Pinkerton's severe overestimating of Confederatenumbers. Generalbeliefholds his bungling calculations largely responsible for the extreme cautiousness that brought about the failures of his chief, General George Brinton McClellan—failures that delayed the successful prosecution of the war by a year or more. According to this view, Pinkerton, though a highly successful detective, was incompetent at the business of military intelligence , and McClellan, brilliant organizer and administrator though he was, was thoroughly deceived by Pinkerton's inflated estimates. Examples ofthis view arefound in thewritings of Allan Nevins, Douglas Southall Freeman, Kenneth P. Williams, Bruce Catton, Carl Sandburg, and Warren W. Hassler, Jr.1 However, neither half of this widely accepted view is correct. Pinkerton was not a total bumbler, and McClellan was not deceived by the figures Pinkerton gave him. A measure of Pinkerton's competence is his success in keeping track of the composition of Confederate forces. By the close of the Peninsula Stephen W. Sears and Dr. Joseph L. Harsh, professor of history at George Mason University , have assisted the production of this article with their insights and their sharing of source materials. Responsibility for conclusions is solely the author's. 1 Nevins, The War for the Union: The Improvised War (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), 300; Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942-45), 1:236-37; Williams, LincolnFindsaGeneral, 5 vols. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1950-59), 1:129; Catton, This Hallowed Ground (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956), 87, 138; Sandburg, Storm Over the Land (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1939), 125; Hassler, General George B. McCleUan: Shield of the Union (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1957), 171. Numerous other references to McClellan's dependence on and belief in Pinkerton's erroneous estimates are found in thewritings of Nevins, Williams, Hassler, and particularly Catton, who devotes considerable attention to Pinkerton's organization in Mr. Lincoln's Army (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1951), 122-23. The view that McClellan's temperament shares, with Pinkerton's estimates, theresponsibility for his beliefs about the enemy is occasionally seen; see, for example, Robert Selph Henry, The Storyof the Confederacy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1931, 1936), 152. Seealso notes 13 and 49 below. Civil War History, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, © 1988 by The Kent State University Press 116CIVIL WAR HISTORY campaign, he had identified every one of the 178 regiments in Lee's army. That his strength estimates deceived McClellan is belied by an understanding about estimating method that the two men reached early in Pinkerton's service. But the amount of figure-padding that this method yielded was not enough for McClellan. The Confederatetroop totals that he reported to the secretary of war and to the president were considerably higher than the estimates he had from Pinkerton. Far from being a victim of the overestimates, McClellan was a party to them. Already the most controversial general of the Civil War, McClellan becomes even more of a question-mark with the discovery that he had a dominant hand in an estimating process of questionable probity. Did he exaggerate enemy strength intentionally, in order to overcome the administration 's resistance to his constant demands for more men and more time? He has never lacked for critics who would readily believe that the estimates were dishonest through and through; that this was a case of shadywork in Intelligence's back room. But despite the evidence of collusion, and despite the extravagance of the estimates, there is very good evidence that they were essentially honest, that they represented the actual beliefs of their authors. The earliest strength estimates during McClellan's command of the Army of the Potomac were made by the general himself. He arrived in Washington five days after the First Bull Run debacle, well ahead of Pinkerton, and began absorbing the state of alarm he found there. Out at Manassas the Confederate generals were equally worried; they could have had scarcely more than the 30,000 or so troops that had won the battle, and they feared a new attack by an enlarged Federal army. On...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 115-142
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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