At present we are observing the 150th anniversary of George B. McClellan’s attempt to take Richmond in 1862. I haven’t seen much written about it. I expect we’ll see something soon, starting with the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s taking charge of the Army of Northern Virginia. At that point McClellan will become the target of criticism and the subject of a good number of jokes.
It’s easy to make jokes about McClellan. I should know. Earlier this month, in delivering a paper about how Grant won his third star, I observed that several speakers cast aspersions on McClellan, and even I raised some questions about him. Someone in the audience had the audacity to ask about why, if McClellan was such a poor general, did he have such an impressive equestrian statue on Connecticut Avenue (a statue recently restored to its original toy soldier green … not sure I like it). I pointed out that while many of McClellan’s soldiers may have admired him, the soldier vote went overwhelmingly for Lincoln in 1864 (I would venture that the officer vote, at least in the Army of the Potomac, was much more even) and mentioned the old saw about the two roads going northward from the rear of the statue to allow McClellan to commence a change of base. Someone else added that the monument’s placement was much further away from the downtown area than were the monuments to other Civil War heroes, although I wonder whether that could be explained in part by time of death (John A. Rawlins has a statue quite near the White House, if you know where to look, but I don’t think that location indicates his importance to anyone but Grant). Later on, feeling that I’d been unfair to Little Mac, I recounted Grant’s rather even-handed, even generous assessment of him. However, I fear, the damage had been done.
Part of the problem with the exchange was that it became predictable. Someone said McClellan’s men loved him because he was careful with their lives. The easy answer to that is to remind people of what happened at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of combat during the war, as well as the toll from disease suffered by his men in the spring of 1862. Someone also cited the Lee comment that Marse Robert always thought McClellan was the best general he ever faced, as if that clinched the argument. Of course, Grant compared Joe Johnston favorably to Lee, so if that’s how we’re going to go about such a discussion (let alone the question of whether Lee actually said what he said about McClellan, or what he said about Grant), we’re not going to get very far. These exchanges become tiresome.
Look, George B. McClellan had his shortcomings. But it would seem to me that rather than simply repeat old refrains, that we look at him a little differently. If he said negative things about Lincoln, well, Lincoln said negative things about him (and other generals). If he was aware of politics, well, so were other generals. If he questioned the authorities in Washington, he was not alone. He had a case that his plans concerning Richmond were complicated by Lincoln’s handling of McDowell’s corps; if he mishandled justifying why he should have remained on the James in July 1862, one must still wonder whether it was a good idea to abandon that position.
All the above does not mean that I think George B. McClellan was the unsung hero of the war. Some of McClellan’s defenders go too far, and in a few cases insist that we see things as McClellan saw them and adopt his assumptions as our own. Some people always decry civilian “interference” with the military, but it’s a fact of life: how generals handle that is a test of their ability as a general (certainly an American general). But McClellan did understand the link between policy ends and military means, and at times he’s been unjustly maligned. We might do better than to resort to the simple stick figure stereotypes that I fear we will encounter again over the next two months about the man who thought he could do it all.