Coming to Terms with George McClellan

I noticed that several commenters responding to this weekend’s posts about forthcoming releases have shared their surprise that I am ambivalent about George McClellan.  And ambivalence is how I would characterize it.  Part of that is rooted in an essay I did years ago about Lincoln, McClellan, and the aftermath of Antietam, including Lincoln’s visit to McClellan’s headquarters in October 1862.  I learned things about that visit, about the attitude of Union generals on the field about renewing offensive operations on September 18, and about the condition of the forces under McClellan’s command that caused me to question some of the assumptions some historians have about McClellan.  I also approached McClellan with my understanding of the Lincoln-Grant relationship in my mind.  After all, I had read two versions of that relationship: either Lincoln looked for his general and finally found the ideal commander in Grant, one who knew his place, etc. (the anti-McClellan), or I read where even when the two men worked together, Lincoln, the natural strategist, was intuitively superior to Grant and had to keep his general on his toes (as argued first by T. Harry Williams and echoed by John Y. Simon).  I didn’t buy those versions of the Lincoln-Grant relationship: it seemed to me that Grant handled Lincoln more than Lincoln handled Grant, and that Grant did so while overcoming Lincoln’s meddling and less-than-unconditional support (hello, John McClernand).

It stood to reason that if I had a view of the Lincoln-Grant relationship that differed from the usual story, I might well want to rethink what I had read about the Lincoln-McClellan relationship without necessarily coming down on the side of those people who saw things as McClellan did and thus defended him, in the process sometimes attacking Grant (hello, Warren Hassler).  I had also noticed that discussions about McClellan tended to move towards polarizing opposites, with criticisms of McClellan sounding like pop psychology while McClellan’s supporters tended to adopt his view of things (Lincoln was ignorant, stubborn, and meddling, for example).  Even Thomas Rowland’s book on McClellan and historians/biographers set up a comparison of how historians treated McClellan with how they treated Grant and Sherman that impressed me as rather selective (for example, my work on Grant would have disrupted some of Rowland’s arguments, and so Rowland ignored those complications by ignoring my work).

My view of McClellan falls between these extremes.  I think he rose too high too fast, depriving him of valuable learning experiences and raising the consequences of failure (as he was all too well aware).  Yes, he had an ego, and yes, he sniped at Lincoln, but Lincoln also sniped at him, and by early 1862 the Lincoln-McClellan relationship was counterproductive.  Moreover, you can’t wait until everything is as you would have it before moving forward, and you can’t wage war by making excuses.  Things don’t work that way.  Lincoln placed constraints on Grant, and Grant worked and succeeded within those restraints: McClellan complained about them and hid behind them.

Lincoln and McClellan held fundamentally different views about the Eastern Theater.  Looking back at it, once sufficient force was left to protect Washington, the best way to go after the major Confederate field army and the logistical and political network that supported it was to approach Richmond from the James River.  Grant’s North Carolina plan took that a step further, and, if carried out, would have changed things significantly.  But, unlike McClellan, Grant adjusted to deal with Lincoln’s concerns, and the concept of the Overland Campaign combined an overland approach with a strike at Richmond from the James (as well as other blows directed at the CSA’s logistical network).  That was simply an improvement upon what happened in effect in 1862 with Pope and McClellan.

It impresses me that in the end McClellan’s advocates rest their argument upon letting McClellan have things his own way.  Generals rarely have that luxury.  Grant did not (thus the fallacy of the free hand).  McClellan’s advocates buy into McClellan’s mindset.  Politicians don’t understand what needs to be done; if everyone had simply left McClellan alone, he would have gotten the job done, and he was essentially right.  And yet the same can be said of Grant’s original 1864 campaign.  Ideal circumstances are ideal circumstances: Grant coped far better with the real world than did McClellan.  But that doesn’t mean that McClellan did not have good ideas or that he did not face meddling with his plan.  He did.  And let’s not forget that he believed the survival of the Union rested upon what his army did.  Many people thought as much, and that was a great deal of pressure to place upon his shoulders.  For McClellan’s advocates, however, all depends on Little Mac being left alone to do as he wanted to do, and no Union general received that courtesy.

Still, reading Joseph Harsh and Ethan Rafuse has been helpful in exposing me to different ways of looking at things.  I am a bit taken aback to see how much Ethan and I agree on some things, which makes reading his work an interesting experience for me.  Even when I disagree with him, at least he’s forced me to rethink things in creative and constructive ways (as opposed to dedicating myself to demonstrate how wrong someone is).  They aren’t the only folks who stir my intellectual curiosity: Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones’s How the North Won the Civil War is badly underappreciated, and a few other books have helped me think anew and write anew.

If that means that I’ve gone over to “the Dark Side,” so be it.  I reject the notion that it has to be “either/or,” and I’d argue there can be more than two perspectives (especially when those perspectives are simply mirror opposites).  I just happen to think that at times we as Civil War historians write too much (and write the same thing over and over) and think too little.  There’s a terrible sameness to much Civil War scholarship that is the result of not thinking and rethinking, not pausing and questioning.

I suspect that my view of McClellan (which I admit is still evolving) won’t sit well with many people, precisely because it does not follow predictable predecessors.  The same goes for my view of Lincoln’s relationship with his generals, or my thinking about George G. Meade between July 13, 1863 and the end of 1863.  And that’s fine with me.  After all, what I’ve read about Ulysses S. Grant in the last two decades sometimes sounds somewhat familiar, even if other people don’t realize it (it’s amusing to read book proposals that claim to offer a “new” understanding of Grant, or Lincoln and Grant, or whatever, and to point out that what I’m reading sounds rather familiar, even if it wasn’t nearly as familiar when I was writing it).  But being a professional historian and writer wouldn’t be terribly interesting to me if all I did was to repeat what I read, just as it wouldn’t be quite right not to acknowledge the work of people who shaped my own perspectives.  That, to me, is the Dark Side.