In Defense of George McClellan

George B. McClellan has his defenders, including Tom Clemens, who offers his understanding of the situation McClellan faced in September 1862.

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35 thoughts on “In Defense of George McClellan

  1. jfepperson September 7, 2012 / 4:10 pm

    I like Tom, but I think he goes too far at times in his defense of Mac. Just my opinion.

      • jfepperson September 7, 2012 / 5:15 pm

        I think the article—and perhaps Tom, but I don’t know—skips over the problematic areas. Tom (and Ethan Rafuse) deserve a ton of credit for presenting what might be called a “revisionist” view that adds a lot to our understanding of Mac. But I remain unconvinced.

        • Bryn Monnery September 8, 2012 / 7:06 am

          Something else worth reading is Joseph Harsh’s PhD thesis: http://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/14610/7023520.PDF?sequence=1

          I think neither Clemens nor Rafuse is truly revisionist as this school of thought has existed for almost 150 years, and is perhaps the dominant school in the writings of those who actually fought in the war. The fact that it became unpopular for a while (the last truly sympathetic treatment was Hasslers) doesn’t necessarily make it revisionist.

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 9, 2012 / 1:11 pm

            You are correct in that there have been portrayals of McClellan for some time that do not agree with what one might call the Williams/Williams/Catton approach.

      • Ned B September 8, 2012 / 8:26 pm

        I think he goes to way too far in assigning motive to “the military and political establishment”. When he concludes that “We tend to create heroes and villains” I think he left off that we also tend to create victims; seems to me he has crafted McClellan as the poor victim of the radical Republicans out to deprive him of his glory.

        I also think bringing up the Corinth campaign is not a productive line of argument. Redirecting the discussion away from McClellan by claiming Halleck “was even slower” doesnt demonstrate anything positive about McClellan’s leadership of the army, it just points out that there were other generals equally as sucky. Its also a superficial line of attack to claim “it took Halleck 30 days to march” to Corinth.

        • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 8:13 am

          I agree with this specific point. The fact that Halleck proved to be mediocre in the field says nothing positive about McClellan or his actions. Apples and oranges…..

  2. wgdavis September 7, 2012 / 8:56 pm

    I agree with Jim. I think this presents a very one-sided view, and does not take into consideration the atmosphere within the Army of the Potomac and the treatment of Lincoln on his visit to Antietam, nor does it take into account the attitude displayed so boldly in McClellan’s letters to his wife. It also does not take into account Lincoln’s earlier history with McClellan.

    Finally, though Lincoln was a great politician, I just don’t see him taking part in a character assassination campaign such as Clemens describes, especially at such a critical time. If there was confusion of orders, it was likely due to the confusion in Washington under the threat of attack by Lee and his army now in Maryland, some 35 miles from DC. It just does not fit Lincoln. On the other hand, the disrespect, and overweening egotism expressed by McClellan in those letters do fit him, and damn him at the same time.

    • wgdavis September 7, 2012 / 8:57 pm

      However, I would not put it past Halleck to play such a game.

    • John Foskett September 8, 2012 / 8:34 am

      Good points, although Dimitri Rotov has been making an important case about those “letters” and what they really are.

  3. Al Mackey September 7, 2012 / 9:35 pm

    I think a lot of folks read what historians say about Mac and don’t really read what Mac said and did. The Harrison’s Landing Letter is a prime example.

  4. Brad September 8, 2012 / 6:08 am

    Pardon my naïveté, but is this intended to be a rejoinder to Slotkin’s book, which Dmitri and Harry Smeltzer have commented upon.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 8, 2012 / 10:00 am

      Whatever its intentions, it serves that purpose. As Slotkin’s book will receive serious attention, I (unlike Harry) will consider reviewing it here. As in another recent case, I’m also curious as to what the press releases say about the book. For what I’ve seen, they are over the top, and I can only imagine the response in some corners.

      This may be why some people have a difficult time with my treatment of McClellan in The Civil War in the East, because it attempts to navigate a middle ground and thus does not easily fit into the “attack/defend” dichotomy that people use to make sense of what’s out there. Personally, I see a lot more variation in the perspectives of people lumped together as defenders than I do among those judged to be attackers.

      • Brad September 8, 2012 / 11:33 am

        Thanks for the answer. I will be interested to see what are your thoughts. I did a search yesterday and couldn’t find too many reviews by people in the business, so to speak. As a matter of fact, the only I found was by Harold Holzer, and it seemed generally laudatory. I would be interested in links to other serious reviews.

        I have found that people — controversial people — have usually a lot more gray than black/white.

        • Brooks D. Simpson September 8, 2012 / 12:02 pm

          Given past history, I’m sure Harold Holzer and I will have different responses.

          • Brad September 8, 2012 / 2:56 pm

            I don’t know what those past differences are and would be interested to know what they revolve around but I don’t know if you wish to comment publicly, which, of course, I understand.

      • Ethan Rafuse September 8, 2012 / 12:02 pm

        My review will be appearing in one of the Weider mags in the next few months. There is not much in there that will surprise. It does serve the useful function, though, of reminding those that need it (and there are some) that there are real limits to McClellan revisionism.

      • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 1:30 pm

        Here is one example of the perilous ground which gets trodden, from the ongoing Washington Post series of “essays”:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/artsandliving/civilwar/mcclellan-graphic/

        The headline writer’s handiwork reflects how much of this material is perceived. The author’s own mission seems to subtly cross the line from objective analysis (see his discussion regarding the timing of McClellan’s receiving the infamous copy of the General Orders) to lawyerlike-advocacy (see his discussion/implications regarding Lee’s actual numbers at Antietam). On the latter point, I must say that if Lee in fact had numbers approximating that total (including the straggler-afflicted Light Division of A.P. Hill, which surely shed a sizable number on its sprint from Harpers Ferry), Lee misfought the battle, because it was handled on his end as a triaged succession of desperate fights, barely avoiding a final (and disastrous) breakthrough on the Union left.

        • Brooks D. Simpson September 9, 2012 / 2:59 pm

          Here’s the problem: the more damage one claims was inflicted on the Confederates on September 17, the more dubious the claim that McClellan was not wrong in attacking on September 18 to finish up the job.

          • John Foskett September 10, 2012 / 6:38 am

            A big “amen” to that, sir.

  5. jfepperson September 8, 2012 / 7:15 am

    Mac is also a “gift that keeps on giving”—to Civil War scholarship, discussion groups, and blogs. It seems everyone has strong opinions on the man, and all you have to do to get a fight started is to drop the word “McClellan” into a thread. I don’t excuse myself from those who have strong opinions on the man, and of course I think my view is absolutely correct 😉

    I’ll be giving a presentation on Mac and the withdrawal from the Peninsula on Monday evening for the AACWRT.

    • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 7:57 am

      Is it possible to give a summary here? I’d be interested and I’m sure others would be as well.

      • jfepperson September 9, 2012 / 9:10 am

        I don’t think it would be appropriate right here or right now. I may try to write it up for publication.

        • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 10:59 am

          If you do, it would be appreciated if you could keep us apprised.

  6. John Foskett September 8, 2012 / 8:32 am

    i think Tom Clemens makes (and has previously made) a good case regarding the September, 1862 circumstances McClellan found himself in. That case is IMHO a stronger one than the revisionist case regarding his (mis)handling of things on the Peninsula. That said, I think the case to some extent reflects a consistent defect in McClerlan’s own mindset, because, like Little Mac, it overlooks the significant problems confronting the invader at the same time. Simply put, the conceded Halleck-Lincoln factors, the cobbling together of an army after 2BR, the addition of thousands of rookie troops – none of those – existed in a vacuum. You’re right – I just don’t like McClellan. .

  7. Ethan Rafuse September 8, 2012 / 9:47 am

    And here is the problem: simple-mindedly defining (sometimes a matter of self-definition) students of particular Civil War figures as “defenders” or “attackers”. Just because one endeavors to understand McClellan’s perspective (or Pope or Lincoln’s or Burnside’s) on matters and the fact that they were serious people facing serious challenges, does not mean that one agrees with him. That is what separates Brooks’s work from much of what is written about Grant. So many write about Grant declaring they are on a mission to “rescue” him. That is not the historian’s job. It is to understand. .

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 8, 2012 / 9:54 am

      This is on the mark in my opinion. However, Tom’s commentary (which I found worthwhile, or else I would not have posted it) is a response to people who do “attack” McClellan for many reasons, some of which may be grounded in real research, while many are based upon a tendency to concur with an established narrative. Sometimes I see “defense” as explication for exactly that reason. Tom has to push back against an established narrative, and at times that may present its own challenges.

      • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 8:08 am

        I also think that there sometimes are subtle distinctions which shade into each other. i’ve seen much of what is loosely called “revisionism” regarding McClellan which actually fills a category Ethan refers to – taking an objective look at things or even viewing them reasonably from the perspective of the subject (a category into which Ethan’s own very good book fits), rather than attempting to “defend” him as his attorney might. On the other hand, some of that “revisionism” does seem to lean more towards the “defense” mode. An analogy is the Bowden analysis of Lee at Gettysburg which makes a number of solid points regarding his decisions and actions but then goes overboard, converting the book from analysis to a brief. McClellan will always be a controversial case. As I’ve made pretty clear, I’m probably beyond persuasion when it comes to Little Mac – but i still can appreciate the Harsh/Clemens/Rafuse/Rotov contributions.

        • Brooks D. Simpson September 9, 2012 / 1:29 pm

          I find Bowden and Ward unpersuasive when they take on other historians’ interpretations, because they labor to distort what was said in order to make their own claims. Best, I think, to concentrate on the case one is making.

          • John Foskett September 9, 2012 / 1:33 pm

            Agree, added to the counterintuitive notion that in the course of three days everybody but one screwed up.

      • wgdavis September 9, 2012 / 3:57 pm

        Interestingly, there was a presentation on C-SPAN last night made by Harold Holzer at the Gettysburg College Civil War institute this year. It was a fascinating presentation of art and photographic imagery by way of comparing created and published images of McClellan and of Robert E. Lee. The McClellan stuff was way over the top, with several artists portraying McClellan in imagery quite similar to famous battle scenes of a victorious Napoleon…and this was apparently kept up for a few decades after the war ended. Some included rather insulting caricatures of Lincoln.

        As an aside, it was quite compelling to see an aged Jefferson Davis sketched to look almost like a late in life Robert E. Lee. The resemblance was stunning.

        All in all a fascinating presentation.

    • Bryn Monnery September 8, 2012 / 11:30 am

      If I may ask here, what was the thrust of Daniel Vermilya’s presentation at Save Historic Antietam Foundation Inc. today?

  8. rcocean September 9, 2012 / 11:08 am

    Why is this phrase “revisionism” even mentioned? Labeling something an “-ism” is a lazy way to argue against something -and its far too common today. Don’t like something, label it as some “-ism” and oogie-boogie we’re all supposed to view it with suspicion and disdain.

    As for Slotkin, his book seems to be derived almost entirely from secondary sources and is a blend of fiction and fact. He constantly ascribes thoughts, motives, and feeling to McClellan that are nowhere in the historical record (assuming he even read it). And per Slotkin, not only was little Mac an evil buffoon but he wanted to take over the Government. Somehow everyone has missed that for 150 years.

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