Inquiring Minds Want to Know

I must admit that I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan. My views have changed over time, to be sure.  My initial reading (decades ago) reflected what some would see as “Lincoln good, McClellan bad”; it did not help that when I read something that looked more charitably upon McClellan, the work in question often struck me as special pleading.  In short, I was weighing what others told me about the relationship, and I’d argue that the people who presented the tale as “Lincoln good, McClellan bad” told their story better.

I no longer feel that way.  Although I doubt that people would label me a McClellan apologist, and some would still take me to task for some of the things I have said about McClellan, I nevertheless have come to a position where I try to understand how McClellan saw things and where I can question how Lincoln treated him.  Take Richard Slotkin’s new book, The Long Road to Antietam, which I am currently reading between other responsibilities (clearly this one will go on the plane with me). Unlike some of my blogging colleagues, who have dismissed the book out of hand, I think it’s best to read something before I form anything more than a passing impression about it (and to set aside that passing impression as I read it).  I was quite taken by Slotkin’s decision to portray Lincoln as conducting a campaign to undermine McClellan, and that he employed White House aide John Hay to advance the process by having Hay plant stories critical of McClellan in the press.

Is this how a commander in chief is supposed to behave? We know about the jokes and the critical remarks, but what about this, too?  How can one in fairness trash McClellan for behaving as he did without holding Lincoln to the same standards of behavior?

Inquiring minds want to know.

37 thoughts on “Inquiring Minds Want to Know

  1. Mark September 26, 2012 / 11:57 am

    I don’t know enough yet to comment on this directly, but the good president/bad general thing does seem overly simplistic. I look forward to reading the book, but I did read “The Grand Design” by Stoker and it at least does have a more nuanced view on that. One day I’d also like to explore the good Truman/bad MacArthur too. What I do know makes me think something is amiss there, and has some parallels to the Lincoln/Mac one.

    • John Foskett September 26, 2012 / 4:09 pm

      An interesting point, although if one does enough reading about how MacArthur was viewed by any number of peers/contemporaries, one concludes that you’ll have a real challenge in blaming Harry.

      • Mark September 27, 2012 / 3:52 pm

        Well that just shows there is something wrong with how MacArthur is viewed because it shouldn’t be a problem blaming some things on Harry. Truman was deeply suspicious of military men and all things military and virtually disbanded it was perfectly obvious many threats still remained after WWII. I think Truman caused much of the debacle that was the Korean war. He marched a force off to war that was woefully unprepared due to his direct actions. MacArthur pulled his chestnuts out of the fire, even if he wasn’t the right man to undo everything Truman had done, and even if he was arrogant. Would MacArthur have run into the same trouble if the military he was called to lead hadn’t been run into the ground by Truman?

        • John Foskett September 28, 2012 / 6:01 am

          Go research the view of MacArthur held by a number of his (justifiably) well-regarded peers in the Army. Then go research the December 8, 1941 destruction of the USAAF under Dugout Doug’s command. Add in the mishandling of the New Guinea Campaign. That’s only for starters. (I’ll leave out the rules violations by the Army football team when Dugout Doug was Superintendent at the Point). The photo opp showing him striding through the surf in the Philippines is good video but that’s largely the extent of Mac;s military genius.

  2. tonygunter September 26, 2012 / 12:13 pm

    Yep. Somewhere between the two sides, Lincoln-good McClellan-bad and McClellan-good Lincoln-bad, is the unexplored area: Lincoln-bad McClellan-bad. 😀

  3. Margaret D. Blough September 26, 2012 / 12:28 pm

    Abraham Lincoln was the commander-in-chief of all US military forces during the Civil War because that’s what the Constitution mandates whether he met George McClellan’s standards or not. I think the comparable situation was Truman and McArthur.

    • SF Walker September 27, 2012 / 6:39 pm

      While I haven’t yet read Slotkin’s book, I agree with you, Margaret, based upon Mac’s actions as a field commander. Take McClellan’s abysmal performance in the Peninsular Campaign–he’s perhaps the only general in history to repeatedly retreat after winning tactical victories; Gaines’ Mill is the only battle the Federals clearly lost in this campaign. Instead of doing what a good general should; i.e. making the most of the army he’s got and not asking for the Moon, he creeped timidly along while screaming for reinforcements that were impossible to send.

      A good general doesn’t let personal problems with the commander-in-chief or anyone else affect his judgement in combat. Mac’s responsibilities were to the country and to his troops. I, among many others, believe he failed miserably.

      His performance of course didn’t improve at Antietam. What leader in his right mind could remain inactive for eighteen hours when he has every general’s dream—his opponent’s detailed dispositions and battle plans, right there in his hands? It would take a lot of solid evidence to convince me that deliberate negative publicity planted by Lincoln could motivate even a petty prima donna like McClellan to help the enemy.

      I’m looking forward to getting into this book, but I have to say I’m doubtful as to whether Slotkin has anything substantial enough to let McClellan off the hook. I think Little Mac loved his troops, but his unquestioning reliance on Pinkerton’s faulty intelligence and his own timidity did him in, Lincoln or no Lincoln.

      • Harry Smeltzer September 28, 2012 / 11:21 am

        “What leader in his right mind could remain inactive for eighteen hours when he has every general’s dream—his opponent’s detailed dispositions and battle plans, right there in his hands?”

        That myth is the cockroach of the American Civil War.

        • John Foskett September 29, 2012 / 12:41 pm

          True dat. Part of the problem, however, is that Little Mac did enough things which warrant criticism to create a climate in which the critics are prone to painting with a broad brush. For example,what general in his right mind would head for lunch on a gunboat without leaving any subordinate in direct charge as his retreating army squeezed through the potential bottleneck at Glendale while hounded by a closely -pursuing enemy.

          • SF Walker September 30, 2012 / 5:23 am

            That’s what I’m talking about 🙂 Even before Antietam, Mac had shown he wasn’t the man for the job. The sad thing is that there weren’t many other potential army commanders available to Lincoln who would have been attractive replacements.

          • John Foskett September 30, 2012 / 11:41 am

            The problem is that the “Lost Orders” event doesn’t prove the case. There are other examples with which to go after McClellan. His response after being handed these days-old orders when he was isn’t one of them.

        • SF Walker September 29, 2012 / 3:33 pm

          Interesting–could you expand on the cockroach? Do you think that Lee’s SA#191 was deliberately planted for McClellan to find?

          • Harry Smeltzer September 29, 2012 / 6:40 pm

            No I don’t. The only problems with the bit I quoted above are a) McClellan did not “remain inactive for 18 hours” after receiving SO 191 and b) SO 191 did not include Lee’s “detailed dispositions and battle plans.” The plans did not, for instance, say where any part of Lee’s army was, only where they were supposed to be according to the plan, and the operations described in the plan were already supposed to have been winding up by the time they arrived at McClellan’s HQ. In fact, as an intel find, SO 191 pales in comparison to those benefitting Pope and Lee weeks before.

          • jfepperson September 30, 2012 / 4:52 am

            SO 191 told the reader that Lee had divided his army into 5 pieces to reduce Harpers Ferry. McClellan should have been able to determine that this was an ongoing operation, hence his opponent was still divided, hence an opportunity existed. I don’t think he took full advantage of this information, but that is a discussion for another day, as I have a question for all:

            Mac drove roughly due west against South Mountain, with a small force moving to the left against McLaws’s rear on Maryland Heights. If Mac had switched gears, and sent his main force against McLaws, could he have (a) ruined that division? (b) relieved the garrison at HF?

          • John Foskett September 30, 2012 / 7:43 am

            As to your first paragraph, and as usual, those are good points. i think the ‘cockroach” aspect has more to do with the assumption (very much in doubt) that McClellan had the Lost Orders in hand c. 12 P.M, The evidence suggests it was much later that day, which removes several hours of “nothing happening” from the mix.

          • James F. Epperson September 30, 2012 / 12:31 pm

            Oh, I’m well aware of the determination that Mac didn’t receive SO 191 till later than has often been assumed.

          • Ethan Rafuse September 30, 2012 / 10:13 am

            GIVE IT UP, HARRY.

            I feel like Bruno Kirby watching Billy Crystal try to explain the VCR to Daniel Stern in City Slickers.

            They don’t get it. They CAN’T get it. COWS will get it before they do.


          • SF Walker September 30, 2012 / 3:36 pm

            I see what you mean now. What I’ve found on SO 191 since your post indicates that he had it in his hands sometime after 12 noon, then spent the rest of the evening organizing a response to it, as well as sending his cavalry to confirm that Lee’s divisions were following the order. The claim that he was inactive does seem to be a myth, in light of all this.

            But even though the plan’s timetable indicated that the movements were winding down, as you said, the fact is that Lee’s army was still divided. Here it seems that W.B. Franklin, his VI Corps commander, let Mac down. Having finally taken South Mountain, he did nothing further to exploit it, which bought some time for Lee.

          • Ned B September 30, 2012 / 6:50 am

            A cockroach is a pest that is hard to kill; Harry’s point is that the claim being made is similar. Despite the evidence, the claim keeps being made.

  4. Lyle Smith September 26, 2012 / 12:55 pm

    I’ve mentioned this before, and I can’t offhand remember the Penn State professor’s name who wrote a McClellan “good” biography, but the impression I got from his arguments and from the context of some of McClellan’s correspondence that is quoted by him, is that McClellan was quite justified in feeling aggrieved by the Lincoln administration and numerous Republicans in Congress.

    I need to read more.

      • Lyle Smith September 26, 2012 / 1:25 pm

        Yes, that’s the man. Thank you.

  5. Richard McCormick September 26, 2012 / 3:16 pm

    The standard “Lincoln good/McClellan bad” thought does appear to be overly simplistic; while I have often laughed at some of Lincoln’s comments (the do you know what that is? It is McClellan’s bodyguard” exchange for example), that is not very respectful and making comments like that around other people certainly worked to hurt McClellan’s reputation. Would any of us want our bosses talking about us like that or telling such jokes behind our backs?

    On the other hand, the bottom line is that Lincoln was McClellan’s boss, and McClellan’s struggles in obeying Lincoln’s wishes or commands and the incident where he went to bed and ignored Lincoln when the President came to visit him, show a profound disrespect for Lincoln. As bad as some of Lincoln’s comments may have been, perhaps McClellans’ actions (or lack thereof) were even worse. McClellan may have felt aggrieved, but he exacerbated that feeling with his own decisions and behaviors. His employers wanted more aggressive action,but he generally refused to take such steps. At some point you can’t expect your bosses/employers to respect you when don’t listen to them and you treat them so disdainfully?

    As I think about it more, I am more struck by how some of Lincoln’s words (funny as though I have often found them) and talking behind his general’s back, were disrespectful, but, at the same time, he did show quite a bit of patience with McClellan and did let him conduct the Pennisula Campaign as the general wanted. It is difficult to feel sympathy for McClellan given how many people called on Lincoln to sack McClellan long before the President finally ran out of patience and finally did so. I see that as Lincoln at least trying to give McClellan the chance to accomplish great things, but I’m not sure McClellan returned the favor.

    Given McClellan’s wealth of self-confidence and self-esteem, I’m not sure any President could have done much more to maintain a better relationship with him, without being an yes man. Of course, maybe the same thing could be said about Lincoln. Did he just want “yes men” in the army?

    • jfepperson September 26, 2012 / 4:01 pm

      I think Mr. McCormick makes a good point: While Lincoln’s gibes at Mac’s expense were improper, the obligation was on Mac to treat his boss appropriately, and he didn’t. In addition, I’d like to see an analysis of all these comments as a function of time. I suspect (but do not know) that Lincoln’s sins began long after Mac’s, and were born of his growing frustration with the general.

      • John Foskett September 26, 2012 / 4:06 pm

        I think we may be in agreement on who “fired first”.

    • Ethan Rafuse September 26, 2012 / 5:20 pm

      “did let him conduct the Peninsula Campaign as the general wanted.”


      I can’t comment on what you said after that, on account of it being difficult to make out what is on the screen when you are rolling on the floor in laughter.

  6. jfepperson September 26, 2012 / 3:41 pm

    Lincoln saw McClellan as a political problem, in the sense that there would be unpleasant political consequences to removing him. But the military consequences of keeping him in command were too great, so Mac had to go. I think that many managers in a position corresponding to Lincoln’s might initiate an effort to undermine the position of the person they had determined needed to be fired, if only to minimize the consequences of firing the person.

  7. John Foskett September 26, 2012 / 4:05 pm

    Far too much to weigh here for quick response and good for you for actually reading Slotkin’s book first. For the moment I will say only that McClellan may have cast the first “attitude stone” in this bad rekationship in late 1861 and he didn’t seem to have made much in the way of effort to tone down the attitude over the ensuing seven months or so. I’m sure that (as it always does) the Little Mac topic will engender some entertaining and enlightening give-and-take when you put up your views about Slotkin, etc.

  8. Pat Young September 26, 2012 / 5:26 pm

    As a fellow in my 50s who has often supervised much younger professionals, I was struck by the sense of dislocation a 35 year old McClellan must have felt working for superiors who seemed all to willing to scapegoat him.

    Also, why the Slotkin-hatred among the bloggers?

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 26, 2012 / 5:32 pm

      I suspect that once more efforts to promote the book sounded themes that offended several bloggers, including some who hold views of McClellan at variance with the so-called mainstream. I don’t share that approach. After all, I have to read biographies of Grant where authors say they are discovering something new about him all the time, and yet I often find the story rather familiar, sometimes very much so.

    • Brad September 26, 2012 / 5:38 pm

      Maybe because, as his views have been portrayed, they are black and white and most situations that are complex and complicated are nuanced.

    • jfepperson September 27, 2012 / 4:51 am

      I was looking forward to reading Slotkin’s book, but then someone pointed out a number of minor but avoidable factual errors. This suggests sloppy research or editing, and makes me disinclined to buy and read the book.

  9. rcocean September 26, 2012 / 8:04 pm

    I look forward to your comments on McClellan. I think people have a simplistic view of the Commander-in-Chief function – that somehow military men are supposed to jump off a cliff if the President tells them, and not protest – ever, ever – about anything. If the C-in-C is pursing policies resulting in needless deaths and prolonging the war, the Generals are supposed to say ‘Yes sir, Boss”. But a Generals first duty is to the constitution and the country, something Westmorland and others forgot.

  10. Al Mackey September 26, 2012 / 8:48 pm

    I had problems with Slotkin’s lack of substantiation for many of his points and his telling us what Lincoln was thinking while saying Lincoln never told anyone what he was thinking. i’m not enamored of his interpretation because he strikes me as definitely in the Lincoln-Good/McClellan-Worse-Than-Bad Camp. I found Chapter Three to be much better, but Chapter Four got more writing “Evidence?” in the margins from me. He’s a decent writer, but it’s frustrating to wonder where he got something and see no note at all telling us. I liked his summary of what the New York newspapers were saying.

    • rcocean September 27, 2012 / 8:51 am

      I agree Al. Slotkin does a lot of mind-reading of both Lincoln and McClellan. He does it so much, I thought I was reading historical fiction at times. Slotkin also selectively uses the so-called “McClellan letters”. If they support his view – he uses them as a source – if they contradict him they are ignored. He also completely ignores the fact they are McClellan’s private thoughts to his wife and may represent “blowing off steam” or thoughts never acted on or reveled to anyone else.

    • Steve Light September 27, 2012 / 8:54 am

      I too am working my way through the Slotkin book now (though I’ve been quite busy and have not had a chance to pick it up in recent days). I share Al’s initial reactions to the book, though I’m holding off final judgement.

      I do think that Slotkin is providing a fresh perspective on the Lincoln/McClellan story – and I believe he is adequately making the argument that you can’t understand and evaluate McClellan’s military judgments without understanding the relationships between military decisions and the policies of the Lincoln administration.

      Reviewing the end notes and bibliography though, I find that Slotkin is very reliant on other secondary source materials.

      I have found that the book improves as I’ve gotten further along.

  11. wgdavis September 27, 2012 / 4:22 pm

    That battle didn’t really get serious until the Antietam Campaign, right? And wasn’t there some officer Lincoln fired in the White House to send a message back to Mac’s staff to stop the disloyal talk?

    So, who fired the first shot in this battle? Had it not been going on since Mac was first given command and he remained immobile? I have always been of the impression that Mac didn’t like Lincoln digging in the spurs and Lincoln didn’t like the disrespectful way Mac reacted.

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