Saturday, November 10, 2007

McClellan Musings. . .

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"Was McClellan an idiot?"

"That McClellan sure was stupid."

"How can McClellan be so dumb?"

"George McClellan deserved to be shot!"

If I had a dollar every time I heard such comments, then I wouldn't need to worry about going on a reduced schedule at work, as my seasonal appointment is drawing to a close. It seems that McClellan-bashing is a favorite past time among many visitors to Antietam. "He could have ended the war," I often hear, or, "Think of all the lives he could have saved if only he used his whole army at Antietam." These assertions completely ignore the fact that there were many, many armies fighting this war, not just the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. But that's besides the point. With all the McClellan haters out there, I have to wonder if any other Civil War general is as vilified today more than Little Mac?

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Now, I'm not a McClellan "fan," so to speak.
He's dead. Been that way for a long time.
But let's be fair.
So, was McClellan an idiot? No way.

McClellan enjoyed success at so many levels. Yet he is remembered today far more for his failures than for any of his accomplishments, and is certainly best remembered today as the pompous, arrogant, egotistical commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He lived 58 years, but it was just those 14 months at the helm of the AoP that get all the attention.

He was fifteen when he entered West Point. He excelled academically, graduating 2nd in the illustrious Class of 1846, and, upon graduation, entered the elite Corps of Engineers. Sent immediately to Mexico, he excelled once again as a staff officer/engineer, being brevetted twice for gallantry in combat and was bruised by grapeshot at the battle of Contreras. He turned down a third brevet promotion, claiming it was not justly earned. When the Mexican-American War came to an end in 1848, McClellan was not yet twenty-two years old! The young phenom was certainly a rising star in the army, and in the early 1850s, he was selected to be an official observer of the Crimean War in Europe. After returning, he developed the wildly popular McClellan Saddle, which the army adopted and used well into the Twentieth Century. Resigning as a captain in 1857, McClellan entered the railroading business and, yes, excelled in this endeavor as well. Everything he touched seemingly turned to gold.
Then the war came. And all of the success he worked so hard for vanished almost overnight. . .

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George McClellan was 35 years old in the summer of 1861 when he was called upon to lead the Union forces in and around Washington, forces he quickly molded into the Army of the Potomac.

Yep, just 35 years old. Now, let's stop to think about this. . . .At 35 years old, George McClellan was a major general and an army commander.

Where were some of the less-vilified Civil War generals at the age of 35?

*Robert E. Lee turned 35 in 1842. He was then a captain.

*In April 1857, one Ulysses S. Grant turned 35. He had resigned from the army three years earlier, as a captain, and at the age of 35 was working on his family's farm near St. Louis, trying to make a life for himself.

*William Sherman was doing alright when he turned 35 in 1855. He was the president of a bank in San Francisco.

*James Longstreet was working his way up to the rank of major and serving on the frontier of Texas as an army paymaster when he turned 35 in 1856.

*At the age of 35 in 1859, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, and, by most accounts, was a pretty lousy one.
Clearly not one of these men had attained as much success, professionally, as did McClellan by the age of 35. At Antietam, McClellan was superior in rank to officers, such as Edwin Vose Sumner and Joseph Mansfield, who had been in the army far longer than he was even alive.
What is more, when McClellan led the AoP, there were more than a fair share of incompetent officers he had to deal with. By the time George Meade and Grant took over, well, the cream of the army had already risen to the top.
It is interesting to note also that many of the visitors, and even some historians, who view McClellan as an evil, incompetent jerk, in turn, view Robert E. Lee in the most favorable light possible. "He was a genius," they claim. But if Mac was such a bumbling fool on the battlefield, as they maintain, well, then, couldn't anyone beat him?
Let's not forget how McClellan got the job in the first place. He won a series of small, but important, victories in the mountains of western Virginia during the early months of the war. His opponent here: Robert E. Lee. And how do we explain Lee's postwar comment that of all the Union commanders he faced, the one he feared the most was none other than George B. McClellan.
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Recently, Civil War historians, (and Park Rangers), have been giving McClellan more credit. His image is slowly being improved in both the academic and public realms, and this is a good thing. But let's not let that pendulum swing too far. Indeed, before we go ahead and issue a formal apology to the memory of George McClellan and to his descendants, it must be remembered that Mac certainly had his share of failings and faults. We all do. But his vanity was ugly, and his penchant for allowing his personal, conservative views to interfere with the war effort was not beneficial. Neither was his habit of criticizing and ridiculing his boss, Abe Lincoln. And when he suggested in the summer of 1863 that the reason the Union army had not achieved a total and complete victory at Antietam was due to the failings of Ambrose Burnside, well, he stabbed his old friend in the back. That was so not cool.


Anonymous said...

I love those "what were wrong with McClellan" questions. Considering that in the Summer of 1862 Grant was considering resigning, McClellan did better than most.

Because McClellan did not win big at Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect. But the Emancipation Proclamation was only legal as a wartime measure and probably would not have survived a Supreme Court challenge once the war ended. It also was not initially very popular in the North. Had the war ended in 1862 or even as late as 1864, slavery would have probably still survived intact. But as Lincoln believed, emancipation was an idea that would catch on and it did. But it was not until January 1865 that the 13th Amendment passed ending slavery forever. Ironically, McClellan, who was opposed to emancipation, contributed to its ultimate success.

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

Hello John~

Hope all is well at Ship!

I couldn't agree more. Perhaps Lincoln should have thanked old George for contributing to his reputation as the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union.


Anonymous said...

The only fault I find with McClellan was that he was more concerned about his "status" militarily and politically than about "beating those people" as Lee would say.

Anonymous said...

McClellan was too good a man to lead an Army under the 16th president. As he was seen by Lincoln's handlers as a possible political threat, he had to be crushed.

He built the Army of the Potomac, from raw volunteers into a real fighting force.

He was the best strategist in the Union Army, by far.

He had the moral courage to lead the Army to and at Antietam, basically with a noose around his neck if he had lost... which he didn't.

Though ridiculed as lacking moral courage to use the Army he created, he was the only Union General to inflict more casualties than suffered in an offensive action... namely Antietam. It was also the "Bloodiest Day" of the War. So much for the canard of not being a "Fighting General".