To complete my undergraduate history degree last Spring, I was required to write a thesis driven paper at least 20 standard pages long. After getting some guidance from my supervising professors, I wrote a paper twice that size on the historiography and public perception of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Conversely, I am not sure a paper half that required size could have been written if one substituted George Brinton McClellan for Forrest. In a country where Tony Horwitz could still be filing dispatches from the unfinished Civil War, the perception of McClellan as a grand failure has been almost uniform, regardless of any sectional or racial division. While anyone interested in the Civil War could quickly find two completely different opinions of Forrest within minutes, finding a comprehensive yet sympathetic scholarly work on McClellan’s war record would have been difficult until this summer, with the publishing of Ethan Rafuse’s new McClellan biography, McClellan’s War.
Though I was fully aware of this book’s existence for the past few months, other academic pursuits barred me from opening it until this past weekend. Having read plenty of books about the Eastern theater, I, like certainly many other readers, am familiar with the consensus perception (and complaints) concerning McClellan.
I have tried to catch glimpses of alternative McClellan perceptions by being a regular reader of Dimitri Rotov’s site and observing the email correspondences of the McClellan Society, finding that many of those individuals wholeheartedly believe McClellan would have ended the war in 1862 without the Administration’s interference. And while I have only read the first few chapters (which I am about to review), I already get the sense that if the McClellan Society’s views represent one giant leap in reversing McClellan historiography, Rafuse’s book is but one small step.
Even before opening the book, a reader can determine part of the book’s angle from the full title “McClellan’s War: The Failure Of Moderation In The Struggle For The Union.” The entire introduction focuses on 19th century politics and psychoanalysis, setting the tone for at least the following chapters.
Rafuse argues that Civil War historians in general and McClellan scholars in particular are too busy posing everything in the context of the 1850s and 1860s sectional/secession politics. Instead, Rafuse asks us to step back and take a look at larger and earlier political trends. Meanwhile, Rafuse references psychologists and social scientists to explain when and how political attitudes and mentalities (in McClellan’s case, conservatism) are formed and molded. At the end of the introduction, Rafuse basically poses his thesis: McClellan’s actions during the Civil War can be attributed to his conservative political mindset, which idealizes rational, moderate and orderly decisions based on empirical evidence (as opposed to employing creative solutions for unknown questions).
Chapter 1: Traditions and Associations…Were All on the Side of the Old Whig Party
Referencing social scientists to argue that an individual’s political ideology hails from the household during the teenage years, Rafuse traces McClellan’s family tree back to the Mayflower. The general’s father became a well established and renowned doctor in Philadelphia while also marrying into the affluent Brinton family, and Dr. McClellan established connections with the likes of Henry Clay.
The chapter reads much like a 19th century political primer, narrating the divergence from the Era of Good Feelings. At the same time, Rafuse establishes the McClellan family as idealizing statesmanship, moderate compromising in politics, and a belief in the success of elitism as the North became more industrialized. From this background, the future General’s attitude toward sectional conciliation and slavery, as well as his idolizing of figures like Daniel Webster (who he would name his horse after), is better understood.
Chapter 2: “I Can Do As Well As Anyone in Both My Studies and My Military Duties.”
In a 20th or 21st century context, much of McClellan’s correspondences seem haughty and inherently arrogant, which has not gone unmentioned by previous authors.
As anyone could have guessed, Chapter 2 deals with McClellan’s West Point years and the Mexican War. And as I’m sure most of us are aware, young George (only 15 at the time) nearly backed those words up, finishing 2nd in his class and getting a premiere assignment with the Engineers.
Rafuse spends a lot of time in this chapter developing the culture of specialized professionalism that West Point cadets cultivated in their time there. This is expounded in much greater depth in John Waugh’s The Class of 1846 (the West Point years being the only part of that book I would recommend reading). West Point specialization already appealed to McClellan’s political ideologies, especially in contrast to Jacksonian Democrats’ suspicions of a professional army in place of civilian militias.
McClellan’s disdain for political interference in military matters grows during his experience in the Mexican War, where he has a front row seat in watching Polk’s political intrigue against Winfield Scott (who McClellan is especially fond of at this time), which includes the appointment of Democratic division commanders and political moles (future Confederate General Gideon Pillow). McClellan also notes how poorly the volunteers perform compared to the regulars. Clearly these experiences play a factor in 1861 and 1862.
Chapter 3: “Political Realignment”
After the Mexican War, McClellan returns to West Point for a few years before taking the commission to be on the committee overseeing the Crimean War in Europe. McClellan makes acquaintances with individuals like Joseph Johnston, Fitz John Porter and Dabney Maury while continuing to study the art of war.
With the 1850s comes the whirlwhind of sectional (and subsequently secessional) politics that split the Democratic Party, destroy the Whig and Know Nothing Party and witnesses the eventual rise of the Republican Party. McClellan spends time in Washington D.C. and is thoroughly unimpressed by politicians, though he acquires necessary political connections to further his career. While the McClellans support Buchanan for president in 1856, it’s clear that politics are becoming more partisan, and this leads into the split of the Democratic party between Northern Stephen Douglas Democrats and the Southerners.
Chapter 4: “A Strong Democrat of the Stephen A. Douglas School”
Stephen A. Douglas dominates this chapter, as Rafuse presents him as a statesman in the Webster/Clay mold seeking moderate sectional conciliation by avoiding what they consider to be extremist positions (Northern abolitionists and Southerners trying to impose slavery on territories with a free soil majority).
McClellan comes back from Europe and becomes a highly successful executive running the lucrative Illinois Central railroad, meeting Douglas and Lincoln in the process. While McClellan supports Douglas’s campaign against Lincoln, he seemingly maintains cordial relations with Lincoln as well. McClellan calls abolitionists “traitors” while also unconditionally supporting the preservation of the Union. This leads into the next chapter, with secession.
Having read this far, I think Rafuse has done a commendable job of putting McClellan’s views into context. Obviously, moderation failed in the secession crisis, and we know McClellan’s attempts at moderation eventually don’t succeed during the Civil War. After reading these first few chapters, it’s a reasonable guess that Rafuse bemoans the failure of moderation during the War.
What I don’t know yet without reading further ahead is whether Rafuse, like the McClellan Society, believes moderation could have succeeded in winning the Civil War.
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