George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman. – Review

George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman. – Review – book review

Paul D. Casdorph

George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman. By Thomas J. Rowland. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998. Pp. Xi, 248. $28.00.)

“McClellan can scarcely be elevated to the ranks of the great captains of war,” the author of this study avows, “but he was hardly the worst that [the Civil War] dragged onto center stage”(237). While Thomas Rowland does not ignore manuscript materials, this book is based primarily upon recent high-profile writings by university professors that have assayed McClellan and/or the war itself. The result is a well-written and closely reasoned overview of McClellan’s standing among Civil War historians. As the subtitle suggests, the book is an effort to bring “a sense of balance to his Civil War career” and to “ease [him] from the shadows cast by Grant and Sherman”(15).

Rowland argues with considerable persuasiveness that the war years can be divided into two distinct parts, each with separate demands upon the military commanders who fought them. Until late 1862, Northern commanders, including McClellan, confronted an energized Confederacy, which was able to hurl a viable force against all comers; during 1863-1865, however, McClellan’s successors, namely Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, faced an exhausted South engaged in a war of gradual depletion. Although far from being a formal biography–the author does not see the need for another one–McClellan emerges as an overly cautious, proud, psychologically impaired, and aristocratic officer who had the misfortune to confront perhaps the foremost soldiers ever produced on this side of the Atlantic: Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson. In the brutal fighting of the Seven Days and Antietam campaigns, when he was obliged to face both on the battlefield, McClellan had every reason for caution. He also commanded a new, hastily formed army during the early phases of the war when Washington and the public expected quick as well as crushing victories. Unlike Grant and Sherman, who took charge later in the conflict, McClellan was never given an opportunity to profit from his initial experiences, as were others.

McClellan’s letters to his beloved Ellen, carefully preserved by her, unfortunately present a flawed commander to those in later generations who take the time to plow through them. But, these defects of character, “whether they be his purported arrogance, rudeness, vanity, secretiveness, or insubordination are magnified out of proportion to their substance”(45). Although several contemporaries spoke out against him, the letters to his wife bearing his innermost secrets have contributed mightily to his poor reputation through the years. Similarly, the author admits that McClellan should have been more forthcoming with President Lincoln because it is on this score that he has garnered much criticism, though Rowland is not unsympathetic to his subject. Even the oft-cited episode, in which McClellan retired while the president and John Hay waited in the parlor, is given a favorable spin: “It seems plausible that the incident, assuming it did occur, came off very differently than described and that it carried none of the general’s insolence or the president’s humiliation that Hay perceived”(48). The “albatross” of Lincoln’s insistence on adequate troops to secure Washington during the Peninsula/Seven Days, as well as Lee’s 1862 foray into Maryland and McClellan’s resultant disgust–that evoked his deep-seated hostility toward the president-was a knotty problem, which might have been eased had “Little Mac” been less secretive.

Rowland has done an insightful job of attempting to rehabilitate McClellan’s reputation amongst later historians without openly demeaning Grant and Sherman, although both soldiers carried plenty of personal and professional baggage. The fact remains that McClellan led the Northern armies in two major campaigns, and when the smoke of battle cleared he had come off second best in both. As for his Yankee successors, Grant and Sherman continue to cast long shadows for one simple reason: they were winners.

Paul D. Casdorph Charleston, West Virginia

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