McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union

McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union

McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union

McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union

Synopsis

Bold, brash, and full of ambition, George Brinton McClellan seemed destined for greatness when he assumed command of all the Union armies before he was 35. It was not to be. Ultimately deemed a failure on the battlefield by Abraham Lincoln, he was finally dismissed from command following the bloody battle of Antietam. To better understand this fascinating, however flawed, character, Ethan S. Rafuse considers the broad and complicated political climate of the earlier 19th century. Rather than blaming McClellan for the Union’s military losses, Rafuse attempts to understand his political thinking as it affected his wartime strategy. As a result, Rafuse sheds light not only on McClellan’s conduct on the battlefields of 1861-62 but also on United States politics and culture in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Excerpt

To most Americans, George Brinton McClellan was the most prominent of the series of generals whose inability to attain success on the battlefield during the first three years of the Civil War nullified the advantages in resources enjoyed by the North and sorely tested Abraham Lincoln’s patience. Before his 35th birthday would have made him eligible for the presidency, McClellan was placed in command of all the armies of the United States and hailed as the “Young Napoleon” who would restore the Union. He failed. In 1864, he ran for the presidency. He failed again. History does not treat losers kindly.

In their effort to explain how and why McClellan failed, many historians pinpoint the key in his personal defects. McClellan was, in the immortal words of Kenneth P. Williams, “a vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be President.” Some thirty years later, Stephen W. Sears would open the first major post–World War II biography of the general by proclaiming McClellan “a man possessed by demons and delusions.” Recent general works by James M. McPherson, Joseph T. Glatthaar, and others have reinforced this image of a man whose arrogance, vanity, and “messianic complex” prevented him from maintaining a proper working relationship with President Lincoln and whose congenital timidity and slowness prevented him from achieving success on the field of battle.

McClellan has also been criticized for his politics. Attention to McClellan’s political views, as Joseph Harsh noted in 1973, is essential if we are to fully understand the general’s career as a soldier. For even if he never read On War, McClellan clearly understood the famous Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s observation that in war, “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” McClellan never lost sight of the fact that military operations are not conducted for their own purposes but to achieve political ends not attainable by other means. He also understood Clausewitz’s point that in the course of a war the perception of the political aims for which a nation is fighting and the . . .

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