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

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

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

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


Perhaps no other Union commander's reputation has been the subject of as much controversy as George B. McClellan's. Since the mid-point of this century, however, he has emerged as the complex general who, though gifted with administrative and organizational skills, was unable and unwilling to fight with the splendid army he had created.

Thomas J. Rowland argues that this interpretation rests squarely within the context of general historical verdicts of the way in which the North eventually triumphed. Civil War scholars have found the quality of Union leadership in the early years of the war wanting, and that it was not until U.S. Grant and W. T. Sherman emerged that success was ensured. On the other hand, Grant and Sherman knew failure, but were judged less harshly than was McClellan.

In George B. McClellan and Civil War History Rowland presents a framework in which early Civil War command can be viewed without direct comparison to that of the final two years. Such comparisons, in his opinion, are both unfair and contextually inaccurate. Only by understanding how very different was the context and nature of the war facing McClellan, as opposed to Grant and Sherman, can one discard the traditional "good general-bad general" approach to command performance. In such a light, McClellan's cater, both his shortcomings and accomplishments, can be viewed with clearer perspective.


A PERSISTENT QUESTION THAT HAS HAUNTED ME FROM THE first day I contemplated writing about George B. McClellan, up to the very moment I write this sentence, is whether the literature really needs another book about this man. Despite some impressive evidence to the contrary, I have assured myself that it does. The first day I refer to probably goes back to my freshmen year at college in 1970. Since that time, this project has undergone many staggering, fitful starts and stops. Aiding and abetting its forward progress was the lingering puzzlement over how a general who was so talented and filled with so much promise ended up as such a miserable fizzle. The interruptions in the project were easier to understand. Throughout this period, one study after another has virtually codified the thesis that McClellan proved to be a wretched species of Civil War commander, unworthy of anything but additional condemnation. More discouragement came in the form of casual conversations with friends who possessed but a thumbnail sketch of Civil War familiarity. At the very mention of McClellan's name, a visage of contempt generally crept over their otherwise benevolent gazes, or worse, they mimed sticking their fingers down their throats. Both were clear, confirming signs of just how ingrained in the popular culture was McClellan's infamous repute. For a relative novice in the field, the commanding verdicts of acclaimed historians and the public at large made the prospect of voicing any dissenting opinions a most daunting one. At any rate, I kept coming back to the puzzle and eventually came to believe that more could be said about it.

The study of George B. McClellan that follows takes its form from my conviction that another standard biography or campaign study would serve no useful purpose. The literature is replete with such works. What was needed, in my opinion, was an analytical review of the literature itself. The format of this book, then, is many things but none of them exclusively. It contains biographical and campaign narrative elements synthesized from the excellent studies already written. In undertaking a review of the existing literature it becomes a historiographical work, thus . . .

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