Wednesday, July 27, 2011

McClellan Comes to Town

Wherein we get to know one of the best known generals of all time

George and Ellen McClellan
Some names are associated indelibly with the Civil War in popular conception: Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Sherman, Stonewall. Each has their supporters and detractors, usually along geographic lines. But one name earns near universal scorn: McClellan. The great villain of countless Lincoln stories, fired twice for gross incompetence (not actually true, the first time he remained in charge of the Army of the Potomac but half the army was transferred to the Army of Virginia) only to reappear as the Apollo Creed presidential opponent in 1864 who wanted to throw in the towel on the war (also untrue, McClellan repudiated his party's peace platform) only to be defeated by the plucky Lincoln at the last minute.

It's hard for us today to remember that on July 27, 1861 people felt much different about the man. The New York Herald editorialized about George Brinton McClellan the following morning:
There is a charm in this name which will yet work as a talisman upon the American heart... This appointment is highly important. The man seems to have loomed up in the moment of need when he was most wanted. We did not know the best man before, but events have displayed his ability and brought him to light. It is so in all revolutionary convulsions—the best men are thrown on the surface... 

But a new era has opened upon us. We have been awakened from a dream of fancied conquest without the necessary preparation to achieve it. A man has arisen equal to the times. Like the legions of France under Napoleon, the troops of the American republic under McClellan will be invincible, and the shameful rout of Bull Run will be forgotten in the glory of his victories.
[ has this and a number of other amusingly breathless exhortations of McClellan]

McClellan had won a loyal public following as the only Union field commander to have won a battle -- and he had won more than one at that. This neatly solved a problem for Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron (still mourning his brother, killed at Manassas) who needed to quickly restore faith in the war effort. Congress was still in session and still in the midst of voting on important bills required to fund and organize the war, they needed to be kept from second-guessing the administration.

And making McClellan head of a new military command, the Military Division of the Potomac, allowed him to be made Irvin McDowell's superior without demoting the hapless general. Besides the fact that neither Lincoln, Cameron, nor even normally vengeful general-in-chief Winfield Scott held him responsible for the loss (that was Robert Patterson), none of them wanted a disaffected McDowell running to Congress with a laundry list of all the ways the administration pushed him to attack before he was ready.

Not even Winfield Scott appeared to be too upset by McClellan's arrival in Washington. While it was true that the young man was only 35 and already the second highest ranked officer in the U.S. Army (Scott was 55 when he became a major general in 1841), the old general admired battlefield acumen and was able to overlook a great deal in generals who won. Besides, he reasoned, he had always intended to be the brains in Washington and here was a general he could count on to have both the daring and the respect of his subordinates to carry out the strategies Scott planned in the capital.

McClellan was not tall, but very handsome and he carried himself with a military, aristocratic air that reinforced the belief he was a refined, European warrior (much like Winfield Scott himself, who had earned the somewhat derisive nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence on a continental-style professional army). He had been born to a successful Philadelphia family, the grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, and attended West Point as its youngest cadet at the age of 15 1/2 (he had a December birthday). At West Point the already conservative McClellan had his views strengthened by his new friends, especially Dabney Maury, Cadmus Wilcox, and Powell Hill (better known as Ambrose Powell, or A.P. Hill, but of course he didn't go by his name). “All my associates, indeed all of them – are Southerners," he wrote his mother. "[T]he manners, feelings & opinions of the Southerners are far, far more preferable to those of the majority of the Northerners.”

He graduated second in a class of 59 (20 of whom would become generals in the American Civil War), because he was a poor draftsman, and chose the engineers for his military career. He arrived in Mexico to join Zachary Taylor's army after the battle of Monterrey, just in time to catch malaria. He recovered in time to join Scott's march on Mexico City as one of his staff engineers, picking up brevets for bravery at Churubusco and Chapultepec, and a healthy dislike for anyone not in the professional army.

Like other soldiers, McClellan bounced around unhappily from assignment to assignment after the war, once famously being asked to scout a route for the future transcontinental railroad and getting fired for the private war he waged against his commanding officer. He wooed Ellen Marcy, the daughter of another commanding officer, Randolph Marcy, away from his friend Powell Hill, but then lost her when her father disapproved. In 1854 life improved when Secretary of War Jefferson Davis took him under his wing, sending him on a secret mission to the Dominican Republic, and to Crimea where he took notes on the latest European tactics (and probably saw the charge of the Light Brigade). When he came home he patented a new saddle based on the designs he had seen still used in ceremonial roles by the U.S. Army today.

In 1857 he left the army, to pursue a lucrative career with the railroads, but never quite warmed up to the private sector (though he did make a space for his old West Point friend Ambrose Burnside). The one positive in his civilian years for McClellan was that he rekindled his old relationship with Ellen and finally received permission to marry her. When war broke out, the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio requested he head their militia. He went with Ohio and befriended a powerful patron in Salmon Chase, former Republican contender for the nomination set to be Lincoln's Treasury Secretary (McClellan had campaigned actively for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas).

Chase was the one who secured McClellan's re-entry into the U.S. Army at such a high rank. He set up his headquarters in Cincinnati, appointed his father-in-law chief of staff and prosecuted a successful campaign deep into the mountains of western Virginia (while sending unsolicited advice to Winfield Scott on war strategy). Surely Scott must have noted that all of McClellan's victories had occurred when the man himself was not on the battlefield, but at this stage in the war good organization was as lacking as good field leadership.

The problem for this McClellan -- the already victorious, conservative, but professional leader of men -- is that we know exactly what he was thinking. Less than two years removed from a successful wooing, McClellan had a habit of gushing to his bride in personal letters that recast the entire world as centered around the young general. And his affection for Ellen kept him from ever destroying this personal correspondence. Throughout the war and long afterwards the men that McClellan would command over the six months following July 27 would almost universally love him (with a few notable exceptions) and swear he was wronged by jealous Washington politicians. It was only much, much later, after the publication of his letters to Ellen, that the McClellan we know today became clear.

After de-training in Washington and being whisked through meeting after meeting on the state of affairs, he sat down and wrote the following to Ellen:

I find myself in a new & strange position here – Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Winfield Scott & all deferring to me – by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me – but nothing of that kind would please me – therefore I won't be Dictator. Admirable self denial!
Even the thing most immediately loved about him, that he was a general who spent more time with his men than with his maps takes on a different light viewed through the prism of his personal letters:

I start tomorrow very early on a tour through the lines on the other side of the river -- it will occupy me all day long & a rather fatiguing ride it will be -- but I will be able to make up my mind as to the state of things. Refused invitations to dine today from Genl Scott & four Secy's -- had too many things to attend to...
On July 27, Washington rejoiced that its new leader was of such a high caliber. But for a reader of history with the power of omniscience, the seeds of 1862's discord were already sown and growing.

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