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Toward a Better Understanding of George McClellan

By Ethan S. Rafuse
3/14/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The general’s concept of warfare and his antipathy toward Abraham Lincoln had their roots in prewar politics.

Shortly after George B. McClellan’s death on October 29, 1885, one admirer predicted that “History will do him justice.” If what he meant by “justice” was that any mention of the general’s name during a battlefield tour or discussion of the war would prompt scorn and ridicule, then his augury has been vindicated. Scholarship on Little Mac has been overwhelmingly dominated by critics, from Lincoln secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay to modern historians Kenneth P. Williams, T. Harry Williams, Stephen Sears and James McPherson, all of whom have portrayed McClellan as a badly flawed commander.

In 1973, however, Joseph L. Harsh, author of a highly regarded series of books on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, pointed out in an article titled “The McClellan-Go-Round” that there has always been a segment of the Civil War community which has refused to accept the conventional wisdom regarding McClellan. But while the past few years have seen a push for a more balanced perspective on the general, it seems unlikely that recent works by Harsh and others will actually bring about a change in mainstream sentiment.

It’s true that some of the general’s battlefield actions are the greatest obstacles to redeeming his reputation. On July 11, 1861, in his first major engagement as a commander, at Rich Mountain in western Virginia, he failed to carry out his role in his battle plan, and it is clear that at that battle and in subsequent campaigns he tended to give too much weight to assumptions and evidence, especially regarding Confederate manpower, which confirmed his predilection toward caution and restraint.

He claimed as a triumph the move to the James River that carried his army away from the gates of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and was actually aboard a steamboat while fighting raged at Glendale during the Seven Days’. And the tone of his correspondence regarding Maj. Gen. John Pope during the Second Bull Run Campaign was absolutely reprehensible. McClellan was on the wrong side, too, of the debate over whether a resolution of the sectional conflict required the North to destroy slavery. He also was clearly wrong to believe he could maintain close friendships with prominent Democrats without arousing suspicion by members of the powerful Republican Party. And he was famously unwilling to accord sufficient respect to his commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln.

But there are many positives about McClellan’s Civil War career. His creation of the Army of the Potomac has attracted praise from all but his most die-hard critics. What’s more, McClellan was an insightful and sophisticated strategist whose blueprint for ending the rebellion was probably the only one that had a chance of doing so quickly—if indeed such a victory for the Union was possible.

He was also a superb operational commander, who came close in the early spring of 1862 to achieving a truly decisive victory against a Confederacy that was in the prime of its military life. His amalgamation of the beaten remnants of the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862, just days after the Union rout at Second Bull Run, was remarkable, too. That this new force, in less than three weeks, proved capable not only of thwarting the first major Confederate invasion north of the Potomac River but also of nearly destroying the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam was an extraordinary triumph of personal and military leadership that has few parallels in the history of the war.

A balanced understanding of who McClellan was and the forces that made him is sorely lacking in today’s historiography, however. Two authors who have made notable contributions to scholarship on these points are Edward Hagerman and Philip Shaw Paludan, who presented the general as a man caught in a time of transition in Western warfare. In the years preceding the war, they have argued, the officer corps of the antebellum U.S. Army, including McClellan, had embraced a professional mind-set. Those modern notions of war, however, conflicted with the values of a society that clung to a romanticized image of warfare and idealized citizen-soldiers over professional troops. McClellan was a modern general who tried to wage modern warfare in conflict with a society and political leadership that did not appreciate his vision of how the Civil War should be conducted.

But one must go back even earlier in McClellan’s life and look at his involvement with the Whig Party to understand his wartime actions.

The Role of the Whigs McClellan’s adherence to Whig policies merits significant attention. His affiliation with the Democrats during and after the war inspired his son and the editor of his memoir McClellan’s Own Story to ignore the general’s earlier loyalties. Yet dedicated Whig party leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had significant influence on McClellan, and the general’s professional role model was Winfield Scott, a military hero who became the last Whig candidate for president.

McClellan was a loyal supporter of the party’s presidential candidates through the 1840s, and in an early draft of his memoir proclaimed that in his youth, “traditions and associations…were all on the side of the old Whig Party.” In fact, McClellan remained a Whig in spirit all his life. The adherence to Whig values and principles explains a lot about McClellan’s behavior during the Civil War. In the Philadelphia of the 1820s and 1830s where McClellan was raised, the Whig Party took up the mantle of the failed and dismantled Federalist and National Republican parties as the champions of the political, economic and cultural interests and values of the emerging up wardly mobile Northern middle class to which the McClellans belonged.

The future general socialized with Philadelphia Whigs and learned to view the world as a place where the forces of enlightened moderation battled those of narrow-minded passion and extremism. Politically, this meant building strong private and public institutions and using them to impose order, discipline and rational direction on human activity to encourage economic and cultural modernization.

McClellan’s Whig outlook was reinforced by his experiences at the U.S. Military Academy and the subculture of the antebellum Army officer corps. Its professional mind-set, characterized by elitism and a hierarchical view of society, was the result of a West Point education.

During Little Mac’s formative years in the 1830s and 1840s the Whigs, as historian Joel Silbey has noted, waged vigorous campaigns against the Jacksonian Democrats even as three distinct segments of their party emerged in the North. After the Mexican War, when slavery became the defining issue in American politics, the differences between these segments would help tear the party apart.

Many Whigs, McClellan among them, shared an aversion to the “mob rule” of what they saw as excess democracy ushered in by the election of Andrew Jackson. Known as Statesmen Whigs, this group was uncomfortable with the country’s increasingly democratic and partisan political culture.

Statesmen Whigs feared that the “Age of Jackson” would endanger the political, cultural and economic institutions that fostered social harmony and gave statesmen the ability to provide rational order and direction to national development. These Whigs continued to celebrate the virtues of broad-minded, moderate statesmanship in which educated leaders of character rose above local, partisan and parochial interest and pursued consensus through compromise.

Reform Whigs, the second group, saw politics and government as a force that should be put to specific uses. They felt it should be employed, for example, to eliminate such evils as alcohol and slavery from American life.

Finally there were the Practical Whigs, who accepted and embraced the rules and practices of partisan politics pioneered by Jackson and the Democrats. Believing that a tightly disciplined and well-organized party was essential to attaining success at the polls, they shaped their actions to serve party interests, made sure patronage was distributed in such a way as to reward the loyal and punish the disloyal, and reveled in using divisive rhetoric that simplified complex issues for the public and characterized political opponents as subverters of republican government.

McClellan remained true to the Statesmen Whig ideology during his formative years in Philadelphia, at West Point and as a young officer. By 1852, however, his attachment to the party of his youth had been shattered by profound changes in American politics. By the time McClellan left the Army in 1857 to work for the railroads, the Whig Party was dead and the Republican Party had taken its place in the North. McClellan and many other Whigs shifted their political loyalties to the Northern Democratic Party, which, led by Stephen A. Douglas, seemed the best hope for preventing extremists in both sections from tearing the country apart.

Understanding McClellan’s attachment to Statesmen Whig philosophy makes it possible to better understand his Civil War conduct. It also offers the opportunity to reevaluate and better understand one of the most important topics in Civil War military and political history—McClellan’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

Little Mac and Old Abe Unlike McClellan, Lincoln had raised himself up from humble beginnings in the egalitarian, rough-and-tumble world of the Western frontier, and he never lost his sense of connection with the common man. And while Lincoln also became a Whig, few members of the party came to exemplify the worldview of the Practical Whigs more than Lincoln, who embraced its highly partisan democratic spirit.

For the most part, historians have attributed the problematic relationship between Lincoln and McClellan to the general’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. But the notion that the two men could never have worked together politically must be reconsidered, for the Whig Party played a central role in Lincoln’s intellectual and political development as well. Like McClellan, Lincoln was a member of the upwardly mobile middle class— concerned with self-improvement, discipline and consciously arranged order—that was the backbone of the Whig Party in the North. Before 1850, the two men would have been on the same side of the political fence, unified by their antipathy toward the values of the Democratic Party.

McClellan and Lincoln actually got an opportunity to take each other’s measure before the war. During the late 1850s, McClellan spent a few years in Illinois as an engineer and executive with the Illinois Central Railroad, which often used Lincoln’s legal services. McClellan could not have missed that Lincoln was a Whig, and it’s clear from his memoir that the general looked back on his early interactions with Lincoln with some degree of warmth.

In fact, during the 1850s, Lincoln was one of the most tenacious of a rapidly dwindling band of devotees to the traditional Whig Party. Although he was always repulsed by the institution of slavery, he avoided using moralistic terminology when speaking of the conflict with the South. He rarely missed an opportunity to affirm his fidelity to Henry Clay’s moderate views, appealed to the tradition of sectional compromise and initially sought to revive his political career by attacking Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’ claim to the mantle of Clay by pointing out that the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had been proposed by Douglas, overturned some of the compromises over slavery ironed out in the 1820 Missouri Compromise.

While Lincoln clearly aligned himself with those who wished to prevent the expansion of slavery, he ex pressed toleration for the institution where it existed. In a speech in October 1854 Lincoln said, “Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved.” Such a stance, however, proved untenable in 1850s Illinois politics because of a series of outrages perpetrated by the national government on behalf of the slaveocracy. The most critical of those was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

An unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1855 made Lincoln realize that anyone who adopted a moderate approach to the slavery issue was open to charges of cooperation with slaveholders. It had become clear that as a Whig he could not hope to gain the support of the anti-Douglas forces in Illinois, which were abandoning the Whigs in favor of the new Republican Party. Lincoln reluctantly saw that the only course available to him at that point was to abandon the Whigs and join the Republicans as well. The leaders of this new party considered the struggle to preserve the territories for free labor and redeem the republic from influential slaveowners as a moral imperative, one in which the Statesmen Whig ideals of moderation, compromise and statesmanship did not apply.

One reason that Lincoln never considered the course followed by McClellan—joining the Democratic Party after leaving the Whigs—was because his political career for many years had been defined by his opposition to Douglas, and Lincoln had consistently been on the losing end in that relationship. It was clear to Lincoln he had to define himself by joining a party that was clearly antagonistic to the slave owners in Washington.

After joining the Republican Party, Lincoln’s rhetoric became increasingly strident on the issue of slavery due to his justifiable fury over proslavery outrages committed throughout Democrat Franklin Pierce’s presidential administration and during the first year of the Buchanan administration. Lincoln also indulged in harsher rhetoric regarding the South and slavery. From McClellan’s viewpoint, these changes could only have occurred because Lincoln needed to draw a clear line between himself and Douglas on the issue of slavery in order to unify the Republicans behind his personal ambitions.

Lincoln’s tough stance toward the South and slavery did in fact unify Illinois Republicans behind his candidacy and establish him as a national figure. But for McClellan, Lincoln’s new views would certainly have raised troubling questions. Little Mac must have asked himself how a man so eminently reasonable in his professional life, and who was clearly not a fanatic, could be so divisive, sectionalist and unstatesmanlike politically.

McClellan’s view of Lincoln must necessarily have been colored at that point by memories of the tensions between the Statesmen and Practical Whigs. For someone with roots in the former faction, the only explanation for the opinions on slavery adopted by an otherwise rational Lincoln would be crass political calculation.

In McClellan’s eyes, Lincoln could not possibly have adopted a “no compromise” position on slavery’s expansion and used the moralistic rhetoric of Reformer Whigs that endangered the Union because he truly believed in it. Thus the only explanation was that out of cynicism, selfish ambition, weakness or a combination of all three, Lincoln must have decided it was more important to place the interests of party and self above the Union.

That view of Lincoln would have serious consequences in terms of McClellan’s ability to work with the 16th president during the Civil War. If Lincoln were to take the moderate position of a statesman in the future, Little Mac must have wondered, did he have the character to maintain it if it did not serve party interests?

When the fate of the nation was in President Lincoln’s hands three years later, the general could not have had much reason for optimism based on his earlier observations in Illinois. Indeed, in early 1861 an associate from the Illinois Central wrote to McClellan to remind him of Abe’s shifting views: “You and I both know…L[incoln] is not a bold man. Has not nerve to differ with his party…and we do know that he can not face the opposition which would arise if he were to take the right stand.”

McClellan and the War To McClellan, the war was a product of what Statesmen Whigs had always feared: The forces of passion and extremism—i.e., secessionists in the South and antislavery radicals in the North—had gained control of the nation’s councils. To restore reason and moderation to ascendancy, McClellan believed the North needed to adopt a policy of taking the time to raise and thoroughly prepare massive armies capable of persuading Southerners that resistance to the Union was illogical by demonstrating that it was impossible. At the same time, he believed, a paternalistic spirit of conciliation must animate the hearts and minds of the North in its approach to the Southern people, manifest in a rigid respect for their property and constitutional rights.

For this approach to succeed, McClellan believed the nation needed a Statesmen Whig as commander in chief, one who could put aside partisan and sectional interest to let reason and moderation guide his actions. McClellan was undoubtedly pleased that Lincoln initially seemed to be a man who could do this, since the new president generally adopted the political and military program McClellan advocated after he arrived in Washington in July 1861.

Over time, though, Lincoln would alter his views in a manner that put him more in line with what the more partisan and radical members of his party were advocating—paralleling the course he had followed in Illinois.

Whether President Lincoln was right to do so continues to inspire debate even today, but after what McClellan had seen in Illinois, it is not surprising the general could envision only dark motives behind the change.

The consequences of Little Mac’s jaundiced view of Lincoln were manifold. His problematic relationship with the president would undermine the general’s military efforts, ultimately lead to his removal from command, and provide much of the fuel for the fierce debate over him and his role in the war that continues to this day.

 

Ethan S. Rafuse taught Civil War history at West Point, and is currently on the faculty at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Turn to “Re – sources,” on P. 70, for books on George McClellan.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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