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The controversy-plagued Army of the Potomac owed much of its disputatious nature to its lightning-rod commander.

By Roy Morris, Jr.

All armies, in all wars, are riven by controversy. The intense, life-and-death pressures on ambitious and often exhausted men naturally produce moments of personal conflict in the heat of battle and more insidious jealousies in the aftermath of fighting. The Union Army of the Potomac, more than most military organizations, engendered backbiting, double-crossing and bottom-dealing. The credit–or onus–for much of its intramural combat rests with the army’s contentious first commander, Major General George Brinton McClellan.

In his new collection of essays, Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1999, $26), McClellan’s able biographer, Stephen W. Sears, makes that point immediately. “No Northern commander…was regarded, in his own time, as more controversial,” Sears notes. “McClellan’s connection with so many of the figures mentioned here forms an almost continuous thread through these pages. George McClellan, as it were, fathered the Army of the Potomac, and while his command of it ceased before the war reached its halfway point, his influence on its high command, for good or ill, lasted through Appomattox.”

In 10 loosely related essays, Sears traces “the disease of McClellanism” that imbued the Army of the Potomac throughout its existence. Fittingly, he begins with McClellan himself and his place in the history of the Civil War. In Sears’ eyes, much of the controversy surrounding McClellan is the result of an unresolved dispute between his biographers on the one hand, and general military historians on the other. To the former, Sears notes, McClellan was a towering, positive figure, “the shield of the Union.” To the latter, he was little more than “an attractive but vain and unstable man…who sat a horse well and wanted to be President.”

In truth, says Sears, McClellan was both–and many other things, as well. Sears urges future historians to consider the varied roles McClellan was forced to play as commander of the Army of the Potomac. There were, he says, four distinct General McClellans: the trainer and organizer of men, the grand strategist, the battlefield commander and the presidential aspirant (in Sears’ rather harsh words, “the general who would be king”). Each required a different type of ability, and McClellan, like most men, was incapable of doing all things well. He was a superb organizer, a mediocre strategist–Sears quite rightly blames much of this failing on his notorious penchant for overestimating Confederate numbers against him–a poor battlefield commander, and an inept politician. That he was facing a military opponent in Robert E. Lee and a political opponent in Abraham Lincoln did not make his tasks any easier.

The myriad controversies surrounding McClellan’s two terms as commander of the Army of the Potomac continued to have a deleterious effect on the army’s performance and morale. Two of Sears’ essays study the rather questionable courts-martial of Union Generals Charles P. Stone and Fitz John Porter. In Sears’ view, both men were sacrificial victims of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who hated McClellan personally and sought to prosecute his subordinates as either an object lesson to McClellan on the proper conduct of the war (in Stone’s case) or as a way of preventing McClellan’s third term as army commander (in Porter’s case).

The heart of the book, fittingly enough, is the essay titled “The Revolt of the Generals.” It details the full extent of lingering McClellanism among the general’s subordinates in the wake of his dismissal as army commander after the qualified success–or failure–of the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. McClellan’s successor, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was a pleasant enough fellow, but one who had the singular disadvantage, for an army commander, of lacking self confidence in his abilities. After the debacle at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862, a dissatisfied coterie of army officers began actively campaigning to have Burnside removed and replaced by–yet again–George McClellan. As Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of New York wrote privately to his wife: “We must have McClellan back with unlimited and unfettered powers. His name is a tower of strength to everyone here.”

Sears goes to some pains to describe the byzantine plots and counterplots that sought first to undermine Burnside’s standing with Abraham Lincoln, then to have him replaced as commander by McClellan. The problem with the plotters’ master plan was that Lincoln had no intention of bringing McClellan back to power. By this time, Sears points out, McClellan “had become, or had let himself become, a well-recognized symbol of opposition, a magnet attracting the elements within the country in dissent against the administration’s war policies. To put McClellan back in command…would in effect be confessing the failure of those policies. The president was hardly ready to confess that.” Instead, for all their trouble, the plotters got “Fighting Joe” Hooker as their next commander. For good or ill, he was not George McClellan.