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God’s Chosen Instrument
In the Republic’s direst hour, he took command. In the black days after Bull Run, he won West Virginia for the Union. He raised a magnificent army and led it forth to meet his “cautious & weak” opponent, Robert E. Lee. Why hasn’t history been kinder to George B. McClellan?
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
To be sure, General McClellan intended that in any peace settlement he directed the peculiar institution would have to change. “When the day of adjustment comes,” he told his wife, “I will … throw my sword into the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks.” He expected the issue of slavery to be resolved in due course by gradual, compensated emancipation, guarding the rights of both slaves and masters. But first the issue of war must be resolved. “Help me to dodge the nigger—we want nothing to do with him,” he wrote a friend a week after becoming general-in-chief. “ I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt—on no other issue.”
One of the more common myths surrounding McClellan is that he was a naive victim of political manipulation by his Democratic supporters. It was said—he was one of those to say it—that these friends were his worst enemies. In truth, he had identified his cause with theirs from the first and never hesitated to support it. While in command, he made special efforts to cultivate the politically conservative press, particularly the New York Herald , the nation’s largest newspaper. At one point in 1862 he urged the New York World , the leading Democratic paper, “to open your batteries” on his enemies in the administration.
Nor was he shy about announcing his views in the camp of these enemies. Soon after arriving in Washington, he met with prominent abolitionists, including the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, to make it clear to them “that I was fighting for my country & the Union, not for abolition and the Republican party.” It was in this same spirit that he gave Lincoln his famous Harrison’s Landing Letter on July 8, 1862, telling him exactly how to conduct the war shortly after the end of the Peninsular fighting, when the President visited the army on the James River. His plan envisaged no such radical schemes as the confiscation of property, reorganization of territory, and forcible abolition of slavery, which he felt should not be “contemplated for a moment,” nor was the document intended only for the President. He urged its circulation within the administration as the “policy which ought to govern this contest on our part.” Lincoln read the letter without comment, leaving McClellan little hope of steering the government away from the “radical & inhumane views to which it seemed inclined.” That his own views would save the country he had no doubt, and in 1864 he made the Harrison’s Landing Letter his personal platform for the Presidency.
There is also a good deal of illusion in McClellan’s celebrated connection with the Army of the Potomac. He always described it as “my” army; it “is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it,” he insisted. No one else, it was said, could have forged enough strength into the Potomac army to enable it to survive the palsied leadership of such generals as John Pope and Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker. Yet this picture, like so many others depicting McClellan, is not quite what it seems.
Certainly the Potomac army was not the only army with inner strength. The Union forces being organized at the same time in the West under U. S. Grant and Henry Halleck and Don Carlos Buell would prove able to withstand such brutal shocks as Shiloh and Stone’s River and Chickamauga. McClellan’s task was the larger one—by the end of 1861 there were 192,000 men with the Army of the Potomac—but the only thing unique about his leadership was his deliberate effort to personify the army in the figure of its commander. He set out to secure the personal loyalty of the men in the ranks by becoming as familiar to them as their company officers. He staged grand reviews and inspected the camps almost daily, and on campaign he constantly rode the lines to show himself to the troops. They called him Little Mac and cheered his every appearance. Newspapers called him the Young Napoleon. He would say with pride, “I don’t believe that Napoleon even ever possessed the love & confidence of his men more fully than I do of mine.”
These displays of loyalty were not entirely spontaneous. On the march he was preceded by an officer shouting, “McClellan’s coming, boys! McClellan’s coming! Three cheers for McClellan.” Still, the affection was both genuine and mutual. “You have no idea how the men brighten up now, when I go among them—I can see every eye glisten,” he told his wife. “Yesterday they nearly pulled me to pieces in one regt. You never heard such yelling.” Addressing his troops on the eve of the Peninsular campaign, he urged that they “ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours. … I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart.” Looking back on these early months of the war, a regimental chaplain wrote, “The truth is, our magnificent army much needed a transcendent leader, and the crisis prompted us both to crave and expect one fit for the occasion—one whom we could afford to idolize.”