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

by Thomas J. Rowland, Kent, Kent State University Press, 1998

George Brinton McClellan ("GBM," or "Mac") was a Philadelphian by birth, a Trentonian by death (Riverview Cemetery), and in between, was the commander of all Union armies, a presidential candidate, governor of New Jersey, and much else. He was easily the most modern manager produced by the Civil War but is remembered mainly for his key managerial failing - controlling expectations. By repeatedly disappointing Lincoln, politicians and the public, he engendered an animosity that persists even through the current generation of historians.

That so many modern writers fail to maintain scholarly distance from the subject of McClellan cries out for inquiry. This book, by Thomas J. Rowland, is not such an inquiry, but a beginning, a review of some gross categorical errors committed in recent McClellan works. A gentle book, brimming with professional courtesy, it exposes poor historical practice chapter after chapter, occasionally naming names (T. Harry Williams, Stephen W. Sears, James T. McPherson), but never linking bad work observed to judgements of "bad historian.". In its collegial way, it breaks down each overreaching claim: that GBM was a coward, a religious fanatic, messianic, nasty, paranoid, etc. Chapter 2, "A Foray Into the Twilight Zone," is a tour de force, stressing the weakest link in modern McClellanology, the psychologizing.

Aside from looking at McClellan criticims with simple common sense, Rowland's main instruments in dissecting bad practice are (1) supplying context and (2) making comparisons. As the subtitle suggests (In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman) the wartime records of Grant and Sherman, and the handling of those records by McClellan critics, provide counterpoints for restoring perspective. Such simplicity makes this historiography easy for all. It is good reading that can be enjoyed by both the general public and Civil War specialists. Thus:

"Generally little attention is paid to the context in which McClellan dealt with the difficulties that faced the Federal army in the first 15 months of the war. Yet, in great measure, his early tenure deprived him of the advantage of leading matured and seasoned civilian soldiers, adapted to the demands of a new age of warfare, that later commanders of the Army of the Potomac had."

But is this approach too simple? It opens the author to quibbling. It avoids examining wider rhetorical malpractice by McClellan's critics. It neglects those pseudofacts and mis-sourcings that sustain so much McClellan criticism. Our author has taken just his three ingredients into the kitchen and tried to produce a feast.

Rowland contends that Mac was not great nor even good but "mediocre." This is a radical view in a field crowded with judgements that Mac was not just a "bad" general, but often "evil" and "crazy." To make way for his judgement of "mediocrity," the author must first clear off from the path of inquiry the junk now strewn there andGeorge B. McClellan and Civil War History tries honestly to do so.

Perhaps Rowland does not want to move too far, too fast, for in a field dominated by best-selling pop historians who have had their way with a uniform McClellan interpretation for 40 years, book buyers would not stand for it, and neither would publishers. As one pro-McClellan author in search of a press told me recently, "the hostility is incredible." Thomas J. Rowland's study may not go far enough but it certainly risks much for its modest ends. It is the first necessary step toward understanding, in rational terms, a major 19th Century American.

Note: this review originally appeared in the Times of Trenton on 1/10/99

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