The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865

Stephen W. Sears, ed.; New York, De Capo Press, 1989


This is a very handy reference, fragmentary as it is, and serves well for timeline checks. The short notes between letters are often helpful, too. Unfortunately, Selected Correspondence is no empty threat. The letters, footnotes, and especially commentary introducing chapters appear to be a crafted apologia for Sears' many anti-McClellan publications. Important and interesting material is omitted, especially if it embarasses Sears' public positions on McClellan. The general structure of the work -- letters FROM the general, but not TO him -- strips the volume of needed context and allows Sears free reign where a tight leash is really in order.

The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan - dust coverSince the naked editorializing appears in separate introductory passages to his chapters of letters, one could easily skip this. But this commentary is an important indicator of how far Sears will overreach to score points against his subject.

In a random example, taken from Chapter 4, Sears describes a March 28, 1862 letter from McClellan as making "it obvious that he went to the Peninsula predisposed to siege operations." When one turns to the cited letter, one finds McClellan not only denying plans for sieges but tentatively offering to transfer precious siege-enabling engineers from his command after an initial objective is taken. Note that it is Sears' expressed position in other works that that McClellan "went to the Peninsula predisposed to siege operations" and it is a repeated trick in these pages for Sears to mischaracterize McClellan letters.

One extended example of this should be enough.

By Chapter 7, Sears must address McClellan's command status during the Antietam campaign. This is crucial to understanding why the campaign developed the way it did and in evaluating McClellan's conduct. Sears' own position (stated elesewhere) negates McClellan's: he even calls McClellan a liar on this issue. But rather than air the dispute forthrightly, Sears summarizes two McClellan letters in such a way that the command controversy disappears and Sears' own opinions are read into McClellan's writings. Sears says "The president's decision to place him in charge of Washington's defences and then in command of the combined armies, described in McClellan's letters to his wife on September 2 ... " The letters in no way describe this, as those who read them can see. The first letter describes McClellan's superior, Halleck -- not Lincoln, "begging" McClellan to take command of the Washington defences. The second letter describes Lincoln's decision that forces entering Washington were to be put under McClellan's orders. That is all. Sears has not only rigged a phony "confession" for a dead man, but has ensured it says "Sears is sound. Go with Sears." This shocking trick is nearly a mainstay in this volume. (For an extended example of a Sears-induced "forced confession," see our related book review for The Secret War for the Union by Sears admirer Edwin Fishel.)

This Antietam command issue exposes further editorial mischief. Though Halleck issued a written order on September 2 appointing McClellan commander of the Washington defences (only), it is excluded from this heavily footnoted volume -- and it merits at least a footnote. Lincoln then ordered Halleck -- in writing -- to form a Washington-area field army independent of McClellan's command, but that also is a footnote-free reality. So is any mention of Lincoln's subsequent visit to Burnside asking that Burnside take command of this new field army against Lee. So is the extended campaign correspondence between McClellan and Halleck, in which Halleck (during the Antietam campaign) tries to bring McClellan back toward Washington and McClellan contrives to press further away from Washington. These developments are pox to anyone holding Sears' position on the Antietam command controversy. And yet, an editor of a work such as this is expected to exercise liberality and honesty, not censorship, in handling information damaging to his own positions.

The broad failures of this volume are worth noting, too: a failure to account for McClellan's reputation as an organizer and administrator; a failure to account for his long list of historic firsts; a failure to account for or seriously address his grand strategy for winning the war in 1862; a failure to account for the several attempts to return him to active duty after his relief; a failure to seriously account for his popularity among colleagues and subordinates both; a failure to account for his political personality and activity.

The book is in print. The current scarcity of McClellan material makes it useful. As they say in the hazardous materials business, "Use with extreme caution."

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[Note on the Antietam command controversy. This particular controversy has three sides.

(1) McClellan says he was never appointed to field command for the Antietam campaign and that the campaign exceeded his authority. This is not only borne out by military records but by Lincoln's comments after a meeting with McClellan (revealed in the diary entries of two Cabinet members), plus the interchanges between McClellan and Halleck; and by MG Burnside, whom Lincoln pressed to take command of the Antietam campaign.

(2) Lincoln initially told the same story as McClellan but later changed it when the political heat became intense. Lincoln's later version said that Halleck gave field command to McClellan, to Lincoln's own surprise and dismay. This later claim has no corroborating or other evidence.

(3) Halleck told a third version of events to Congress after he had heard both Lincoln's and McClellan's accounts.

Halleck is supported neither by orders nor reminiscenses but it is his story that Sears champions: that on September 2, 1862, Lincoln restored McClellan to command of the reorganized armies for a field campaign in Maryland against Lee.]

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