Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lincoln and McClellan at War by Chester G. Hearn

Lincoln and McClellan
Lincoln and McClellan at War presents the story of the stormy relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan.  Lincoln's opinion of McClellan changed from high regard to frustration and eventually anger.  The work by Civil War author, Chester Hearn, traces the disintegration of this relationship from the Peninsula Campaign to Antietam. 

Lincoln promoted McClellan on the advice of cabinet members and counted on the general "to whip the army into shape and end the war quickly."  McClellan impressed Lincoln by reorganizing the demoralized Army of the Potomac.  He forged  "the best army on the planet" but refused to make maximum use of the weapon. 
McClellan, like many officers in the Regular Army, was a staunch Democrat who never "lost his acrimony toward Republicans.  McClellan met Lincoln when the future President was an attorney representing the Illinois Central Railroad and immediately disliked him.  McClellan never changed his opinion of Lincoln.  The picture that emerges of McClellan is of a man who had a very high opinion of his ability which manifested itself in problems with both superiors and subordinates. 
Typical of McClellan's problems with authority is his relationship with Winfield Scott.  On July 18, 1861, he praises Scott saying, "all that I know of war I have learned from you,"  but two weeks later he complained about being hampered by the general-in-chief.   This difficulty soon arose with Stanton, Halleck, and Lincoln.  McClellan believed he was "the smartest guy in the room" and had little use for directions from military amateurs.  McClellan also had little confidence in his subordinates.  He refused to process their suggestions and failed to support them in critical situations. 
McClellan, who served as a staff officer during the Mexican War, never seemed to understand the importance of sound intelligence that his fellow officers learned under General Scott.  This seems odd because he performed reconnaissance missions during the war.  During the Civil War he relied on faulty reports by Alan Pinkerton that consistently overestimated the enemy's strength.  Whether McClellan believed these reports or used them to justify his inaction is not addressed.  The reports allowed McClellan to ask for more men to meet the imagined enemy threat and delay offensive plans until the additional men were received.
Hearn believes that McClellan's "intransigence" was based on his reluctance to fight offensively.   McClellan was "well-schooled in European defensive tactics" and preferred to defend rather than attack.  Lincoln's philosophy was for the offense to destroy the Confederate Army and stop the war.  It took Lincoln some time "to observe flaws in McClellan's strategy, which on one hand sounded aggressive but on the other suggested the employment of defensive tactics when it came to actual fighting." 
Lincoln and the Generals at Antietam
Lincoln and McClellan at War never probes the general's psyche to see why he refused to attack the enemy.  Was the reason a simple preference for a defensive philosophy or was he afraid of making a mistake?  The reluctance is seen most dramatically during the Peninsular Campaign.  Another possibility is that McClellan, like many staff officers, had difficulty in adjusting to the rapidly developing actions on the battlefield.  He sought perfection where it was not possible.  Even when he had Lee's plans,  McClellan moved slowly double-checking troop positions; paralyzed by over-analysis into inaction.  Hearn also hints that McClellan's actions might be an effort to subvert Republican political policy especially in regard to emancipation.

Mr. Hearn has produced a highly-readable book on the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan.  He lays the blame for their conflict on mistakes by both men.  He concludes by describing McClellan as "a military enigma, a talented organizer, a better-than-average strategist, but an ineffective implementer of his own strategy."   

Chester G. Hearn is the author of many volumes on the Civil War.  His  most recent books are Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All and When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans.  Hearn has also written other books on the U.S. military.  Mr. Hearn lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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