Books: “Lincoln and McClellan”

June 27, 2010

Abraham Lincoln meets with Maj. Gen. George McClellan in October 1862, following the Battle of Antietam

The recent decision by President Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan in favor of Gen. David Petraeus prompted a lot of people to reflect on the analogous event involving President Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur. My mind reached back further, however, because I happened to be reading Lincoln and McClellan, a recent book by John C. Waugh about another president and general whose relationship came to grief.


Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan is remembered today mostly for his reticence on the battlefield and for the effect that had on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln finally removed the general from command of the Army of the Potomac after the carnage at Antietam. It’s hard to say that there was a winner or loser in that awful battle, but Lincoln’s frustration was that McClellan let Robert E. Lee and his army slip away without pursuit — this after McClellan had repeatedly resisted Lincoln’s urgings to attack or pursue the enemy.

In a way, McClellan, like so many of his contemporaries, was one more victim of the Civil War. He was a charismatic and erudite man who was well trained at West Point — but not as a fighter. McClellan had served in the Mexican War and had left the army for a lucrative executive position with a railroad, but he returned to arms when secession made war inevitable.


Lincoln called on McClellan after the disaster of First Bull Run, and McClellan used his considerable skill to, in effect, create the Army of the Potomac and mold it into a formidable fighting force. His personal qualities endeared him to the troops, and that sentiment spilled over to the Northern public. McClellan was lionized as a new Napoleon. He believed his own publicity, but he fell short of its promise. Among his errors were that he was never quite satisfied with the readiness of his army and that he wildly overestimated the size of his enemy with the result that he ended up being embarrassed by much smaller forces than his own.

Although McClellan ran for president in 1864 and in later life served as governor of New Jersey and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates Winfield Scott and Grover Cleveland, he hated politics and despised politicians.


He resented any interference in military affairs by civilian authorities, and that put him on a collision course with Lincoln who, for better or for worse, had his own ideas about strategy and let the general know about them. There were bitter exchanges between McClellan and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was something of a troublemaker in his own right.

This condition was complicated by the fact that McClellan came from an elite Philadelphia family and regarded people with humbler pedigrees as his social and intellectual inferiors — and that included, one might say especially, Abraham Lincoln. In letters to his wife, Ellen Marcy McClellan, the general dismissed Lincoln as “an idiot” and “a gorilla.” This was consistent with a pattern in McClellan’s life in which he usually regarded his superiors as incompetent.


Like many or maybe most northerners, McClellan was not concerned about the institution of slavery or about the slaves themselves, and he insisted that they were not a factor in the war. He maintained that the war should be conducted with the least possible impact of southern institutions and property – and he pointedly included slavery and slaves in that philosophy. As as result, he was scandalized when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that Lincoln insisted that the proclamation was a war measure didn’t mitigate McClellan’s disgust.

McClellan has often been brushed off as an almost comical figure who dithered while Lincoln fumed, but passing easy judgment on the men and women who lived through and participated in the war and the events surrounding it is a disservice to them. That’s why I appreciate books like this one, in which John Waugh presents a balanced view of the life and career of a complicated man caught up in a complicated epoch.


5 Responses to “Books: “Lincoln and McClellan””

  1. I like your point about “easy judgment.” As time passes and more events compete for space in history books, there’s a tendency to boil issues and people down to their simplest terms. As you’ve said in previous posts, entire careers are often reduced to single sentences. That can never be fair. It takes more time and effort to look closely, as well as to consider different points of view, but if we don’t try, we’re left with flat and dull lists of “facts.”

    For some reason, I’m still a little startled every time I see a photograph of Lincoln, especially the Civil War shots. Are you?

    • charlespaolino Says:

      In what way are you startled by Lincoln’s photos? If you mean that they show how the war turned him into an old man, yes indeed. I recently reviewed a book that contains every photograph ever taken of Lincoln. In each case, the page opposite the photo in its full context was devoted to a life-sized image of only Lincoln’s head. It’s an unusual opportunity to study his features and his whole face from various angles and at various stages in his life. I found it both moving and at times unsettling.

  2. I think I’m startled because there are so many photos of Lincoln posing for formal portraits, and because he’s been immortalized in sculpture, in paintings, and on currency. In many ways he seems larger than life. So to see a blurry black & white picture of him seated on a chair in a tent in the middle of some rock-strewn battlefield, it’s a little incongruous. I wonder if it strikes others that way.

    The book you refer to that contains every photo of Lincoln — where did you find it? I’d like to see that. It’s hard to imagine what he faced every day: his entire presidency took place during the Civil War. Not hard to understand why that aged him so dramatically.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I agree that it is a little startling to see Lincoln in the few photos of him that were not formal portraits. There are a couple photographs of him, taken at Antietam by Alexander Gardner, in which Lincoln, wearing a stovepipe hat, is standing among a group of soldiers. Gardner also photographed Lincoln’s second inaugural ceremony in 1865, and there is a remarkable image in which he is clearly shown sitting on the platform in front of the Capitol alongside Andrew Johnson and Hannibal Hamlin. The book, which is recent, is “Lincoln, Life-Size” by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. It was published last November by Alfred A. Knopf.

  3. Ron Says:

    Lincoln was a real flesh and blood man, when someone is immortalized as he is people can lose sight of that. He certainly made his share of mistakes and misjudgments in the war like everyone else did. He had to navigate uncharted waters the whole time.

    McClellan does get a simplistic drawing from historians, Like many it was the PBS series that energized me into reading more about the war, and reading further over the years one can see how broad-brushed that whole series was.

    It all depended on the results. The Peninsula campaign wasn’t such a bad idea on paper, the war could have been over sooner in the eastern theater at least. Lots of “ifs” of course. Still McClellan was his worst enemy when it came to his relations with the President as you pointed out, he wasn’t the last person to come to grief underestimating Lincoln, McClellan also had to deal with the Radical Republicans who were against him almost immediately.

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