McClellan’s War: The Failure

of Moderation in the Struggle
for the Union

by Ethan S. Rafuse

Bloomington: Indiana University Press; 525 pp., $35.00

Walt Whitman remarked after it was over that “the real war will never get in the books,” and, despite all the volumes that have been written since then, his prediction remains largely true, but not entirely so: Ethan Rafuse has written an important book that rescues George B. McClellan’s military reputation and demonstrates that he was removed from command because he stood for policies—moderation, conciliation, statesmanship—that were anathema to the Lincoln administration.

We are familiar with McClellan’s historical reputation: indecisive, timid, politically ambitious, vainglorious.  It is as old as the war, created by the Republicans, perpetuated by the postwar historians of Northern righteousness (e.g., James Ford Rhodes), and sustained by the neo-abolitionists of the school of America the Virtuous.  (See, for example, Stephen Sears’ 1988 biography and the scribblings of the official gatekeeper of Civil War history, James McPherson.)

McClellan never squandered the lives of his men, and they loved him for it.  By contrast, Grant’s famed strategic genius consisted in little more than throwing his men against Lee’s lines and having a great bloodletting—calculating, correctly, that the South could not win a war of attrition.  That his strategy worked is undeniable, but one wonders what his men really thought of it or of the general who turned them from soldiers into cannon fodder.

Rafuse begins with a close study of the formative influences on McClellan.  The first was his father, a Yale-educated physician, Episcopalian, member of Philadelphia’s patriciate, conservative Whig, and close friend of Sen. John M. Clayton of Delaware.  West Point was the other.  There, McClellan excelled.  He was a natural leader, a popular cadet, and a diligent student who graduated second in his class, which demonstrates something important, besides his intelligence and self-discipline: He learned and remembered what he was taught.

Rafuse believes two courses to have been determinative.  The first was Denis Hart Mahan’s class on military engineering and the science of war.  Mahan counseled the cadets to eschew tactics that would incur high casualties, such as frontal assaults on entrenched positions.  He reasoned that massive bloodletting would arouse public passions, intensifying and prolonging wars, and lead to political interference in military decisions.  He taught them to outmaneuver their enemy, to advance methodically, to fight from behind fortifications whenever possible, and to besiege or bypass enemy redoubts.

The second course was in moral philosophy, taught in the senior year and using as a text Francis Wayland’s Elements of Moral Science.  Wayland, an American follower of Scottish Common Sense philosophy and faculty theology, taught moral lessons that can only be described as the antithesis of New England Puritanism, including its many 19th-century manifestations.  While faculty psychology emphasized the mastery of passion and the ascendancy of reason, Common Sense philosophy advocated moderation in all things, consensus building, tolerance of differing opinions, forbearance rather than impetuosity, leading by example, and reasoned appeals to the mind and conscience over “rhetoric that attacked the motives and morality of others.”

It is easy to see why Whigs educated in this tradition would decline membership in the new Republican Party, with its divisive rhetoric (an “irrepressible conflict”), its allegation of conspiracy (“the slave power”), its rejection of compromise, its winner-take-all program, and its appeals to popular fears and passions.  Indeed, when the antislavery Whigs gained ascendancy in the Pennsylvania party in 1851, the McClellans became Democrats.  It also explains why Whigs of this stamp (e.g., Sen. Daniel Webster, whom McClellan revered, naming his favorite horse “Dan Webster”) could be opposed to abolitionism without supporting slavery.  During the war, McClellan foresaw slavery dissolving with the advance of the Union armies and believed that a Northern victory assured its demise, rendering a proclamation of emancipation unnecessary and gratuitous.  He also feared it could be dangerous, inflaming Southern pride and inciting slave revolts.

McClellan’s patrician upbringing, Whiggish education, and West Point training had another consequence.  He believed (in his own words) that the war should be “conducted according to the established usage of civilized nations,” which meant, first and foremost, that “efforts should be directed towards crushing the armed masses of the rebels, not against the people.”  That was the very definition of civilized warfare, and McClellan made it clear to his troops from the beginning that they were expected to respect civilians and their property and abstain from all forms of abuse or depredation.  When any troops violated his orders, McClellan punished them, believing (correctly) that failure to do so would be interpreted as tacit approval and lead to more and worse abuses.  So, when a company in General Rosecrans’ brigade robbed the home of a pro-secession woman in Western Virginia in July 1861, McClellan discharged them from service, but not before ordering them to surrender their arms in front of the whole regiment, a humiliation.  Naturally, this did not sit well with the Republicans, who wanted to punish all Southerners and institute the barbaric tactic of total war, which they would do once McClellan was out of the way.

McClellan believed a moderate but firm policy would bring about an early end to the war.  If Northern soldiers behaved with restraint, and if the war effort were directed solely against the armies, the government could regain the loyalty of Southern citizens.  The opposite course would only inspire hatred, widen the sectional rift, and cause Southerners to fight longer and harder, postponing reconciliation.  McClellan thought it equally important that the government avoid risky, ill-prepared, or premature offensives, as any repulse would boost Southern morale and encourage further resistance.  This explains why he was so cautious on the offensive.  Once Southerners were persuaded that they could not hope to defeat the North, and that giving up would not be ruinous, they would return to their allegiance.  As Rafuse demonstrates, wherever the strategy of conciliation was followed (Western Virginia, Virginia’s eastern shore, coastal North Carolina), it succeeded.  Where it was not followed (Missouri, where rabid Republican abolitionists, such as Nathaniel Lyon and John C. Fremont, were in command), the result was guerrilla war.

McClellan’s troubles began when some Democratic papers in early 1862 began touting him as a presidential candidate in 1864.  This was not his doing, but it sealed his fate.  The Republicans in Congress and the White House realized that they had a problem: Were McClellan to capture Richmond, he would pose a serious threat to Lincoln’s reelection.  In other words, military victory in 1862 meant political defeat in 1864.  They could not demote McClellan, however: He was too popular and respected, and they had no reason they could give for doing so.  Their only way out of this dilemma was for McClellan and the Army of the Potomac to fail.  And it appears that Lincoln and his new secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, deliberately sabotaged McClellan’s peninsular campaign.  Rafuse is not so bold as to make this argument, but his evidence supports it.

Rafuse believes that McClellan was right to advance on Richmond from the east, via the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, as opposed to the overland route favored by the administration.  It was shorter, had fewer natural obstacles, and could be supplied and reinforced easily by sea, but it was McClellan’s plan, and that doomed it.  At the onset of the campaign, the President, after assuring McClellan otherwise, transferred Blenker’s division to General Fremont in the Shenandoah Valley; then he withheld McDowell’s Corps (for the defense of Washington, he claimed).  That was 50,000 troops.  A member of his staff told him: “General, the authorities at Washington are painfully afraid that you will succeed in taking Richmond, and therefore are stripping your army in the beginning.”

So, when the Seven Days battles commenced in late June, McClellan, on the offensive, was outnumbered (101,000 to 112,000).  These engagements hardly amounted to the decisive repulse they are sometimes described as.  McClellan’s command suffered fewer casualties than did the Confederates (15,849 to 20,614), little equipment or supplies were lost, and his new position on the James River was secure; with reinforcements, he could have resumed the offensive in August.  The President’s decision to terminate the campaign and withdraw McClellan’s army was not a military one.  Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia was ready to march south.  Richmond would be taken by a Republican general, or not at all.  Pope also issued orders that essentially authorized the plundering of civilians and the destruction of property.  The reign of arson and theft had begun.  When McClellan heard of the new policy, he was appalled and vowed never to carry it out: “I will not permit this army to degenerate into a mob of thieves.”  He later sent a letter of rebuke to Lincoln: The war “should be conducted according to the highest principles known to Christian civilization.  It should not be . . . a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations.”

I have a few criticisms.  The subtitle is misleading: McClellan’s strategy of moderation did not fail; it was rejected.  The first two chapters of the book are encumbered with an unnecessary scholarly apparatus that reads like a comprehensive exam for a Ph.D. in history.  Rafuse ends his book in the fall of 1862.  He tries to justify this, but there is no excuse for not including at least one chapter on McClellan’s 1864 presidential campaign.

And Rafuse alleges that McClellan thought that Capt. Charles Wilkes, commanding the USS San Jacinto, acted properly when he stopped the British mail-packet Trent off Cuba and seized the two Confederate envoys on board (James Mason and John Slidell).  On the contrary, McClellan thought it a gross violation of international law.  He wrote his wife after it happened: “Our Govt has done wrong in seizing these men on a neutral ship: the only manly way of getting out of the scrape is a prompt release with a frank avowal of the wrong.”

Finally, Rafuse errs by giving a literal reading to McClellan’s next paragraph:

I have just returned from Stanton’s where I have had a long discussion on the law points of the M & S capture.  I am surprised to find that our Govt is fully justified by all the rules of International Law & all the decision in the highest courts which bear upon the case—so it matters but little whether the English Govt & people make a fuss about it or not, for as we are manifestly & undoubtedly in the right it makes little difference to us, as we can afford to fight in a just cause.

McClellan is using irony to devastating effect to puncture the self-righteousness and ignorant boasting of the Lincoln administration.  We have since become very used to that kind of thing.