- McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union
Contemporaries and historians alike have been prolific in seeking to uncover what George B. McClellan was and was not, and why he was incapable of bringing about complete victory on the battlefield. At the time of his death in 1885, the New York Evening Post concluded: "Probably no soldier who did so little fighting has ever had his qualities as a commander so minutely, and may we add, so fiercely discussed." He was, as Ulysses S. Grant observed, "one of the mysteries of the war," and yet with the voluminous scholarship his life has generated, he still remains a mystery to several scholars. Perhaps Russell Weigley put it best when he questioned in his 1989 review of Stephen Sears's George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon for Civil War History: "How are we to understand the collapse of so much promise?"
In Ethan Rafuse's refreshing new book, we have the story of a man who at midcentury was thrust into a war that helped transform American society from an agrarian into an industrial empire. Thus, to really understand the commander, according to Rafuse, one needs to understand the forces that shaped his political and social thought—that of a changing American society in the antebellum era. In Rafuse's estimation, McClellan pursued a military and political course during the war that reflected the influences of an earlier period of order and therefore he conceived the conflict in terms that were broader than the view most Americans had of the war. These concepts were reinforced at West Point and more thoroughly after he left the academy, when he embraced army-officer culture during and after the Mexican War. Rafuse's McClellan envisioned his challenge early in the war, as one not only to subdue a Southern uprising but also to do it within a context that allowed him to overcome conflicts that were internal to the Union, and while preserving the principles of the Union. In McClellan's view, the war was brought on by the forces of passion and extremism, and his Whig approach to end the conflict should therefore be careful and methodic and the military used in moderation with a conciliatory policy. If the Union pursued this military course, it would surely discredit claims by secessionists that the [End Page 84] Republicans and the federal government were out to abuse Southern rights and constitutional privileges. Because McClellan took the view that emancipation and confiscation were not preconditions for reconstruction and reunion, he was labeled a conservative.
McClellan viewed the war as a contest, according to Rafuse, between "enlightened reason and selfish passion, moderation and extremism, harmony and discord, order and anarchy, principled statesmanship and self-serving politics" (5). In McClellan's view, the United States had been divided by the forces of "irrational politics, extremism, and self-serving politics," and he came to believe that the Union might succumb to these notions unless a sense of order was maintained throughout the war. As Rafuse argues, "McClellan prized social harmony and order above all else" (386), which led him to disagree with Abraham Lincoln over issues such as the emancipation proclamation. Consequently, McClellan became the leading advocate of limited war (conciliation) during the early years of the conflict. He had been consistent in objecting to the public declarations of antislavery politics mainly because he considered them more soothing to the North's antislavery groups than having any practical value in bringing victory to his army. By July 1862, what McClellan did come to accept, however, was the reality that slaves should be treated as contraband, and thus he accepted fugitives into his army.
During his tenure in command, McClellan's chief focus was to bring a quick, yet orderly, end to the war. He wanted to do this by limiting the number of battles and considering Virginia's terrain, by using the rivers and by combining army and naval efforts to achieve his success. In...