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BOOK REVIEWS George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon. By Stephen W. Sears. (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988. Pp. xii, 482. $24.95.) The Civil War Papers ofGeorge B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence,¡860-1865. Edited by Stephen W. Sears. (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989. Pp. xviii, 651. $35.00.) What are we to make of Major-General George B. McClellan? As Stephen W. Sears rightly emphasizes, he developed as general-in-chiefofthe United States Army "a grand strategy for prosecuting the [Civil] war," such that when hé departed that command, "for two years the Union cause would flounder until another general with the same vision, U. S. Grant, took up the post" (George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, 166). To sustain him in formulating the strategy and then in attempting to execute it—as he continued todo even after March 1 1, 1862, when he no longer commanded all the Union armies but only the Army of the Potomac—McClellan possessed a professional military knowledge probably unequalled by any American contemporary, having built upon his education at the United States Military Academy an avid personal study ofthe literature ofwar, as well as having observed the armies of Europe. But he was no mere military pedant; through nearly everything he said and wrote there gleams a keen intelligence. He was also a magnetic personality and an inspirational soldier , who won the confidence of his troops and officers as no other Union commander was to do. Yet when he confronted the enemy, he proved an abysmal failure. How are we to understand the collapse of so much promise? Sears's biography, undergirded by his collection of McClellan's wartime correspondence, comes closer to solving the enigma of McClellan than any previous study. Unlike McClellan's other principal modern biographer, Warren W. Hassler, Jr., in General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), Sears does not essay an apologia. Rather, he acknowledges the abysmal failure: "McClellan was said, for example, despite all his faults to have been the best commander the Army ofthe Potomac ever had, yet on the evidence he was inarguably the worst" (McClellan, xii). Still, as the first quotation above indicates, by praising McClellan's strategic vision, Sears is by no means merely a negative and unappreciative critic. The balanced quality of 330CIVIL WAR HISTORY his judgments in itself carries a long way toward making his efforts to explain McClellan the best we have had; on most subjects, reasonable balance on the part of the scholarly historian is taken for granted, but McClellan evokes such peculiar passions that to strike anything approaching a balance is to invite the scorn of both the worshipers and the haters. McClellan's strategic vision was the last displayed by any ofthe principal Union generals until Lieutenant-General Grant took command of the armies, but as Sears makes amply clear, it was a vision far different from Grant's. While the latter was to apply military pressure all around the circumference ofthe Confederacy, McClellan preferred a concentrated single major thrust toward Richmond and the enemy forces immediately in front of it. If he had not had to defer to the wishes of other leaders, notably President Abraham Lincoln, even while he was general-in-chief, McClellan would have concentrated a good deal more of the total force ofthe Union than he actually did in his advance on Richmond in 1862, over half a million men instead ofjust over one hundred thousand. Furthermore, while Grant aimed at the capture or destruction of the enemy armies, to render the Confederacy militarily impotent, McClellan's strategy was as much political as military. While capturing Richmond to convince the secessionists that they could not win the war, he also hoped to assure them that they had nothing sufficiently to fear to warrant their secession, particularly in the matter of slavery. To that end, McClellan was never a general who divorced himselffrom politics; instead, he consistently sought to influence politicians and to mold policy. There is no adequate cause to believe that McClellan's carrot-and-stick strategy was foredoomed. It was closely akin to Lincoln's strategy of the early part of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 329-332
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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