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In the Shadows of Grant and Sherman: George B. McClellan Revisited Thomas J. Rowland It stands in metallic silence, impassive to the decades of commercial and residential growth that engulfs it. The statue, like the person it honors, presents a host of perplexing paradoxes. Although visible, the equestrian model remains difficult, almost hazardous, to approach, its access constrained by two major District of Columbia arteries. Much like the man, the memorial rests on an island awash in a sea of confusion. It stands aloof and distant from most other prominent Civil War statuary. Curiously, it marks testimony to a leader who "shielded" the Union from collapse, yet it adorns no rotary circle , graces no park or mall, commands no prominent city square as more and less heralded contemporaries do. Almost by accident will tourists chance to notice it. Its peculiar location reinforces the ambiguity besetting the one who created and first led the Army of the Potomac. And in a final touch of irony, the statue is flanked by such an irregular grid of street construction as to give rise to the amusing, if not judgmental, chestnut that the general was provided three avenues of retreat but only one for advance. Fittingly, both the statue and the man, George Brinton McClellan, strike an enigmatic pose.' Turning to the McClellan historiography, one finds little to dispel the riddle . Early McClellan biographies are generally tainted with either panegyric or vitriol. Alternately vilified as traitor and coward by some or praised as patriot and genius by others, a sober and objective assessment becomes impossible . Recent scholarship focusing on his contemporaries, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and even Abraham Lincoln, has tended to sweep ' The McClellan memorial is situated two miles north of the Mali and is framed by the convergence ofConnecticut Avenue, Columbia Road, and California Street. By comparison. Grant's memorial rests immediately west of the Capitol, while Sherman 's is just behind the Treasury Building, flanked by the White House. For details on the McClellan statuary, see Mildred Baruch and Ellen Eckman, CiVi/ War Monuments (Washington, D.C.: Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1978), 24. Civil War History, Vol. XL, No. 3, © 1994 by The Kent State University Press GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN REVISITED203 McClellan into the background. In suppressing the controversy, historians of the second half of the twentieth century have forged a characteristic figure of the man. In finding McClellan's military career essentially an unsuccessful one, they have tended to agree with T. Harry Williams's verdict that McClellan was "not a good general, was even a bad one." Bruce Catton found him to have "all of the virtues necessary in a war except one—he did not like to fight." Kenneth P. Williams blithely dismissed McClellan as the antithesis of a military leader by refusing to consider him a "real general." And while his judgment of McClellan as a "vain and unstable man who sat a horse well" rings somewhat truthfully, Williams distorts McClellan's active military ambitions in claiming he "wanted to be President."2 McClellan remains the "problem child" of the Civil War because his military performance still invites debate. If not a winner, he was not exactly a loser. He is admitted by nearly all historians to be the competent organizer and administrator of an army that had been shattered at First Bull Run. Some point out that, unlike Grant, McClellan had taken on the Confederacy when it was young and strong. Others have seized upon Robert E. Lee's verdict that of all Federal commanders he faced, McClellan was his most difficult adversary . Warren Hassler and James G. Randall speculated that had McClellan's efforts in the Peninsula campaign not been undercut by an antagonistic administration , he might have taken Richmond and convinced the Confederacy of the futility of a protracted war. All of this might have been accomplished nearly three years before Grant finally cornered Lee in about the same location.3 There are formidable obstacles to surmount in approaching McClellan objectively . Joseph Harsh has astutely observed that the more negative appraisals of McClellan became increasingly solidified in the face of a growing acceptance of what he termed the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 202-225
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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