Skip to main content

tv   The Civil War Union General George Mc Clellan  CSPAN  January 20, 2018 6:00pm-7:16pm EST

6:00 pm
arrogance as well as his rocky relationships with high-ranking union officials, most notably president abraham lincoln. 'sis talk was part of pamplin historical parks and pony and -- symposium called generals we love to hate. it is about an hour and 15 minutes. >> good morning, everybody. we're ready to get started. welcome back to the last day of our conference. and also welcome to our c-span viewers. we're live. just a couple of announcements before i introduce the speaker. we still have some tickets available on our wonderful plank, that you will be able to take him today if you want.
6:01 pm
we've also got some other raffles going on, and at your table you have been given a notecard that we would like you to write down a question for our panel this afternoon. if you have a question for them, and what i will do, i will take up the most objectionable ones -- [laughs] we'll proceed from there. but, so if you've got a question, write it down, and we will ask our wonderful speakers today. we've also -- at the break we are going to bring in my staff and we're going to have a chance acknowledge them. our panel discussion is after lunch at 1:00. so, that'll be the end of our day. i really like our speaker's presentation title today. "mission impossible: rethinking george b. mcclellan."
6:02 pm
after what we've heard so far in this conference, i think it is even more impossibler. dr. george rable is the professor emeritus at the university of alabama, roll tide. he held the charles sumner so chair of history. he is the author of "fredericksburg, fredericksburg," which won a lincoln prize. his most recent book is "damn yankees." let's welcome dr. orge rle. [applause] dr. rable: thank you very much. it is always a pleasure to be here for many different reasons.
6:03 pm
i'd like to thank des and the staff of pamplin park, certainly the best civil war venue in the country. there is no question about that. i'm always indebted to my dear friend will green who has invited me back year after year, invited me back year after year, despite perhaps protests from the crowd. [laughter] but will and i give each other a lot of grief but we are dear friends. we are dear friends. but most of all i want to thank you all, who year after year come to this conference. it was good to see some people here who had not been here before. i consider this group dear friends. it's always one of the highlights of the year for kay and i to come up here. now, over the years i have had a number of assignments thanks to my dear, dear friend will green. [laughter] sort of a trifecta of
6:04 pm
challenges. some of you may remember a number of years ago when we had a different format. it was a series of debates between historians. and what did will assignment? i was assigned that slavery was not a major cause of the civil war. [laughter] my second assignment was even more formidable. i was assigned to debate james mcpherson on soldier motivation. [laughter] and today, thanks to my dear, dear friend will, i have george b. mcclellan. mission impossible indeed. well, i've had to sit back friday evening, yesterday, listening to the speakers, and i've got to say, i am tired of all of this mcclellan bashing. [laughter]
6:05 pm
yesterday john hennessy talked about joe hooker, who rose by diminishing the accomplishments of others. and i think the previous speakers exemplified that in their treatment of mcclellan and some in their treatment of yours truly. [laughter] rable: now, mcclellan, you mention george b. mcclellan to almost any student of the american civil war, and the response is as predictable as the sunrise. they know mcclellan as a foil to lincoln, who might be able to organize an army but would not or could not fight in an army. as lincoln once said, mcclellan has the slows and has to be removed. to call mcclellan controversial in the 21st century is
6:06 pm
misleading, because students of the war have largely made up their minds about george b. mcclellan. and not in the general's favor. they are unlikely to be interested in rethinking their position. hence, the title "mission impossible." when mark grimsley recently published a brief piece discussing the origins of mcclellan's image as a feckless commander and suggested some revision, the response was both immediate and predictable. in the next issue of the publication "civil war monitor," letters appear to utterly dismissive of grimsley's efforts and unwilling to consider any other interpretation in the by now standard interpretation of mcclellan. i think opinions about mcclellan
6:07 pm
are almost baked in and unlikely to change. in his own day, mcclellan had many warm friends and warm political supporters and, of course, no shortage of critics and enemies. he had the misfortune to clash with abraham lincoln, who himself was a controversial figure at the time, but who quickly became the savior of the union. i mcclellan had something to do with that as well. the great emancipator and the martyred president in the aftermath of his assassination. the deification of lincoln has hardly helped mcclellan. as lincoln's private secretary noted in a letter to his co-author, as the two were preparing their 10 volume study of abraham lincoln, and listen to these words carefully.
6:08 pm
john hay wrote, "i think i have left the impression of mcclellan's mutinous infidelity and i have done it in a perfectly courteous manner. it is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him while we are destroying him." this mcclellan animus is very, very old. mcclellan himself sought in vein to vindicate his reputation and his ill-fated autobiography. he did not live to complete his autobiography, mcclellan's own story. he also had the misfortune as his literary executor hardly helped matters by bringing mcclellan's partially completed manuscript into print and even worse, printing excerpts from the letters that mcclellan wrote
6:09 pm
to his wife during the war that has offered fodder for critics ever since. as for the historians, consider this lopsided line up. in the anti-mcclellan camp we have some of the giants of the civil war field. bruce catton. my mentor t. harry williams, who tried to mentor will green. [laughter] dr. rable: stephen sears. james mcpherson. williams. sears. mcpherson. on the other side who do we have? we have warren hassler's biography. we have an excellent unpublished dissertation by joseph harsh.
6:10 pm
we have ethan refu's fine revisionist study. not exactly and even contest there. then there's ken burns. his civil war series presented standard, conventional portraits of generals on both sides. you don't get much military revisionism with ken burns. his treatment of mcclellan simply followed in the steps of catton, williams, sears, and mcpherson. so why is george b. mcclellan so despised by almost all who hold an opinion of the man today? at the conference last year, ethan rafuse i told ethan i was going to steal this line, because i thought it was so good. ethan remarked only partly in jest that mcclellan was like the guy in high school we all knew who was captain of the football team, dated the head cheerleader, seemed effortlessly successful at everything and we hated his guts.
6:11 pm
[laughter] dr. rable: it seems that george b. mcclellan led a very charmed life. he was a man eager to make his mark in the world. in some ways, he exuded self-confidence, though at times in a cautious way. even as a young man he was wary of what he termed political fools. he viewed his own class, the class of 1846 at the military academy at west point, is the key to national success, not only in the civil war but eventually more broadly. in an address to his fellow cadets, mcclellan declared the great difference between the officers and privates is that one is supposed to be an educated, well-informed man,
6:12 pm
whilst the other is a passive instrument in the hands of his superiors. i think that statement speaks of volumes about george b. mcclellan. his faith in an elite class, indeed, a natural hierarchy if you will, would hardly sit well in democratic america. but his confidence in the power of superior minds was striking and at the same time i think unequivocal. he praised his fellow and presumably like-minded cadets for appreciating what he called "the best literature," essential to the man who would bear the character of an accomplished and polished gentleman. indeed, without educated officers, mcclellan believed armies would become little better than mobs of the most wicked men who would spread mindless pillage and devastation. he believed that power based on the virtue of intellectual superiority is infinitely
6:13 pm
greater and more lasting than that which is the result of mere physical quality. he would not ignore the mounting sectional tensions he was always aware of those, even as a cadet. he even alluded in his speech to the possibility of civil war. but, in such a crisis, he believed that the trained officers was point, as he put it, would hold the balance in our hands. and, therefore, the army would ever incline to the conservative party whose highest goal must be what? to preserved the american union. now, as a young men, unlike his great rival, as it were, abraham lincoln, mcclellan suffered from no crippling emotional crises. he had grown up in quite comfortable middle-class circumstances. his physician father and genteel mother served as models of
6:14 pm
behavior and success. at the striking young age of 13, george b. mcclellan entered the university of pennsylvania. but before he was able to graduate, his father persuaded a friendly congressman to get him an appointment to west point. by the end of his first year, mcclellan stood high in his class. indeed, he impress some of his west pont classmates as a near genius who excelled in any number of subjects and displayed an easy confidence in his own. abilities mcclellan found the cadet fro the southern states compatible because as he put it, their manners, feelings and opinions. as time came for mcclellan to leave west point, he expressed some disappointment. he finished second but he thought he should have finished
6:15 pm
first. he was eager to join the corps of engineers. i think early on the outlines of mcclellan's personality were also becoming clear. he often stood on ceremony. once complained to his mother about an overly familiar visitor to west point who kept calling him "george," rather than giving him proper respect. mcclellan could be a prickly character who could easily take offense. he was proud of being an engineer, the only engineer in his cohort heading to mexico, and he was determined to show "them," the pronoun lacked some antecedent -- i suspect refer to some west point administrators and faculty, to show them i can nevertheless do something. he still kind of resents being second in his class. the prospect of war and success and fame greatly excited young george mcclellan.
6:16 pm
"war at last, ain't it glorious." the impatient young mcclellan goes off to fight in mexico where he freely criticizes his fellow officers, mexicans and anyone who did not live up to his exacting standards of military professionalism or gentlemanly behavior. in his view, some of the american volunteers who carry on in a most shameful and disgraceful manner were the worst of the lot. mcclellan himself confessed to being embarrassed and a bit exasperated that he had not compiled a more illustrious war record in mexico. at the time i think his resentments were revealing, revealing about his later career. as a junior officer it galled mcclellan to be outranked by volunteer officers. he shared when field scott's disdain for president polk's
6:17 pm
interference of military strategy. an opinion conveniently filed away for later use. he was impatient with the army after he returned from the war. he was impatient with military politics after he came back to west point. and he said he enjoyed military service in the abstract. he found american democracy incompatible with his professional ideals. he wrote, "our government may be a very fine one for civilians. it was not intended for military men." he said, "the more truly one likes his profession, the more soldierly pride he has, the more disgusted he is with our service. could i think down at once with indifference, and fogeyism, i would be perfectly content with the army. as it is, it, service in the
6:18 pm
army, is a continual heaping of coals on one's head. i am almost afraid to read history or anything appertaining to my profession because the more i know, the more are my eyes are opened to our own wretched condition." mcclellan's performance in mexico, however, despite what he, his disappointments, i think attracted more notice than he realized. both william t. sherman and oliver otis howard recalled by the late 1840's, mcclellan had required a notable reputation as student and soldier of the military arts. in march, 1855, secretary of war jefferson davis sends mcclellan as part of a three-man commission to investigate european military policy in an operation in the crimean war. mcclellan traveled over the continent. he was especially impressed with prussian and russian officers .
6:19 pm
and, finally, was able to visit crimea once the russians gave up sevastopol. he filed a long report on coming back. in fact this report was commercially published. in the fall of 1861, with a preface that claimed the captain had been sent to europe on account of the brilliant military qualities he had already displayed. it won him additional recognition in washington at the time and additional recognition in the army. but mcclellan saw little prospect for advancement in the army after he returned from europe or professional achievement. in november, 1856, he resigned his commission. jump ahead four years later, may 22, 1860, george b. mcclellan gets married. to maryellen marcy. they were wed at calvary church
6:20 pm
in new york city and by all accounts the marriage was a loving and very successful one. both husband and wife were attractive, devoted to each other, deeply religious. he often referred to his wife as my little presbyterian. she obviously had an influence on his religious views. in any case, they began their life together with the advantages of family and background and education and social standing. and they soon enough, as husbands and wives sometimes do, but not always, come to view the world with all of its opportunities and perils in remarkably similar ways. nelly mcclellan is very much like her husband. if not exactly at war with the world both were quick to take , offense and could be touchy over perceived slights, especially from those considered to be their intellectual, moral or social inferiors.
6:21 pm
jumping back a little bit in time, beginning in 1857, mcclellan had become a railroad executive. yet, despite more than doubling his army salary, mcclellan harbored regrets over leaving the army. he has these statements criticizing life in the army but yet at the same time, he regrets leaving the army. in any case, whether in the army or as a railroad executive, he had not yet achieved the distinction he so longed for. he eventually becomes a railroad superintendent with what at the time was a princely salary of $10,000 a year and moved to cincinnati. but the bar of ambition for mcclellan was still set high. success with the railroad and his marriage to ellen occurred just as the nation was plunging towards the abyss. politically, mcclellan had
6:22 pm
undoubtedly absorbed a goodly amount of his father's whiggish conservatism, including at sometimes disdain for the mass of humanity. exposure to politicians in washington had given him in equally jaundiced view of that breed. mcclellan himself later described his own views as that of a strong democrat of the stephen a. douglas school. he was one of these sort of needless war guys who blamed the mounting sectional crisis on both sides. he remained wary of republican politicians in washington who in his view failed to represent what he considered to be the true sentiments of most northerners. mcclellan always tried to steer kind of a middle course at this point. but, regardless of his political assumptions and expectations, once the war came, this meant
6:23 pm
that george b. mcclellan's long frustrated ambition for marshall distinction was presumably be gratified. he accepted an offer from the governor william dennison to take command of the ohio troops. mcclellan reveled in this new assignment, remarking he much preferred dealing with soldiers than managing railroads and adding up columns of dollars and cents. eventually, he becomes, of course, a major general in the regular army. he was soon sending off plans to winfield scott about how to win the war. he proposed entering western virginia for an advance on richmond. so, the plan, rather oddly dismissed any difficulty in crossing mountains in a single sentence. by may 17, 1861, he had turned his attention to the flight of that plight -- to the plight of
6:24 pm
the unionists in western virginia two but also prepared, despite the absence of any instructions from scott, to across the ohio river with as many as 40,000 men rather than see the loyal union men of kentucky crushed. scott, elderly general scott, tries to rein in his young subordinate by pointing out that commanding three-month volunteers in a large theater hardly call for expeditions beyond its borders. apparently referring to mcclellan's kentucky scheme. in turn, mcclellan begins to do something that he is going to do for the next several months. that is complain about winfield scott. writing that scott was sensitive and does not at all time take suggestions from military subordinates especially when the , conflict with his preconceived notions. mcclellan views himself as increasingly indispensable to the war effort. this will not only to lead
6:25 pm
mcclellan to worked too long and hard, but also prevent them from sharing his plans and problems with subordinates or even the war department, or later president lincoln. there's no question. i think mcclellan was an extremely, extremely hard worker. in fact, i think too hard a worker. the first heft for mcclellan in the field would come in western virginia with confederates concentrating around rich mountain and laurel hill near beverly. mcclellan was in the field and with a hopefulness that expressed widely held in northern views, including president lincoln's at this time, he remarked, "it is wonderful to see how rapidly the minds of many of these people become enlightened when they find we can protect them. fear and ignorance combined have made most of the converse to
6:26 pm
secession. the reverse process is now going out with great avidity." many northerners assumed that secession was a minority position in the south at this time, and soon the southerners would come to their senses and the union would be restored. in any case, after skirmishing on july 12, troops commanded by william s rosecrans turned to the confederate position at rich mountain, taking a number of prisoners and suffering only like casualties. mcclellan gets the credit that perhaps better belongs to rosecrantz. never was so complete success gained with smaller sacrifice of life, he wrote nelly, declaring victory in western virginia. the newspapers agreed. the "washington national republican" would become the semi-official organ of the lincoln administration praised
6:27 pm
mcclellan's unostentatious manner, along with his executive ability -- rarely equalled. he was a leader who might assume the mantle of winfield scott, who the paper called the greatest captain of the age. presumably mcclellan would become the next great captain of the age. the general was becoming the napoleon of the present war. i resisted the temptation to put up the classic photograph of mcclellan in his napoleonic pose. i know it would only elicit more derisive comments from the audience. [laughter] dr. rable: in this article that ran on the editorial page, the herald compared mcclellan to the great commanders of history. and not satisfied with this hyperbole the editorial , concludes that the backbone of the rebellion is broken. it made virginia its waterloo
6:28 pm
and it has been defeated. it resolved to test its strength there and that strength has proved to be perfectly this. the road to richmond is open thanks to george b. mcclellan. well, mcclellan, when he had traveled from cincinnati to western virginia for this campaign was greatly impressed by all the people that greeted -- theng the way that way. at clarksburg, virginia, he talked about the crowds of country people gathered around and cheering him as their savior and with a bit of condescension, he added, "it was a proud and glorious people, simple and unsophisticated looking up to me as their deliverer from tyranny." oh, how wonderful. mcclellan closely connected military discipline with humane treatment of civilians. he instructed his men to respect virginia's persons and property. because he believed, as many northerners believed at this point, that the only real
6:29 pm
enemies were the armed traders, again a minorities. so his troops should show mercy. even to them when they are in your power, as he put into his men, many of them are misguided. and these reflect mcclellan's views, his approach to the war, his approach to the confederates an approach that would not , change. as a conservative democrat, he had rejected secession but he had also maintains that southern states had some legitimate grievances. he was determined to fight a conservative, conciliatory war. he was not interested in remaking southern society. to the unionists of west virginia, mcclellan noted how "armed traders had attempted to bring on a reign of terror, at your homes, your families and your property are safe under our protection." in addition he said, "federal
6:30 pm
forces should refrain from any interference with slaves." now, mcclellan realized -- he was politically aware enough to realize that these statements and proclamations might be controversial. and so, he wrote to lincoln explaining how in his view they were based on the president's previous course. he said he felt confident that i have not erred on this very important matter. neither lincoln nor winfield scott ever replied to mcclellan. so, the general naturally and simply reiterated his views in a later address to soldiers in the department of the ohio. at a time when the war was not going well, it is hardly surprising that many northerners regardless of politics were not , only welcome the news of mcclellan's victories in western
6:31 pm
virginia but consider him a budding military genius. in fact, on july 21, winfield scott wired mcclellan that within a few hours general mcdowell would turn the enemy's flank. but, of course, instead, it -- a reinforced confederate army whipped the yankees at the first battle of bull run and sent them headlong in retreat back towards washington. the following day came a telegram to mcclellan. it was from the adjutant general in washington. "circumstances make your presence here necessary. comehither without delay." upon arriving in the capital, mcclellan was immediately flattered by all the attention. he was what we used to call the toast of the town. "i find myself in a new and strange position here," he wrote. "the president, the cabinet, general scott all deferring to me. by some strange operation of magic, i seem to have become the power of the land."
6:32 pm
he wrote, "even some small success might now lead to calls for him to become a dictator." a possibility he tried to treat with a light touch. but, given his standing and obvious talent, mcclellan felt he could readily diagnose the main causes of the recent failure. he could then remedy any problems and me these armies of -- lead to these armies of men to victory once more. indeed, he told his wife, he would start doing this the very next morning. he seemed inordinately proud of the fact that he was suddenly so busy that he would have to decline dinner invitations from scott and no less than four cabinet members. certainly mcclellan's appointment appeared to lift the spirit in washington and perhaps elsewhere. pictures of the young general appearance in shop windows and around dining room tables. matthew brady offered a variety
6:33 pm
of mcclellan photographs. newspapers printed laudatory biographical sketches. the gifted mcclellan, declared one enthusiastic orator, will wipe out the memory of bull run and be crowned with complete victory. to speak of great expectations for mcclellan's success in some ways understates the case. two of lincoln's private secretaries, john hay and also william stoddard, filed anonymous newspaper dispatches praising mcclellan. john hay will not tell you about that later, of course. hay described at the time mcclellan as hard at work bringing order and efficiency to the army, rounding up absentees, keeping soldiers away from the rum shop keepers in washington. according to the other secretary stoddard, it almost is seem as , if the nation had a new army. better one week of mcclellan than a whole year of the red
6:34 pm
tape officials who preceded him. horace greeley's new york tribune, another organ that would become very critical of mcclellan eventually emphasized how mcclellan cared for the troops in both mind and spirit. junior officers and enlisted men echoed these reports in praising mcclellan for instilling great determination to the recently demoralize regiments. given all this attention, almost any human being's head would be turned by all this praise and attention. on this score, i have to be very sympathetic to mcclellan. i think most of us would probably not be strong enough to at least embrace some of this flattery. to the troops, mcclellan became not only a highly visible commander but a very humane one. an approachable figure. because they did not know about his privately expressed contempt for volunteer soldiers.
6:35 pm
they saw him as this great man. he had a dignified bearing, and impressive appearance on horseback but seemed approachable by the troops. stories about this circulated widely. now, mcclellan may have been no great orator but he could drop -- draw others, especially officers into his orbit. a cynical hoosier volunteer thought that mcclellan became popular by shamelessly flattering the enlisted men and their officers at every opportunity. but at the other extreme, an articulate and conservative massachusetts recruit claimed that virtually the entire army learned to love mcclellan. and certainly they saw him a lot. the general rode about washington on horseback, at times spending 12 hours in the saddle. nobody could doubt mcclellan's devotion to the task and his hard work. he said he felt compelled to do so because my army covers much space. and unfortunately, i have no one
6:36 pm
on my staff to whom i can entrust the safety of affairs. again the inability to delegate. , this wore him out. it literally wore mcclellan out at various points and perhaps brought back an old malarial complaint from his days in mexico. but he assumed visibility was a key to leadership and i think he is right. the boss does need to be visible. the boss does need to be seen by the troops. that is a good thing. and even though mcclellan claimed he was not interested in impressing the public or the politicians, the larger trooper , they were important to mcclellan. they attracted a great deal of attention. interesting to follow the coverage in the press because the newspaper accounts sometimes , very detailed of the larger troop reviews, really keep the general's name in the public eye, even when not much is going
6:37 pm
on. it also gives the impression of a commander who appears to be everywhere and seldom slept. there were daily dispatches about mcclellan was here or there. of course mcclellan would have to come up with a strategy. along with general scott. though mcclellan figures it is up to him rather than general scott. we'll talk more about that in a minute. august 2, 1861, mcclellan writes a memorandum on northern war powers. he talks about the need for military success based on overwhelming strength. which is in many ways a modern, very 20th century ideal. sounds like colin powell, go in with overwhelming strength -- very much so. he proposed a force of 273,000 men. critics, of course, have ridiculed the preciseness of
6:38 pm
273,000. i think that's a cheap shot, myself. he said he would use the atlantic ocean and rivers as points to assail confederate positions. he wanted to carefully prepare a very large force and not risk defeats that would only encourage the rebels. he wanted a campaign that would be short and decisive. mcclellan always believed he could overwhelm the other side with numbers in one great campaign. that is his strategy in a nutshell. in some ways, he simply sticks to it. but then there is, of course, the difficulty of the mcclellan-lincoln relationship, a relationship that has been written about endlessly and certainly not to the benefit of george b. mcclellan. now, mcclellan had long been skeptical of politicians. he threw a kind of whiggish distinctly between politicians and statesmen.
6:39 pm
his father always railed against politicians. i tried to remind my father a statesman is a dead politician. [laughter] dr. rable: but in any case, mcclellan saw himself as principal and his opponents as politicians. he at times doubted lincoln's statesmanship, though i think if you read the mcclellan relationship, lincoln relationship closely, it was kind of a roller coaster. it wasn't all of one kind or cut out of the same cloth. it varied according to mcclellan's temperament. at times he saw lincoln as uncultivated, crude. he did not always appreciate lincoln's storytelling. though sometimes he did. with mcclellan himself politically ambition early in the war, that's an open question. i think there's no doubt that both abraham lincoln and george
6:40 pm
b. mcclellan were terribly ambitious. i think that may have been one source of difficulty as well. in any case, mcclellan does get involved in politics. i'm not sure mcclellan would say he was involved in politics but he was involved in politics. at a meeting with radical rebel kevin -- public and senators in the fall of 1861, he tells them he was fighting to preserve the union and not for the republican party or for emancipation. that was an honest expression of his views. he certainly expressed them to the wrong people. then there's the question of mcclellan and slavery. mcclellan deplored slavery. he says this repeatedly, but mcclellan shares the racial views of his times. sometimes expressed in very strong language. he used the "n" word, but then so did lincoln.
6:41 pm
he favored the eventual ending of slavery, but he was certainly no anti-slavery zealot by any definition. he was a moderate on the question, and accused at the time of being pro-slavery. i do wonder at some point if the statue of mcclellan erected in 1907 in dupont circle in washington should be taken down because of his lukewarm opposition to slavery. in any case, i do think it is clear mcclellan was hurt by his close association with democratic politicians. that did not serve him well. whether mcclellan sought that attention or not, he received it and he certainly did not repudiate it. then there is also the question of mcclellan's relationship with lincoln and with other generals.
6:42 pm
i think, for his part, lincoln makes a mistake early in the war. it's a mistake of inexperience, a forgivable mistake but nevertheless a mistake, and that is allowing mcclellan to bypass the chain of command, including winfield scott, to communicate directly with the president and cabinet members. in fact, disrespect for the chain of command was often rampant in the army of the potomac. we've already heard cited joe hooker writing directly to stanton, going over burnside's head at the beginning of the fredericksburg debacle. so, this kind of thing went on too much and the president tolerated it frankly. that's a problem. and mcclellan often try to ignore winfield scott or simply treated with contempt. this undermined scott.
6:43 pm
eventually led to scott's angry resignation as general in chief. mcclellan's insubordination but -- is rewarded because scott resigned and mcclellan is appointed general in chief. on november 1, 1861, mcclellan told lincoln, he said to lincoln, "i can do it all." more dangerous words were probably never spoken. on november 13, 1861, a famous event occurs. lincoln, seward and john hay call at mcclellan's home. in the evening. they were told the general was at a wedding. everybody in this audience knows what is coming up. john hay railed against mcclellan's unparalleled insolence.
6:44 pm
, hay, lincolndent seward wait for an hour. , mcclellan goes upstairs without seeing him and goes to bed. according to hay, lincoln took no apparent offense. sort of brushed it off. notice they call in the evening, ok? and notice the only source for this is john hay's diary, a decidedly hostile source but a good source. his diary is a wonderful source. you realize that hay has his his prejudices. there is some indirect evidence that there were other occasions in which mcclellan treated people in a similar manner. now, mcclellan biographers and others have tried to offer explanations. warren hassler said mcclellan may have been intoxicated having been at the wedding.
6:45 pm
he like will green is a presbyterian, so he likes a drink now and then. [laughter] dr. rable: the wedding may have saddened mcclellan because he missed his wife nelly. she was still in cincinnati because she would shortly give birth to their first child. however that may be, this incident, this snubbing of lincoln, is probably one of the prime bits of evidence that the anti-mcclellan camp like to haul out. it is obviously a serious incident. is there any mitigating explanation? we don't know. there's just not much evidence here. mcclellan blows hot and cold on the president. some days he seems to welcome the president's presents. more often, he finds the president visiting him kind of an annoyance. and he keeps his plans to himself.
6:46 pm
in some ways, he reminiscent of joe johnston not wanting to communicate with jefferson davis. he keeps his plans to himself. he blows hot and cold on the president. december, 1861, mcclellan is wary of talking to anybody. there had been too many leaks to the administration, including a premature release of simon cameron's report. excerpts from lincoln's annual message that appear to "the new york times," had published a map of union positions in virginia. so mcclellan has some reasons to be concerned about leaks. but in the meantime the country is increasingly impatient. the fall fall has gone by. the army has not taken the field, except for the disaster bull run. in december, 1861, congress creates the joint committee on the conduct of war.
6:47 pm
whose members knew very little about military matters but thought they did. and they sought out generals with radical political views to promote. they wanted to denigrate generals with more conservative political views. the timing here was very bad for george mcclellan because by december 23, mcclellan is ill with typhoid fever, which was a great killer at the time. fortunately, mcclellan did not have a horribly bad case of typhoid fever. he'll recover but it will take him a little while. this allows a number of generals to appear before the joint committee on the conduct of the war who were critical of mcclellan with no chance for mcclellan to reply. on january 10, and again, you see the chain of command violated in interesting way. lincoln meets at the executive
6:48 pm
mansion with mcdowell and general franklin. along with several cabinet members because mcclellan is supposedly too ill to attend and they talk about plans for the spring. well mcclellan gets wind of this , and gets out of his sick bed finally and meets with lincoln and several generals and cabinet members on january 13. now, again, we have a problem in terms of sourcing. the main source we have for all of this is a long memorandum by mcdowell, a very detailed memorandum, that certain -- certainly mcdowell is a hostile witness in terms of mcclellan. so, you have to again use that document for what it's worth. and mcclellan remains, to his detriment, reticent about his plans. he fears they would be leaked to the press. though mcclellan himself was not above contacting a friendly
6:49 pm
reporter from "the new york herald." and on -- they meet again, and mcclellan won't be clear on what he plans to do and at the same time lincoln appointed new secretary of war, edwin stanton. who is presumably mcclellans friend. mcclellan had stayed with stan -- stanton for a time in washington. stanton had consulted with mcclellan on various things and plans and that sort of thing. and staton himself, of course, had a very checkered background. his relationship with lincoln before the war, had been very testy. you heard bill marvel hold forth on stanton. stanton was a political chameleon. he changed colors many times. t. harry williams, no friend of mcclellan, would tell his civil war class stanton would like -- lie when there was no reason
6:50 pm
to lie. mcclellan thinks that stanton is his friend but in fact mcclellan will face great facility from his supposedly a edwin stanton who is quickly becoming an implacable enemy. mcclellan was also facing criticism and hostility from senior division commanders. mcclellan had reason to fear his authority was being undermined at this point, and that president perhaps was involved. though i don't see lincoln -- lincoln's not maneuvering against mcclellan. i think lincoln's still feeling his way along as commander-in-chief. on january 27, lincoln issues his famous orders calling for the general advance to the armies on washington's birthday which was meaningless because there was going to be no advance on february 22. by this time, however, mcclellan does have a plan.
6:51 pm
you have your handout there. as you know, i am no military historian so we are not going to tactically refight mcclellan's campaigns. i have a few maps to buffer my -- buttressed my credentials perhaps. i give you the first map. do i have the first map? yes, i do. the peninsula campaign, and look up there. you see the name of mcclellan move to the southeast and you see urbana. mcclellan originally plans to land troops at urbana thinking the confederates would withdraw from manassas. that was his original plan that he presents to lincoln. there's going to be a serious difficulty at the beginning
6:52 pm
because the president objects to the urbana plan. he thinks mcclellan should go overland and directly confront the confederates. he even talks to mcclellan about rumors in washington that mcclellan was not moving because perhaps he had treasonous motives. that's why he did not want to directly attack the confederate forces at manassas. as you can imagine mcclellan , bristled at such charges. i'm not sure lincoln was wise to repeat such rumors. in any event lincoln did not , like the plan. but eight of division commanders 12 approved it. so, lincoln says ok. now, some military historians pointed out why did the president go along with the plan he had no faith in? shouldn't this point -- should he have supported the general and say, i support your plan or should he have relieved him? instead, he has a little of each. he does not really approve it,
6:53 pm
but he lets it go forward. lincoln also decided to combine the army's divisions into five corps. both lincoln and a number of members of congress had favored a corps organization. lincoln appoints division commanders as corps commanders. mcdowell, edwin sumner, erasmus keys, nathaniel banks, all generals who opposed mcclellan's strategy in one way or another. and he appoints corps commanders who he knows mcclellan is going to have trouble with. this in turn contributes to dysfunction in the army of the potomac. as others have pointed out. finally, on march 9, the army of the potomac advances on manassas, only to discover the confederates had already
6:54 pm
retreated and there is much derision and criticism of mcclellan on this point. it doesn't undo the urbana plan. on march 11, lincoln removes him has general in chief but names no successor. for the time being, lincoln and stanton and the so-called war council will manage union strategy. so, the urbana plan is out. mcclellan is no longer general in chief. on march 13, lincoln and his corps commanders, newly appointed commanders approve the famous peninsula plan. you have that map there. on march 17, the first transports head out for the virginia peninsula. now, there is going to be much controversy then and later whether mcclellan had fulfilled his pledge to lincoln to leave washington adequately defended. i think most military historians agree he did leave washington
6:55 pm
adequately defended, even though he had fiddled with some of the numbers and he had definitely not explained in this carefully to lincoln before he left, which he should have done. i think there is no doubt on that score. but, again, mcclellan was not very good at explaining things and he was suspicious of politicians, etc. once he arrives at the peninsula, another decision is taken that's going to have fateful consequences. mcdowell's corps is going to be withheld from mcclellan and mcclellan sees his enemies at work here. mcdowell's corps will be partly diverted to the failed shenandoah valley campaign against jackson. you can debate on whether it was a mistake by lincoln or not. peter cousins has recently,
6:56 pm
fairly recently published a book at this conference several years ago, most memorable for the strong criticism of stonewall jackson. but he also said at the time that lincoln's mistake to withhold mcdowell was a serious one. and it certainly seemed serious to mcclellan. at the same time, lincoln urges mcclellan to break the enemy lines at once and warned against further hesitation. as you know, yorktown is the siege. there is a slow advance on the peninsula. mcclellan always thinks he is outnumbered and calls for reinforcement. you can't blame alan pinkerton entirely. mcclellan was exaggerating enemy never seen before pinkerton was providing intelligence. but because of various uncertainties about when and if troops would join mcclellan forces him to have
6:57 pm
his forces mcclellan forces him to have, troops remain on the chickahominy. the confederates attack at seven pines on may 31, june 1, and again at this point mcclellan is still sure of success. he writes, he is sure of success, the troops are in good shape, but he says i am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, but it's mangled corpses and poor suffering , wounded. victory has no charms for me, when purchased at such cost. this statement has often been criticized, yet in our time we are more sensitive i think the -- to casualty figures then people perhaps were at the time. you read brian jordan's book about the results of the war and i think you become more sensitive to casualty figures. i was talking with craig simons about this yesterday. we seem to admire civil war generals who pile up the largest casualty lists and who is the most aggressive, and i'm not
6:58 pm
sure that is a standard we necessarily should follow. in any event, lincoln's advance on the peninsula is delayed, and eventually robert e. lee takes command. it is a bold movement against mcclellan. you have the 7 days. and mcclellan issues his famous blast against the lincoln administration, the government failing, utterly failing to support him. and a great victory for the confederates. and mcclellan at harrison's landing ends of issuing the letter,arrison landing suggesting in typical fashion this is what mcclellan truly believed the war is not a , revolution. it is a war to preserve the union. you have got to protect property. you have got to go slow on a emancipation. and at this point, the radical -- senator saccharide chandler of michigan, the radical
6:59 pm
republican says that mcclellan is an awful humbug that deserves to be shot. now, mcclellan is eventually withdrawn from the peninsula. we will not get into the controversy about whether he supported pope or not, or whether he and fitzjohn porter undermined hope. pope. that is a long and tedious process. he is brought reluctantly back to command the army of the antietam campaign. stanton and others had drafted documents wanting mcclellan's removal. instead lincoln brings him back. then you have all the controversies surrounding the antietam campaign, which after all was a union victory. a union victory that does lead to the emancipation proclamation. but it was an incomplete
7:00 pm
victory. there has been much criticism, justified criticism of mcclellan's conduct at antietam. and eventually, mcclellan does not move rapidly enough after antietam and is removed from command. though it is amazing how many people still want mcclellan back in the army including rumors , that he will be back with the army to continue through the gettysburg campaign, and even beyond. i want to close with this. a famous statement from ulysses grant. most of you have heard some of this before. the of us have not gotten full quotation. ellan.s grant on mccl
7:01 pm
he described him as one of the mysteries of the war. what is less often noted is the --viction no command or commander was likely to succeed early in the conflict. as grant said, "it only seemed to me that the critics of mcclellan did not consider this vast responsibility. the war, a new thing to all of us, new, everything to do from the outset with the restless people in congress. mcclellan was a young man when this devolved. and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. if mcclellan had gone into the war as sherman, thomas or meade, had fought his way up, i have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high as a station as any of us." thank you very much. [applause]
7:02 pm
>> we have time for questions. >> mcclellan, did he develop close relationships with his staff or subordinates? did he develop plans with them for the peninsula campaign? >> mcclellan did not often share details, even with his subordinates.
7:03 pm
he was fairly, he was fairly reticent. burnside was too, at fredericksburg. [indiscernible] >> the antietam battlefield guide and -- name came up. the guy says, he hates mcclellan, so what does he do? he writes a book about him. will which biography would use it is to read? george: that is a difficult question. is the question reasonable or best? i like his biography. it is very hostile toward mcclellan. there is no reason that you can write a biography that is hostile toward somebody. -- wrote a biography, and he hates his guts. [laughter] my mentor said you should never do a biography of somebody that you despise. he only said i could not write a biography about herbert hoover or jefferson davis. that is what he said. sometimes when there is a certain amount of prejudice and
7:04 pm
-- involved, i make my read the biography on stanton. bill does the research. even his research is excellent. and sears' neweset volume is even more hostile toward mcclellan. he has gotten even more hostile over the years, not less. read them together, they are the best. and read some of the articles, too, because mark is not uncritical of mcclellan, but he is more sympathetic as well. >> um, there is a famous incident after the 70's battle where mcclellan sunday telegraph to the war department and basically says that the administration is responsible for the defeat of the army.
7:05 pm
and he takes out -- [indiscernible] would he have been sacked at that? george: eventually those become known. and again, lincoln has opportunities. i think lincoln gets certain credit for being patient with mcclellan. some would say that he was far too patient with mcclellan. but of course, the other thing is -- what are his choices at various points? i remember, if you studied burnside's appointment, there was criticism. or the alternative, hooker had been wounded. what direction do you go? i think we also need to keep in mind, and mcclellan's defenders point this out, that mcclellan was as close to richmond in 1864 as a grant was.
7:06 pm
and it is very difficult, for a difficult for any commander in the word command effectively the large armies, given the limits of communications and a staff. in every campaign, every campaign of any size has major blunders. you pick your favorite general and you will find a number of not only mistakes, but pretty serious mistakes. and it is the nature of the beast. these armies i think were far too large, given the available technology, the staff, etc. so i tend to be more sympathetic and not be a monday morning quarterback on a lot of these things. and we tend to treat the civil war too often as it is almost like a sporting contest where we are evaluating the coaches and
7:07 pm
players. read the book, you will tend not to do that. >> the memoirs, where is that from? george: travels with general grant, interviews he gave around the world. it is an interesting book, grant unburdens himself. it surprised me how some sympathetic people like grant, and sherman, how they work toward mcclellan, how they were sympathetic toward mcclellan. i read sherman's correspondence fairly recently and i was struck by his favorable comment about mcclellan. and mcclellan is this, this neat thing about him, he has all these people that despise him, and all these people that love him. and i figure if there are so many people that love him, there must be something to the man that is worth loving.
7:08 pm
[laughter] you know? >> lincoln, he was the active-duty general in the union army. what about soldiers seeking political office at that time? george: apparently not. mcclellan keeps waiting to be reappointed with another command and there was even talk in the summer of 1864, the blair family, one of the great political families of the day, the maryland and missouri branches, there was effort by the, i think the elder statesman of the family, frank senior, to have mcclellan brought back to some responsible position in exchange for him not running for president. because, the thinking is if the democrats nominate mcclellan he might be a formidable candidate.
7:09 pm
he proves not to be, because he was nominated in part by piece eace platform, when he was not a peace candidate. and mcclellan is reluctant to endorse the platform. he doesn't issue his letter of acceptance. lincoln joked, maybe he was entrenching. [laughter] that was another great lincoln story. i wonder if it was true. it is almost too good to be true. you know, mcclellan is put into a difficult position. and the reaction of the soldiers, though there is new evidence that maybe some of the soldier vote got suppressed. is a lot of controversy over the 1864 election. i have read countless diary entries and letters saying, i always liked mcclellan, but i cannot accept the platform. and i cannot accept a nomination
7:10 pm
where that arch traitor plays a big role in the convention. john hennessy's point about the copperheads and their role, sort of forging greater unity in the army is well taken, and it is true in the western theater as well. lead the soldiers, what they say about copperhead. i think a lot of them have much more hostility, and they express more hostility toward the copperheads than the confederates. >> do you think mcclellan might have been influenced in his military tactics strategy -- and how that you evolved? george: well, it was a difficult courtship, because she was at one point engaged, seemingly engaged to a.p. hill, although her father vetoed that. and there were rumors about,
7:11 pm
hill's disease that came back to the family. that did not go over well. [laughter] and her father did not want her to marry a military man. well, by the time -- and mcclellan falls in love with her when he is still a military man. complex kind of was overwhelmed and she was by this. what is implied in this book. course of several years. they keep in contact. wow, she falls for him, after he is no longer a military man. george: that is right. then her father can improve. it is great. and they love mcclellan, and his father in law becomes his chief of staff. >> worked out perfect. george: yeah. something of a perfectionist. [laughter]
7:12 pm
>> he was known to follow up on the voter suppression of the soldiers in the election. kind of interesting, i have seen documentation aware actually the republican soldiers are released to go home to vote, where as the democratic soldiers were required to stay and man the guns. so i wanted to hear more of your observations in terms of voter suppression. george: i think there was suppression, but the problem is not the selective treatment of democratic and republican soldiers, although there is some of that. the state law was different. some allowed the soldiers to go home and vote, and others states did not. jonathan white, if i have the author's name right, his recent book, which i have just looked at and i have not read through yet, is making the case.
7:13 pm
i still think even if there is suppression i think the majority of the soldiers are undoubtedly for lincoln, but probably not in as great of numbers as we have thought. consider this, i think one of the miracles of the american civil war, and one that speaks wonderfully about this country, is we even had a presidential election during the civil war. what country has a presidential election during the civil war? and even if there were irregularities, a reasonably fair election? i think it is one of the miracle presidential elections and it is not given enough credit for that. it is a remarkable achievement. thank you very much. [applause]
7:14 pm
raising this fist in the olympics. does it relate to what we are seeing with the national anthem? >> we have a long history of racism. >> you could be featured during our next live program. join the conversation. >> c-span. where history unfolds daily. c-span was created as a public service by cable television companies. >> up next, author melanie kirkpatrick talks about the history of thanksgiving in
7:15 pm
america. including abraham lincoln's proclamation making it a national holiday. this 45 minute event was part of the lincoln forum symposium. in gettysburg, pennsylvania. it is my pleasure to introduce our first speaker. melanie kirkpatrick. she is a writer, journalist, and senior fellow at a washington-based think tank whose research focuses on national security and foreign-policy issues. her areas of expertise include east asia and the pacific. from 1980 two 2009, she was affiliated with the wall street edrnal where she served as -- --


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on