Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review--Lincoln and McClellan at War

Hearn, Chester G. Lincoln and McClellan at War. Baton Rouge, LSU Press. 2012. Index, notes, bibliography, 4 maps, 257 pages, 221 pages of text. ISBN 9780807145524, $45.

The  difficult relationship of Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan is certainly not a new one to readers of Civil War literature. Thus, while not breaking much new ground here, Chester Hearn has written an interesting and easy to read volume on the strained relationship between president and general.

What we have here are two people new to their commands. Lincoln was still a relatively inexperienced politician and McClellan, despite already being called the "Young Napoleon" in some circles, was new to leading an army this large. Of course McClellan might say leading an army this small but that's another issue.

Lincoln put his faith in McClellan to be able to end the war quickly. However Lincoln was unable to stay out of the way and McClellan bristled at what he considered to be the interference of Washington. In McClellan's eyes Lincoln was a gorilla and an unwelcome distraction. In Lincoln's eyes McClellan had a case of the "slows" and he even went so far as asking McClellan if he could borrow his army it he wasn't going to use it. The mutual distrust and sarcasm did not bode well for their relationship.

McClellan was a Unionist and certainly wanted to end the war however he and Lincoln had different strategies on how to do such. Lincoln wanted an aggressive general who would attack Robert E. Lee while McClellan preferred to be more cautious and fight a war of maneuvers. When Lincoln proposed a campaign to take the Rebel army located near Bull Run McClellan declined immediately and countered with what was to become the Peninsula Campaign. In traditional McClellan manner this was a slow and plodding campaign that while ultimately getting near Richmond did not achieve what McClellan had promised.

An area that is covered multiple times is the continued requesting of troops by McClellan. He consistently tells Washington he is out manned by the Confederate forces and promises to attack if only he had X number more troops. When the Secretary of War provided more men suddenly the Confederate army had even more. Whether McClellan actually believed the numbers provided by his spy Allan Pinkerton or if Pinkerton is providing numbers to prop up claims by McClellan is an interesting aspect to ponder. Of course Washington was on to McClellan and several times Lincoln called him on soldier counts.

After much back and forth McClellan was given what amounts to a final chance when the Confederate army went north of the Potomac in September 1862. The battle of Antietam gave McClellan a chance to inflict a large amount of damage on Robert E. Lee's troops. While certainly not a grand victory the major opportunity was lost when Union forces did not follow the damaged Confederates out of Maryland despite having fresh troops with which to carry on the battle. McClellan made what to him would be another blunder by calling the battle a Union victory. This proclamation gave Abraham Lincoln enough to go on in order to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. McClellan, not being an abolitionist, despised that the war was turning into one of emancipation rather than reconciliation.

By November 1862 the president was left with few options and removed McClellan from command. It does appear though that Lincoln learned from his time with McClellan as future generals were not given the time and leeway that McClellan was.

While not a cut and dried book saying that McClellan was bad and Lincoln was good as is so often the case, the book does seem to come down harder on McClellan and his failings than it does on Lincoln and his inexperience. Time and research have shown this to be the correct assessment however.

Overall, this was an interesting and easy book to read. I would have liked to have seen a couple of more maps and maybe some illustrations throughout but that is just me. Really just a minor quibble in what is otherwise a fascinating read for anybody interested in the eastern theater of the Civil War. Recommended.

Thanks to LSU Press for sending a complimentary review copy.

No comments:

Post a Comment