Could McClellan Have Been Someone Other Than McClellan?

Site of McClellan’s headquarters on November 7, 1862, near Rectortown, VA

Today is November 7, the anniversary of Little Mac’s final removal from command of the Army of the Potomac in 1862. I’ve been thinking about George McClellan lately, spurred by some writing I’ve been doing about him for an upcoming book as well as because of a remark made almost in passing in an audiobook I recently listened to.

I’ve wondered, was McClellan’s removal inevitable? Could he have behaved in any way differently that might’ve kept him in command? What if Lincoln hadn’t removed him?

But I might as well be asking, “What if McClellan hadn’t been McClellan?”

In the introduction to the audiobook edition of his alternative history novel Gettysburg, Newt Gingrich suggested a similar question. Gingrich talks about the approach he and co-author William Forstchen used for developing their story: “Active history.”

“Active history,” Gingrich says, “is the process of thinking about history as it might have been within the limitations of the circumstances”—in other words, “based on solid historical facts combined with a clear understanding of the nature of the leaders who ultimately made the decisions, their leadership style, their ability to react, and their historical behavior.”

As an example, Gingrich invoked George B. McClellan:

In a fantasy, General George McClellan could have been daring and adventurous. A daring and aggressive McClellan would have indeed defeated Lee at Antietam and might have defeated him in front of Richmond. However, no such daring, aggressive McClellan ever existed. He was driven far more by his fear of failure than the dream of success. To write him otherwise is a denial of everything we know about him and becomes an exercise in fantasy.

“Furthermore,” Gingrich adds, “Lee faced with a daring McClellan would have fought an entirely different kind of battle.”

In other words, writing credible alternative history depends on staying true to the characters as they really were.

Imagine, for instance, ways McClellan might have ever acted out of character:

  • What if McClellan drew on the advice and experience of Winfield Scott rather than helping in the effort to force him into retirement?
  • What if McClellan brought Lincoln into his confidence with his war planning?
  • What if McClellan had a better ability to balance the political considerations of the war with the military considerations?
  • What if McClellan worked Lincoln the way Lee worked Davis?
  • What if McClellan assigned a member of his staff to specifically provide Lincoln with a constant flow of updates and information while the army was out on campaign?
  • What if McClellan sought a second source of information, beyond Allan Pinkerton, to independently confirm Pinkerton’s intelligence?
  • What if McClellan showed a little gratitude and humility when reinstated to command in early September 1862?

These are fascinating questions, but of course, they remain unanswerable because they would have required McClellan to not act like McClellan.

In other forms of alternative history, writers can credibly examine facts and circumstances and extrapolate potential outcomes. But once we start tweaking “the nature of the leaders” (or of any historical figure), we get into fuzzy realms quickly, and it becomes impossible to make any kind of accurate educated guesses. We just have to start making things up, and that’s the realm of a fantasy novelist, not a historian.

Even as historians, we have to be conscious of the biases we bring, even unintentionally, to what we understand about the leaders we examine. As an example, I posed my above-mentioned bullet points to my colleague, Kevin Pawlak—a McClellan fan—to get his thoughts. Kevin responded thus:

  • What if McClellan brought Lincoln into his confidence with his war planning? (KP: “McClellan did initially share plans with Lincoln on August 2, 1861. True, this did eventually fall apart but it wasn’t always that way.”)
  • What if McClellan had a better ability to balance the political considerations of the war with the military considerations? (KP: “This is from Lincoln’s point of view, at least. McClellan fought the war from a politically moderate view, and his and Lincoln’s view of the war weren’t all that politically dissimilar until Lincoln announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”)
  • What if McClellan worked Lincoln the way Lee worked Davis? (KP: “No argument here!”)
  • What if McClellan assigned a member of his staff to specifically provide Lincoln with a constant flow of updates and information while the army was out on campaign? (KP: “I don’t think McClellan needed to do that. He and Lincoln were pretty frequently in touch via telegraph throughout most of McClellan’s campaigns. And if McClellan wasn’t personally telegraphing Lincoln, he did so with Stanton and Halleck.”)
  • What if McClellan sought a second source of information, beyond Allan Pinkerton, to independently confirm Pinkerton’s intelligence? (KP: “He had the two P’s: Pinkerton and Pleasonton, not to mention the other usual sources of information.”)
  • What if McClellan showed a little gratitude and humility when reinstated to command in early September 1862? (KP: “Privately, in those infamous letters to his wife, he might not have, but there is no indication that he expressed such a response to Lincoln publicly.”)

“Personality litmus tests have always proved troubling for me,” Kevin concluded. “Even in McClellan’s case, we have a lot of his private and public writings but that still only comprises part of his personality, since there’s a lot he and everyone else in the Civil War era did beyond their writings that went unrecorded.”

As Kevin implies, we have the benefit of hindsight in our evaluations, but we also lack the benefit of a complete record, no matter how much documentary evidence we do have. As a result, Kevin’s responses illuminated biases I didn’t even realize I’d brought to my question-asking.

I could, in turn, reply to some of Kevin’s replies, but as Kevin’s responses alone illustrate, raising these questions holds value for us—value that’s central to one of history’s most important uses. We can begin to critically think about and learn from history.

We can’t know, for example, what might have happened had McClellan sought a second source of information to independently confirm Pinkerton’s intelligence. (In asking the question, by the way, I meant a second spy-type, not the more traditional cavalry-type, which is the role Pleasanton performed—or at least tried to).

However, we can know what did happen because McClellan didn’t independently confirm Pinkerton’s intelligence, or what did happen when he didn’t make an effort to better understand his commander in chief. And by knowing those things, we can then learn the lessons such knowledge has to offer.

For instance, McClellan didn’t bother to show a little gratitude and humility, and look what happened. To avoid that same kind of mistake, we might conclude that perhaps showing a little more gratitude and humility might be useful in such-and-such a situation.

Isn’t that what history is for?

Ambrose Burnside certainly looked to recent history to help guide his actions once he took over the army in the wake of McClellan’s removal. Knowing that his predecessor got sacked for not moving aggressively enough, Burnside resolved to act. He learned from history’s example. (The results, as we know, ultimately didn’t work out so well.)

What if McClellan had not been McClellan? Well…could he have ever been anyone else?

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15 Responses to Could McClellan Have Been Someone Other Than McClellan?

  1. Dan Hurley says:

    He would be Henry Halleck, Jr

  2. Bolts says:

    Thanks for an excellent article, Chris. I have always found alternate history fascinating. But you are right, it must be historically possible.

    Speculating what McClellan may or may not have done if he were a different type of person is rather pointless. On the other hand, if someone wants to speculate what may or may not have happened at Chickamauga had Longstreet launched his attack on Sept. 20 an hour later, that to me is true alternate history, because it very possibly could have happened.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Thanks. I always like the chance to armchair-general a bit with “What Ifs.” It helps me better understand what really went on and why.

  3. Mark says:

    Great piece. Always tempting to “what if” on one issue. Like you write, this is hard to do. For example, many strengths have related weaknesses. McClellan’s may not have been aggressive, but he was obsessively organized. If historians ask what would happen if he were more aggressive, then perhaps they would also have to make him less organized.

    • John Foskett says:

      I’m not sure that those two traits have to be mutually exclusive. “Aggressive” does not = “disorganized”.

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    There was expectation early in the conflict that the Rebellion could be put down in a matter of months; certainly under a year. The original terms of service (one-year voluntary enlistments) reflect this. After pressuring McDowell to act, President Lincoln continued to persist with demonstrating his impatience: refusing to wait for LGen Winfield Scott’s choice of replacement (Halleck) to arrive from California and instead installed wunderkind McClellan into the top job. After initial cordial relations between Lincoln and his General, things fell apart when the President continued to apply time pressure, now on McClellan (including dictating “Offensive operations, everywhere, by Washington’s Birthday.”) Meanwhile, George McClellan took sick with typhoid (the same illness that killed Willie Lincoln a couple of months later), resulting in friction between Lincoln and McClellan similar to what occurred between Jefferson Davis and PGT Beauregard… although with Lincoln it was impatience; with Davis it was pique and jealousy.
    When McClellan was removed from his role as Chief of the Army in March 1862, the Military Genius who replaced him was… Abraham Lincoln, working jointly with Edwin Stanton and a Congressional committee. This experiment only endured until July 1862, when President Lincoln finally realized he was not competent as a General.

  5. skipondrums says:

    For me, the book on Gen’l McClellan by Steven Stotelmeyer made be think of the general in a new light. Lincoln got so much pressure from the Radical Republicans, especially those in his cabinet, and not really having a mandate he was compelled him to obey them, it seems. And, Lincoln’s goal of destroying Lee’s army rather than capturing Richmond was a silly notion for at least 3 years. And finally, for Lincoln and us sitting removed and comfortable in the armchairs, it might have been Yogi Berra who discovered how easy the game looks from up here in the radio booth. Lincoln finally got Lee, but my God, it was expensive. So sorry we forget that part.

    • Katy Berman says:

      I’m glad to hear about a biography that seems sympathetic to McClellan. I admire the value he placed upon his soldiers’ lives and his hope to fight one, great battle that would end the war. Could he have succeeded if everything he wanted was in place?

      • John Foskett says:

        The book is not a biography. It’s an analysis of McClellan’s actions during the Maryland Campaign. I wouldn’t take it farther than that. As for your last point, any general can succeed “if everything he wanted was in place.” That’s the problem with warfare – it never happens.

  6. Dougkas Pauly says:

    The problem with such a hypothesis, as I see it, is that virtually all others would thus have to act within such alternative universe boundaries themselves. Lee was often quite lucky as to the quality of his opponent. Regardless of all the questions posed about him, it all comes down to competence. McClellan had TWO separate chances to prove himself, both as the head of the Union Army and in direct competition against RE Lee. He failed. We can argue that he won at Antietam, but he failed to destroy the AoNV, and he then let them get away, and that despite the Confederates plans falling almost miraculously into his hands. And above all, he failed to please his boss. The questions posed by Chris M are ones based on actions. The ‘alternate universe’ McClellan would have to somehow dispense with his well known vanity and stubbornness to enact any of those actions. How is THAT possible? .

  7. Mike Movius says:

    I’ve often wondered why Rosecrans wasn’t brought East to take command of the AOP since he was the one who defeated RE Lee, et al in Western Virginia. McClellan didn’t bother to attend any of those “battles”.

    • John Foskett says:

      That’s a good point about the victories that helped propel McClellan to a higher level. Rosey was the “guy on the ground” but that gets lost in the history.

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