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?