George B. McClellan Essay

1. What are the points of agreement between the authors concerning McClellan’s generalship?

McPherson’s ‘Ordeal by Fire’ goes with the majority opinion that does not speak well of McClellan. According to this school of thought, this General did not do right things at the right time; rather he did wrong things at the right time, and has made the historical contribution to prolong the Civil War. He is also responsible for enormous casualties. Therefore, he is a failure as a military leader. A quick and correct decision makes a good military leader; McClellan was overcautious. He saw every situation as a calamity and made unwanted and superfluous preparations to face it. He was slow to act, even slower to react. But, his soldiers liked him; he created peacetime revelry for them during war time. He took maximum care of soldier’s well-being and safety, the qualities that won’t be disliked by any soldier.

He wasted good opportunities for victory in the Civil War. He had his best chance to destroy Lee’s army at Antietam. That would have been the end of war there. But he made it prolong for years, resulting in enormous casualties.

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Rowland is favorably disposed to the military genius of McClellan. Persons in small authority commit small mistakes; when persons in big authority, commit mistakes, they become historical blunders. In war-time, history evolves not only on day to basis; its telling effect is on moment to moment basis. McClellan was the Union Commander during one of the most difficult times of Civil War. Civil War is the unpleasant and unwanted happening in any country. The framework of such a war is quite different from the conventional war. The early years of Civil War were not akin to the final two years of the war. The circumstances in which Grant and Sherman were placed were entirely different from those of McClellan. The traditional good general-bad general approach mentioned in the theory and practice of war manuals, when it comes to implementation in the actual war theatre—one realizes how different the theory and practice are. The General takes decisions, many a times which result in losses of human lives, property and vast quantity of costly ammunition. To emerge totally successful from such a complex and grave situation, a general must carry luck on his part apart from the administrative and organizational skills. Rowland gives a fair picture of McClellan, giving credit to the above factors.

2. What are the points of disagreement between the two authors concerning McClellan’s Generalship?

James M. McPherson, in his “Ordeal by Fire’ finds it difficult to defend McClellan and he gives his valid reasons for that. He argues that the General’s reputation can not be salvaged by any length of defensive writing in praise of him. His doings must take the blame. Both authors agree that the General created the Army of the Potomac. Over this issue there is universal agreement amongst the Civil War Historians. That he did it at the very critical time of the American History gets him additional credits. But when it came to practical, he failed. The insecure personality, the half-hearted, belated decisions—his image was beyond repairs and he was sacked from the top post of the Army. He strongly advocates that the General is unfit to lead the army. He was boastful, haughty and arrogant. He holds the General responsible for letting down Major General John Pope against Lee, which led to the defeat of the former. Later, that gave an opportunity to Lincoln to dismiss him. McPherson strongly believes that the General should have been brought to book. Instead, he was honored and nominated for the Presidency in 1864. He lost the election to Lincoln. Had he won, according to McPherson, disastrous consequences would have been in store for America. He believes that there would have been two Americas, instead of one.

Most of the Civil War historians are not kind to McClellan, but, Rowland comes to his defense. Therefore, this book takes the place of a special book, which demands attention and study. An attempt has been made to throw fresh light on his personality and actions. To go against the majority and popular opinion and establish a noticeable, strong check post in defense of McClellan is no ordinary job. Such a check post has every chance of being overrun because the evidence against McClellan that he is a lack-luster General is formidable. He has many strong critics amongst writers, research scholars, war analysts, and the officials in administrative authority, like Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Such persons are not willing to condone his flaws and his boastful and vain nature, not befitting a true army General.

Every great General has flawed. Blunders are not committed during peacetimes, but at the time of war. Rowland drives home his point in defense of McClellan. Grant and or Sherman are equally at fault, according to Rowland. But some learn from their mistakes, Grant and Sherman were such Generals, but McClellan was not willing to. He was gripped by the fear of his paranoid tendencies and he failed to curb his insecurities. McClellan’s critics, therefore, say that a wrong man was chosen to command the Army of the Potomac in the field. It is with his presentation and manipulation of the situation, that he succeeded in ousting the US Army Chief, Winfield Scott to become the General in Chief of all Union armies. Can a weak individual be able to handle such turn of events in his total favor?-this is Rowland’s question. But the critics say that McClellan would never admit his mistakes and this is not one of the notable qualities of a top Army General. Also, McClellan as a matter of policy overestimated the enemy troops and demanded reinforcements accordingly.

Rowland highlights the positive side of McClellan for the sterling role he played in building the Army of the Potomac from the scratch. He meticulously planned every detail to make it the best formation. His enormous talent and organizational skills came to the fore and delivered results. Even the old soldiers of the traditional army were surprised and admired the skill and fitness of the new formations. Rowland argues that in 1862 McClellan was the best General to command the Army of Potomac. Many disagree with him on this count.  The book opens many new vistas of thinking for the research scholars of the Civil War.

3. What are the main arguments used by each author to defend his thesis?

James M. McPherson is a noted Civil War Historian. Civil War is the greatest transitional event in American History. It had deep economic, social, ideological and political implications all over America. It brought into the fore several sociological factors, what motivated the common soldiers and their unique experiences, the role of women in the war effort etc. One gets excellent reference material for the study of Civil War. The problems faced by the leaders and people in the era of Reconstruction have also been described. The causes of a full scale Civil War and why America entered in to it have been detailed in this book. It is the source-book for the research scholar on the subject.

The view points Southern and Northern States as for slavery was poles apart and no meeting point seemed to exist. Slavery was part and parcel of the Southern view of liberty and constitutionalism. McPherson gives firsthand accounts, of the heartrending scenes and untold misery of the people of Atlanta during the evacuation of Atlanta. The reference was also to General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia in late 1864.The Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln –how it ultimately gave the death-blow to slavery in USA. How the concept of nationhood predominated over every other minor concepts of narrow, fragmented visions.

Rowland gives a good description and picture of McClellan both as a Civil War General and a Civil War Personality. His is praised for his brains, youth, (he died at a fairly young age of 58 after many accomplishments) his family background and education. Rowland could see no flaw in his working style and handling of the battle situations. He condemns very strongly the critics of McClellan. He avails every opportunity to discredit the likes of Grant, Sherman and Edwin Stanton. He writes, “The notion that McClellan was the butt of more embarrassing incidents than anyone else is greatly diminished by any extended review of the war’s comical and tragic mistakes.” (Rowland, p.67, 1998)

This book, the opponents of McClellan opine, contains half-truths mixed with truth. Even after reading the book, the enigma that was McClellan, remains as mystery. He has defended McClellan on all counts, the criticism, when done, is very soft. His thesis veers round to the point that McClellan has not been given a fair deal both by historians and his contemporaries. The psychological model through which McClellan has been pegged sown, is the most flawed itself, according to Rowland. He writes to say that Grant and Sherman both had significant personality deficiencies and that affected their conduct of Civil War. Sherman in Kentucky is specially blamed for this. The main drawback of McClellan according to Rowland is that he did not delegate authority and was secretive about his plans and handling of the situations. He was averse to take risks.

4. Are the arguments logical, or can logical fallacies be identified?

One important point to be remembered both about James M. McPherson and Thomas J. Rowland is –both are civilians. With due regard to their study and intelligence, it is not very easy for the civilians to comment upon the performance of a Military General, and his decisions in an actual war situation. The arguments for or against McClellan may be logical or illogical, but the General knows why he acted in a particular manner at that time.  What is the strategy involved even when the General gives fall back orders to his troops, is only known to him as part of the overall strategy relating to war. So, threadbare analysis, incident -wise judgment in itself is wrong. But it is difficult to pinpoint fallacies in the arguments of both the authors. Each one has gone by his research and understanding of the history. One’s own prejudice also counts as for the writings and judgments passed for or against McClellan.

5. What kind of sources does each author use to support his arguments? Does he rely more on primary or secondary sources? What kind of sources does the author use such as manuscripts, diaries, memoirs, official battle reports, contemporary articles, etc? How reliable are these sources?


No advanced technology existed at the time of Civil War. The Press of that era can not be compared to the press of today. Action photographs, unposed pictures of individual and live video of the battle scenes could never be published in newspapers. But the authors could connect and write stories on the basis of thousands of posed photographs, of Generals, political leaders, soldiers dead and alive –the then living  could give detailed accounts of the incidents and developments related to war, the damaged ships at anchor, arms and ammunition used and unused etc. Recordings in diaries by some of the important personalities of the time, gave lots of information about the prevailing conditions.

The wartime records of Grant and Sherman have been handled carefully and a fair appraisal has been attempted by Rowland. It seems to be the honest analysis for restoring perspective. Such historiography goes well with the reader or the research scholars of Civil War. Magazines  like, Harper’s and Leslie’s, The Illustrated London News, The Liberator, Vanity Fair, The New York Illustrated News, Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, and periodicals like  Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun, Funniest of Phun, Comic Monthly, Phunny Phellow, Yankee Notions, Mrs. Grundy, and Nick-Nax provide lots of information about the social and cultural history. For the historians, the election campaign and Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 over General George B. McClellan was a blessing in disguise from the point of view of collection of information. The campaign newspapers provide the detailed information and the day to day developments. Electioneering propaganda must necessarily relate to the American Civil War, as it was the important issue at that time. The Tribune Almanac contains information about party platforms, public proclamations, census data etc. It contains the wealth of information. Forty-nine  periodicals in the “ Lincoln and the Civil War” provide cross-section views in great detail relating to the Civil War era, from which both the authors have generously sieved the information needed for their books.

6. Does the evidence used by the author support his arguments? Is the evidence anecdotal or quantifiable?

The evidence used by the author to support his arguments is quantifiable. Rowland is out to prove that McClellan is not a bad General as is made out to be. He is a great General. He has cited and chided Historians T. Harry Williams, Kenneth P. Williams and Bruce Catton for not giving a fair assessment to the personality of McClellan. He, however, does not question their bona fides. He only says that at the cost of McClellan, Grant, Sherman and Lincoln were glorified. More credits were given to them, than what was due. Rowland observes, “”Generally little attention is paid to the context in which McClellan dealt with the difficulties that faced the Federal army in the first 15 months of the war. Yet, in great measure, his early tenure deprived him of the advantage of leading matured and seasoned civilian soldiers, adapted to the demands of a new age of warfare, that later commanders of the Army of the Potomac had.”

7. Which author’s interpretation is more convincing and why?

Rowland’s interpretations seem to be convincing. Many authors on George B. McClellan argue as if he can not take military decisions at all. If it were so, such a man would not have risen to become the General of the Army. Some of the leads that make a General take a particular decision are top secret documents and it is foolish for a journalist to pass judgment on such matters, even though it relates to his ‘press freedom.’ Civil War situation for any country is an extraordinary peril. One is fighting against one’s own people. Rowland gives a studied and balanced evaluation of the contribution made by McClellan to the cause of a war thrust upon the country, for abolishing the curse of Slavery once for all. McPherson seems to have bias against McClellan.

The various commands and armies which he headed loved him. He was the best organizers of the Army, and no one can dispute this claim. He can safely put in the category of one of the greatest characters of the American history.

Before passing the summary judgment, non -leaders like (He was a leader and General both), remember what  Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner could write, in their 1873 novel The Gilded Age, that the great conflict of their generation had “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.”


                                                               References Cited:

Rowland, Thomas J. Book: George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman, p.67.Publisher: Kent State University Press (31 Dec 1998), ISBN-10: 0873386035

ISBN-13: 978-0873386036

McPherson, James M, Book: Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction: Publisher: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages; 3 edition (June 30, 2000)

ISBN-10: 0072317361

ISBN-13: 978-0072317367