The Civil War’s Most Chicken General

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 3 2012 11:54 PM

The Civil War’s Most Chicken General

A new history tells the story of George McClellan, the Union Army leader who almost undid Lincoln.

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McClellan believed that he, and he alone, could save the nation from ruin—both the ruin threatened by Bobby Lee’s army and the ruin threatened by those in the Republican Party who would abolish slavery. “McClellan was living in a military and political fantasy world,” Slotkin writes, “in which he was the central figure in a two-front war to save the Union from the Rebels in front and the Radicals in the rear.” But rather than spur him to action, the fantasy only reinforced his trepidation. McClellan was loath to commit his troops to battle, Slotkin argues, for fear that a loss would give his political enemies the ammunition they needed to relieve him of his command.

He certainly wasn’t going to risk his neck to help a rival. To show us McClellan at his self-serving worst, Slotkin takes us back to the Second Battle of Bull Run, in August 1862, in which Robert E. Lee badly outmaneuvered a Union force commanded by John Pope. The North had forces that could have come to Pope’s rescue, but unfortunately for the soldiers being cut down by the Confederates, those forces were commanded by McClellan, who saw Pope as a threat to his ambitions. Despite repeated orders to reinforce Pope, McClellan dragged his feet, asking for clarification on who would be in command when he arrived on the scene. By the time he got his troops to the field, it was too late. Slotkin quotes Attorney General Edward Bates’ assessment of McClellan’s performance: “a criminal tardiness, a fatuous apathy, a captious, bickering rivalry, among our commanders who seem so taken up with their quick-made dignity that they overlook the lives of their people & the necessities of their country.”

Richard Slotkin.
Richard Slotkin.

Photo by Bill Burkhardt.

Why on earth would Lincoln suffer such insubordination? For one, there was a paucity of Union generals with command experience at the outset of the conflict. To paraphrase a confounding military mind from our own era, you go to war with the generals you have. The Union war effort also relied on a fragile coalition of Republicans and so-called War Democrats, who would have blanched at McClellan’s ouster. (McClellan was well-connected in the party, and would unsuccessfully challenge Lincoln as the Democratic nominee in the 1864 presidential election.) And finally, despite his failings, McClellan’s men loved him — as any soldier might love a general disinclined to risk his men’s lives.

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The Long Road to Antietam culminates in a detailed account of the titular battle, in which McClellan finally committed his troops to an all-out engagement. The blow-by-blow description of the fighting may tax the patience of the lay reader; what goes by in a matter of pages in a popular survey like James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom here occupies several chapters overflowing with carnage. (Twenty-five thousand soldiers were killed or wounded on Sept. 17, 1862, making it arguably the bloodiest day in American history.) But Slotkin’s description of the battle is essential to completing his meticulous, maddening portrait of McClellan. Though he commanded a superior force—and though he drew up a sensible strategy for vanquishing Lee’s overtaxed army—a tentative McClellan nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, ultimately allowing Lee to retreat back to Virginia with his army badly bruised but intact.

Unluckily for McClellan, his victory at Antietam was just decisive enough to give Lincoln the political cover he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and set the war on the president’s new, revolutionary course. The victory was also just limited enough to give Lincoln the political cover he needed to issue Young Napoleon a pink slip and put the Army of the Potomac in the hands of men committed to stamping out the rebellion and the insidious institution it sought to safeguard. McClellan had finally gone to battle, and won, but the victory proved to be his undoing, not the coronation he’d imagined in his letters to his wife. Close, but no cigar.

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The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution by Richard Slotkin. Liveright Publishing.

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