Monday, October 24, 2011

Lincoln and McClellan: The troubled partnership between a president and his general

By John C. Waugh

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

I thought so much of this title that I acquired it for my father-in-law, Edgar Willis, who is a Civil War buff, an historian, and a Lincoln “authority.”  I put that in quotation marks simply because he may not agree with my use of the word authority, here.  He is — and would agree with my assessment — an authority (without quotation marks) on Shakespeare or the history of humor in the media or even how to construct a joke (see his How to be Funny on Purpose: Creating and Consuming Humor).  He has read widely on Lincoln.

He thoroughly enjoyed this book and spoke highly of John C. Waugh’s writing.  He was unfamiliar with any previous works written by Waugh but would read any future books by him based simply on his enjoyment of this one.

Several things caught his attention in this book — things he shared with me in discussions after he finished it.  He thought the book was more about George McClellan than it was about Lincoln.  And, he realized too, that anyone who has read extensively on Lincoln or on the Civil War would probably not learn anything new from this book.  On the other hand, for anyone seeking an introduction to the Civil War, would find this great introductory material.

I found this last piece of information (the last sentence) fascinating for this reason.  Willis’s memoir of World War II, Civilian in an Ill-Fitting Uniform, although a memoir, serves as a wonderful introduction to World War II, and for those who want introductory information, Willis’ book would be a great beginning.

Willis enjoyed the contrast between Lincoln and McClellan.  Few books, Willis noted, (that he knows about) have dealt specifically with the unique relationship between Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief and McClellan as his general. 

With respect to the contrast between Lincoln and Mclellan, Waugh mentioned the fact that McClellan came from a patrician background.  He began as part of the elite of Philadelphia society, attended outstanding private schools, then the University of Pennsylvania and West Point.  At West Point he graduated second in his class, and because of his experiences and upbringing was both polished and refined. 

In contrast, Lincoln’s experiences and upbringing were diametrically opposed.  He was backwoods all the way.  Part of a hard-working frontier family and with little formal schooling, he had little polish and social refinement.

The contrast is important in the book for McClellan had little respect for Lincoln, and Lincoln’s suggestions to McClellan often fell on deaf ears.  Even Lincoln’s stroking of McClellan’s ego and his prods to get him moving did not work. 

McClellan’s primary weakness as the general responsible for the Union army in the East, was delay and postponement — risk adverse. Waugh makes it clear several times in the book that the Civil War could have ended several years earlier if McClellan would have been an effective general, would have followed Lincoln’s advice and encouragement, or acted decisively when circumstances dictated it.  Rather than acting decisively, over and over he found new reasons to delay and postpone any offensive.

The other thing Willis enjoyed in this 218-page (of text) book is Waugh’s use of research — too much research at times.  In addition to 8 pages of “Sources Cited,” there are 26 pages of notes. 

This is an extremely well-written, well-researched book that is thorough (covers the 15 months -- July 22, 1861 through November 6, 1862), interesting, detailed, and tells a fascinating story.

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