Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Evaluations of McClellan -- fair and unfair

I intended to switch over to some Southern figure after spending so much time on Sheridan and decided to focus on Joseph Johnston. Davis was critical of Johnston's unwillingness to act in similarly to Lincoln's criticism of McClellan. I got to page 146 in Joseph E. Johnston, A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds, and decided to supplement that with some battles Johnston fought and picked up To the Gates of Richmond, The Peninsula Campaign, by Stephen W. Sears.

The more I read in Sears the more uncomfortable I became, not about what he said about Johnston, which was very little, but about what he said about McClellan. McClellan seemed to have a long list of psychological problems and was so deficient as a commander that I wondered how Lincoln could ever have picked him, and how the otherwise perceptive R. E. Lee could have admired him. I lost interest in Johnston and picked up another book on McClellan, George B. McClellan & Civil War History, In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman, by Thomas J. Rowland.

Rowland entitles his second chapter, "A Foray into the twilight zone." In it he takes to task Sears (who devoted a whole book to what I just got a taste of in his Peninsula Campaign. That book being entitled George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon) first of all, but Glatthaar also (referring to Glatthaar's Partners in Command). Glatthaar took psychological criticisms of McClellan even further than Sears did.

On page 18-19 Rowland writes, ". . . Many historians have acted upon theri own prejudices and have invoked a form of inductive reasoning to ferret out evidence for preordained conclusions. They have concluded that McClellan was a failure and that he was psychologically incapable of achieving success. Sears and Glatthaar, in particular, extrapolate from selected details in McClellan's past to conclude that the evidence that they have uncovered conforms to a pattern -- one that all along, has supported their forgone conclusions. Additionally, the ad hominem nature of their attacks on McClellan's psychological character appears to serve them well in their final verdicts on military dimensions of the general's performance. By establishing him as a psychological powder keg, they are able to reject any serious considerations of McClellan's strategy. Of all the reasons why McClellan may have been a gravely flawed commander, the exploitation of the psychological model is the most flawed itself, especially when employed by historians who see psychological reasons as the a priori condition for McClellan's failure. And it is so, for reasons beyond mere suspect reasoning."

In a note on page 19, Rowland writes, "In response to an inquiry from the author, Dorothy M. Bernstein, M. D., editor of the history column of the Psychiatric News, published by the American Psychiatric Association, offered several warnings that should be heeded by psycho-historians, or those who practice psychiatric analysis from a distance. First, they must acknowledge the influence of the cultural, social, and political milieu upon the subject under review. Second, 'Psycho-historians should recognize their [own] personal ideological approach and qualify their responses accordingly. If they are applying modern day concepts and diagnoses to another period, they should do so with qualification.' Dorothy M. Bernstein, M.D., to author, March 12, 1996."

COMMENT: Rowland was hesitant to take up McClellan as a revisionist because he was afraid what he wrote might reflect badly on Grant and Sherman; as a consequence his first several pages are almost embarrassingly obsequious. I was tempted to give up on him, but then he tore into Sears and Glatthaar and became more interesting. His criticisms are among the worst that can be leveled against a fellow historian: letting unacknowledged presuppositions influence what one writes, using shoddy reasoning, ad hominem attacks and attempting to apply the tools of another discipline without fully understanding them.

Since Rowland's book was written in 1989 and Sears and Glatthaar could hardly have avoided being aware of it, I wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't come to their own defense . . . however a search using Google didn't disclose anything. Rowland seems to have written only one other book since the one on McClellan -- a biography about Franklin Pierce; so perhaps Sears and Glatthaar have chosen to ignore him.

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