Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grant, Sherman, Lincoln etc as bad as McClellan?

Rowland by page 60 (of his George B. McClellan & Civil War History) has abandoned his introductory good intentions of not down-grading Grant and Sherman in order to make McClellan look not so bad. I was unfortunately reading myself to sleep with this book when I developed the strong suspicion that Rowland was invoking "revisionist" historians, historians "deconstructing" our national heroes, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman in order to do enhance his thesis, namely that McClellan wasn't as bad as he has been portrayed. After all, if everyone was 'doing it,' then why single out McClellan for special excoriation?

This morning I began checking Rowland's references. Two of his references that seem to bear the "revisionist" stamp are Fellman's Citizen Sherman, and McFeely's Grant:

My "checking" doesn't meet scholarly standards, but it probably provides enough insight to enable one to see why Rowland chose these sources:

Fellman's Citizen Sherman: [from Publisher's Weekly:] "This is a study of William T. Sherman as a human being rather than a soldier. Fellman, who teaches history at Simon Fraser Univ., in Canada, utilizes Sherman's extensive correspondence to depict a man driven by anger. A frustrating childhood and an unhappy marriage, a foundered career in the pre-Civil War army and a succession of business failures left Sherman a seething cauldron of hostility that he unleashed on the South during the war. Yet Sherman's will kept his emotions in check most of the time. His harrowing of the Confederacy was a means to end a war he wished to be followed by a peace of reconciliation?albeit at the expense of blacks, whom Sherman detested. Postwar fame modified his contentiousness, but only in old age did he mellow significantly. Sherman's life and career highlight the fact that relationships between aggression and achievement are complex and often symbiotic."

[from Booklist:] "Although his marriage endured the strains of prolonged physical separations, Sherman's feelings toward his wife (who was also his foster sister) ranged from irrational resentment to an abject sense of inadequacy for failing to meet her emotional and sometimes financial needs. In tracing his subject's life, Fellman is moving over well-traveled ground. However, his probing into Sherman's deeper motivations and feelings makes for fascinating reading and speculation. If Fellman seems alternately entranced and repelled by Sherman's actions and personality traits, it seems a natural reaction to one of our most enigmatic and frustrating military figure."

Turning now to McFeely's Grant: Turning to Amazon 94 out of 101 found the following review helpful: "McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1982, but the conclusions he reaches about his subject have drawn fire ever since. Those sympathetic to Grant correctly point to errant assumptions and mistakes in character analysis. Most glaring is McFeely's insistence that Grant gloried in carnage, was insensitive to death and suffering, and was an incompetent chief executive. . . ."

In the case of Lincoln, Rowland references (for a lot of Lincoln bad behavior) Collected works of Lincoln 5:474; and Philip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. I found in regard to this book:

What may be from the cover:
"Lincoln, Paludan contends, proved himself a truly great leader in a highly combustible situation. True, he was no saint and could rule with political expediency and a heavy hand. But no other president faced such awesome challenges, and none showed better how the nation could meet them and move toward 'a more perfect union.'

"Filled with new insights and fresh interpretations, Paludan's study presents a genuinely new and compelling portrait of a president and nation at war. It will change the way we look at such things as Lincoln's evolving reconstruction plans, his civil liberties restrictions, and his handling of foreign affairs and enlarge our understanding of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, which linked the president's personal feelings with the needs of the nation. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Lincoln, the presidency, and the Civil War."

Is Paludan's book on Lincoln "revisionist"? I can't tell from the reviews I've read but here is what Rowland gets from someplace: ". . . At various times throughout McClellan's tenure as commander, Lincoln upbraided him in disrespectful tones and with biting sarcasm. If anything, Lincoln showed he could give as well as he could take. Lincoln also demonstrated that he could be as insensitive as his commander on occasion. He waited until McClellan had embarked for Fortress Monroe before issuing the order that relieved McClellan as general in chief. As it was, McClellan learned through the grapevine that the order had already been published in the press. If anyone was graceful, it was McClellan, for he accepted the demotion without grumbling, even though it was a clear setback to his public image. Nor is it exactly true that Lincoln was entirely candid in articulating military goals and sustaining his commander's every need. Although he shelved his own preferences for the spring offensive of 1862 in favor of his commander's, he nursed his reservations throughout the entire Peninsula campaign and acted upon them in a number of decisions that were decidedly to McClellan's disadvantage. At critical moments during the campaign he reneged in committing the manpower originally promised McClellan, an act that actually imperiled the general's troop dispositions. And the president was not frank about how military goals were to be shaped by the political dimensions of the rebellion. . . ." Rowland goes on, but that will give an idea of his approach in comparing McClellan to others.

COMMENT: How valid are these criticisms of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman? One would perhaps be more open to them if one could ignore the fact that historians are always on the lookout for something new or different in order to publish books; which in academia is virtually mandatory, especially if one has yet to achieve tenure.

It seems more than fortuitous that Rowland in his desire to rehabilitate McClellan's reputation has available to him revisionist historians Fellman, McFeely, and (perhaps) Paludan who have found enough flaws in their subjects to enable them to publish their books. Since I have yet to read their books I am no doubt wrong and unfair, but . . . .

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