Tuesday, June 25, 2013

McClellan's letters to his wife

Someone wrote, “I've often wondered what we would think of him if we couldn't point to any of the letters he wrote to his wife.”

Quite right. I keep trying to come up with an explanation that would permit me to think that he didn't really mean what he said in them, but I haven't managed thus far.

On page 22 of George B. McClellan & Civil War History Rowland writes "The evidence historians draw upon for their psychological profiling of George McClellan is his correspondence. A review of their selections demonstrates that they relied almost exclusively upon letters he wrote to his wife, Ellen. One may find the complaining, peevish, ambitious, or insulting McClellan in his correspondence to friends and associates, but the so-called truly damaging psychological expose is generally found only in his letters to Ellen. . . ."

"The few McClellan supporters in recent historical literature shrink from contesting, or at least engaging in, any discussions that involve the personal McClellan. Consequently, one does not see Ellen Marcy McClellan's name mentioned in any of their works. Joseph Harsh deplores the fixation Unionist historians have on McClellan's personality because it detracts from any serious consideration of his strategy. Edward Hagerman omits any reference to the general's personal background and his imbroglios with the administration in favor of studying McClellan's appreciation for tactical and staff reorganization. And Rowena Reed, who praises McClellan's strategic brilliance at the expense of his principal antagonists, largely avoids the psychological dimensions of the literature. The only drawback to these omissions is that when the psychological profiling is ignored, it assumes a degree of general acceptance or, to borrow the cliché, silence breeds consent. The power of the psychological argument is strong and compelling. One of the reasons it becomes easy to scoff at McClellan's strategy and his skills and talents is that the psychological dimension to the argument always garners more attention. Why bother to deal with McClellan as a respected strategist or skilled administrator when he has been rejected as a persons incapable of producing a positive result?"

I paused in Rowland's book to read the applicable chapter in Joseph Glatthaar's Partners in Command, The Relationships between Leaders in the Civil War as well as Glatthaar's "Appendix: McClellan's Tragic Flaws in the Light of Modern Psychology." Glatthaar is more reasonable than I was led to believe by Rowland's criticisms, but then Rowland's criticisms covered more than just Glatthaar. In any case, Glatthaar was persuasive so in returning to Rowland I decided to buy the publications he referred to in the above paragraph:

I was able to buy Edward Hagerman's The American Civl War and the Origins of Modern Warfare, and Rowena Reed's Combined Operations in he Civil War, but failed to obtain Joseph Harsh's article "On the McClellan-go-around." It appears in the 1973, Volume 19, Number 2 issue of Civil War History, but I couldn't find out how to buy it or even how one subscribes to Civil War History. They seem to offer subscriptions only to organizations.

I know Harsh has written books on Lee's strategy and perhaps Rowland has those in mind as well, but I only found reference to Harsh's article.

Despite Rowland's assertion that if we ignore the criticisms of McClellan's psychology we are letting them stand, making it difficult not to scoff at McClellan's skills, I would be willing to settle for evidence that McClellan has any skills -- beyond his ability to organize and train an army; which everyone seems to concede.

. . . and then I found this in Rowland: "The only one ever to question seriously the content and possible meanings of McClellan's letters to his wife -- that have become, if you will, the prima facie case against McClellan's mental health status -- was James G. Randall. Nearly a half century ago, Randall suggested that McClellan's letters to his wife were a 'kind of unstudied release, not to be taken seriously.' Randall's is a valid point that has been brushed aside altogether too hastily. McClellan's assertion that his wife was his alter ego was written during the year they were engaged to be married. What people throughout the ages have intimated in love letters during the span of a courtship ritual can be left to one's own experience or imagination. Moreover, while that designation of 'other self' suggests that McClellan felt free to bare his soul to his wife, it does not necessarily imply that he meant every jotted word to be explored in its literal sense."

Comment: I'm not as willing as Sears to dismiss Randall's speculation. I recall that Edgar Allen Poe wrote all sorts of things in code. Did McClellan have that sort of mind, and beyond that the inclination?

In Glatthaar's "Appendix" he writes on page 239 that McClellan "exhibited a marvelous mind. His capacity for knowledge, coupled with a first-rate education, transformed McClellan into a true intellectual force. By age twelve, he had mastered Latin, French, and the classics, and at fourteen he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, he entered West Point, where his academic excellence continued. At nineteen and a half years of age, McClellan graduated second in his class. . ."

"Even during his eleven-year Regular Army career, where most officers' minds languished, his reputation for cerebral prowess expanded. And engineer officer, he prepared two papers for the Napoleon Club at West Point (one of them 111 pages long), invented a cavalry saddle, and translated a bayonet manual from French, all in his spare time. His greatest intellectual feat, though, occurred during a three-month leave after observation of the Crimean War, when McClellan taught himself Russian and translated a 300-page book from Russian to English."

So it seems clear that McClellan had mind enough to be able to write to his wife in some sort of code or with some goal in mind other than absolute literalness. But did his wife have that same sort of mind, or at least mind enough to understand him in a non-literal sense. I'm not convinced by Rowland's Randall-reference, but I'm intrigued enough to order Randall's book. It seems that he wrote a four-volume work on Lincoln, and if I read Rowland's reference correctly, the speculation about McClellan's "unstudied release not to be taken seriously" appears on page 73 of volume 2. I found an old copy of Volume 2 for $3.99 which isn't too much to pay to put a better face on this much vilified general.


67th Tigers said...

Joseph Harsh's "On the McClellan-go-round" is the first chapter of his PhD Thesis which is online here: http://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/14610/7023520.PDF?sequence=1

It's worth a read in its entirity.

Lawrence Helm said...

67th Tigers: Thank you very much. I appreciate having this!


67th Tigers said...

I picked up Partners in Command from my to read pile this weekend. A huge part of the case in appendix A has to do with the temerity of 2Lt McClellan writing to BGen Totten about seniority.

However, this requires a closer inspection. Totten was a regimental colonel and an army (brevet) brigadier. McClellan was a regimental 2Lt and an army captain (and had refused a third brevet that would have made him a major on the basis he wasn't at the event). Ergo, the 2Lt to BG isn't accurate.

The issue of seniority arose because McClellan was in command of the only company of engineers in the whole US Army. The nominal commander, and professor of engineering at West Point was Capt George Washington Cullum, but he had taken a prolonged (multi-year) leave of absence due to illness. This left Bvt Capt McClellan as the company commander and the senior engineer at West Point.

Totten at the time was inspector of the Mil. Academy, and so had to mediate between McClellan, and the superintendent and commandant (Capt Brewerton) over a dispute due to McClellan being the long term acting company commander of the only unit assigned to the Mil. Academy. Hence Totten is the correct person for McClellan to complain to (Brewerton was McClellan's "1 up" and Totten his "2 up"). Yet somehow this demonstrates a character flaw? I am unconvinced.