Tuesday, July 2, 2013

McClellan and the Peter Principle

Someone commented that McClellan was an exemplar of the Peter Principle.

I think I have been wrestling too long with such matters as why McClellan would send such embarrassing notes to his wife to reduce him to a Peter Principle graduate. You may be right, but I had another thought that might explain him. If one reads his history one finds that he was extremely smart as a child. When he was sent to Sevastopol as an observer he spent his spare time teaching himself Russian and translated a 300 page book -- for sport. It does not stretch the imagination to believe that whenever he walked into a room, he was usually the smartest person there.

We know we should not think of ourselves more highly than is appropriate, but if we are really the "smartest person in the room," what purpose is served by assuming that we are not? But then McClellan moved to a new room. He looked at a President who had little formal education, who used homespun stories and maxims, and he assumed he was in a room like all the others he had been in. Perhaps one of the largest mistakes McClellan made was in underestimating Lincoln. With Lincoln in the room he was not the smartest person there, but McClellan had been taught formally and perhaps he wasn't equipped to properly evaluate a self-taught genius.

Gouverneur Warren was another general who was usually the smartest person in any room he walked into, but he thought lightly of Meade, Grant, and then to his regret, Sheridan.

On the other hand I have encountered individuals who were purported to have genius-level IQs but their actions didn't exhibit a commensurate level of common sense. They had a "potential ability" that was extremely high, but when they attempted to apply that ability, they failed. I might be tempted to think McClellan was in that category, but Rowland and soon-to-arrive Combined Operations in the Civil War by Rowena Reed argue that not only was McClellan's strategy really quite good, but he had the right idea in regard to application as well. I wouldn't term it "back-stabbing"; which implies an intent I don't find in the superiors and subordinates that failed McClellan at critical times, but his "application," judged by the plans he attempted to carry out, was good.

And yes, McClellan was very much a political general, but he wasn't alone in that. A lot of generals were appointed for political reasons. Many had powerful contacts in Washington and the same sort of thing was true on the Confederate side.

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