One would expect George McClellan to be an obscure historical footnote in mass culture. Recent comparisons to Wesley Clark in the pop media show this is not so.
For example, one of Boston's free sheets, the Daily Dig, notes that "Clark is about the least appealing military man to run for president since cashiered Union Gen. George McClellan took on his former boss, Abraham Lincoln, in 1864." No details are given on what makes McClellan unappealing: the reader is expected to have all the McClellan background needed. I like that. A dig at Mac, but an interesting complement to the reader, certainly.
A newspaper columnist tagged Clark and Mac "brilliant and intense," seeing this as their point of comparison. He gave his readers a little more background than the Daily Dig, however.
This brilliancy idea was echoed on a chat show where one caller commented: "Finally, as an added aside, it is fascinating that the Democrats' current favorite candidate is a brilliant general. McClellan 2004?" The historian, to whom this was directed, let the point pass.
McClellan, of course, invented a saddle that has been called "immortal," as well as service branches (signals, aviation, intelligence), staff functions (chief of staff), ambulance corps, and all manner of good things that outlived him ... this when he was not learning new languages, touring foreign battlefields, or adapting the best of foreign military doctrine.
One obvious, fun comparison between Mac and Clark that no one noticed is that both generals speak (spoke) fluent Russian. How often do Russian-speaking generals run for president? This may not rises to historical insight, but it is certainly the stuff of political journalism.
Some of the press comment on McClellan was generated by a Rush Limbaugh op/ed piece in the Wall Street Journal called Wesley McClellan?
The subhead on the piece, likely written by a history-shy copy editor, notes that "Democrats consider an antiwar general--just like in 1864." McClellan was, of course, a war Democrat who renounced the peace planks of his party platform.
In his piece, Limbaugh makes little allowance for the reader's McClellan expertise and by going into details he has not mastered, commits a number of errors. He says, for example, "McClellan's big ego won him the nickname 'The Young Napoleon.'" This is an inference drawn from the name itself and McClellan's perceived egoism; some historians use it tauntingly; some politicians and press used it ironically, but no historian would say the name was bestowed due to a perception of egoism. Everyone who met him was struck by his humility, his friendliness, his accessibility, and some, by his physical resemblance to the emperor of France, Napoleon III, whom Americans referred to simply as Napoleon.
(There is an apocryphal story of some ladies commenting that "he looks like a young Napoleon" and this sticking to McClellan. Indeed, his facial hair was in a style called "The Napoleon" and anyone seeing a photo would have been struck by the resemblance.)
Another Limbaugh comment exemplifies the common error commentators make of stretching a single incident into a trend, then using the imagined trend to make a personal observation (or imputation). Thus, "There was also a peculiar side to McClellan. Without provocation, from time to time he would announce that he had no intention of becoming a dictator."
McClellan was publicly sought as a dictator early in the war - by elected representatives, newspaper writers, and military men - but discouraged public discussion of such a course by pledging his commitment privately and publicly to republicanism. Quite a different thing, and not a point that can have a bearing on General Clark or other modern politicians, anyway.
Limbaugh returned to his Clark/Mac comparisons after the article appeared: "This is great, folks. The Democrats thought Wesley Clark would be their Colin Powell, but he turned out to be their second George B. McClellan."
He might consider that his notion of McClellan is wrong and that Colin Powell more closely resembles the popular stereotype surrounding McClellan than he does McClellan's historical personage. He might also consider that McClellan embodies his own politics better than Lincoln does.
The deeper the political commentators go into backgrounding McClellan, the more awful the errors, not only of fact but of inference and speculation.
MSNBC's Michael Moran starts:
"McClellan found himself, like Clark may in 2004, running against a wartime president during a conflict that began with predictions of swift victory but which turned out to be far bloodier than expected."
This does not match my memory of the predictions made for the Iraq war, but the value here, which should have been developed, is the idea of a general running against the president in wartime.
Moran then embarks on a series of errors, first characterizing McClellan as "embittered." McClellan was philosophical, not bitter, and had to be coaxed into running.
"While many Democrats favored suing for peace with the Confederacy, McClellan did not and he campaigned hard arguing that Lincoln had wasted thousands of lives by appointing inept commanders and allowing corrupt arms merchants to run amok behind the lines." McClellan hardly campaigned at all. He certainly did not make these charges against Lincoln: these were made by the Democratic Party press.
I am grateful to see them in print again, after so many years.
This is not the place for McClellan advocacy; such advocacy has its own website. What is striking about the comments about George B. is that they run the gamut, positive to negative, and that the negative comments are not entirely tied to the lockstep Nevins/Catton/Sears/McPherson consensus, the formulaic "Lincoln Finds a General" motif that dominates academic interpretations of the Civil War.
That good news makes the maligning of McClellan almost tolerable.