WEEKEND POST | I am a day late and will probably be a few compliments short of what I promised Sears on Friday. Here they are, nevertheless:
(1) Sears has pointed to a lot of manuscript sources in his George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, more so than any other McClellan biographer.
(2) He has done yeoman’s work in making sense of many manuscript items and their relationships to each other.
(3) He has succeeded in making the reading public understand that McClellan was at least of equal importance to the Union effort as Grant or Sherman.
(4) His transcriptions of McClellan’s writing tend to be excellent and I have had sometimes to correct my own transcriptions against his.
Part of the frustration with any McClellan project is that there is in fact no editor of the McClellan papers; one has to do all the primary research before getting into the meat of the effort. Given the amount of McClellan material involved in the production of Young Napoleon, one would have hoped that Sears might actually step back from the sources and become what the field needs … the editor of the McClellan papers, a sources specialist, an umpire, an advocate for the publishing of all of the McClellan papers. Instead, he did what everyone before him has done: perform the research, then take sides. He had a chance to be that monumental scholar associated with a major historical personality but he does not have the disposition for this.
Where prolonged exposure to the primary sources of even a hated historic figure might induce circumspection in the treatment of said figure, Sears became more strident and one-dimensional in his interpretations, which were essentially those of Nevins, Catton, Williams, and Williams. They, however, had the advantage of arriving at the same opinions with far less research than he performed.
As time passes, Sears' distance from his subject can be measured by a micrometer. He has called McClellan the "Captain Queeg" of the Civil War. Thomas J. Rowland, writing about overkill among McClellan critics is a "recent McClellan apologist." The great Lincoln scholar J.G. Randall formed mistaken opinions about McClellan because he simply "looked no deeper" into matters than McClellan’s posthumous autobiography. Biographer Warren G. Hassler presented favorable views of McClellan "by careful and selective use of sources and documents." Biographers Conrad and Eckenrode "in all cases" simply took McCellan's account of events. And the Princeton scholar William Starr Myers exhibited "naivete" in dealing with McClellan’s politics. (These items are from Controversies and Commanders.)
The street runs two ways, however. The insightful and scholarly Archer Jones called Young Napoleon more flash than substance. This touches on the essence of the career of Stephen Sears: trading the treasure of vast researches for a tinsel crown of cliched insights and blog-level venting.
Errors and omissions | Last week I said that Sears took the same citational style along with him from publisher to publisher. Perhaps not. If we distinguish between a conventional style (one fact or conclusion per endnote per citation) and Sears' style (long strings of facts and conclusions assigned a single endnote with multiple citations), then a partial breakdown would look like this:
Young Napoleon - Ticknor & Fields, reprinted by Da Capo, Sears' style
Landscape Turned Red - Houghton Mifflin, Sears' style
To the Gates of Richmond - Houghton Mifflin, Sears' style
Controversies and Commanders - Houghton Mifflin, Sears' style
Gettysburg - Houghton Mifflin, Sears' style
Civil War Papers of GBM - Ticknor & Fields, reprinted by Da Capo, conventional style
So he did use a conventional style at least once. Maybe the publisher makes him misbehave this way.
On to another error. On Friday, I gave a list of Prime's excisions from George and May McClellan's notes in texts reprinted in Sears' Civil War Papers of GBM. I forgot to mention that I produced the excised copy myself by comparing the two sources, Prime (McClellan's Own Story) and Sears (Civil War Papers). The reader might have thought that Sears himself in someway highlighted the restored edits. It was another missed opportunity to add value.