Ethan Rafuse's McClellan's War, part one

McClellan's War is a book written to a specific purpose. Rafuse wants to deliver to us the inner politics of the man and his application of political principles to war making. He is conservative in his scholarship, sticking to his purpose, avoiding digressions and keeping conclusions within easy reach of the facts. The exuberant endnotes and lovely digressions of Russel Beatie here give way to dry (but abundant) recitations of source material. This makes for an interesting book but also a very determined and serious one.

Now, there are probably about three levels of politics to plumb within a political mandate.

At the highest level, we have the politics of personal meaning arising from social and national crisis, the profound existential pain surrounding the question, asked while directing a civil war, "Why am I doing this?" Here, we are in a Voegelinian world where historical consciousness is produced in the social trauma of mass violence and unfathomable chaos. Rafuse frames McClellan's issues almost on this scale – his conversion from Whig to Democrat is described especially well - but the matter is managed on the whole as the study of a civil servant operating according to a particular theory of public administration. Note the subtitle: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union. Don't think angst, think policy. It is safer and saner and takes us down from the dizzying heights where the Civil War's carrion eaters fly.

So, the existential crisis is one level on which to address civil war politics. At the lowest level, below sea level as it were, is the murky world of "office politics," which is always with us whether in war or peace. In Civil War terms, this level of politics involves (as a minimum) untangling which officer is patronized by which political figure and for what purpose. One then maps the rise and fall of rank and fortune on the vicissitudes of the patron's interests and career. Rafuse is aware enough, to give one example, to notice those points at which Seward interests use McClellan against Blair in Missouri (Mac must get a grip on Blair protégé Lyons); and Rafuse notices that Blair is key in using McClellan (and Ben Wade) to put away Seward's creature Winfield Scott once and for all. How or why McClellan might be used by opposed interests in the Administration fascinates me. But these are not the politics Mr. Rafuse came to discuss or develop. His field is the general intersection of politics and policy.

At the level he has chosen for his study, Rafuse does excellent work; this should inform every McClellan book to come. And we have no right to hold him either to a comprehensive political study nor to the standard of a comprehensive McClellan biography, because that is not what is intended here, nor could either even be attempted in the 544 pages allocated by this publisher.

So much for my carping.

McClellan's War divides roughly into the antebellum phase, which is more or less concerned with the development of McClellan's internalized political values; following this comes the war phase, ending in late 1862, which is concerned with the elements at play around McClellan that produce that "Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union."

I'll give an account of the pre-war material tomorrow.