Ethan Rafuse's McClellan's War, part two

Civil War historian can generally be counted on to deliver wrong party affiliation information for generals who figure in any narrative.

How many times have I seen Nathaniel Banks identified as a Democrat in 1861? Butler as a Democrat in 1864? How often have the party affiliations of Scott, Wool, Sumner, Keyes, McDowell, and Heintzelmann been carefully eradicated for the higher purpose of a "purer" military history?

Alongside these errors of commission and omission lies a family of half-truths; for instance, Burnside's affiliation with the Democratic Party of Rhode Island (without the necessary codicil that this was the party of Lincoln, the RI Republicans being anti-Lincoln).

In McClellan's War, Rafuse uncovers what might be considered one such half-truth, the idea of McClellan as Democrat.

In McClellan's War, Rafuse traces the McClellan family's politics across several generations culminating in the rupture of the entire family with the Whig Party in 1852. This examination of the family culture is convincing and useful.

The break seems to hinge on Pennsylvania's "free-soil Whigs" (anti-Masonic, populist, Evangelicals, dealing harsh, no-compromise rhetoric) taking over the local party from the old-line Whigs. This is the Wade, Seward, Sumner, and (locally) Stevens crowd. The event is not placed exactly but it seems to happen in 1851; by 1852, McClellan is reconsidering his break when friend-of-the-family Winfield Scott runs for president. Mac opts for Pierce, after a little reflection, and that seems to be that.

The Pennsylvania Democracy provided a safe haven for former Whigs, especially after Free-Soil Democrats left the party following the Kansas-Nebraska act. The effect is something like a revolving door, with populism migrating to Whiggery and later Republicanism.

"After 1851, neither George nor the McClellan family ever returned to the Whig Party," Rafuse says. If McClellan ever considered Lincoln a mitigating influence on the Republican Party (succeeding the Whigs), Rafuse says he was antagonized by AL's Senate campaign and its "no compromise" rhetoric on the expansion of slavery; Lincoln's attachment of moral arguments to political issues would have been particularly offensive to many old-line Whigs, the author notes.

The play between Lincoln and McClellan personally in this period is unfortunately absent from McClellan's War. I have seen an amusing anecdote from the time, invented perhaps by Lincoln men.; it appeared in the journal of the Illinois Historical Society in the 1930s.

According to the story, McClellan, as vice president of the Illinois Central, intentionally gave priority to the Douglas trains traveling en route to the Lincoln-Douglas debates; the result was supposedly that on some stretches, Lincoln would be on a train pulled over on the siding to let Douglas pass.

The truth appears to be that Douglas had personal use of an express train, courtesy of McClellan, while Lincoln had a pass to travel on scheduled (non-priority) trains. That could have produced this storied result – the sidelining of a regular train by an express. On the other hand, the tale feels suspiciously like another "arrogance" anecdote used in the ongoing effort to warn readers against the failings of GBM.

Of McClellan's common culture with those old-time Democrats the Marcys, Rafuse notes that both families shared values rooted in the Scottish Enlightment's "Common Sense Philosophy." This is – in my view – a very telling detail.

Character. Self-improvement. Progress. Realism. Compromise. The common weal. The march of history.

This is the Whig belief system simplified and it shows something like the colors under which McClellan went to war.

More to come...