My slow march through McClellan's War

I see from the book sites that Ethan Rafuse's book, McClellan's War, today ranks 79,318 on Barnes & Noble and 118,788 on Amazon. That's pretty good: for instance, McPherson's Fields of Fury ranks 142,200 on Amazon, which is more than a decent showing.

Sad to say, I am a slow reader and in the case of any McClellan book, I crawl. Not only do I have to read every note and ponder every point, I have to collate it with a fairly large set of mental and sometimes paper files. Summer guests and chores don't help. So I have made it but half through this tome to say that I like it very much.

It is dry for you seekers of storytelling art; it is comfortably linear for you, however; and there are few digressions. Too few, for my taste , and I find myself providing my own digressions on the fly as I go along. (See below.)

Allow me my usual ration of quibbles before I return to praising McClellan's War.

* Notes. Endnotes are a sorry substitute for footnotes; I think the commercial houses came up with this as a cost saving measure; Indiana University Press, as an academic house, should know how inconvenient endnotes are. Further, the notational style of Sephen W. Sears is to be avoided at all costs, not emulated. At least here Rafuse allows one note per paragraph versus Sears' one every two or three paras. Best: one note per reference.

* Digressions. The McClellan context is so rich as to be overwhelming; perhaps Rafuse has done a good job of sparing the casual reader. However, I found myself asking here and there, "Does Rafuse know..."

* Theme. McClellan's War is a book that integrates McClellan's personal politics into the story of his military career. It explains his motivations and thinking from this internal point of view. I think that this results - intentionally - in a less rounded picture of the man and events. It also simplifies the political discussion to almost a single point of reference. Rafuse's assessment will certainly shape my picture of GBM, but it is not the whole picture of the man or the time. The notion of a single key explaining the best part of the McClellan controversies makes me uncomfortable, no matter how well it is handled here.
That out of the way, you can safely consider the book indispensible.

Now, some random points as they occur to me.

Rafuse's take on hard war/soft war has some contiguity with Mark Grimsley's Hard Hand of War. I need to revisit Grimsley (whom Rafuse mentions more than once) to delineate some differences for my own peace of mind. (This is one reason why my reading takes so long.)

Rafuse's work gives some idea of McClellan's and Lincoln's closeness as collaborators - a collaboration I have never seen adequately covered anywhere. We have much farther to go here, but Rafuse sets his readers down the right path.

Rafuse accurately summarizes McClellan's reaction to Lincoln's estrangement from him as Lincoln experiencing a failure of political will. This matches the storyline of T. Harry Williams' Lincoln and the Radicals, a book which paints the slow and steady wresting of the war from Lincoln's hands. (Historian Hans Trefousse, on the other hand, sees Lincoln as a political artist stringing McClellan along while hiding his Inner Radical from view.)

Rafuse deals with certain McClellan controversies in "reasonable man" terms rather than by exploring them monographically. Others he understands but must summarize to avoid losing his larger points.

One of his more interesting insights he gives little space: the idea that Stanton took office as a friend to both the Radicals and McClellan, butquickly threw McClellan overboard. (The Centennial doctrine is that GBM wore his patience down over time; the McClellanist view, elaborated by Baldy Smith after Mac's death, was that Stanton signalled enmity as soon as he won the office.)

Rafuse seems to miss the breadth and depth of Halleck's intrigue against McClellan in the matter of a unified Western Department although he accurately blames Halleck for a persistent lack of cooperation with Mac and Buell. Like everyone else, he gets the story of McClellan's commission wrong, basing it on the misleadingly stripped down precis in McClellan's Own Story.

He misses Stanton's intrigue with Seward under Buchanan, Seward's role in the SecWar appointment, Stanton continuing as Seward's protege in early 1862, and the repeated efforts to replace McClellan between January and March 1862. Not that these are germane to his story.

At the same time, he surprises us with things we forget or never knew: Mac's rejection of Frank Blair in Randolph Marcy's place; his explicit rejection of the idea (from friend George Gibbs) that he needed some kind of Halleck to manage matters in the "sink of iniquity." But Rafuse only half understands that the corps commanders assigned the AoP were personal friends of Lincoln and Republicans every one.

And on a personal note, I find obnoxious the adjective "magnificent" repeatedly joined to the AoP, not only because it is a cliched reminder of Catton's worthless literary device of mass-man-as-hero, but because of the army's rate of absenteeism from the beginning. The absurdly high levels of shirking and cowardice were a constant concern and an unspoken national embarassment. The commanders knew. Lincoln knew. We can't "unknow" this by reverting to Catton-style fanfares to the common man.

Rafuse's basic position of sympathy for and understanding of his principal subject takes him a long way and is worth much to the reader, especially given his starting point (mentioned in the introduction) of being hostile to McClellan and friendly to the Radicals. We all start that way; it takes effort to see the man behind the comic book constructs. Rafuse has a firm grasp on the real McClellan and his milieu. This book is essential reading.

I'll write more as I read more.