Rafuse and McClellan's War

It was interesting to see Johnny Whitewater's analysis of McClellan's War: The Failure Of Moderation In The Struggle For The Union set against the context of the McClellan's Society's views.

Compared to what the members of the Society believe, he concludes that "in reversing McClellan historiography, Rafuse's book is but one small step."

Let's add to that ... small perhaps and yet major. For example, consider the first four AOP commanders, as we have here - endlessly and falsely represented as products of meritocratic date-of-rank consideration. If Civil War historians cannot even touch on their political personas, we have a problem so large that a task on the scale of a partial reappraisal of McClellan looms utterly enormous.

So for Rafuse to point McClellan historiography ten degrees here or there, he also has to fix a 360 degree base of accidental and willful misunderstanding. The win is not whatever opinion Rafuse makes about the general, it is in shifting the entire ground of the discussion off of falsehood and contrived ignorance toward the truth embodied in a more complete public record.

Back in 1997/1998 we had an important book from an historian named Tom Rowland brought out by the respectable Kent State University Press; it gently and humorously mocked McClellan criticism as it had deeloped since the Centennial. Rowland was not interested in rehabilitiating McClellan as a general or in revisiting the controversies. What interested him was the over-the-top behavior of Civil War historians coming into contact with the subject McClellan. Johnny, in his posting, noticed the uniformity of McClellan treatment. So did Rowland and he had a lot of fun with it.

Sears, stinging under Rowland's chiding, lashed out in print repeatedly, drawing attention to Rowland. One would think, therefore, that post-Rowland historians would mind their excesses in writing about the general. And in general, I think they have begun to exercise some sense of self restraint, whether Rowland brought this about or not.

The drawback for these people, post-Rowland, was that although their emotionally charged reactions to McClellan might be under better control, they still operated on a wide and broad foundation of false or incorrect data - in fact a data set contrived to convict McClellan (and other famous "goats" in the ACW) in the court of public opinion.

And so - here in this blog and elsewhere - we address the small stuff. Corps commanders. Commissions. Pope being named field commander in the Maryland campaign. Bits and pieces that undermine the prevailing nonsense. Rafuse (and for that matter Beatie) do more faster; they apply wholesale changes to the (false) public record through a combination of proper use of known evidence and new research.

Thus Rafuse (and Beatie and Harsh) make the old McClellan bashing impossible to the extent that the field must confront and assimilate their work. Yes, Taaffe has simply chosen not to; he baldly excludes their work from his bibliography. Yes, Gallagher blurbs Harsh while painstakingly excluding him from any compilations or anthologies.

And they make themselves ridiculous in so doing. Ridiculous. That is progress.

One can say that Rafuse has helped push the pendulum. Will the pendulum swing back again? No, that energy is not yet played out.

Our starting point was restricted use of sources and the suppression of evidence to advance literary ends. We are moving away from the subordination of history to literature. I see it in every new catalog.

That is what is important about McClellan's War among other new books.