Buford reminds us

One of the more paradoxical Centennial constructs is that McClellan was “complex” while his situation was simple, requiring of him choices so clear that the most ignorant reader chafes at his “failures.” This helps define a “McClellan problem” in the narrator’s “plot” – one which the writer helpfully fixes by eventually inserting a “simple” Grant character into that “simple” context. Simple matches simple and all those decisions now flow into the resolution of the Civil War.

Naturally this makes N.B. Buford’s appointment to command the AoP a problem – something to keep at arm’s length. We had speculated here about the Buford offer reported by Rafuse. Why was it vetted with Orville Browning? Now, Russel Beatie tells us in his forthcoming book that it was Stanton who suggested to Orville Browning that the AoP be given to Napoleon Buford. The source is a Browning diary entry on April 2, 1862. Leave it to Rafuse and Beatie to share this kind of information.

I wish they had spent more time on the matter, however, because one cannot just give the reader stuff like this and trust him to recognize and enjoy it. The reader’s framework has been shaped by 50 years of seamless Centennial storytelling from which all distractions (context) have been carefully snipped.

We can fix that right here, though.

Stanton’s offer was delivered to Browning in this way: “If you will propose to the President…I will second the appointment.” Not only is the offer significant in its form and significant because it so closely follows Stanton’s failure to recruit Ethan Hitchcock for the job, but the date itself also tells much.

Within the “complex McClellan” construct is a meme that GBM as army commander did himself out of a simple job by wearing down the easy goodwill of Lincoln and Stanton. As AoP commander, he provoked their frustration and earned their wrath.

Baldy Smith (no less) felt forced to confront this meme – embedded like most Centennial "insights" in the Republican Party press of that day - as soon as McClellan’s obituaries were published. He wrote a long letter-to-the-editor of a paper contradicting the idea that Stanton was Mac’s friend until Mac earned his enmity on the field. It’s a good letter and I’ll run it here soon. Its two main points will serve us here. Smith says: (1) McClellan knew he was a dead man walking before the sealift but (2) He was confident he could win the victories that would sideline all attacks.

I say this to establish McClellan’s motives while operating under what we might agree were impossible conditions. Put it another way: just as Grant told Schofield he would not be McClellanized by Lincoln or Stanton in 1864, McClellan here told Smith he would essentially “Grantify” himself against attacks from Lincoln and Stanton in 1862.

This Buford matter is unhelpful to a second Centennial meme - that Stanton and Lincoln were a cooperative and effective team. Note that Stanton, the president’s advisor, is here smuggling his advice to Lincoln through the agency of a cutout whom he perceives to be a close friend of the president. Look Browning, Buford will be your idea and I’ll second it.

Now, consider that McClellan’s March 11 demotion was incomplete - that being fired from general-in-chief was only part of the larger business, the other half not being finished before the water movement began. The demotion order was composed the day of a fiery speech to the cabinet in which Stanton denounced his "great ignorance, negligence, and lack of order and subordination - and reckless extravagance." On the 15th, Hitchcock paraded before Lincoln as potential commander of the AoP – he recorded, with horror, Lincoln’s reference to “the traitor, McClellan.” And to his credit he refused the position. This is another problem for Centennial memes, hence its long habitation in the trash bin.

A Congressional move to fire McClellan altogether was barely sidetracked on March 17th, five days after GBM learned he has lost his top job, two days after Hitchcock refused the AoP for the last time and 16 days before Stanton solicited Browning for Buford.

If we assume Stanton was no fool, it tells us something that he believed about Lincoln, that as of April 2nd, the day after McClellan personally set sail, Lincoln might still be willing to fire McClellan from his AoP command.

Not that he would leave the president to make up his own mind.

For on this same April 2nd, the Radical general Wadsworth responded to a Stanton inquiry that the capital was not sufficiently protected. Stanton told Lincoln about it on the second. And Lincoln then (April 3) put the freeze on the embarkation of McDowell and the bulk of McClellan’s cavalry. In the mood contrived for him, who knows how he might have responded to "Browning's" suggestions regarding Buford.

So we find Stanton encircling Lincoln with third-party reports and with third-party candidates for command while Congress moves to resolve McClellan be fired.

No wonder some say that civil war can be complicated. The adventures of Napoleon B. Buford are a reminder of that.

(More on NBB via Eric Wittenberg here.)