Stephen Sears on authenticity and letters

To: Dimitri Rotov

Re: Authenticity of McClellan’s letters to his wife, in Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan.

Ref.: Your post of 4/4/06

From: Stephen Sears

There are two sources for my transcriptions of these letters, both in the McClellan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The first is McClellan’s letterbook headed “Extracts from letters written to my wife during the War of the Rebellion.” The letterbook is in vol. C-7, microfilm reel 63, starting at frame 201.

The entire contents of this letterbook is in McClellan’s hand. This can be easily demonstrated by comparison with any number of original McClellan letters to other parties. You term the contents of this letterbook “notes,” but in fact they are (as McClellan labeled them) “extracts,” that is, full and complete copies of portions, some quite extensive, of the original letters. There is a world of difference between notes and extracts. The ellipses in the transcriptions are McClellan’s.

The second source is another set of extracts from the general’s letters to Mrs. McClellan, these in the handwriting of May McClellan, the McClellans’ daughter. This set is in vol. D-10, reel 72, starting at frame 348. That they are in May’s hand is confirmed by comparing them to her diaries for 1881 through 1884, in vols. D-5 and D-6, reel 68. (Mrs. McClellan’s diaries for 1865-66, in reel 66, are in a hand different from these extracts.)

The context for the compiling of the letterbook and for May’s copies is important. I’ve covered this ground in the epilogue of my McClellan biography, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon; in the introduction to Civil War Papers of McClellan; and, most extensively, in my article “The Curious Case of General McClellan’s Memoirs,” in the journal Civil War History, 34:2 (June 1988), 101-14. These detail literary executor William C. Prime’s “crimes and misdemeanors” in preparing McClellan’s Own Story for posthumous publication.

McClellan began drafting his memoir #1 in 1865-66 in Europe with a series of memoranda; by the mid-1870s it is documented in the LC Papers that he was hard at work at the task. By the logic of the case, it was then that he filled the letterbook with extracts from his “active-service” letters to Ellen, forming a quick day by day record—a veritable diary. These extracts contain business-only material, certainly intended as a guide for his memoir writing. His ellipses indicate personal or extraneous material; this is confirmed (directly, in many cases) by the content of May’s extracts.

From the blunt content of these letterbook extracts (terming Lincoln “the original gorrilla,” for one example), it is obvious McClellan had no intention whatever of publishing these letters, nor had he any reason to pull his punches in extracting them. He did briefly quote from one letterbook letter on p. 70 of Story, and had he completed his ms. he might have done more of this, but surely with discretion as to content. McClellan had no reason to be anything less than honest and accurate in his extracting.

The same is true of May McClellan. Prime says he asked for “fuller extracts,” and that is what he got—largely personal matter such as the general’s affectionate regard for Ellen and baby May. The fact that there are often overlaps in the letterbook copies and May’s copies means that she was working from the original letters c. 1886, as I have said in previous writings. The overlaps further confirm the accuracy of McClellan’s copies, and made it possible for me to put the two pieces of the letter together accurately. I saw no reason to distinguish between McClellan’s and May’s copies, for there is no reason to doubt either’s authenticity.

Memoir #1 was destroyed by fire in 1881, but McClellan soon set to work again, and had completed memoir #2 only as far as Hanover Court House on the Peninsula (just 166 ms. pages) when he died. That ms. formed about the first third of Story; the rest is Prime’s bastardization. You trust Prime unduly. If there are discrepancies between my transcriptions and Prime’s, I’ll wager Prime will be found wrong in every case.

There are eight “complete” McClellan letters to his wife (1863-64) in Civil War Papers. They give the true flavor of his home letters, and are testimony at least to the authenticity of May’s extracts. Ellen McClellan spent most of the rest of her life after the general’s death in Europe—she left even before Story was published. I suspect she regarded Story, with its published letters, as a terrible invasion of her privacy (as indeed they were) and consequently destroyed McClellan’s original active-service letters to her, and nearly all of her letters to him. Just five of hers survive in the McClellan Papers, all written during the Second Manassas campaign, suggesting an overlooked packet.

In sum, then, I believe everything points to the accuracy and authenticity of both McClellan’s and May’s extracts; and I have done everything possible to insure the accuracy of my transcriptions of the letters. They had no reason or motive or agenda to do otherwise. Nor, I stress, did I.