The historian deals with this by folding McClellan's beliefs and actions into a narrative of undue or inappropriate suspicion, and in extreme cases, paranoia. Some historians subject their readers to the shock treatment of showing McClellan withholding info from none other than Lincoln (gasp) - even though today such withholding from the president is routine and expected (it's called "need to know"). The deep reader may even remember Lincoln's pledge that he would not inquire into Grant's plans late in the war.
As I said earlier, however, Rebel foreknowledge of McClellan's plans (pre-Maryland) is validated in many Confederate letters and memoirs contemporary with those plans. In a new book, The Bravest of the Brave, the Rebel company-grade officer (and eventual general-to-be) Stephen Dodson Ramseur(right), has just passed into regimental command when he discusses McClellan's plans at a level of detail well worth comment.
Ramseur, having penned these insights into McClellan's grand strokes, makes me wonder, given the standard of Rebel intel, and given the dissemination of this information all the way down to Ramseur's level, whether the quoted text presents McClellan's plan in its fullest, most accurate form. In other words, has a Rebel given us the fuller story of GBM's first Richmond campaign?
Beatie says – it is worth considering this – that McClellan was truthful but that he took the truth only as far as it needed to go (after which your inferences could take over). I think I have that right.
A more neutral way to put this is that in his surviving post-war writings and comments, McClellan's representation of his own plans is stunted and usually (IMHO) to his own disadvantage.
Tim Reese spent a brilliant couple books on this, analyzing the commander's intent at South Mountain and Crampton's Gap. When you understand what McClellan was attempting in the battle of the gaps, Tim said, your jaw hits the floor. (Mine did.)
Likewise, Joseph Harsh's Maryland campaign books again show McClellan in a light where intentions, analysis and execution far exceed what GBM was interested in claiming for himself afterward. There are more examples of this but in our celebrity-starved culture, we wonder who would sell himself short and why?
I myself have tried to shed light on McClellan's second Richmond campaign in this blog, which I believe is at the root of Lee's and Mosby's identical postwar evaluations that McClellan "by all odds" (their words) was the best Union general.
Anyone reading GBM's papers is struck by the fact that after the war, he gave up the historiographical battle. After the fire destroyed his "secret history," he hung up his spurs. "Own Story" is not ultimately an exercise in self-advocacy although it is rich in criticism of political figures. GBM lost interest in the war and was never interested in defending himself other than in presenting what documentary evidence already pointed toward his intentions and actions.
I think McClellan felt it unseemly to go beyond the record to make claims about ultimate plans or schemes.
McClellan's postwar reticence looks extreme until compared to Lee's. I would not stoop to call Grant's or Sherman's memoirs "rationales " but they are babbling brooks compared to the still waters GBM left behind. McClellan did not elaborate much on his plans post-war.
There is a wonderful letter to the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper in the McClellan Papers. The writer, "Baldy" Smith was responding to a McClellan obituary. At this point in his life, Gen. Smith, portrayed by historians as a GBM critic, had come full circle and was again a GBM admirer. What he told the paper's readers was about GBM's attitude.
Smith and McClellan were riding a trail on the Peninsula. The landings were underway, the battles yet to come. Smith confronted McClellan on his situation: he had been demoted, humiliated, was being abused by politicians and cabinet; where is the response? McClellan answered that victories delivered from this point on would be the most powerful response he could deliver and that he would gain the victories.
His post war emphasis – aggravating as it may be for many – remained the same; and in lieu of explaining the plans that failed, McClellan explained the political decisions that failed the plans.
This is the root of his political commentary.
But let's get to what Ramseur says:
May 21st, 1862
My Dear Brother,
[Material removed. Predicts the destruction of Halleck's army near Corinth.]
In Virginia, I fear the prospect is not so bright. In fact, I verily believe that unless this Gen'l Johnston attacks McClellan in the next seven days, we will be forced to evacuate Virginia. And why? McClellan is now waiting only long enough to organize his grand attack on Richmond. Give him seven days and he will have McDowell to join him with 25,000 men. He (McClellan) will send 25,000 men to the south side of the James, there joined by 30,000 men from Wool (at Norfolk) and 15,000 from Burnside's army will form a column of 70,000. This column will then threaten our Right flank, cut off communication South, and operate in conjunction with McClellan's main army of 140,000 (at least) or 170,000 (at most). At the same time, we will be pressed by Fremont with 35,000 men & Banks with 40,000 men in N.W. Virginia. Suppose they unite to overwhelm Jackson with his 30,000, drive him back upon Richmond, or, which I believe is the plan, if they hold him in check until Richmond falls, what will become of him? Now I believe the only way to avert all these evils is for Johnston with his 80,000 to attack McClellan with his 150,000 & drive him back to Fort Monroe. This alone can save the evacuation of Virginia!