McClellan at Gettysburg, part one of two

Research tics. Do you have them? Here's mine: when I visit an unfamiliar library, the first thing I check is the Civil War section for Irish unit histories. I then scour these for accounts of McClellan at Gettysburg.

There is a story behind this compulsion.

One evening in '98 or '99, I was in the New York Public Library. The main branch is organized for monumental effect with actual books tucked into little crannies where the architecture permits, some in cages guarded by staff. (The highest drama comes when someone at the end of a marble labyrinth summons books from the basement on a dumb waiter.) I used to have a hard time remembering where I had found what and how to get back there.

This particular night, I was researching a regular feature for the McClellan Society newsletter, as was my monthly habit. We had a series of soldierly anecdotes about "our George." Easy stuff to collect - just open any biography or unit narrative relevant to the time and place and the material awaits.

This time I had grabbed an armful of Irish unit histories, whether from some shelf or by virtue of ordering them up from the special collections, I don't know. There were six or so books, none of them published much past the last century. I got comfortable and began skimming them, one by one.

Every book had McClellan references for Gettysburg. Not being a Gettysburg buff, I took the reality presented by those books as part of the common lore of that battle. How else could it be if every randomly picked title had such a story? There were three categories for such tales.

In the first type, someone sees GBM on the battlefield or near it. Word spreads and the troops go wild.

In the second type, the high commanders, wishing to generally motivate the troops for the battle ahead, intentionally spread the rumor that McClellan has taken command. The troops go wild.

In the third type of story, some specifically named low-level unit commander tells a brigade or regiment that McClellan has taken over for some specific short-term benefit, e.g. because a unit is wavering.

I made my notes, returned the books, and wrote my piece. Sometime later my hard drive crashed taking about 20 newsletters with it. Society member Moe Daoust and I were setting up the first McClellan Society discussion board at the time, and I decided not to revive the newsletter in hardcopy form, nor to retrieve the lost data.

My notes were lost and the illusion continued.

After publishing the newsletter with its Gettysburg stories, I got a letter from a member who said, oh of course, McClellan at Gettysburg, and by the way you forgot a story, here it is.

Then, not long after, I gave a speech to the Meade Society near Philadelphia and I mentioned the oral traditions of Mac at Gettysburg in a social moment after the talk; everyone was of the mind, "Yes, of course, we've all heard these, etc." So I had no idea that I had partaken of something alien to the common readership.

The odd review copy of some new Irish unit history would come my way in those days and I would check it for more anecdotes and there would be no mention of McClellan at Gettysburg. That happened often enough that at some point I became worried that the meme "McClellan at Gettysburg" could not be reconstructed from sources at all. So the compulsion began.

There are dreams you have where you awaken, determined to write down something important; a little voice tells you to go back to sleep and write it in the morning. In the morning you cannot remember what was so interesting or important. The NYPL incident was like that. Or maybe it was more like walking away from a winning streak at the blackjack table thinking, "I'll take the rest of their money after dinner."

Try as I might, I could not reconnect with anything hinting at McClellan at Gettysburg. Not in bookstores, not in libraries. Not for years. I tried revisiting the library (having moved away) - nothing worked.

A few weeks ago I visited the Frederick public library for some Bruce Catton vs. Jean Smith quotes. But first I tended to my compulsion - the Irish unit histories. There was exactly one such book on the shelf. And it had a solid McClellan at Gettysburg story.


(Continued tomorrow.)