McClellan's "letters" - still a problem

I browsed a couple of new books recently and each referred to McClellan’s letters to his wife in exactly those terms - with not so much as a by-your-leave.

I decided to do a sanity check and spent about two hours rereading my notes from the Library of Congress’ McClellan Papers, W. C. Prime’s description in his book McClellan's Own Story, and Sears’ notes introducing his edited volume of Mac’s wartime correspondence. I then reflected on whether I was being prickly about scholars who use the expression “McClellan’s letters to his wife.”

My sanity checked out – if I may certify myself – and the phrase “McClellan’s letters to his wife” still stinks to high heaven. Can we not, therefore, add quote marks, an asterisk, a little authorial disclaimer? Here’s a passage that can follow the first reference to these “letters”:

As the author of this work, I use the expression ‘McClellan’s letters to his wife’ as a convenience to the reader and myself fully aware that these writings cannot be validated as actual wartime correspondence.
If you want to write a longer note, have at it.

In January, I went to Princeton, where Max McClellan’s papers are kept. Max was the general’s son and Sears seems to have missed this family cache in researching The Young Napoleon (Max's papers are not cited in the edition of the work I have). I was looking for a letter from McClellan to his wife – it would be quite a catch because no one has ever seen a letter from McClellan to his wife authored during the general’s active service.

As far as I know, there are a couple of McClellan letters to Mary Ellen available from ’63 and ’64 but no one has seen such a thing from ’61 or ’62.

Among his papers, GBM left a small book about half the size of a modern photo album. He inscribed this book as containing notes he made from letters to his wife. We don’t know if he left out key text; or if he added text; or if he made changes to text. The “proof” we have that these are “true” copies rests entirely on assumptions.

With McClellan dead, W.C. Prime, editor of McClellan’s Own Story, found the book then went looking for the originals. At first he was told they had been burned.

He had no way of knowing whether or not they were burned. Nor do we.

Prime said that they turned out not to have been burned though he never saw them. He coquettishly declines to say directly where the unburned letters were found. We take his word that they existed when Own Story was compiled. Prime says through family help he enhanced GBM's notebook entries but does not disclose how he did that in his comments in the foreword to McClellan's Own Story. He makes no claim to having seen the originals.

Stephen Sears says, in his preliminary remarks in Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, that Prime worked a deal with May McClellan, the general’s daughter, who had access to the unburned letters. Sears says Prime asked May to read Mac's notes and then add material from the letters. The arrangement prevented Prime from seeing the letters. May, says Sears, took her father’s notes, added text to them, and returned them to Prime. We don't know what the methodolgy was. We don't know if she produced scraps attached to notes or if she rewrote each notebook entry. We don't know if she corrected her father's mistakes or changed to match the final, delivered form.

And we don't know where Mary Ellen McClellan fits into this transaction. We don't know how Sears knows about the Prime-May McClellan deal. Sears leaves no clue. If this happened as Sears described it, did May play straight with Prime? Did Prime honor May's input? How did he integrate the fragmentary new material? Had the letters really been preserved?

Based on Sears' unsourced description, we have May controlling the core editing process, handing Prime some kind of "finished product." The only way we can tell the difference between what was in McClellan’s notebook and what May and/or Prime added is if we compare the entries in the notebook with what Prime published in the posthumous autobiography, McClellan's Own Story.

That would be tedious - I've done it in this blog on a limited sample of letters. And what would that analysis yield? It would simply disclose the tissue of editorial overlay on notes of unknown provenance. (Prime, or Sears after him, could at least have used typography or markings to show us the difference between GBM’s notes and the writings that appear in McClellan's Own Story.)

So we have Prime being coy about the unburned letters and his amendments to McClellan's notes. We have Sears' word that May accessed unburned letters and that she consulted with Prime to amend the notes. More questions: did Sears make his own changes to the mysterious hybrid created by Prime and May? In a brief survey of Own Story matched against Sears' collection of correspondence, I found at least one unique, unexplained Sears redaction to Own Story and published it in this blog. (Sears had deleted McClellan's reference to his horse Kentuck.) Why would he do that? And why would a man supposed to be taking notes for a memoir include a trivial reference to his less favored mount?

So Sears revised Prime and/or May without having recourse to sent letters. (No one has recourse to the original material.)

The well of complexity is not dry yet.

Sears made the odd decision to priviledge the material in the letterbook over and above the writing ascribed to May. In comparing the Prime/May letters in McClellan's Own Story with the notes found in McClellan's papers, Sears made some amendments to Prime's allegedly May-enhanced material using the letterbook as a corrective. Let me put that more simply: May's alleged additions to her father's alleged letters were altered by Sears in some places based on giving primacy to Mac's notebook.

If May enhanced the notes found in McClellan's papers, if that is your (unsubstantiated) story, why would you give primacy to the letterbook over the later revisions?

Sears made more changes on even stranger grounds. Read this "clarification" and weep: "Where May McClellan copied more of a particular letter than her father had included, the letter has been reassembled based on context and on McClellan’s usual pattern of writing." [Emphasis added]

Reassembled. We began with a mysterious book and no letters; the book's entries are amended on the say-so of May McClellan, we are told; Prime works them over in ways we cannot guess at; Sears then revises Prime and May and “reassembles” some “letters” based on his own ideas about "patterns of writing" and "context" - all without recourse to sources.

Call me finicky but in circumstances like these, I demand quote marks and a footnote for “McClellan’s letters to his wife.” That's non-negotiable.

** [Edited on 4/5/06 for clarity.] **
** [Final edit on 4/6/06 for clarity.] **

p.s. A few personal observations on this notebook. If you have access to the McClellan Papers on microfilm you’ll notice some odd things about it.

First, many of the entries are written out fully – including conjunctions, prepositions, the lot – as if a first draft was being composed, not as if extracts were being collected for memoir writing or to refresh the memory.

Second, there are clauses crossed out as a thought changes. That is to say, Mac has made crossouts that are not copying errors but compositional errors – very improbable “copying” behavior, that.

Third, there is material here laboriously written out in his hand that has no value to a military memoir – the ostensible purpose for which “letters” were copied.

Fourth, there are the frequent omissions of place, date and time in the extracts. These are extremely valuable in reconstructing timelines. This is the whole point of extracting notes. Did Mrs. McClellan, in lending her letters to George omit the postmarked envelopes? Did the general neglect to guess at time and place of writing? Was May not able to fix the gaps?

Or are we dealing here with a first draft letterbook Mac later labeled as “notes”? You wouldn't need date, place, and time if you were going to send the letter later from a different location. Did his wife never actually loan him the (possibly burned) originals? Can these be reconstructions from memory or from loose copies of drafts?

We will never get to the bottom of this mystery until we can find a delivered letter to compare with Mac's notebook entries. I tried to find one and failed. I have an idea and I'll try again.

In the meantime, keep your ten-foot-pole handy when presented with "McClellan's letters to his wife."

[Stephen Sears responds to this post here.]