Get Nelly

I bought Lincoln's Generals' Wives by Candice S. Hooper to read more about Mary Ellen McClellan. Something on the Internet led me to believe that here were letters and diaries from the Library of Congress used to compile the Nelly chapters. Indeed there were: five letters and a few short, tiny diaries; I did not find these referenced in the notes. It seems likely that Sears used them and Ms. Hooper cited the relevant Sears material.

For indeed Sears is all over this Mary Ellen McClellan account and the recapitulation of Centennial military history makes up the bulk of Nelly's chapters, perhaps 75% or more (citations too to Catton, Williams, even the plagiarist Nevins). Think of this as a meditation on how a very bad man can feed the worst instincts in his wife and you get the sense of it -- except for a plot twist in Nelly's alleged bad attributes also feeding George's.

Like many innocent readers, Ms. Hooper is shocked by McClellan's view of Lincoln and his cabinet, thinking it singular. This is because she has not digested the diaries of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Attorney General Edward Bates, the correspondence of Postmaster Montgomery Blair or many of the politicians and generals dealing with the Lincoln Administration. Of course a sensible writer has to explain to readers how anyone and his wife could hold such views.

You know the usual answers: psychological pathologies and character failings.

Depending on secondary sources and pre-packaged primary sources, Hooper misses the fine print in her derivative readings; she does not know that these are the Marcys of the Albany Regency; she has no idea that Lincoln worked for McClellan at the Illinois Central, referring to Civil War "first impressions" that never were. There are no descriptions of McClellan family life here, for she has not touched Max McClellan's papers at Princeton. In her 1864 survey she is oblivious to the project of the McClellan-Fremont fusion ticket and Jesse Fremont's possible role in that.

We don't know what music Mary Ellen liked, what instruments she played, what things she read, what plays she favored, what child rearing she did or even what she thought of McClellan's friends. If she had a social circle, it is not found here.

Child rearing, no; battlefield narrative, yes. Establishing households in Trenton, New York, Orange, no. Psychological speculations, yes. Empathy and interest, no. Elaborations on culpability, very much.

The deficiencies stack higher than at a CCW hearing.

When the Centennialists have so worn down their readers that the fresh material nowadays consists of attacks on the wives of men on the wrong side of Lincoln, we can say a publishing trend has run its course.


For a good summary of Nevins' crime, see here and scroll down in this link. Such are the critics of Civil War generals. Hooper quotes Nevins' Pathmaker in her Fremont chapters without commenting on its poisoned content.