Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

George McClellan: Incompetent fool or bumbling moron?

George Brinton McClellan is perhaps the most fascinating part of working at Antietam from a historical perspective (Emancipation is another interesting historical part of the job, which is an entirely different story). When I first came to Antietam two years ago, I was a student of the "George McClellan was an incompetent moron" school of thought. After all, why not? The convenient story of a traitorous and incompetent McClellan stabbing the noble Lincoln in the back is too easy to pass up for those seeking a tidy and easy narrative to understand the war. This narrative especially plays into theories of the dominance of the Southern armies; the South had all the good generals and the North had all the bad ones.

However, after really studying the battle over the last two years in ways I never had before, as well as after innumerable long conversations with many good friends and colleagues, I can firmly say that I have learned more about Antietam and George McClellan in the past two years than I had from the time I first picked up an Antietam book at the age of 8 or 9 to when I started working here for the NPS.

During my time thus far at Antietam, several prominent questions have arisen in my mind challenging the traditional George McClellan narrative. What differences, if any, exist between what McClellan accomplished at Antietam and what George Meade accomplished at Gettysburg? How was it that the North won the war if all of their Eastern commanders were incompetent and the Southern generals were invincible legends? Was McClellan really as cautious as many say he was during the Antietam Campaign? The answers that I began to find to these questions challenged many of the notions I had held about the Civil War from my younger days. Much to my surprise, I had begun learning that the real story of Antietam is much more complicated than the prepackaged version told by many historians (the same is true for many battles).

So, why is George McClellan such an interesting part of my job? Because 95% of the people who ask questions about him start their question off with one of the following assumptions: 

A) George McClellan was a moron and that is why he lost at Antietam
B) George McClellan was scared to fight a major battle and that is why he lost at Antietam
C) George McClellan was both a moron and scared to fight a major battle, and that is why he lost at Antietam
D) All of the above

If one starts the conversation on McClellan from the assumption that he was a loser, then the conversation will be the equivalent of putting on a bunt with your slowest runner up to bat, the infielders in on the grass, and trailing by 10 runs in the 9th inning (that is, for you non-baseball folks, it would be pointless). Being a historian is more than reading history books; it is about trying to find the truth within our past. Doing so requires looking past tired stereotypes. Thus, encountering the many preconcieved notions regarding McClellan's incompetence and, hopefully, teaching people to see the American Civil War in a different light is a fascinating process.

For example, in my talks recently I have added a new line: "Now, I am going to use a word to describe George McClellan's battle plan here that I am willing to bet you have never heard in the same sentence with McClellan's name ever before, and that word is excellent." This line always gets laughs from visitors, which clearly illustrates my point. McClellan's plan was quite sound from a tactical perspective. Perhaps terming it excellent is a bit too dramatic, but it certainly serves my point. However, our collective understanding of the man is so clouded by conjecture and is so focused on labeling him a bad general that we never get to a deeper level in understanding both McClellan as a general and the battle of Antietam itself.

Recently, in an online course I am taking, I suggested that McClellan was a better general than typically stated. For this simple suggestion, my post was called irrelevant, beyond belief, and ridiculous. One student said it is historically proven beyond a doubt that McClellan was a terrible general. Is that really the way historians work? I abandoned the conversation after awhile, because you can only hear the words "if he had done this" so many times.

George McClellan is a topic which I hope to add to this blog's repertoire over its duration, so I don't plan on giving an entire account of him in this one post. For a thought provoking and well articulated take on McClellan, you can check out Antietam volunteer (and awesome battlefield guide) Jim Rosebrock's blog South from the North Woods and his recent entry On the McClellan "Roller Coaster".

However, for now, I will say that George McClellan achieved a military victory at Antietam by executing a good tactical plan which, despite being hampered by poor communication and coordination (most of which was McClellan's fault), effectively stopped Lee's Maryland Campaign. Had it not been for Lee's timely defensive strikes at certain key moments in the battle, as well as the Army of Northern Virginia's sheer luck on several occasions, the Army of the Potomac most likely would have crushed the Confederate forces in Maryland, possibly ending the war in the East three years earlier, fulfilling the hypothetical dreams of countless “Monday morning quarterback” historians.

All this being said, I am not a McClellan apologist. He made plenty of mistakes as a general. He also displayed shocking insubordination and disrespect towards his Commander in Chief, which is completely inexcusable and appropriately condemnable. There are few figures from the Civil War who I dislike more from a personality and politics perspective. However, as a historian, it is my job to be objective and fair. Despite his disrespect for Lincoln and opposition to emancipation, he deserves a fair shake as a general.

When it comes to George McClellan, we don't necessarily have to take the high road of overindulgent praise, nor do we have to take the low road of unmitigated condemnation. There is a middle road of both praise and condemnation which more accurately reflects the man's achievements and shortcomings as they really were nearly 150 years ago.


  1. Dan,
    Thank you for mentioning my post. Harry Smeltzer's original post about his visit to Antietam on anniversary weekend prompted me to put into words what I have thought for a long time. Like you, I have heard it all at Antietam regarding McClellan, and like you realize that it is high time to renew our discussion and evaluation of this very important figure in our history. I look forward to more of your perspective down the road.
    Jim Rosebrock
    South from the North Woods

  2. Jim, your post was quite well done and I thought it to be exactly along the lines of what I try to say to folks about McClellan. As always, I place a high value on your opinions on Antietam and McClellan. See you at the park!