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)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Those who hamper him, no matter what theory they may suggest, are assuming a fearful responsibility."

On October 20, 1861, the New York Times printed the following editorial about Major General George B. McClellan. This piece shows us a moment in time early on in the war, before McClellan's Peninsula and Antietam campaigns, which many historians use to excoriate the man. It might seem as though McClellan was nothing but a failure and his rise to command was surely a mistake, yet in 1861 he was viewed by many as the only hope for the Union (he also viewed himself that way as well). Thus, while McClellan's name may bring about laughter in some historical circles today, in October of 1861 the New York Times was praising him as a man who "must be entirely trusted," also warning of the "fearful responsibility" which would assuredly befall any of the general's critics.

Additionally, the way that the editorial praises McClellan's fair mindedness and unpolitical nature is fascinating, primarily because both of these traits were exact opposites of the Young Napoleon's actual personality. McClellan certainly had an egotistical streak, and certainly he was as much a political general as was any officer on either side during the war. He hid his disdain for Lincoln at many times, only to allow it to unreservedly emerge in his letters to his wife. Claiming that McClellan would prove to be the president's "sincere and self-sacrificing friend" was a statement which belied the actual relationship the two men shared.

 WASHINGTON, Thursday, Oct. 17, 1861 I have repeatedly said that Gen. McCLELLAN was not a politician. He has never participated in partisan struggles. His sympathies were undoubtedly with DOUGLAS in the last Presidential campaign, and he belonged to that large class of men who regarded Mr. LINCOLN's election as inevitable, on account of the determination of the Pro-Slavery leaders to break up the Democratic Party. He early stated that, if ABRAHAM LINCOLN was elected, he would be found one of the first to support his Administration against all attacks that might be made upon it. But, true to his nature and his profession, he abstained from all active participation in the Presidential election -- the evidence of which is to be found in the fact that the leading politicians of the two great parties in Illinois accepted his appointment with pleasure. His connection with the great Illinois Railroad placed him in intimate association with Mr. LINCOLN, at that time the leading lawyer at Springfield, the Capital of Illinois -- and naturally with Judge DOUGLAS -- who may be said to have been one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful advocate of the railroad policy which has done so much for that great State. Therefore, when McCLELLAN was made a Major-General, and put in the important position he now holds, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the President of the United States, secured a sincere and self-sacrificing friend. But McCLELLAN's position is by no means an enviable one. His bed is not a bed of roses. Apart from the natural embarrassments common to so vast a command, he has to encounter and surmount obstacles too often of a gratuitous character. Heartily sustained by the President and his Cabinet, and an especial favorite with the Republican and Union leaders, there are some who begin to think that he may be too successful, and who occasionally seek to chill him by their counsel, and to retard him by the exercise of certain powers. A General like McCLELLAN -- a man who has done so much, and is ready to do more, and who will fulfill every just expectation of his country, if he is permitted to take his own course -- must be entirely trusted. Those who hamper him, no matter what theory they may suggest, are assuming a fearful responsibility.

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