Lincoln's Personal Life HTML version

The Struggle To Control The Army
George Brinton McClellan, when at the age of thirty-four he was raised suddenly to a
dizzying height of fame and power, was generally looked upon as a prodigy. Though he
was not that, he had a real claim to distinction. Had destiny been considerate, permitting
him to rise gradually and to mature as he rose, he might have earned a stable reputation
high among those who are not quite great. He had done well at West Point, and as a very
young officer in the Mexican War; he had represented his country as a military observer
with the allies in the Crimea; he was a good engineer, and a capable man of business. His
winning personality, until he went wrong in the terrible days of 1862, inspired "a
remarkable affection and regard in every one from the President to the humblest orderly
that waited at his door."[1] He was at home among books; he could write to his wife that
Prince Napoleon "speaks English very much as the Frenchmen do in the old English
comedies";[2] he was able to converse in "French, Spanish, Italian, German, in two
Indian dialects and he knew a little Russian and Turkish." Men like Wade and Chandler
probably thought of him as a "highbrow," and doubtless he irritated them by invariably
addressing the President as "Your Excellency." He had the impulses as well as the
traditions of an elder day. But he had three insidious defects. At the back of his mind
there was a vein of theatricality, hitherto unrevealed, that might, under sufficient
stimulus, transform him into a poseur. Though physically brave, he had in his heart,
unsuspected by himself or others, the dread of responsibility. He was void of humor.
These damaging qualities, brought out and exaggerated by too swift a rise to apparent
greatness, eventually worked his ruin. As an organizer he was unquestionably efficient.
His great achievement which secures him a creditable place in American history was the
conversion in the autumn of 1861 of a defeated rabble and a multitude of raw militia into
a splendid fighting machine. The very excellence of this achievement was part of his
undoing. It was so near to magical that it imposed on himself, gave him a false estimate
of himself, hid from him his own limitation. It imposed also on his enemies. Crude, fierce
men like the Vindictive leaders of Congress, seeing this miracle take place so
astoundingly soon, leaped at once to the conclusion that he could, if he would, follow it
by another miracle. Having forged the thunderbolt, why could he not, if he chose,
instantly smite and destroy? All these hasty inexperienced zealots labored that winter
under the delusion that one great battle might end the war. When McClellan, instead of
rushing to the front, entered his second phase--the one which he did not understand
himself, which his enemies never understood--when he entered upon his long course of
procrastination, the Jacobins, startled, dumfounded, casting about for reasons, could find
in their unanalytical vision, but one. When Jove did not strike, it must be because Jove
did not wish to strike. McClellan was delaying for a purpose. Almost instantaneous was
the whisper, followed quickly by the outcry among the Jacobins, "Treachery! We are
betrayed. He is in league with the enemy."
Their distrust was not allayed by the manner in which he conducted himself. His views of
life and of the office of commanding general were not those of frontier America. He
believed in pomp, in display, in an ordered routine. The fine weather of the autumn of
1861 was utilized at Washington for frequent reviews. The flutter of flags, the glint of
marching bayonets, the perfectly ordered rhythm of marching feet, the blare of trumpets,
the silvery notes of the bugles, the stormily rolling drums, all these filled with martial
splendor the golden autumn air when the woods were falling brown. And everywhere, it