“Little Mac” Fauntleroy
Re Ethan’s cri de coeur: In the past month I’ve had conversations about McClellan with Eliot Cohen, whose excellent Supreme Command has a chapter on Lincoln as commander in chief; and James McPherson, who is currently at work on an entire book devoted to Lincoln as commander in chief. Both are very able historians, but both looked at me as if I were slightly daft to think that a) Lincoln’s involvement in military affairs did not always yield happy results; and b) Lincoln’s interference with McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign almost surely prevented McClellan from capturing Richmond in June 1862.
I mean, with even half of the 40,000+ troops Lincoln siphoned from the Army of the Potomac, McClellan could hardly have done otherwise. Whether he would have known what to do if the Confederate government had evacuated the city and continued the war — which I think it would have done — is a different matter.
On Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, I have a post on the popular image of McClellan that basically argues it endures so powerfully because of its resonance as a mythical archetype. It seems so apropos of this discussion that I reprint it here:
A couple of weeks ago I bought McClellan’s War: The Struggle for Moderation in the Struggle for the Union, by Ethan S. Rafuse. In recent days I’ve begun dipping into it to see how Ethan handles the various issues concerned with McClellan’s generalship. I can tell already that it is the best study of the subject that I have ever seen.
Even so, I’ll be curious to see whether the book manages to have any impact on the standard interpretation of McClellan as arrogant but timid to the point of incompetence: in the formulation of historian Kenneth P. Williams, “a vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be President.” This interpretation has so far defied pretty much every attempt to take McClellan seriously as a commander, including my own The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865.
This is partly because there’s enough to the standard portrayal to make it plausible, and it certainly does not help McClellan’s case that he had a stormy relationship with the most beloved president in American history. (Few who disliked Lincoln have come off well in the history books.) But I suspect that the principal reason the standard interpretation has been so durable is because it perfectly fits a mythic archetype that Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, in their book on the archetypes of the mature maculine (see Shadow Warriors, Pt 2), call “the High Chair Tyrant.”
Adopting a Jungian framework, Moore and Gillette argue that there are four mature male archetypes — the King (the energy of just and creative ordering), the Warrior (the energy of self-disciplined, aggressive action), the Magician (the energy of initiation and transformation), and the Lover (the energy that connects men to others and the world). Real men — real in the sense of being actual human beings — embody all four of these archetypes, or energies, to some extent, though depending on their temperament, stage of life, etc., they usually embody some of them more than others. McClellan, in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac and given his universally acknowledged skill at organizing that army in the first place and then revitalizing it after its setbacks in the Peninsula and Second Manassas campaigns, arguably most embodied the King and Magician archetypes. But in mythical terms, his King archetype was deeply flawed.
Each archetype has a three-part structure which Moore and Gillette convey in the form of two triangles. At the pinnacle of the mature King archetype, shown above, is the “king in his fullness.” At the base of the archetype are two dysfunctional, or “shadow” forms: the Tyrant King and the Weakling King. The mature King archetype springs from an earlier childhood archetype called the Divine Child. It is the first and most primal of the immature masculine energies: His Majesty the Baby, beautiful, innocent, redolent of omnipotentiality, and surrounded by adoring parents and family. Think Jesus in the manger — or just visit the maternity ward of most hospitals.
The Divine Child also has two dysfunctional or shadow forms: the High Chair Tyrant and the Weakling Prince:
The High Chair Tyrant is epitomized by the image of Little Lord Fauntleroy sitting in his high chair, banging his spoon on the tray, and screaming for his mother to feed him, kiss him, and attend him. Like a dark version of the Christ child, he is the center of the universe; others exist to meet his powerful needs and desires. . . .
The High Chair Tyrant, through the Shadow King, may continue to be a ruling archetypal influence in adulthood. We all know the story of the promising leader, the CEO, or the presidential candidate, who starts to rise to great prominence and then shoots himself in the foot. He sabotages his success, and crashes to the earth.
I do not say that this description applies to the real McClellan. I do say that as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Moore and Gillette, and many others have demonstrated, these mythical archetypes are universal and quite powerful and therefore, to anyone crafting a historical narrative, quite seductive. They are like ruts in a well-traveled road. The wheels of one’s narrative wagon are bound to fall into them. Can they be avoided? I’m not sure it’s possible, any more than it’s possible to avoid the narrative tropes and modes famously laid out in Hayden White’s Metahistory. But one can at least become aware of these mythical archetypes and employ them consciously — to put them in the service of one’s narrative rather than let the archetypes hijack it.