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Sherman and McClellan: Myths and Realities

On May 7, Ethan and I will both be speaking at a Civil War symposium in Springfield, Ohio.  My topic is “The Election of 1860.”  His is “Battles and Leaders.”  Recently the local newspaper interviewed us; since the reporter didn’t want to intrude on our presentations, he took the interviews in other direction.

Here’s what we had to say:

“To this day in Georgia, there is a kind of folklore,” said historian Mark Grimsley, that any town with architecture that predates the Civil War is unique in having not been burned to the ground by Union troops of Gen. William T. Sherman.

Some say they were spared because Sherman “had an old girlfriend,” Grimsley said. Others say they were spared “because he was a Mason.”

“He wasn’t a Mason at all,” Grimsley said, “and there are limits to the number of girlfriends he could have had.”

The truth, he said, is that Sherman neither “carved a 60-mile wide swath of complete depredation” nor invented the modern concept of total war.

Although Sherman and fellow generals Sheridan and Grant destroyed railroads and parts of the Southern economy vital to its war effort, in supporting their armies in the field, they did nothing that hadn’t been done before.

Grimsley said the basis of the enduring myth is founded in their more normal policy’s contrast with the early conciliatory Union policy based on the hope that sympathizers in the South could be persuaded to return to the union.

By-mid 1862, when that hadn’t happened, “there was a real change in perception,” Grimsley said. Although the Union Army’s effort remained focused on “defeating Confederate armies in the field,” the Union policy to protect civilians from the effects of war ended.

A Civil War lesson Grimsley said he’d like Americans to consider during the sesquicentennial: “Democracies are hard and republics are fragile.”

It was just 20 years after all white male Americans were granted the right to vote that the republic “went right off a cliff” into civil war, he said.

Combined with unstable history of republican government as a whole, his view is that “at any given time, this republic is about 20 years away from destruction.”

Those currently involved in ideological warfare and polarized politics and who sometimes treat political speech as if it were “performance art” must realize that their actions have real consequence, he said.

If not, he said, the country and the world could lose another republic and a force for democracy.

Ethan Rafuse grew up with the notion that the early Civil War was the story of Abraham Lincoln, the political leader, trying to find a general that would simply be a military leader and fight.

In that narrative, Rafuse said, “George McClellan is often presented as Exhibit A” of military failures.

The author of “McClellan’s War” said this “inaccurate take” oversimplifies the relationship that always exists between both between military and political leaders and war and politics themselves.

The connection is expressed in his subtitle: “The Failure of Moderation in the War for the Union.”

“Everything gets framed politically,” Rafuse said, and the way both Lincoln and McClellan were heavily influenced by their political hero, Henry Clay.

A Whig politician of the early to mid 1800s, he was known as “the Great Compromiser,” a title reflecting how highly compromise was regarded in his time.

Early in the Civil War, Rafuse said, that common background put Lincoln and McClellan on the same page. Lincoln “instinctively was a moderate,” Rafuse said, and unlike most Northerners, McClellan knew many Southerners and did not hate them as many Northerners could.

But by then, the climate had changed and “politicians were terrified to compromise,” Rafuse said.

Compromise was seen as weakness, and a tone of understanding toward one’s adversaries as borderline sympathizing.

And by 1862, without a Union victory, with casualties mounting and with hopes Southerners would voluntarily return to the union fading, political pressure mounted.

Had McClellan been able to capture Richmond early in the war, things might have turned out differently, Rafuse said. That victory there might have bought McClellan time to build his army into an “overwhelming force” that would have shown Southern resistance to be futile; given Union sympathizers in the South political footing; and, as McClellan hoped, avoided a major bloodletting.

Without that victory, Rafuse said, the more radical political elements saw McClellan’s slower pace plans as indecisiveness, his unwillingness to bludgeon the South as sympathy for the rebels; and any more aggressive general — independent of his military skills — “more politically in tune with the time.”

Complicating matters was McClellan’s view of himself as a military professional who brought a “logical, rational approach” to leadership that was “above politics” and his political leader as a meddler.

Facing those realities, Lincoln in 1862 stepped up the war politically by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and militarily by turning to a series of generals willing to pursue a more aggressive course with bloodier results.

Comments (2) to “Sherman and McClellan: Myths and Realities”

  1. I’m thinking he did a nice job of summing up the main points of your positions as I have come to understand them. Do you think individual interviews would have been better?

  2. Maybe I misinterpreted – when you said he didn’t want to intrude. I take it he did in fact interview you both and did not write this from your presentations. So, in the words of Emily Latella, “Never Mind”.