“Chicken” Generalship

Needless to say, when one finds something with this headline, it does not inspire optimism that you will find something that is to be taken very seriously.

The Civil War’s Most Chicken General
A new history tells the story of George McClellan, the Union Army leader who almost undid Lincoln.
By John Swansburg
Posted Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, at 11:54 PM ET

Imagine, for a moment, that it is 1862 and you are Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union’s premier fighting force. The Confederate Army, led by Robert E. Lee, has just invaded Maryland. As you’re preparing your strategy for checking Lee’s advance, a message arrives at headquarters: A corporal from Indiana has found an envelope lying in a field near enemy lines. Inside are three cigars. Oh, and a copy of Lee’s Special Order No. 191, detailing his invasion plan and revealing that the Confederate general has split his force in two, a daring move that has left his army dangerously exposed to attack. You’re George McClellan—beloved by your soldiers, tasked by your commander-in-chief with destroying Lee’s army. What do you do?

Smoke the cigars, obviously. But after that? If you answered, Attack with all possible speed, by god!, you have a lot to learn from Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution. As its title suggests, the book sets out to show how the nature of the war changed during Lee’s Maryland campaign, which culminated in the famously bloody Battle of Antietam. Up until that point in the war, powerful men on both sides of the conflict believed that a negotiated peace might be hammered out. But after 3,600 Americans died fighting outside a farming village on the banks of Antietam Creek, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a radical document that ended any hope of reconciliation. In the wake of Antietam, the Union would fight an all-out war of subjugation, with the goal of crushing the rebellion beneath its Yankee boot and ending the institution of slavery by force.

The full story is here.

There is much, of course, that I could say in response, but with the new academic year scheduled to begin next week, I have neither the time nor energy to do so right now. Nor do I think it would do much good.

So all I will do here is offer an excerpt from the chapter of Erich Ludendorff’s memoirs in which he discusses the August 1914 Battle of Tannenberg that, for some reason, came to my mind after reading the sort of commentary that the comments section at the bottom of Swansberg’s piece indicates the subjects of Civil War generalship in general and George McClellan in particular still attract like flies.


The civilian is too inclined to think that war is only like the working out of an arithmetical problem with given numbers. It is anything but that. On both sides it is a case of wrestling with powerful, unknown physical and psychological forces. . . . Only the head of the Government, or the statesman who decides on war, shoulders the same or a bigger burden or responsibility than that of the commander-in-chief. In his case it is a question of one great decision only, but the commander of an army is faced with decisions daily and hourly. He is continuously responsible for the welfare of many hundred thousands of persons, even of nations. For a soldier there is nothing greater, but at the same time more awesome and responsible, than to find himself at the head of an army or the entire armed forces of his country. . . .

All those who criticize the dispositions of a general ought first to study military history, unless they have themselves taken part in a war in a position of command.

I should like to see such people compelled to conduct a battle themselves. They would be overwhelmed by the greatness of their task, and when they realized the obscurity of the situation, and the exacting nature of the enormous demands made up on them, they would doubtless be more modest.

Erich Ludendorff, Ludendorff’s Own Story, August 1914-November 1918: The Great War from the Siege of Liege to the Signing of the Armistice as viewed from the Grand Headquarters of the German Army, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1920), vol. 1: 63.

Comments (6) to ““Chicken” Generalship”

  1. Good Morning, I hope all is well. I represent PBS who is coming out with a new program on The Civil War in September that I thought you may be interested in taking a look at. Please let me know if you would like more information, I can be reached at, deana@jgoldsteinpr.com

  2. It is my understanding that Slotkin’s book has some errors of fact which serve to undermine any points he is trying to make. And I would not use the word “chicken” to describe any officer other than James Ledlie . But I do think Mac “had some issues” which got in the way of his potential success.

  3. Chickens rarely consume alcohol, so I would quibble with using that term even with Ledlie :). But the rest of your analysis is beyond dispute.

  4. Hmm, 30+ years studying Antietam and I never knew the Roulette Farm was burned. Always thought it was Mumma, maybe he should tell the NPS about it.

  5. Bravo, Ethan. I have Slotkin’s book but I haven’t started reading it yet. Now I’m kind of hesitant.

  6. Slotkin’s book is highly recommended to me and now, I’m actually more curious after reading your post.