Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His Generalby John C. Waugh
The fascinating relationship between the two men who, at a pivotal moment during the Civil War, held the nation's destiny in their hands
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Lincoln and McClellan
The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His General
By John C. Waugh
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 John C. Waugh
All rights reserved.
The Lincoln ancestral line, originating in the west of England, began migrating to Massachusetts in the first half of the seventeenth century. Some of it began drifting southwestward from there to New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Virginia—and then through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. There, on February 12, 1809, on a hardscrabble farm near a sinking spring on Nolen Creek in Harden County, Abraham Lincoln was born. His father was Thomas Lincoln, a struggling, illiterate farmer-carpenter. His mother was Nancy Hanks, carried into Kentucky in childhood, like her husband, through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia.
Their newborn son, named for Abraham, his grandfather on his father's side, was second in the line to a sister, Sarah, born two years before. The small family lived in a one-room log cabin until Lincoln was two years old, when Thomas moved them to another hardscrabble farm in Knob Creek valley ten miles northeast of Nolen Creek. There beside the Cumberland Road from Louisville to Nashville, the heaviest-traveled highway on the Kentucky frontier, Lincoln lived to age seven. Those were the first years he remembered.
Seeking a better venue in better soil, Thomas moved his family yet again, to the new state of Indiana, in late 1816. He settled them on a claim in Spencer County on Little Pigeon Creek in the southern quadrant of the state sixteen miles north of the Ohio River—on the "rough frontier line" where "the panther's scream, filled night with fear/And bears preyed on the swine."
It was a hard, dangerous beginning. Thomas at first sheltered them in a "half-faced camp," a rough structure with no floor and open on one side. And the first two years ended in a shattering sadness. In 1818, Lincoln's mother, Nancy, said to be "touched with the divine aptitudes of the fireside," came down with a deadly affliction gripping the frontier called the "milk sick," caught from cows that had fed on white snakeroot. Her death devastated the family. Lincoln's cousin Dennis Hanks, said, "Oh Lord, oh Lord, I'll never furget it, the mizry in that cabin in the woods when Nancy died."
Thomas could stand the misery for only so long without a companion for himself and a mother for his children. In late 1819, he rode back to Kentucky to try his luck. He remembered Sarah Johnston, a woman he had known before, now a widow with three children of her own. Wasting no time or words, he said to her, "Well, Miss Johnson [sic], I have no wife & you have no husband. I came a purpose to mary you[,] I knowed you from a gal & you knowed me from a boy. I have no time to lose and if you are willing, let it be done Straight off."
Sarah is said to have said, "Tommy I know you well & have no objection to marrying you, but I cannot do it straight off as I owe some debts that must first be paid." Tom covered her debts that same day, and the next, December 2, 1819, they were married. They packed all she owned and her three children, ages nine, seven, and five, in a four-horse wagon and left for Indiana. There Sarah became an instant and beloved mother to her two new stepchildren.
In his growing-up years in Indiana, Lincoln was developing into a strapping specimen, beginning his rise to his six-foot-four-inch height, and Thomas put an ax in his hands. Lincoln proved to be quick with it. Dennis Hanks would one day say, "You'd 'a' thought there was two men in the woods when he got into it with an ax." But he was also said to be quick with a book when he could borrow one on the book-deprived frontier, an inclination his stepmother encouraged and applauded because she saw something special in her young stepson. She called him "diligent for Knowledge." Dennis Hanks said, "Seems to me now I never seen Abe after he was twelve 'at he didn't have a book in his hand or in his pocket ... constant and I may say stubborn reader." To Dennis, "it didn't seem natural, nohow, to see a feller read like that."
This stubborn diligence for knowledge and for getting it on his own was the only way Lincoln would ever get it. There was little formal schooling on the frontier. First in Kentucky in the 1810s and then in Indiana in the 1820s, where work came first and education was catch-as-catch-can, Lincoln scratched out a bare minimum—less than a year—of organized education in blab schools. The teacher spoke a lesson and the students blabbed it back in unison. A teacher supposed to understand Latin was "looked on as a wizard." It would be all the formal schooling he would ever have.
Lincoln was a seventeen-year-old swinging his ax and reading books on his father's Indiana farm when George Brinton McClellan was born on December 3, 1826, the third child and second son of George McClellan and Elizabeth Brinton McClellan, in the upper professional and social echelon of the Philadelphia gentry. The infant McClellan was baptized at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he took his first and last names from his father and his middle name from his mother—an amalgam, the best from both. While Lincoln's father was an unlettered—but skilled—carpenter, McClellan's father was a very literate and skilled Philadelphia physician, one of the most respected in the country, a pioneering surgeon said to be gifted with "skill and quickness of touch." He graduated from Yale College in 1816 and studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, winning a doctorate in the spring of 1819, with a thesis on tying arteries. In his professional life as a practicing surgeon, he specialized in ophthalmology.
McClellan's father was also a teacher, as distinguished an educator as he was a surgeon, a founder and guiding hand of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. There he taught anatomy and surgery, and his lectures, one observer recalled, "were models of terse statement and lucid analysis." Another said of him, "He taught, executed, and communicated in a day more than others did in a week—his weeks were months of ordinary men.... He consequently distanced his contemporaries, and, as a youth, was found among his seniors and the master-spirits of his profession."
The father's quickness was not just in surgery—he owned a string of fast trotters, which he ran on the racetracks in Philadelphia. While courtly and charming, he was also quick to embrace an opinion and tenacious and uncompromising in holding to it. He had a lightning disposition to go with his quick scalpel and his fast trotters. These were qualities likely to be handed down in a son's genes.
McClellan's gifted, warmhearted mother, who had married his father in 1820, was deep-rooted in the Pennsylvania ethos, descended from its original Quaker settlers. His ancestral line on his father's side snaked from the McClellans of Scotland, where one of his distant forebears fought with Braveheart, the Scottish rebel William Wallace, in the thirteenth century. Three brothers in the McClellan line immigrated to America in the early eighteenth century. One of these, McClellan's grandfather Samuel, fought in the French and Indian Wars and on Bunker Hill in the Revolution, and rose to be a brigadier general in the Connecticut militia. The beat of the military drum also pounded loudly in the young McClellan's genes.
When McClellan was only four years old, in the spring of 1830, Lincoln had reached maturity, and his father again had moving on his mind. Tom had heard that the prospects were good and the soil was rich in Illinois. So they moved again, a family grown to thirteen since all but Lincoln had married and had children of their own. With Lincoln driving one of three ox-drawn wagons, they crossed the Wabash in the spring of 1830 and settled on land overlooking the Sangamon River near Decatur in central Illinois.
His duty done, Lincoln struck out on his own in 1831, to the small new frontier village of New Salem, northwest of Springfield. There, taking odd jobs, he launched on a program to better himself and carve out some kind of a future.
Young George McClellan, far more privileged by birth, was growing up and getting the best education Philadelphia offered. At age five, he was attending what was called an infant school. The next four years he was enrolled in a private school, and at age ten he studied with a private tutor, "a one-eyed German Jew by the name of Schiffer," who grounded the young scholar in the classics. In 1838, at the age of eleven, able to converse in both Latin and French, he was enrolled in a preparatory academy of the University of Pennsylvania, and at age thirteen he matriculated to the university itself. By age fifteen, he had completed a classical education. In learning he was a rocket, as quick with mathematics, literature, and language as his father was with a scalpel.
As he was growing up, McClellan thought to become a lawyer, a chosen profession for gifted, precocious, and ambitious young men of his time. But he was hearing that pounding of the drum in his genes. In 1842, instead of going into the law, he went to West Point. He was legally too young for the academy—not yet sixteen—but he went anyhow. And West Point, knowing an exception when it saw one, waived the rule and enrolled him anyhow.
In Illinois, Lincoln got into politics. He became a Whig in what was a Democratic state, and in 1832 he ran for the state legislature from New Salem in a short and failed campaign. He ran again in 1834, and this time was elected. By 1836, in his second term, he had become a leader of his party in the state assembly.
By the early summer of 1842, when McClellan was climbing for the first time from the boat landing on the Hudson River up to the plain at West Point, Lincoln had become a lawyer, self-taught. He had moved to Springfield, the new state capital, in 1836 to practice his new profession. Still on the rise in politics, he was reelected to the legislature for two more terms. By 1840, he had become a leader of his party statewide.
For the next four years, while McClellan and his classmates studied to become engineers and officers in the army, Lincoln immersed himself ever deeper in politics as he continued to shape a career in the law. It was not thought inconceivable that he would one day step up to a higher elective office. He had a certain bipartisan appeal, partly because of his gift for telling a story. Recognizing that talent, the Democrats, his political enemies, persuaded him in the summer of 1842 to help them entertain the Democratic ex-president, Martin Van Buren, who was traveling through Illinois. Lincoln had worked hard to help defeat the "Little Magician" in the 1840 presidential election, won by the Whig William Henry Harrison. Now Lincoln was spending an evening swapping stories with his old political target.
McClellan, in his first days at West Point in that same summer, found himself in one of the most beautiful settings in America. Savage, majestic cliffs plunged dramatically from the plain to the dark-running river, overhung by "woods climbing above woods, to the clouds and stretching to the horizon." It was a setting in which nature had worked a masterpiece.
None of this mattered to McClellan. He was feeling homesick and abandoned—"as much alone," he wrote home, "as if in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic." Not a soul, he grieved, "cares for, or thinks of me. Not one here would lift a finger to help me; I am entirely dependent on myself—must think for myself—direct myself, & take the blame of all my mistakes, without anyone to give me a word of advice."
But that would pass. His classmates were not seeing him as he was at first seeing himself. Everyone was a conditional cadet those first weeks and months at the academy—pending passing a fundamental physical, a small battery of entry tests, and turning in worthy early performances on the drill field and at the blackboard. One of McClellan's fellow conditionals, Dabney Herndon Maury, a Virginian almost too old for West Point as McClellan was too young, met the teenage Philadelphian and thought him "such a little bred and born gentleman, only fifteen years and seven months, while I—God save the Mark—was twenty."
As McClellan had been a rocket in his early learning years in Philadelphia, he soon proved also a rocket at West Point. The first day in class, Maury found himself seated next to the precocious teenager, purely by the logic of the alphabet. That juxtaposition would not last long. The next week McClellan left for the section at the head of the class, Maury complained, "while I remained tutisimus in medio [securely in the middle] four blessed years." Maury was "very sorry to lose Mac from my side, especially during recitations, for he used to tell me things, and was a great help."
McClellan would entrench himself at the top of the class or next to it throughout his four years at West Point, glorying in what he was becoming. He was becoming passionately taken with military engineering and military tactics—the two pursuits West Point at that time was mainly about.
The only classmate at West Point who regularly shaded McClellan in class ranking was Charles Seaforth Stewart, whose middle name owed to his having been born at sea—in the middle of the Pacific—the sole son of a navy chaplain and missionary. Stewart had an even more high-powered educational grounding before West Point than McClellan; he had been seasoned at a crack preparatory school in New Jersey. He would best McClellan in the end, finishing first, with McClellan second and not happy about it. McClellan had wanted to place first, intended to, and vowed he would. It was a disappointment, the only thing in his West Point experience he could justifiably complain about.
Stewart said of McClellan, "He was a noble, generous-hearted, clear-headed enthusiastic, able fellow. There was not a mean thought in him. He was well educated, and, when he chose to be, brilliant. In every point so far as I can recall, he was true and honorable, and our personal relations were always very pleasant as cadets."
But class ranking had little to do with intangibles. And in those, McClellan finished in solid first place. "A pleasanter pupil," one of his instructors said of him, "was never called to the blackboard." It was an assessment widely shared by his classmates. They all thought him "prepossessing," yet with all that he "bore every evidence of gentle nature and high culture, and his countenance was as charming as his demeanor was modest and winning." They had little doubt who their real star was. It was not the cadet born at sea but the young one born to the gentry in Philadelphia. One classmate spoke for all when he thought McClellan "the ablest man in the class.... We expected him to make a great record in the army, and if opportunity presented, we predicted real military fame for him."
McClellan graduated in the class of 1846 with fifty-eight classmates, a melting pot of young men from all of the twenty-six states in the Union and from "every degree of provincialism." It included a countrified cadet from the hills of western Virginia, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who had started at the foot of the class but had clawed his way up to a respectable seventeenth of the fifty-nine by graduation time.
Jackson and McClellan, though classmates, had not been particular friends. Generally, however, McClellan, with his patrician ways, preferred Southerners to Northerners. "I am sorry to say," he wrote home, "that the manners, feelings & opinions of the Southerners are far, far preferable to those of the majority of the Northerners at this place. I may be mistaken, but I like them better." The Union-shattering issue of slavery, hovering on the horizon, did not yet stir these young men's emotions. There was as yet no clear line North and South drawn on the plain at West Point.
In May 1846, double happiness, however, came on the plain for McClellan and his classmates. They were about to graduate, and war had come to oblige their new soldierhood. That month President James K. Polk requested, and Congress dutifully declared, war on Mexico. "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" McClellan wrote home. "War at last sure enough! Aint it glorious!" Having graduated, he figured he would now doubtless be going direct to the Halls of the Montezumas to fight "the crowd—musquitoes & Mexicans &c." Life was good.
The members of this biggest-ever graduating class had longed all spring for a war to go to, star in, become heroes in, and win promotion in. There was not much thought about dying in it. Action was as ardently desired as graduation itself. "Nothing is heard but promotion, glory and laurels," one of McClellan's classmates wrote home.
McClellan did not go immediately to the seat of war in Mexico, as he ardently hoped. His getting there was roundabout and delayed. He had been handpicked to be one of three officers—the junior of the three—to command, organize, train, and then take to Mexico a special company of sappers, miners, and pontooners—an engineering outfit, the first of its kind in the American army. It was to be constituted at West Point. Thus McClellan's first step to war and to Mexico went only as far as across the plain.
But it was only delay to war, not denial. By the end of September, the three officers had recruited and whipped the company—which would become known as "the pick and shovel brigade"—into shape and had it on a ship on its way from New York City to Brazos de Santiago at the mouth of the Rio Grande, in Mexico.
Excerpted from Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh. Copyright © 2010 John C. Waugh. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
John C. Waugh is a historian, and was a correspondent and bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor. As a journalist, he received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award and has contributed to The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe, among others. He previous books, all on the Civil War era, include Reelecting Lincoln, and The Class of 1846. He lives in Pantego, TX.
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