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Book Name: George B. Mcclellan: The Young Napoleon

Author: Stephen W. Sears

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Overall Rating: (4.25/5) View all reviews (total 12 reviews)
Description

Controversial commander of the Northern army in the Civil War, Gen. George McClellan saw himself as God's chosen instrument for saving the Union. Self-aggrandizing, with a streak of arrogant stubbornness, he set himself above President Lincoln, whom he privately called "the Gorilla." To "the young Napoleon," as McClellan's troops dubbed him, abolition was an "accursed doctrine." Fond of conspiracy plots, he insisted that the Lincoln administration had traitorously conspired to set him up for military defeat. Although he constantly anticipated one big, decisive battle that would crush the South, he squandered one military opportunity after another, and, if Sears ( Landscape Turned Red ) is correct, he was the worst strategist the Army of the Potomac ever had. Based on primary sourcesletters, dispatch books, diaries, newspapersthis masterly biography is an astonishing portrait of an egotistical crank who could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sears is editor of McClellan's Selected Letters.Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Reviews

The Wrong Man For The Job

by Bill Slocum
(3/5)

Of all the early miscues the Union suffered through during the Civil War, one of the most unlucky may have been a victory won at Rich Mountain in Virginia. There, U.S. General George McClellan made a name for himself as the winning commander, enough for him to be raised to lead all the North's forces in the East. It would take many months, and many more lives, before that mistake was corrected.Stephen W. Sears, who made his name with a book about McClellan's biggest battle at Antietam ("Landscape Turned Red"), here takes on the general at length. It's a well-written book that lays out why McClellan failed so dismally, with much reference to McClellan's own letters to his wife and to contemporaneous accounts. But too much of a case against makes "The Young Napoleon" read more like a prosecutorial white paper than a truly engaging bio.Make no mistake, the case against is strong. McClellan was arrogant, disdainful of civilian control of the military, insubordinate to his military superiors, prone to dithering and overestimation of enemy strength, and perhaps worst of all, thoroughly self-righteous in his mistakes: "I am here in a terrible place," he wrote his wife in 1861. "[T]he enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force - the Presdt is an idiot, the old General [Army head Winfield Scott] in his dotage - they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs."But Sears pushes the case against so much it feels almost personal. Perhaps from reading all the eyewitness accounts of waste and suffering on the battlefield of Antietam, Sears became disgusted with the leader who allowed his soldiers to die in vain while relaxing in a comfortable house miles from the front. It's understandable, but a biography should be more about the man and his times, setting his foibles and follies in a broader context.In his 2008 Amazon review, Timothy J. Graczewski notes Sears' failure to explain why McClellan was regarded so highly for so long. The points Sears pushes are sharply negative, and the quoted observations from others so scathing ("If one could have some faith in his competency in battle - should his army ever fight one - if not in his competency for movement, it would be a comfort," huffs Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, an early McClellan supporter), one wonders why he got not one but two chances at high command.To understand McClellan, one needs to understand the world he came from a little better. To make his story more interesting, one needs to understand the man as more than a collection of wrong impulses and misjudgments. One doesn't get any kind of deep-dish profile here.Sears takes some pains to absolve McClellan of the wildest assertions against him (false claims of being a "traitor" who met secretly with Southern leaders to broker a separate peace), but he doesn't do enough to analyze why, beyond paranoia, McClellan was so distrusting of his superiors. Lincoln was a good man, but his White House was a nest of dueling vipers, none worse than his able but two-faced Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. But Sears treats McClellan's dislike for Stanton as mostly McClellan's fault.Sears' book works best when analyzing McClellan's battlefield mistakes, though he covers most of that territory to better effect in other books. The focus of a biographer needs to be broader. Sears has the right angle on what made McClellan bad for his post, but not a lot of insight as to what made him tick, or last so long despite being so wrong.


McClellan the Self-Defeatist

by Bomojaz
(4/5)

Billed as neither an indictment nor an apologia, Sears makes it pretty plain that George B. McClellan was a failure as a military leader. Overly cautious, slow to act, seeing the worst in every situation, McC was probably his own worst enemy. It's easy to see why so many of the soldiers liked him, though: fighting with McC meant there was a good chance you wouldn't see much action and if you did it was with the utmost planning for the soldiers' safety and well-being. He always thought he was outnumbered by the enemy and let opportunities for victory slip quickly through his fingers. Sears makes the point that McC always planned his campaigns and battles as if facing an overwhelming enemy force, and in that regard they were superb plans. Unfortunately, that wasn't the way it was on the field. Antietam probably should have been McC's best chance to destroy Lee's army and perhaps end the war then and there, but he squandered every opportunity and left a third of his army in reserve. Even worse, and what surely makes the man detestable, was his tremendous ego and feelings of self-importance. Sears' biography covers McC's entire life, though 90% of it deals with the Civil War years. Well written and interesting.


More biography than military history

by chefdevergue
(4/5)

This is a very good examination of George McClellan the man. It is not, strictly speaking, a Civil War history and this should be kept in mind while reading it. Readers will find this book particularly useful keeping it in the larger context of Sears' subsequent works, "Landscape Turned Red" and "To the Gates of Richmond."What I find particularly interesting is that the more Sears studied his subject, the more he came to dislike McClellan. "Landscape Turned Red" is the first of the three books, and while Sears was fairly harsh in his judgement of McClellan, he still was prepared to give McClellan the benefit of the doubt. By the time he wrote the biography, Sears' respect for McClellan was clearly slipping away; when he came to write "To the Gates of Richmond," his contempt for McClellan knew no bounds.If you want a good biographical treatment of McClellan, then this book will serve you well. Sears' other books will give you more in-depth analysis of McClellan's military campaigns.


No one Knows McClellan Bettter than Sears

by Daniel Hurley
(5/5)

Perhaps no one was a better organizer of an Army during both sides of the Civil War than George McCellan. He took a dispirited army after the defeat of the First Bull Run and equipped it, drilled it and raised its morale to an effective unit. Unfortunately, McClellan could not mobilize into battle or effectively command when in battle. During the Seven days battles, McClellan left his army disorganized at Glendale and hugged a ship in the James letting his army fight for it's life without a commander. McClellan's initial movements outside the gates of Washington were so sloth like that Joseph Johnson's Confederates moved out of their forward positions unchallenged with the aid of their "Quaker Guns" (fake cannons). Sears captures the tremendous ego of McClellan through McClellan's letters, orders and first hand accounts. McClellan, who was so disrespectful to Lincoln personally and among his generals, is given a second chance at Antietam where he had captured Lee'sstrategic dispatch only to squander his great opportunity on uncoordinated attacks allowing Lee to defend with limited resources. The popularity among his generals and his troops was a great concern to the Lincoln administration due to McClellan'sreferences to marching on Washington and his leniancy toward the Confederates. Fed by incompetent spys and paranoia, McClellan imagined that the Confederates had a huge numerical adventage over hhis armies when the reverse was true. Sears has made virtually a career of understanding McClellan and his command. A fascinating book and time, the fear of McClellan's military politics contributed to General John Porter's courtmartial and the oppressive Congressional Conduct on the War Committee. A great book on an extremely capable, egotistical yet limited personality. Sears captures the man and all the conspiracies in the Army of the Potomac. After reading this book, you will understand why Lincoln took a shot at having a Western Commander come east, General Pope, after dealing with McClellan.


A Puzzling Man.

by Dennis Phillips "The Book Friar"
(4/5)

George B. McClellan has always been something of an enigma, both during his lifetime and since. Stephen W. Sears who is a well know author to Civil War readers decided to take on the task of doing a biography of this puzzling man in 1988 and he has, as usual, done an outstanding job. Just be aware that this is not a true biography as much as it is a military biography. There is little written record of McClellan's childhood so Sears has little to work with there but most of the General's early life is dealt with in a few chapters. His life after he leaves active duty with the army also gets little attention. Large books are written just about one campaign while Sears gives McClellan's entire presidential campaign less than fifty pages. His life after the election of 1864 gets even less attention and his time as Governor of New Jersey gets only a few pages.Still, most readers who pick up a book about McClellan are interested mostly in his wartime service and that is exactly what they get here. Sears does an excellent job of describing various engagements without going into so much detail that he looses the reader. He also gives a very good account of how the General became the favorite of his troops. Basically, McClellan took care of his men and looked out for their welfare. So much so that his desire to avoid casualties became one of his downfalls and Sears is quick to point out McClellan's faults, of which there were many. Overall though, Sears seems to be a little hard on his subject and gives him little credit even when it is due. For example, in dealing with how quickly McClellan got his army reorganized and back in fighting form after 2nd Manassas Sears only points out that it was accomplished. In fact, I really can't see any other general on either side putting an army back together after a devastating defeat and having it on the move in such a short time.On the other hand, as Sears points out McClellan seemed to be absolutely incapable of committing his army to battle. Of course the intelligence he was getting from Allan Pinkerton didn't help as the famous detective always over estimated Confederate strength by at least fifty percent. McClellan took these reports to heart as he did reports from officers who had obviously interviewed Confederate plants who fed them false information. Clearly these problems didn't help but some of the figures of enemy strength were just downright silly and the General should have been able to sense that. Instead he always seems to have taken the worst scenario to heart and he wasted chance after chance to inflict major defeats on the Confederates. McClellan was indeed his own worst enemy. Although John B. Magruder does get some long overdue credit in this book for his theatrical tactics that kept McClellan frozen in place several times on the peninsula. Hopefully someday, someone will do a good biography on Magruder.Sears also deals with the General's relationship with the Lincoln Administration and he does so in an excellent manner. Both McClellan and Lincoln seem to have been a little over sensitive about each other on occasion but McClellan was much worse than Lincoln. On the other hand the General wasn't just paranoid about Secretary Stanton. Stanton was indeed out to get him, as were radical members of Congress.The author as stated before is a little hard on McClellan but overall this is an excellent book. Sears has grown as a historian since he wrote this volume but this is still probably the definitive work on Little Mac, and probably always will be. To understand the war in the east one must try to come to grips with McClellan and his personality. This book will go a long way in helping you do just that.


A great book about one of America's famous morons

by Joseph C. Sweeney
(5/5)

Anyone familiar with the history of the Civil War can tell you that General McClellan is one of the most inexplicable figures in American history. Why was such an inept and cowardly general so popular with his troops? Why didn't Lincoln fire him early on, when it was obvious that the general was inept? A fascinating book, well written and thoroughly researched!


Excellent look at a convoluted subject

by Lehigh History Student
(5/5)

Stephen Sears provides an excellent overview of General George McClellans life and a look at all the controversy of his command. The man regarded as Little Mac or the Little Napoleon was a political general and a superb administrator. McClellan created an excellent administration that served the Army of the Potomac and the United States government throughout the civil war. He organized massive amounts of troops and material and kept them well armed and fed. He was a man of the soldiers and was widely respected by them despite not gaining their votes when he ran against Lincoln (in fact he would only get about 24 percent of the solider vote).McClellan's faults were his intelligence services and his vain nature that prevented him from reaching huge success. The other side was always presumed to be anywhere between double to seven times the size they actually were and McClellan when he had the advantage such as Antietam refused to press it and always wanted to be 100 percent sure he would win. He was highly risk adverse and for the type of war that needed to be fought he was the wrong general. McClellan also was vain and unforgiving to those above him for the smallest slight and he blamed any secretary of war and any general in Chief along with the President for constraining or limiting his decisions. Being a relatively astute politician until he ran for president Little Mac managed to cause a number of public relations problems for the Lincoln administration.Overall this is a very well written account of the general that is fair and provides great insight into the man and his command. For those who have always read bits about McClellan through battlefield accounts this is a great way to get the whole story.


If it fit...wear it.

by lordhoot "lordhoot"
(5/5)

I had profound understanding of George McClellan after reading this book. Stephen Sears, I thought did a fantastic job in bring the truth about this historical character. Some readers may be slightly turned off by this biography since Sears proves to be totally unforgiving toward McClellan. His mistakes, personality and his delusions are presented here starkly, honestly and without mercy. But before anyone think this is a hack job on poor McClellan, think again. Sears presented his facts clearly, logically and with candor. Of course, McClellan wasn't a total dunderhead. He created the famous Army of the Potomac, organized it, reformed it and gave it life which lasted until the end of the war. For that, he deserves the thanks of the Union and a honor place among the heroes of the North. But what curse McClellan was his abilities as a combat leader. McClellan simply didn't know how to used this terrible swift sword, acting as if it was made of glass instead. Sears made it plain that his ineptness as the battle commander doomed McClellan's reputation forever. By far, this book will be considered as a definitive biography on George McClellan for some times to come. When you read it, you will discovered why Robert E. Lee loved him so much as his opposing commander. I would too if I was Lee!!


The smallness of "Little Mac"

by Mark Klobas
(4/5)

George Brinton McClellan ranks as the most controversial general of the Civil War. Beloved by the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, his command of the Union's premier army during the early years of the conflict generated a storm of criticism and sparked debates still being waged by historians today. McClellan himself was an early participant in these debates, seeking to affix the blame for these failures where he felt it was most deserved - namely on everybody but himself.In this debate Stephen Sears comes down firmly in the camp of McClellan's critics. His biography of the general provides a damming assessment of "Little Mac"'s failings, one more starkly illustrated by contrasting them with McClellan's many gifts. Ranked second in his class at West Point, McClellan was a rising star in the antebellum United States Army before leaving for a lucrative career as a railroad executive. Yet even early on his outsized self-regard generated disputes with his superiors, as he saw what was often reasonable arguments as the product of implacable opponents determined to destroy him.These tendencies were only magnified by the pressures of war. McClellan's prewar reputation as a military thinker and early success in the west led to his appointment of the Army of the Potomac at the age of only 35. McClellan set out to build up a formidable fighting force, and Sears acknowledges his strengths here as a military administrator. Yet McClellan's arrogance and reluctance to commit the army prematurely soon fueled a mounting criticism of his inactivity. McClellan's own forays into politics (where he won more battles then he ever would as military commander) only exacerbated this, leading to charges that the general secretly harbored Confederate sympathies.Had McClellan enjoyed success on the battlefield nothing would have come of this. His Peninsula campaign, however, was hobbled by McClellan's insistence on a deliberate pace and a perennial (and baseless) fear that he faced an enemy superior in numbers. As a result, despite possessing the most formidable army the nation had ever assembled he was outfoxed and outfought by his Confederate opponents; in this sense the "Young Napoleon" subtitle of this book is ironic rather than accurate. John Pope's defeat at Second Bull Run gave McClellan a chance at redemption and the famous "Lost Orders" a priceless opportunity to defeat Robert E. Lee, yet Sears's assessment of McClellan's failure to take advantage of this is hard to deny. Though Lee withdrew to Virginia after the bloody battle of Antietam, McClellan's failure to follow up on this success led to his final dismissal as army commander. It was a testament to his stature that he soon emerged as a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1864, but the party's "peace platform" deprived him of what Sears regards as a legitimate chance of defeating Lincoln that year, leaving McClellan to enjoy a prosperous and successful - if anticlimactic - postwar career as a businessman and a politician before his early death at the age of 58.Drawing heavily on McClellan's letters and other documents, Sears offers a convincing assessment of McClellan and his military career. As one might expect, the main focus is on his Civil War service, as Sears spends only four of the book's seventeen chapters on McClellan life before and after the conflict that defined his historical legacy. The portrait that emerges is of a man who, for all of his ability was in the end brought down by his own pettiness as much as his other failings. It makes for a sad tale of a man to whom the nation once looked as their savior, yet who ultimately squandered the goodwill earned by his promise on recriminations over failures that were squarely his own.


Out of Step

by Michael E. Fitzgerald
(4/5)

Robert E. Lee called George McClellan the finest opponent he faced during the American Civil War. High praise indeed! Sam Grant, the War's victor, called McClellan the most difficult person to understand that the war produced. This is equally true.At age 34 McClellan became the Union's leading General. Over the next 14 months he would intermittently fight his Confederate enemies on the battlefield while consistently waging war with the Lincoln administration. It was, it seems, extremely difficult for George to make friends. He would take an army demoralized by the defeat of the First Battle of Bull Run and completely revitalize it into a confident war machine more powerful than anything the world had ever seen. He was a remarkable administrator and accomplished prodigious feats of reorganization in the shortest amount of time possible. His attention to detail was legend and the supply of men and material the Lincoln administration placed at his disposal was inexhaustible. So why did he fail so miserably? When he ran against Lincoln for President in 1864 he would be defeated by of all things, the military vote.How and why McClellan failed not just for himself but for his country is the subject of this book. It must have been a very difficult book to write for most readers are not interested in focusing on someone's negatives. Luckily George had many positives as well so this work is most definitely not a muck-raking diatribe. But if you want to understand the evolution of America's Civil War, from its early objectives of simple reunification to its transition to a war of liberation, no one individual best represents the opposition to those changes in objective than George McClelland. Lincoln's and the Country's objectives changed as the war progressed; McClellan's did not. As a result, Lincoln was forced to relieve him, ending his military career and his central role in the government of the United States.This is a remarkably well written book, the very best work yet on George McClellan. But in the end, if you are at all like Sam Grant you too will wonder about the lost opportunities. McClellan had the opportunity to surpass Lincoln in America's love and affection. Lincoln gave him the opportunity to be the Union's savior.Sadly, he passed.


The Compleat Failure

by Stephen M. St Onge "Stephen M. St. Onge"
(5/5)

George Brinton McClellan was an excellent engineer, a good businessman, an outstanding military administrator. He was also incredibly lucky.  But none of this saved him when he became commander of the Army of the Potomac.  As a general, he failed miserably.Sears puts his finger on McClellan's weak point: his utter inability to deal with uncertainty.  In his entire Civil War career, McClellan planned and fought only one battle, Antietam.  And he only fought because Lee blindly refused the chance to run away that McClellan held out to him for two days running.  The rest of the battles fought by Union forces McC. commanded were planned and commanded by others, and in all but two cases, he wasn't even with the troops that were fighting.  In both those cases, he never gave an order once the shooting began.  This is moral cowardice of the worst sort, and utterly contemptible.Stephen Sears goes through the details of McClellan's dismal performance as a general, showing how badly McClellan failed the Union and the Army he genuinely loved.  It's rather repititious at times, but that's because McClellan was rather repititious.  He made the same errors again and again, for the same reasons.If you're interested in the life of George B. McClellan, Stephen Sears will take you right to the craven, bigoted, close-minded heart of his subject.  An unpleasant subject, well examined.


The Great Fizzle

by T. Graczewski "tgraczewski"
(3/5)

Has anyone of so much purported skill and promise failed so spectacularly at such a critical moment in American history as General George B. McClellan? If there is, I can't imagine who it would be. Douglas MacArthur comes to mind as a possible analogue (indeed, Harry Truman turned to Lincoln's dealing with McClellan for inspiration in dealing with MacArthur), but at least MacArthur ultimately prevailed in the Pacific in WWII and can at least point to Inchon as a moment of triumph.This biography is heralded as scrupulously balanced and fair. If so, few actors on such a large stage have had so few redeeming qualities, the fascist and communist dictators of the twentieth century included. The man that Stephen Sears describes is incorrigible - there is no other word for it. Sears paints a portrait of a fool. Several Union generals matched wits and nerve with Robert E. Lee and suffered humiliating defeat, but such men as Ambrose Burnside were, at least, self-aware. They recognized the enormity of their task, felt inadequate, but pressed ahead to the greatest of their ability to fulfill their duty. McClellan, as Sears portrays him, was delusional. His arrogance and conceit were colossal. As he stumbled from one miscue to the next - and the Lincoln administration fretted over how to prod their field general into action - McClellan was convinced that history would confirm his genius and place him in the pantheon of military greats. Not American military greats, mind you, but alongside the likes of Napoleon, Caesar, and Hannibal.The only positive things that Sears has to say about McClellan is that he was not disloyal to the Union (he was committed to seeing re-union as a precondition to peace with the South, but disagreed vehemently with the Emancipation Proclamation), he never intentionally contributed to the defeat of another Union general, such as Pope at Second Manassas, and he had a loving and tender relationship with his wife. Beyond that, this biography is essentially an indictment of McClellan's military conduct at the head of the Army of the Potomac and his character as a military officer and human being.What this biography fails to do is explain why so many people - from the front ranks of business, politics and the military - thought so highly of McClellan, so consistently and for so long. McClellan was one of the highest paid railroad executives in the country while in his early 30s. He received the vigorous patronage, as Sears describes it, of Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war in the Pierce administration and Salmon Chase when he was secretary of the treasury in the Lincoln administration, but Sears never describes how or why those relationships developed or why those men had such confidence in McClellan. When the Civil War broke out, the governors of the three largest states in the Union - New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio - all turned to McClellan as their first pick to lead their state militias. McClellan clearly had the ability to impress intelligent and experienced men - the type of men one would expect to be good judges of talent and character - yet the reader gets no sense of this from the Sears biography. Moreover, for all of the failure and hardship endured by the Army of the Potomac while under McClellan's command, the rank-and-file largely remained loyal to the general, often enthusiastically so.Sears emphasizes several themes throughout the biography. First, McClellan had utter disdain for civilian control of the military and the performance of non-regulars in the army, an opinion that emerged during his early days of service in Mexico and that he carried, unaltered, through the Civil War and to his grave. Second, McClellan harbored a personal animus against his superior, Abraham Lincoln. He felt that Lincoln was his social and intellectual inferior (McClellan regularly referred to Lincoln as "the gorilla" in his correspondence with his wife), and resented the commander-in-chief's meddling in military matters. Third, Sears argues that McClellan was paralyzed by the unknown and unexpected. If a maneuver met with unanticipated resistance or a plan seemed to go awry, McClellan's impulse was to freeze and react to enemy movements. Sears frequently contrasts McClellan's timidity with Lee's flexibility in the face of regular surprises and setbacks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sears stresses how badly the Army of the Potomac intelligence apparatus, run by Allan Pinkerton, failed to understand the order of battle of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Throughout McClellan's tenure as commander, the general belief was that the Union troops were outnumbered by as much as two-to-one, when the reverse was usually the case. The catastrophic intelligence failure of the Union (and McClellan's eagerness to believe the inflated numbers) raises the question: if McClellan had accurate intelligence on Confederate numbers, would it have changed his behavior and battle plans? Sears never addresses that question directly, but one can anticipate his response: no, it wouldn't have changed anything.Political scientists Eliot Cohen and John Gooch argue in "Military Misfortunes" that readers should be suspicious of the "man-in-the-dock" explanation to failure on the battlefield. In short, large scale military failure is rarely the result of one man's actions (or inactions). Yet, it seems to me that McClellan has been squarely put in the dock by history for the failures of the Union forces on the Peninsula and for not destroying the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam after receiving Special Order 191. Is that fair? This biography suggests that the answer is "yes," but I'm not convinced. I'm no fan of McClellan, but there had to be more to this man than Sears conveys here.


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