Narcissus in Arms : THE CIVIL WAR PAPERS OF GEORGE B. McCLELLAN, Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 <i> by Stephen W. Sears, editor (Ticknor & Fields: $35; 651 pp.)</i>


Just about any employee who’s ever been scolded, demoted or fired will salute Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s masterful sang-froid that late November evening in 1862 when he was cashiered from command of the Army of the Potomac: He didn’t give the imbeciles a smidge of satisfaction.

Rather, reading the dismissal order under the narrowed eyes of the Washington minion who had brought it to his lantern-lit tent in Virginia, the Young Napoleon (as he fancied himself) made “sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face.” As he wrote in the midnight aftermath another of his confessional letters to his wife Nell, McClellan crowed: “They shall not have that triumph.”

Abraham Lincoln had removed McClellan a few weeks after the squandered terror of Antietam Creek not out of presidential pique but to get the Civil War off the operational dime where the dilly-dallying McClellan had placed it. But to that reality, the commanding general was so oblivious that he believed that his conduct had been “a masterpiece of art.”

It was such skewed appraisals of himself and his popularity that best characterize the McClellan of the years covered by this book--his youthful and uncertain command of the Union forces and his subsequent seduction into presidential politics. As the Democrats’ 1864 candidate against Lincoln, McClellan was resoundingly beaten, and exiled himself crest-fallen to Europe for the next 3 1/2 years.


These citations of icy composure, paranoic irresolution, and blame-free self-regard are mere sips of the mulligan that composed McClellan’s total personality. His wartime letters and telegrams to family and friends and military associates wonderfully display a McClellan who was also by turn brave, timorous, pious, patriotic, duplicitous, loving, paternal, faithful, disloyal, hypocritical, forthcoming, well-organized, mercurial, puffed, self-pitying, rude, winning, humorous, gracious, urbane, vindictive, vain and delusional. And he was at all times convinced that, by Heaven, he was destined to preserve the Union through the intervention of God Almighty himself--a handy fall guy whenever the general encountered defeat. Failures always were ascribed to others, for to personal fault McClellan simply did not admit--not even to Nell, to whom, apparently, he was as self-disclosing as he could ever bring himself to be.

(McClellan’s opponent on the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland, Robert E. Lee, appeared not the least bit confounded by the man and his contrarities. Hearing that Lincoln had removed McClellan, Lee said, “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.”)

Now, were you and I aspiring biographers of George Brinton McClellan, how buoyed we would feel to have come upon this treasure. Here are some of our subject’s best public and private thoughts in 813 indexed, uncensored letters (“The President is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon”; “The President very coolly telegraphed me yesterday that he thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself”) painstakingly collected, transcribed, authenticated and annotated by Stephen W. Sears.

The funny thing is, though, it is Stephen Sears who is the consummate biographer of George Brinton McClellan, and his “George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon,” which he published last summer, cannot be touched for its altogether elegant and expert portrayal. Such an outstanding biography having just fallen into our hands, why would any of us still desire to knock ourselves out reading and organizing the source material? Exactly.


But that is what we’re obliged to do with this volume. And notwithstanding the happy surprises to be discovered when poring over more than 600 pages of often-disconnected letters, this is a taxing task.

Whereas, in that narrative book of his, Sears has graciously done all the hard work for us, and has put it all together contextually unified and engrossingly told. Reading it, we are not only spared slogging through the routine parts of McClellan’s communications, but we are at all times also made aware of what is going on in McClellan’s life and world. Sears, moreover, with an eye for such things, supplies us with nearly all of McClellan’s sprightly asides and bon mots.

Could this present assemblage of raw materials, then, be the appendix the publisher’s forgot to bind in last summer? Just asking.

Well, if you are determined to write your own G. B. M. biography some day (or if you run a reference library already), you should know that the index to these useful papers is excellent, the introductory essays help you get your bearings, and the footnotes, though in ever-so-space-saving type, help some more.

Sears’ other McClellan book, all the same, will help the most.