August 13, 2008
The Obama Phenomenon is Not NewBy J.R. Dunn
A nation enduring hard times. A frustrating war, a doubtful president. Public turmoil, political disagreement, future prospects uncertain as best. Then a figure appears from nowhere, a secular messiah from the heartland -- unique, appealing, promising solutions that are effective, fast, and easy. He stirs up an immediate and vastly excited following across the country, though many share quiet doubts.
I'm well aware what this sounds like. But in fact the year is 1861, and we're speaking of George B. McClellan.
Barack Obama has succeeded in ducking any meaningful comparisons with historical figures. Oh, there's John F. Kennedy (and let's not forget Jesus Christ), but that's simply another aspect of PR. Comparisons to JFK are a matter of style and appearance and little else. True enough, there is a pronounced resemblance between the two -- the slimness, the good looks, and a kind of indefinable aura of the early 60s.
But there the similarities end. Kennedy had long experience in several fields prior to his presidential campaign -- lengthy terms in both the Senate and the House, along with a wartime career as a naval commander. (Granted that he lost his command under the most bizarre circumstances imaginable. His biographer Thomas Reeves pointed out that JFK was the only known torpedo boat skipper to lose his boat through collision.) Kennedy also authored well-received books -- though Profiles in Courage owed as much to the talents of Ted Sorensen as it did to Kennedy himself. (Not to mention Arthur Krock's assistance with Why England Slept.)
But apart from JFK, there has been little attempt to compare Obama to other historical figures, because, well, because it leads us directly to McClellan. (Though a recent article in AT compared him to Wendell Willkie, which, as proud owner of an original, never-worn "Win With Willkie" tiepin, grieved me deeply and endlessly.)
George McClellan appeared to have everything going for him. A West Point education, a good reputation from the Mexican War, a career as a civil engineer that, just prior to the Civil War's outbreak, led him to the presidency of a railroad. McClellan was well-liked, inspired confidence in those he worked with, and appeared to be a young man headed for the top.
As a commander of Ohio volunteers, McClellan secured the western portion of Virginia (today West Virginia) against a handful of ill-led Confederate troops. The press inflated the operation into a mammoth victory, with McClellan as a combination of Napoleon and Wellington both. So when the Union nearly lost the war in an afternoon at Bull Run (July 21, 1861) leaving almost the entire Federal command in disgrace, who was there to turn to but Little Mac? (Out west there was a drunk named Grant and a near-lunatic named Sherman, but nobody was paying any attention to them.)
McClellan did an outstanding job pulling together a demoralized Union Army. But he didn't stop there, also taking on the roles of head of the Army of the Potomac and effective overall commander of Union forces. "I can do it all," he assured a worried Lincoln.
And for a time it seemed as if he could. The public, goaded by a hysterically adulatory press, had no doubt. Little Mac was greeted as a hero wherever he set foot.
But certain disquieting signs soon appeared. A sense of vainglory, an unwillingness to listen or share his thinking with other responsible figures -- even Lincoln himself. One observer stated that McClellan seemed to be "in a morbid condition of mental exaltation". McClellan's letters to his wife revealed this to be exactly the case:
Speaking of the public, he wrote, "It is a proud and glorious thing to see a whole people here, simple and unsophisticated, looking up to me as their deliverer from tyranny."
It goes on and on. About the only thing that McClellan didn't call himself was a "symbol of American values", though if he'd thought of it, he'd have done that too.
As the historian Bruce Catton put it:
As is often the case, the record failed to live up to the myth. After a slow and methodical buildup lasting nearly a year, McClellan at last moved against the Confederates. The strategy was brilliant -- outflanking Confederate forces by landing the army on Virginia's James Peninsula and marching up to Richmond from an unexpected direction, while a second Union force closed in from the north. It was a nicely turned plan, and in other hands it might have worked. But not in McClellan's.
McClellan's bloated self-confidence deserted him in the face of a challenge. Rather than a brisk advance to Richmond, McClellan dawdled, insisting that vast, nonexistent Confederate forces prevented him from moving. When at last he started off, it was at a slow crawl that allowed the Rebels to fortify their front and concentrate their forces. When Union troops finally reached Richmond, the Confederate commander, another untried figure named Robert E. Lee, struck a series of lightning blows in what became known as the Seven Days battles, driving McClellan relentlessly back to the river. Rather than attempt to hold his commanding position, McClellan panicked and evacuated the entire army, leaving the field to the victorious Lee.
McClellan moped, blamed everyone else but himself, and sniffed conspiracies behind every closed door. His self-regard was not diminished a single iota, nor had his talent for procrastination. Weeks passed while the troops sat idle. Already strained political relations grew worse with each passing week. During one presidential visit to the camp, McClellan, a general under a democratic government serving at the pleasure of the president, refused to see Lincoln. Already evident doubts about McClellan began to burgeon.
Then Lee turned his army north, in the wake of yet another Bull Run victory. McClellan set off in pursuit. And at last everything went his way. Union troops found the Confederate campaign plan wrapped around a bundle of cigars and immediately sent it to headquarters. McClellan could see Lee's thinking as if through clear glass. His forces were in the right place. He had the numbers on his side. Victory had been handed to him, in a manner rarely seen in history.
Victory had been handed to him, and he threw it away. First by racing around the camp waving the captured paper and shouting "I've got him..." within easy earshot of a Confederate spy who then rode off to warn Lee. Secondly by taking his time getting moving. And thirdly by mishandling his forces. He put Ambrose Burnside, a competent staff officer but no field commander, in charge of the vanguard troops. When Burnside fumbled the job, McClellan, looking on from only a few yards away, failed to replace him, instead watching though the long afternoon as 22,000 men fell at Antietam Creek in the bloodiest single day in American history.
He failed where he could not have failed. Lee fought him to a draw, and successfully withdrew the Army of Virginia to safety.
McClellan was relieved in November 1862, and told to return to his home in Trenton, N.J. to await further orders. The orders never came. Lincoln turned to Burnside and then Joe Hooker in an effort to find a winning general, until it became impossible to overlook the fact that the drunk and the crazy man had succeeded in literally splitting the Confederacy in two. Grant came east, while Sherman remained in command of the troops in the west.
McClellan did not sit still. In the 1864 presidential election, after insisting he wouldn't run, he accepted the Democratic nomination at the behest of the Copperheads, a pro-slavery and anti-war group in effective control of the party. McClellan was still immensely popular. The war bogged down during the summer as the Army of the Potomac lay siege to Richmond. Lincoln was convinced that he would lose. Under a McClellan presidency, the South would have been allowed to go its way, slavery would have prevailed for further decades, and a second civil war, perhaps fought with the techniques and pure viciousness of WW I, would have been inevitable.
But as the summer progressed, the new Union strategy, in which Grant's forces held Lee's army in place while Sherman gutted the deep South, unfolded itself. Sherman at last reached the sea, presenting Savannah -- and the election -- as a gift to Lincoln. The new strategy undercut antiwar forces in the same way as Gen. David Petraeus's surge a hundred and forty years later. Lincoln took 212 electoral votes to Mac's 21.
A reinvigorated Union increased the pressure. At last the Southern troops could take no more. It ended on a fine April day in the courthouse at Appomattox. McClellan, a forgotten man, went back to engineering. He did very well.
One of Karl Marx's least harmful sayings is that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. At best, that's only partially true. Intellectual absolutist as he was, Marx overlooked the fact that most events mingle tragedy, comedy, and every other conceivable element. There was no lack of tragedy in McClellan's wild charge across the American landscape, not the least involving the men who fell in the Seven Days and at Antietam. But there was no lack of farce either. Consider these words, spoken when Little Mac took command of his first army: "Soldiers! I have heard there was danger here, and I have come to place myself at your head and to share it with you. I fear now but one thing -- that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel."
Now consider the fact that the man who spoke them stood about 5' 4".
McClellan holds the place in American history as the figure whose initial promise was least borne out by events. The fact that Barack Obama most resembles one of this country's great clowns is his misfortune. Similar initial conditions will lead to similar results. If Obama follows the same path, the process will have its comic aspects. It already does -- recall the 57 states, the haloed iconography, the campaigning in Berlin with more intensity than in any American city. But as events play out, we will not be denied our share of tragedy.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.