Thursday, December 1

This here is how deep it is ...

A minor anecdote from the Civil War:

During the Peninsular Campaign, as McClellan’s army advanced on Richmond at a lazy stroll, they came upon the Chickahominy River. McClellan, surrounded by his staff, sat hunched over in his saddle and pondered this river for a long time, wondering how deep it might be and what difficulties the army might have in fording it. The more the matter was discussed, the deeper the river seemed to get, and the more dismal the prospects became. Finally, a young lieutenant impatiently spurred his horse and rode out into the middle of the river. Turning around, he said, “You see, General? This here is how deep it is.”

True or not, this little story is a perfect portrait of George McClellan: a man staring at a river, wondering how deep it is. And by some dismal sort of calculus, always getting the same answer: too deep. Just as Beauregard’s army was always too big, McClellan’s too small, rebel defenses everywhere too strong, and difficulties in general always too great to overcome. And McClellan’s superiors in Washington were always too stupid to understand this.

The most charitable interpretation of McClellan (and McClellan has gotten a most charitable treatment from History, as every good Democrat is automatically entitled to) is that he was prevented from discharging his duties by certain quirks of character. He was unable to act decisively because of an overly calculating and pessimistic mind. His ego, which prompted him to show an outrageously arrogant insubordination towards Lincoln, also prevented him from engaging in any battle that might diminish his reputation by a poor result. McClellan was propelled – literally overnight - to superstardom by a series of historical accidents, and historians kindly speculate that if he had risen more gradually and more rationally he might have acquired the experience to become the great leader that he imagined himself to be. And so they call him stubborn, arrogant, paranoid: a Hamlet, a procrastinator, an unlucky man who rose too far too fast, maybe even a teensy bit of a coward. Not too many people want to call him a traitor.

So if we posthumously court-martial McClellan for treason right here and now, the defense would have lots of arguments to offer. McClellan’s own writings give a convincing portrait of an anal-retentive obsessive-compulsive egomaniacal whatever-the hell-you-want-to-call-it; possibly a sick man, but not an intentionally disloyal one. A partisan Democrat for sure, but lots of Democrats rallied to the Union cause, among them the great Stephen Douglas and the future generals Benjamin “Beast” Butler and Ulysses S. Grant. Pessimism towards the outcome of the war could not be treason either, or the great William Tecumseh Sherman was a traitor. Incompetence, timidity, and over-hesitation? You’d have to shoot Pope, Hooker, and McDowell first.

In McClellan we see many qualities that would be considered treason in other countries, but certainly not in this one. In the armies of the recent totalitarian states, for example, it was improper to pay any sort of compliment to the enemy. You could not admit that the enemy displayed courage, good generalship, that he possessed superior weaponry to your own, or that he had any sort of covetable advantage whatsoever. And you absolutely could not speak critically of your own nation, army, or leaders.

But these things have never been considered disloyal in the American armed forces, let alone treasonous. United States soldiers have always given due praise to worthy adversaries, such as Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel, Geronimo, or Giap. They cheerfully admitted that the German 88 millimeter was one hell of an impressive gun, that the AK-47 is likewise a superior weapon, and they have spoken of Comanche warriors, NVA sappers, and Japanese fighter pilots with the greatest respect. They have also on occasion declared that the Army, Navy, and Air Force (though for some reason, rarely the Marines) are all f—ked in the head. And they have been known to trash their president, their generals, their so-called morale officer, Congress, and anybody short of Bob Hope. And yet they have fought for their country to the best of their human ability all the same.

What United States soldiers, sailors, and Marines do not do is give aid and comfort to the people who are killing their messmates, or associate with those who do. Beyond all the gripes and groans, a line is drawn right here. The foe might be understandable, even admirable – but so long as the bullets are flying he is never, ever to be confused with your friends. And you can say whatever you like about your own side, so long as you never forget which side you’re on.

Though few recognized it at the time, McClellan was clearly on the wrong side of that line. During his endless encampments he amused himself by entertaining his commander-in-chief’s Democratic enemies; men who were not merely anti-war, but who openly cheered rebel victories. Among them was Elijah Wood, the pro-Confederate mayor of New York, who (he had publicly stated) would have led his own city out of the Union if sheer absurdity had not prevented it. So McClellan allowed himself to be politically courted by allies of the enemy he was supposed to be fighting – a successful courtship, which would lead him to run for president on a “peace” platform. With the familiar twist: a great soldier for peace. The hero of the “victory” at Antietam, who now recognized that the pointless slaughter must end at once. A battle-hardened veteran whose patriotism, courage, and honor were ostensibly all beyond reproach. Shame, shame on anybody who would question his loyalty. And if the heroic George McClellan was against the war, what sane person could be for it?

And yet, the men who were fighting and dying in that war – including McClellan’s former command, the luckless and much-defeated Army of the Potomac – overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln and for victory. They rejected the man who they had once worshipped as a minor god, because he was now asking them to accept defeat. McClellan’s former popularity, which the anti-war Democrats had positively drooled over, proved absolutely worthless when it was joined to an unworthy cause. One veteran of McClellan’s army said, “The love of boys for a general is even more unreasoning than the love of a man for a beautiful woman.” But when the general turned up on the wrong side of the fence, the boys saw straight through him without any difficulty at all. Obviously they were not as slavishly stupid as some people thought.

As you may have guessed, this story is a parable, not a history lesson. And it poses this question: Did McClellan fail to defeat his nation’s enemies simply because he was secretly on the other side all along? [Historians will shake their heads.] If not, then did McClellan’s endless negativism eventually drive him into the arms of those enemies, whether he intended to wind up there or not? [The historians are starting to get pissed now.]

So I close with some unsolicited advice for any present-day McClellans that may exist: Patriotism, like money, is not something that everyone is automatically entitled to. And unlike money, Patriotism is not something that you can spend on any damned thing you please. So take a good look at the situation and make up your minds right now, because this here is how deep the Chickahominy river is.

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