Ordeal by Fire CW theme Essay

            Civil War was the main theme to the books, “Ordeal by Fire” and “George B. McClellan and Civil War History.  Both describe the Civil War and events surrounding the Civil War, but in “George B. McClellan and Civil War History” the core feature to this book was George B. McClellan.  McPherson’s book seemed to take a broader approach not focusing on any one event or person.  McClellan was discussed, but not in such detail as Rowland’s book.  Rowland’s book was in defense of McClellan’s abilities and gave the statement that he was deranged and paranoiac.  McPherson’s book only vaguely mentioned possibly mental and other problems affecting his generalship, where as Rowland’s discussed this in detail.  Both books addressed issues such as his slowness and his constant exaggerations of events that were very important factors in his inability to lead and his inabilities during battle.

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The exaggerations were usually the number of solders on the other side and his solders inabilities to win because of supplies or training.  Some of the exaggerations were in answering to why it was taking him so long to move.  All in all most historians consider McClellan’s generalship a failure and I agree, but Rowland’s book seems to defend McClellan.  It does give possibilities as to why he messed up so bad and does show that George B. McClellan did have moments of grandeur.

The first battle of the Civil War was a win for the Union and this battle was under the leadership of George B. McClellan.  Even though this was a minor battle he was able to drive confederate troops out of the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia during the months of May and June of 1861 (McPherson, 159).  This victory gave then Union a tight grip on that region keeping it from Confederate control and was to later become the great state of West Virginia.  The first major battle of the Civil War was a complete disaster; the battle of Bull Run Creek was a loss for the Union.  It was during this battle though that McClellan did show qualities of a leader.  George B. McClellan replaced McDowell, a general, and it was because of this show of leadership that gained McClellan the title General in Chief (Rowland, 1998 p. 86).  During the following fall and winter McClellan spent most of the time preparing his troops for battle, which seemed to be a theme he used quite often as to why he took so long with just about anything he did.  This made Lincoln upset and very angry.  It was not a secret that McClellan didn’t like Lincoln and vice versa, but soon bad rumors of McClellan’s abilities and I’m sure that Lincoln’s dislike only fueled the flames.  Lincoln was often quoted as wondering why McClellan was being so slow and ordered him into battle.  The slowness was not a secret and both books mentioned it on more than one occasion.  But both books also took the position that he was cautious or meticulous in his decision making.  In McPherson’s book it was because of the lack of in depth analysis and in Rowland’s book it was to help the authors theme of how McClellan was being misrepresented.

Bad decisions were something that McClellan was use to making during the Civil War.  There were several battles that Union troops had won and that McClellan could have participated in if it was for his slowness to react.  This fact alone gave McClellan the title of the worst General in the Civil War.  During this time the successes the Union Army had on the outskirts of the confederate boundaries did not help in relieving frustration felt by many of the inability and failure the Union forces were having on the Eastern front of the battle lines, where McClellan was fighting or preparing to fight I should say.  This probably clenched the belief in George B. McClellan’s inabilities safely into the history books.  It was during this time that Lincoln being so frustrated and angry with McClellan stripped him of his command and had him take the offensive command of the Army of the Potomac and forcing McClellan to begin fighting (McPherson, 1982 p. 211).  The route to Richmond was hard and the terrain was rough this was a point when McClellan decided to move his troops into the area by water to a location that was southeast of the capital of the confederate army.  He landed at the Union post, Fort Monroe, and began moving his troops up the peninsula this all happening in April of 1862.  He stayed there choosing to besiege the enemy at Yorktown instead of attacking; many took this as another example of his slowness (Rowland, 1998 p. 107).  After Yorktown fell he moved his troops approximately 20 miles outside of Richmond and stopped.  It was his belief that Lincoln would send troops and supplies to replenish what had been used and lost.  It didn’t happen because Lincoln had decided that he needed to reinforce troops protecting Washington instead.  This made McClellan angry and probably only reinforced his hatred of Lincoln.

The general consensus was that if George B. McClellan had moved quicker and with determination than he would have captured Richmond and he would have been able to do this with the supplies and man power he had already.  There were questions on some intelligence reports that were incorrect and with the combination of his cautious personality were probably the underlying reasons for his failure.  In McPherson’s book the author pointed out that McClellan believed that the confederacy troops stationed there were in much greater numbers and there was really no way to win if he went into battle.  That assumption was wrong and cost the Union momentum in the Civil War (McPherson, 1982 p.234).  The battle at Seven Pines helped to show McClellan’s inability to lead.  It was during this battle in May that the confederates found out that McClellan’s troops had become divided and decided that an attack would be beneficial to the Confederate army.  McClellan’s troops had become divided at the Chickahominy River and he almost lost if it wasn’t for a Union troop that came across them in battle and joined in.  General Lee came into the picture by taking command of the Confederate army that was fighting and Lee gave it his best efforts to remove McClellan from his stand.  Many small battles ensued and this lasted for seven days.  The final assault at Malvera Hill had McClellan making a decision to retreat to a safer place.  This decision made Lincoln believe that the battle was a waste of time and energy and again placed the blame solely on McClellan (Rowland, 1998 p. 66-67).

The new General in Chief was appointed by Lincoln in July 1862; his name was General Henry W. Halleck.  He had been in command of troops in the western theater.  Lincoln ordered Halleck to command McClellan to withdrawal from the peninsula to join forces with General Pope who was preparing to fight in Richmond.  This was another example of how his slowness hindered his command because this is where Pope was attacked by the Confederates and badly beaten by them; the direct cause was his slowness.  When Lincoln heard of this he ordered McClellan back to Washington and was stripped of his command.  Later he was re-appointed to lead the army of the Potomac but only because of Lincoln’s desperation for a leader and they being in short supply (McPherson, 1982 p.255-260).  Soon after Lee and his troops invaded Maryland with a vision to isolate Washington from the rest of the North and McClellan went after him.  It was near Sharpsburg a battle that was known as one of the bloodiest fights of the Civil War became history.  Five thousand soldiers were killed at Antietam on September 17, another eighteen thousand were wounded.

The battle ended in a draw and forced Lee to retreat south of the Potomac River in an effort to protect his low supplies and men.  Again McClellan was slow in responding to attacking the retreating army making Lincoln upset again.  Lincoln blamed McClellan for letting the enemy escape right under his nose (Rowland, 1998 p. 176).  Again McClellan was relieved of his command and Lincoln appointed Ambrose B. Burnside as the commander of the army at the Potomac.  Rowland believed this to be a huge mistake by Lincoln because he believed that Lincoln was “replacing someone slow with someone that was considered dense” (Rowland, 1998 p.223).  Rowland maintains that even though McClellan had faults it was because of his overly cautious and proud personality.  Even though he does contend there were some problems psychologically he still had an air about him that defined him as a general.  He believed that this aristocratic officer had a very good ability in leadership and compared him as equal to Lee and Jackson.  In the battle of Seven Pines and Antietam McClellan faced tough troops and that his caution was warranted.  Rowland contends he did the best with what troops he was given.  McClellan believed his troops were always unprepared and order to fight before they were truly ready.  Rowland insists that people were expecting everything to happen more quickly in the war and the fact of the matter was it was a slow and painful battle.

Both books used sources that were very reliable these included historical documents, letters and diaries.  Rowland’s only difference was the use of other historians writing on the subject, some controversial.  These I found to be the basis of his theory.  McPherson relied only on historical documents and papers that were deemed accurate.  I found that McPherson’s reference and bibliography when compared to Rowland’s was impressive.  But then again in McPherson’s book he accounted for the whole war; where as, Rowland’s was just of one man and his battles that happened during the Civil War.  Rowland’s book seemed more of his own feelings and belief’s rather than facts and McPherson used facts leaving out feelings and beliefs.  Rowland based a lot of what he was trying to say using personal letters between McClellan’s wife and himself.  To me it seemed biased because I believe that letters between the wife and husband probably lacked true conviction.  I’m sure that he wanted to make his wife believe him to be the good guy and the rest the bad.  I think that reading between the lines can be fine but should not be held as gospel.  That it is only one way to theorize what possibly took place.

The book I believed supported the authors argument better would have to be McPherson’s book.  Like I had mentioned before it left out feelings and personal beliefs that Rowland interjected into his book.  The research conducted by each author was very well done but it just seemed as though McPherson put them to better use.  It wasn’t that one author believed that McClellan was very good at his generalship and the other didn’t, both agreed he had faults and neither would say he was the worst.  It was in Rowland’s book that there were more excuses for his inabilities.  McPherson did point out others that were just as bad or even worst and Rowland didn’t compare him to anyone.  I had a sense that Rowland was placing McClellan on a kind of pedestal.  The chronic exaggeration of McClellan was only mentioned in McPherson’s book (McPherson, 1982 p. 212) and I thought that kind of odd since it did hurt his abilities and this was shown in several battles.   I think that Rowland did give a different perspective to McClellan’s generalship and gave me some reasonable doubt at how bad the man’s ability really was.  “McClellan’s strategy, though reflective of the unrealistic war aims of the years 1861-1862 was cogent, reasoned, and consistent with conventional military wisdom and his personal views of the nature of the conflict.  It was not hallucinatory or deranged; it mirrored the views of the administration and of a sizeable, if not shrinking, majority” (Rowland, 1998 p. 237.  The author goes on to state that the only reason McClellan gained a bad reputation was because the battles he fought weren’t great and because he had hardly any wins.  To myself like in any war there has to be someone that wins and someone that loses.  Sometimes it’s because of luck but the majorities are because of great leaders which George B. McClellan was not.


McPherson, J. M. (1982).  Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.  New        York: Knopf.

Rowland, T.J.  (1998). George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of     Grant and Sherman.  Ohio: Kent State University Press.

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