My Turn: Not every ‘hero’ of the Civil War deserves a monument

  • The writer’s father in McClellan’s leather chair. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 8/10/2020 6:00:16 AM

John Lewis, in his final written message to America, said, “You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time.” He and my ancestors inspire me to do just that.

My great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. He served as a colonel under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan, who was in charge of the Army of the Potomac for the Union Army. They both survived the war and when McClellan moved to Orange, N.J., they struck up a friendship. My great-grandfather died two weeks before McClellan, who died on Oct. 29, 1885, at the age of 58.

McClellan’s widow gave my grandfather a black leather wingback chair in memory of her husband. That chair eventually passed down to my father. It was my father’s favorite comfy chair and once he entered the living room, all who valued their life immediately vacated the chair so my father could have it. Otherwise, he would just sit on you until you cried “uncle.”

I never really paid attention to who McClellan was. I knew he was a general but beyond that I did not care. Eventually I learned a little about the Civil War in school, but even then I did not connect McClellan with that war. My education left me woefully ignorant about that part of our American history.

I’ve recently discovered there is a monument in Washington, D.C., of McClellan mounted on his trusty steed, which stands over 31 feet above ground level at the Kalorama Triangle at Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road, NW. It was dedicated in 1907 and sponsored by the Society of the Army of the Potomac.

When the issue of Confederate monuments hit its stride during the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, I started to pay more attention to who was being propped up as heroes. I decided it was time to learn more about McClellan.

It turns out McClellan was not in favor of abolition. His main goal was to preserve the union. He was an outspoken white supremacist and held no regard for Black people at all. Some of the quotes attributed to McClellan cannot be shared because of the repeated use of the “n word.”

When Lincoln elevated McClellan to general in chief on Nov. 1, 1861, he knew about McClellan’s political views, but he also knew of McClellan’s skill as a well-tested organizer of troops. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln also believed the priority was to preserve the union. If that meant that the Southern states retained the right to own slaves, Lincoln was willing to allow that for the sake of peace. These views would change over time and McClellan’s actions would ironically become one of the sparks that inspired the Emancipation Proclamation.

McClellan was born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia and enjoyed all the privileges of wealth and the best education. He was the youngest to be admitted into West Point at the age of 15 in 1842. Many of his fellow cadets were aristocratic Southerners whom he would fight against in the Civil War. They would all serve together during the Mexican/American War from 1846-1848.

McClellan was a lifelong Democrat who supported the presidential campaign of Stephen A. Douglas during the 1860 election. Douglas had authored the Kansas-
Nebraska Act, which was signed into law by Franklin Pierce in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and gave them authority to decide whether to allow slavery. It effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery above the 36°30’ parallel except Missouri, which was a slave state. The debate over the Act showed just how divisive slavery had grown and it gave rise to the creation of the anti-slavery Republican Party.

The 1860 election pitted Douglas against Lincoln, who earned the nomination of the Republican Party by positioning himself as a moderate who decried the spread of slavery but did not wish to interfere where it already existed. He followed the thinking of the Founders, who tolerated the institution but hoped that it would become extinct over time.

Lincoln’s victory pushed the Southern states to begin the rush toward secession, which caught the Republicans by surprise. McClellan was forced to choose sides when the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861 and, because he could not accept the concept of secession, he declined to join the Confederacy.

McClellan was just 34 years old when he arrived in Washington to take command of the Army of the Potomac on July 27, 1861. He took stock of the situation and found Gen. Scott, who was general in chief, to be an obstacle to his own ambition of sole authority. The two generals clashed and ultimately Scott resigned, paving the way for McClellan’s promotion to general in chief. McClellan constantly complained about the shortage of troops based on his estimation that the enemy had at least 100,000 men on the front.

Lincoln was frustrated by McClellan’s failure to engage the enemy. It turns out McClellan was stymied by a common war tactic of deception by the Confederates. What McClellan thought was a heavy fortification of arms at Manassas turned out to be wooden logs painted like cannons called “Quaker guns.” On March 11, 1862, Lincoln’s confidence in McClellan eroded and he was relieved as general in chief, but remained in charge of the Army of the Potomac and ordered to proceed with the campaign to take Richmond.

McClellan’s continued hesitancy and successive failures resulted in the defeat at the Peninsula Campaign aimed to capture Richmond. On July 8, Lincoln traveled to Harrison Landing to support and rally the troops and talk with his general. This was when McClellan handed Lincoln his manifesto dictating what the policy and aims of the war should be.

The document, which came to be known as the “Harrison Landing Letter,” stated, “Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master, except for repressing disorder, as in other cases.” He went on to suggest that radical views, especially in relation to abolition of slavery, would “rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” At the end, McClellan arrogantly suggested that Lincoln should delegate to him control of all war-related policy.

Lincoln showed great diplomacy and tact when confronted with the manifesto, reading it in front of McClellan and leaving without further comment. It proved to be the final push that supported Lincoln’s resolve to introduce the Emancipation Proclamation. After consulting with his cabinet regarding the language, it was decided that the proclamation would be announced after the next Union victory, which turned out to be the Battle at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. McClellan led the battle, which resulted in massive casualties on both sides and was tactically inconclusive but because Lee retreated, it was considered a victory for the Union.

On Sept. 22, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves only in the rebel states, ignoring the fate of hundreds of thousands of slaves held in slave states that fought for the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation also authorized the Union Army to recruit Black people into the armed forces. McClellan openly opposed the proclamation, which he called an infamous call for “a servile insurrection.”

Lincoln ordered McClellan to pursue Lee into Virginia, but he kept coming up with excuses. The order was a test for McClellan, whom Lincoln suspected was soft on the enemy and would let them get away. Because he refused to attack Lee’s forces, Lincoln finally relieved McClellan of duty on Nov. 5, 1862.

Two years later, McClellan was the Democratic candidate for president against Lincoln. The election turned out to be a referendum for liberty and union with Lincoln winning all but three states (New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky), grabbing 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. The Confederacy had pinned its hopes on McClellan to win. If he had won, it would be safe to say that the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery would not have passed on Jan. 31, 1865, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would have been rendered null and void.

What should be the test for whether a person should be exalted with a monument? One commentator suggested the test should be whether they fought for union or division. While Gen. George B. McClellan technically fought for the preservation of the union, he would do so at the expense of the 4 million slaves imprisoned in the slave states. Based upon that simple test, I submit he should not qualify for monument status and his monument in Washington, D.C., should be removed.

I wonder what my father would think of my conclusion. I wish I could ask.

(Susannah Colt lives in Whitefield.)




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