The Path Not Taken

McClellan’s War: The Failure

of Moderation in the Struggle
for the Union

by Ethan S. Rafuse

Bloomington: Indiana University Press; 525 pp., $35.00

Walt Whitman remarked after it was over that “the real war will never get in the books,” and, despite all the volumes that have been written since then, his prediction remains largely true, but not entirely so: Ethan Rafuse has written an important book that rescues George B. McClellan’s military reputation and demonstrates that he was removed from command because he stood for policies—moderation, conciliation, statesmanship—that were anathema to the Lincoln administration.

We are familiar with McClellan’s historical reputation: indecisive, timid, politically ambitious, vainglorious.  It is as old as the war, created by the Republicans, perpetuated by the postwar historians of Northern righteousness (e.g., James Ford Rhodes), and sustained by the neo-abolitionists of the school of America the Virtuous.  (See, for example, Stephen Sears’ 1988 biography and the scribblings of the official gatekeeper of Civil War history, James McPherson.)

McClellan never squandered the lives of his men, and they loved him for it.  By contrast, Grant’s famed strategic genius consisted in little more than throwing his...

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