are all familiar with the business theory known as the "Peter
Principle." According to this concept, a person continues to rise in an
organization until he or she reaches a level that requires more ability than
the person has. Put another way, a person advances until reaching a level of
incompetence. This principle applies in more areas than just business and the
Civil War is one of those areas. George Brinton McClellan is perhaps the
perfect model of this theory in the Civil War.
We love to bash our generals. In the Civil
War, there are many to bash -- Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, Benjamin Butler
-- all good targets. McClellan, though, proves the Peter Principle best of
all. McClellan was an intelligent and talented man with a lot of ability.
Raised and well-educated in Philadelphia society, he attended West Point and
graduated second. A hero of the Mexican War, he had a successful military
career until he left the Army in 1857 to enter business. McClellan became a
successful railroad executive, where he met Abraham Lincoln, one of the
railroad's lawyers. He gained a reputation for bringing intelligence and
thoroughness to all he undertook.
When war broke out, McClellan, with the aid
of William Stark Rosecrans and Jacob D. Cox, organized the troops raised by
the states of Ohio and Indiana. When events in northwestern Virginia (soon to
be West Virginia) required troops, McClellan (with Rosecrans's and Cox's help)
was largely responsible for victory at Rich Mountain. Called to Washington to
head the Division of the Potomac, McClellan showed his greatest skills -- the
ability to organize, train, and prepare troops for battle. He improved their
discipline and morale and, when Winfield Scott retired as commander of all
troops in late 1861, Lincoln promoted him to overall commander. It was here
that McClellan was exposed to his level of incompetence.
As head of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan
was a brilliant organizer and morale builder. He trained the troops and made
them one of the most effective fighting forces on the face of the earth. They
loved him and would follow him everywhere. However, for some reason, he had difficulty leading them into battle. It certainly was not a lack of confidence
in his own ability. McClellan's ego rivaled that of anyone in history. Anyone
who has the temerity to tell the president to sit back while he took care of
the country does not doubt one's self. Nor did he doubt the ability of his
men. After all, he trained and led them.
I believe McClellan suffered from an
affliction shared by many generals throughout history, an affliction that is
deadly to a leader of men. He hated to see his men die in battle. He could
train them to die, he could lead them to battle, but when it came to ordering
them to die, he hesitated. Not that any general wants to see his men die in
battle, none do. But the great ones know that wars cannot be won without men
(and women these days) dying. They understand that, sometimes, the sooner men
die, the fewer that do. Grant was one of these. In 1864 he understood that his
greatest advantage was in men and materiel. He realized that, if he pressured
Lee, kept him fighting, costing him casualties, he would win. While many saw
the casualties that mounted during the summer of 1864 as evidence that Grant
was a butcher, it was exactly the opposite. The more he fought, with the
resultant casualties, the sooner the war would be over.
McClellan failed to realize this. It was
almost as if McClellan thought that, if he did not fight, the war might simply
go away. He rarely fought of his own accord, doing so when it was forced upon
him by events, such as Lee's invasion of Maryland, or by politics, when
Lincoln pressured him. He simply could not comprehend that winning the war
meant sending young people to die and that, by not doing so, the war would be
lengthened, eventually costing even more casualties. He could lead men. He
loved to lead men and hear their cheers as he rode by inspecting them. He
loved being the commander of all the armies. With his ego, he loved the
attention and adulation his soldiers heaped upon him as the savior of the
country. He simply could not lead them to their deaths.
Of course, such a fault is mortal to the
commanding general. Promoting him to overall commander raised him to his level
of incompetence. The question remains, what was his highest level of
competence? I believe McClellan would have served well in the Army's 20th
century position of chief of staff. With his intelligence and thoroughness, he
would have served well someone like Grant, someone who could lead troops in
battle. Whether he could have, with his ego, is another question.