The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

34. Thoroughly organized, drilled, and equipped for service.

The author of the article quoted in the previous three postings is one Professor McKendrick. Britannica prints his name as M’Kendrick in each instance. I am assuming that this is following either some printing convention or personal preference, for elsewhere in Britannica Scots names are printed with the full Mc or Mac, or are likewise apostrophized. Checking the list of contributors in the Index volume, in trying (without success) to fathom if there is a discernible rule when the apostrophe comes into play, I was delighted to find amongst the many academics of Scots descent one George Brinton McClellan (given as M’Clellan).

McClellan was a Union general during the American civil war, lionized in song , but rather notoriously remembered in history as a battle-shy popinjay. Before the war he had been a successful and highly-regarded railway engineer, surely as notable a field of achievement as could be made in peacetime 19th century affairs. At the outbreak of the war, as the major-general of Ohio’s volunteers he achieved striking successes, where the Union was elsewhere suffering humiliating defeats and the threat of Washington’s capture. The handsome young general was a popular choice when promoted to commander of the northern armies.

McClellan proved to have a prodigious talent for the organization and discipline of his forces, matched by an equally prodigious inclination to avoid engaging the Confederate forces in actual combat. McClellan’s unwillingness to commit his troops in battle and his repeated habit of massively overestimating the strength of opposing forces, were knowingly exploited by wily southern generals such as Jackson and Lee. His repeated procrastination is often considered to be one of the single most significant factors in the bloody protraction of the war. Lincoln, if my understanding (based pretty much entirely on Gore Vidal’s splendid biographical fiction) is halfway correct, had no faith at all in the abilities of his well-groomed commander, and was finally able to dismiss him after the carnage at Antietam (considered nonetheless by many at the time and since to be McClellan‘s greatest victory).

To be fair to McClellan, his faults, although apparently clear enough to Lincoln, are easily marked with the historical benefit of hindsight. Had McClellan not been in the position to assemble and instill with faith and confidence such a disciplined and united army, there may have been no victory for later generals to win.

McClellan’s contribution to Britannica is, perhaps disappointingly, not a biography of some military leader of the ancients nor a treatise on keeping buttons and boots polished, but rather the entry in volume 17 for NEW JERSEY, of which state McClellan served a term as governor from 1878 to 1881. The article follows the standard format for geographical entries, describing the physical features of the state, listing its natural resources, tabulating its industry, commerce and population, closing with a description of local government, institutions and history.

Whilst otherwise devoid of material for easy interpretation, other than to confirm a love for and pride in his adopted state, there is perhaps a personal flash in the very last words of the article, describing New Jersey’s military capacity :

“At the breaking out of the civil war of 1861the number of men in the State available for military duty was 98,806 ; and during that war New Jersey organized and maintained 37 regiments of infantry, 3 regiments of cavalry, and 5 batteries. The national guard of the State now consists of 48 companies of infantry and 2 Gatling gun companies, numbering 3220 officers and men, thoroughly organized, drilled, and equipped for service.”

McClellan’s reputation for being more concerned with the parade ground than the battlefield, is not contradicted by the omission of any specific reference to the New Jersey troops being ready for action.

From McClellan‘s entry in the biographical section of volume 23‘s UNITED STATES article, we learn that he died “at Orange Mountain, N.J., Oct 29, 1885.” In his article, McClellan tells us that the post of governor is “elected by the people for a term of three years ; no one can serve in this capacity for two successive terms.” I cannot help but imagine the blue pen of an editor striking out “not even General George B. McClellan.” Death itself ruled out the possibility of a non-successive term.

Sources: EB9’s biography of McClellan is rather kind and brushes over the specifics of his defects. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Henry Ketcham (1901) is widely available free of charge in numerous formats throughout Interwebshire, and has a useful chapter on the relations between the president and the general.

The current Britannica articles on George B. McClellan and the American Civil War are worth a look for a brief introduction to the modern historical perspective.

The photograph illustrating this piece comes from the Smithsonian Institution website, and shows a splendidly turned out McClellan and staff, posing for the camera, while (as one source has it) the distant sounds his fellow General Pope’s army being defeated at the second battle of Bull Run could be heard : Georgey playing his trademark hand of keeping his own forces safely unused in reserve. There are a wealth of fascinating photographs of the period, and of course much else besides, at the Smithsonian's main site.

A tip of the hat to the, well, encyclopaedic knowledge of the brains behind for bringing my attention to the matter of the apostrophization of Scots patronymics, and also for identifying the article penned by the great general.

ADDED RELEVANCY UPDATE (15.10.08): Somehow I managed to miss the news that Sarah Palin, one of the more interesting candidates to run as vice president, twice name dropped General McClellan in an interview the other week, apparently under the mistaken impression that he was leading American forces in Afghanistan.

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