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Disappointing in the Extreme
on July 5, 2001
As an Amazon.com reviewer, I can see that I am going to be in the decided minority in my opinion on this book. Hopefully I can adequately point out my perceived problems with Mr. Rowland's work, and yet maintain the positives other reviewers have posted.
I have long been fascinated with George B. McClellan as not only a Civil War general, but as a Civil War personality as well. Here we have a man who should have been the one, single, Union military success - a man who had it all: brains, looks, youth, education, and family. And yet, there is no single Union general who managed to accomplish so little in over a year's time, with so much.
I hoped that Thomas J. Rowland's "George B. McClellan & Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman" would provide some insight into McClellan's flawed character that did not come forth from modern biographers such as Stephen Sears. Yet within Rowland's work, I was sorely disappointed.
Rowland sets forth to disprove Little Mac's critics by doing the one thing in Civil War writing that I abhor - rather than building up his subject, and letting McClellan's story stand on its own - he sets out to drag everyone else down. For some strange reason, there appears to be more and more of this going on in Civil War historiography of late, much to the detriment of our understanding of history.
Rowland sets out to outline the perceived problems with McClellan's personality and generalship, and rather than refute the contentions directly, often sets out to discredit others such as Grant, Sherman, and Edwin Stanton. If Rowland's guy cannot stand tall, then no one else will, as well. For example, we have on page 67 a typical statement of Rowland's: "The notion that McClellan was the butt of more embarrassing incidents than anyone else is greatly diminished by any extended review of the war's comical and tragic mistakes." And from there, rather than review Little Mac, Rowland sets out to review other participants on history's stage.
Rowland attempts to minimize McClellan's flaws by qualifying his admittance of such flaws throughout the book. Thus, we see Rowland admit, cautiously, that McClellan could be petty, vain, and vindictive "on occasion." In other places, his review of other historian's work is tinged with statements like "Unfortunately, that is not entirely true." The reader is left to try to ponder which portions are partially true, and partially not.
This book is not a comprehensive analysis of the life and times of General George B. McClellan, but a selected bibliography of truth and half-truth that uses only what the author wants the public to see about McClellan - and more importantly, anyone else held in higher esteem than the Young Napoleon that can be drawn down to the perceived level that history holds McClellan.
All in all, this was a very disappointing work. If you want to come to grips with the enigma that was McClellan, this book will leave you very short of your expectations.