Friday, May 27, 2005

Dimitri Rotov at CWBN is the organizer and prime mover of the McClellan Society. He's also a strong opponent of the use of narrative and archetypes in history, particularly Civil War history - see this recent post, for a representative sample. His point of view is useful and, in the abstract, a welcome palliative for the strain of lightweight historical writing which sometimes seems indistinguishable from historical fiction like the Killer Angels. But he seems to be getting into some interesting territory with his recent "McClellan at Gettysburg" thoughts.

The "McClellan at Gettysburg" meme is an interesting and broad set of stories and reports from various primary and semi-primary sources about the apparent attempt by numerous and unnamed staff officers of the Army of the Potomac to convince the lower ranks that McClellan had been sent to take command of the Army on the eve of Gettysburg, or that he had been given an independent command operating on the line of communications of the enemy. Essentially, these unnamed officers were trying to replicate the miracle of McClellan's storied review of the troops in early September 1862 on the eve of a previous battle above the Potomac, to catch the battered troops' tinder ablaze with that old McClellan fire one more time. They were all lies, McClellan was administration poison, and was no more near command than he would be the next year, or the next. But the staff officers told their lies, that's certain - the evidence is apparently all over the sources, especially Irish regimental histories. The story even showed up in Bruce Catton's Glory Road, which must have been where I'd heard of it before, because when Dimitri mentioned the story, it struck me like deja vu.

McClellan's Civil War career is badly tangled up with the issue of narrative, and archetype. There's a basic contradiction or dichotomy, as I understand it, between the contemporary *idea* of McClellan, and the man himself. McClellan came to the capital at a moment of vulnerability and weakness, and his position was set in a certain sense by his signatory potential. McClellan himself seemed to be oddly taken with the idea at first - the notion of himself as that Napoleonic Man on a Horse. There's that unfortunate August 1861 letter where he mulled in an almost giddy fashion about how much power he was being given, and explicitly talks about how he could be a dictator. Talking with Jeffrey Wert earlier this month, he noted that he could think much better of McClellan if not for his unfortunate letters. I can see what he meant by that - the accomplishments are distorted by the McClellan's own private bombast. Self-regard tends to poison the sympathies of the audience.

But those were private sentiments, and private letters, and that wasn't what was seen and known by the troops. What they saw was the symbol, the archetype of McClellan - the same idea-made-flesh which led the man himself astray in his private musings. McClellan was their token of victory. He was their confidence, in a way that no other commander could be. Long after he had wrecked himself on the shoals of his own political ineptitude, his officers still tried to conjure victory with his shade, with rumors of the return of the Man on a Horse. In effect, the Return of McClellan was the preferred narrative of these unnamed officers of the Army of the Potomac. Where the Lost Cause writers wrote tragedies of inevitable defeat, and the Centennials penned romances of Lincoln's quest for the General, the men on the ground, in the moments before the butchery, told their road-burned regiments urgent lies of a Return of the King.

One of the core conceits of Nosworthy's Bloody Crucible of Courage is the centrality of psychology in infantry and cavalry tactics. The purpose of the bayonet charge, the sabre charge, the flank attack, the prepared assault - the purpose of all these military acts is to tell a story. To build an irresistible idea of your force in the mind of your enemy, and the idea of their own overwhelming power in the mind of your troops. The bayonet and the sabre are urgent tools of narration, and the narrative is one of bloody gutting death and slashing fury. It's no secret that actual bayonet and sabre wounds were exceedingly rare on the Civil War battlefield. Even so, even given the fact that the officers themselves knew of the rarity of actual contact in the bayonet charge or the sabre charge, they still continued to rely on it, throughout the war. The power of these weapons didn't lie in the actual infliction of death - as far as that goes, the rifle-butt was a more deadly weapon than the sword-bayonet. The power of the bayonet laid in the confidence it gave the user, and the fear it inflicted on the awaiting enemy. Their power laid in the story that could be told with them.

And this goes as well for the Man on the Horse, sitting tall in the saddle, his sword drawn and pointed for the attack. He was a narrational tool, a weapon of morale. As much or more than the regimental flags, the right to hold same in a state of total defenselessness being an honor for which men competed , and quite often, died, the role of the Man on the Horse embodied the confidence of the troops. Consider the tale of General Patrick Cleburne, charging the Union fortifications before Franklin with his men, dying with his horse on the battlements themselves - or consider Hancock on his horse behind the troops on the Cemetery Ridge awaiting Pickett's charge. The Man on the Horse was a story of power and resolution.

An interesting question along this line of thought is what should we make of Lee's repeated attempts to use this narrative to rally defeated troops, after Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, and in the Wilderness the next spring in Hill's rout. What does it mean that the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia refused to let their commander perform this act of suicidal narration, and took heart from the refrain of "Lee to the rear"? Was it a late-war artifact of the many, many Confederate commanders wounded or killed in the role of the Man on a Horse - A.S. Johnston at Shiloh, Jackson at Chancellorsville, Joe Johnston's wounding at Fair Oaks?

In any case, many men died while playing the role of the Man on the Horse. One could see why the staff officers of the Army of the Potomac thought it safer to conjure a phantasmorphic Man on the Horse who couldn't be shot, couldn't be brought down, an imagined pageant of confidence and victory which couldn't be disrupted by canister or rifle-fire.

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