The Dismissal of McClellan

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written November 1862

First published in Die Presse, November 29, 1862

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 19
Collection(s): Die Presse

MCCLELLAN’S dismissal! That is Lincoln’s answer to the election victory of the Democrats.

The Democratic journals had stated with the most positive assurance that the election of Seymour as Governor of New York State would entail the immediate revocation of the proclamation in which Lincoln declared slavery abolished in Secessia from January 1, 1863.[1] The paper that took this prophetic imprint had hardly left the press when their favorite general—their favorite because “next to a great defeat he most feared a decisive victory”— was deprived of his command and went back to private life.

We recall that to this proclamation of Lincoln, McClellan replied with a counter-proclamation, an order of the day to his army, in which he indeed forbade any demonstration against the President’s measure, but at the same time let slip the fatal words: “… The remedy for political errors, if any are committed, is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”[2] McClellan, at the head of the main army of the United States, therefore appealed from the President to the impending elections. He threw the weight of his position into the scales. A pronunciamento in the Spanish manner aside, he could not have demonstrated his hostility to the President’s policy more strikingly. Accordingly, after the election victory of the Democrats[3] the only choice left Lincoln was either to sink to the level of a tool of the pro-slave compromise party or with McClellan to remove from under it its point of support in the army.

McClellan’s dismissal at the present moment is accordingly a political demonstration. In any case, however, it had become unavoidable. Halleck, the Commander-in-Chief,[4] in a report to the Secretary of War, had charged McClellan with direct insubordination. For, shortly after the defeat of the Confederates in Maryland on October 6, Halleck ordered the crossing of the Potomac, particularly as the lower water-level of the Potomac and its tributaries favored military operations at the time. In defiance of this command McClellan remained immovable, under the pretext of his army’s inability to march due to lack of provisions. In the report mentioned, Halleck proves that this was a hollow subterfuge, that, compared with the Western Army, the Eastern army enjoyed great privileges in regard to commissariat and that the supplies still lacking could have been received just as well south as north of the Potomac.[5] A second report links up with this report of Halleck’s; in it the committee appointed to inquire into the surrender of Harper’s Ferry to the Confederates accuses McClellan of having concentrated the Union troops stationed near that arsenal in an inconceivably slow fashion—he let them march only six English miles (about one and a half German miles) a day—for the purpose of its relief. Both reports, that of Halleck and that of the Committee, were in the President’s hands prior to the election victory of the Democrats.

McClellan’s generalship has been described in these columns so repeatedly that it is sufficient to recall how he sought to substitute strategical envelopment for tactical decision and how indefatigable he was in discovering considerations of general-staff discretion which forbade him either to take advantage of victories or to anticipate defeats. The brief Maryland campaign has cast a false halo about his head.[6] Here, however, we have to consider the facts that he received his general marching orders from General Halleck, who also drew up the plan of the first Kentucky campaign, and that victory on the battlefield was due exclusively to the bravery of the subordinate generals, in particular of General Reno, who fell, and of Hooker, who has not yet recovered from his wounds. Napoleon once wrote to his brother Joseph that on the battlefield there was danger at all points alike and one ran into its jaws most surely when one sought to avoid it. McClellan seems to have grasped this axiom, but without giving it the particular application which Napoleon suggested to his brother. During the whole of his military career McClellan has never been on the battlefield, has never been under fire, a peculiarity that General Kearny strongly stresses in a letter which his brother published after Kearny, fighting under Pope’s command, had fallen in one of the battles before Washington.

McClellan understood how to conceal his mediocrity under a mask of restrained earnestness, laconic reticence and dignified reserve. His very defects secured him the unshakable confidence of the Democratic Party in the North and “loyal acknowledgement” on the part of the Secessionists.

Among the higher officers of his army he gained supporters through the formation of a general staff of dimensions hitherto unheard of in military history.

A section of the older officers, who had belonged to the former army of the Union and had received their training in the Academy at West Point, found in him a point of support for their rivalry with the newly sprung up “civil generals” and for their secret sympathies with the “comrades” in the enemy camp. The soldier, finally, knew his military qualities only by hearsay, whilst for the rest he ascribed to him old merits of the commissariat and was able to tell many glorious tales of his reserved condescension. A single gift of the supreme commander McClellan possessed—that of assuring himself of popularity with his army.

McClellan’s successor, Burnside, is too little known to pronounce an opinion about. He belongs to the Republican Party. Hooker, on the other hand, who assumes command of the army corps serving specifically under McClellan, is incontestably one of the doughtiest blades in the Union. “Fighting Joe,” as the troops call him, played the largest part in the successes in Maryland. He is an Abolitionist.

The same American papers which bring us the news of McClellan’s dismissal, acquaint us with utterances of Lincoln in which he resolutely declares that he will not deviate a hair’s breadth from his proclamation.

He [Lincoln]—observes The Morning Star with justice—has by successive exhibitions of firmness, taught the world to know him as a slow, but solid man, who advances with excessive caution, but does not go back. Each step of his administrative career has been in the right direction and has been stoutly maintained. Starting from the resolution to exclude slavery from the territories, he has come within sight of the ulterior result of all anti-slavery movements—its extirpation from the whole soil of the Union—and has already reached the high vantage ground at which the Union ceased to be responsible for the enslavement of a single human being.[7]

  1. (Reference Note) In September, 1862, Lincoln adopted the step of partial slave emancipation. The rising tide of abolitionist sentiment in the North, the declining influence of the
    Border state slave interests, military successes in Maryland and earlier in the year in Kentucky, together with the obvious advantage of depriving the Confederacy of its labor supply, combined to make Lincoln issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The latter provided that all persons held as slaves in any state or part of a state still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, were to be free. Though limited in scope, the proclamation served as a prologue to the Thirteenth Amendment.
  2. McClellan’s General Order 163, October 7, 1862.—Ed.
  3. (Reference Note) In 1862, ten Northern states gave the Opposition 35,781 votes more than the Administration, whereas two years before the Lincoln forces received a 208,066 majority in these same states. In 1862, the latter elected 67 members of the Opposition to the Congress as against 57 for the Administration, while in 1860 the Administration congressmen from these states outnumbered those of the Opposition 78 to 37.
  4. (Reference Note) Halleck was elevated to that rank on July 11, 1862, when he became military adviser to Lincoln.
  5. (Reference Note) See Halleck’s letter to Stanton, October 28, 1862, in Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia, 1862, pp. 162–63.
  6. (Reference Note) Refers to the victory of the Union army at Antietam, September 17, 1862. Lee, the Confederate commander, was forced to withdraw to Virginia.
  7. Morning Star, November 22, 1862.—Ed.