Today, we are joined from Down Under by Jeffrey Green to discuss his recently released book McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861-1863: Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory (McFarland, 2017). Green is Conjoint Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, and he's been kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book.
DW: There is a small body of literature discussing Australian and New Zealand connections to the American Civil War. Terry Smyth’s Australian Confederates (2015) is the most recent book that comes to mind. Does the American Civil War excite much interest among fellow military and social historians in your country?
JWG: I don’t think a lot of people in the U.S.A. understand the high level of interest many Australians have in American history. Obviously it is popularized in American films which have a wide audience here. Gone with the Wind is an iconic film here as it is in America. Other films such as Cold Mountain and Glory were also popular. The novel The Red Badge of Courage has been read by a lot of Australian high school students and is still in the book rooms of many schools. Most Australians are aware of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour but many do not know about the Japanese air raids on Darwin and that more bombs were dropped on Darwin than Pearl Harbour. The interest in American history began well before this. In 1908 the U.S. Navy visited Sydney. About half a million people turned out to watch the ‘Great White Fleet’. The level of interest was amazing when you consider there were only 600,000 people in Sydney at the time. World War Two was a watershed moment in Australian history. The Pacific War was the beginning of the alliance between the U.S. and Australia which still exists today. In fact it is the corner stone of our foreign policy. All these factors and more make American history and the history of the American Civil War popular courses at Australian tertiary institutions.
DW: Your very brief author bio cites your prior work on WW2 and SE Asia military conflicts. What got you interested in the ACW as a topic and George McClellan in particular?
JWG: I have always been interested in American history and in particular the Civil War. The Pacific War and the conflict in Indochina were focused on the American involvement in these two conflicts. Regarding the Civil War, I had always been fascinated by a war that cost more American lives than all their other wars put together. I remember reading about the war when I was a teenager and was amazed that such a war occurred in the first place and only just over a hundred years ago. Recently my interest has been in the strategy deployed by both sides to try to win the war. McClellan became the lens to look at the workings of the Union high command in the first half of the war. I was not interested in McClellan as a battlefield commander, but his influence on Union war aims, strategy, and operations.
DW: Being Australian, did it feel like something of an advantage to you not being as relentlessly exposed to the negative baggage that has been attached to George McClellan in the U.S. among scholars and enthusiasts alike?
JWG: Not really, because I have read a lot of literature about McClellan, so I was aware of the often intense criticism of him at the operational and tactical level. What I was more interested in was how he intended to win the war. At this level I found he was also deficient. Basically, he believed he alone would win the war with his army. This was contrasted against his organizational brilliance that created a Union army that would help the North win the war.
DW: Debating the merits of McClellan is a popular pastime in the Civil War community. Can you briefly describe your purpose in writing this particular book and how it differs from those that came before it?
JWG: I did not want to do another McClellan book. I wanted to focus on his influence on the war aims, strategy and operations of the Union. Importantly, I looked at how his legacy of division within the Army of the Potomac’s officer corps destabilized this army for many months. I also did not want to do another “Lincoln’s war” book where the focus was on Lincoln’s contribution to Union victory. I was interested in why it took the Union so long to win the war. I could not accept the idea that the Civil War had to be a long war. So I took the view that there were reasons why the Union could not achieve a victory in a shorter time. This was what I examined in this book.
DW: Which authors and their works helped most in shaping your views on McClellan and the Union high command?
JWG: There is no direct line from what I have read to my book. My ideas were formed from a diverse range of studies; however, I was interested in Union strategy. Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War is a brilliant look at the evolution of Union war aims, strategy and its impact on southern civilians. Hattaway and Jones in How the North Won is one of the best books which explains Union and Confederate strategy and operations. It is very good at linking the pre-war training of the Civil War generals on both sides to how they directed campaigns and battles. More recently, Donald Stoker’s The Grand Design is a detailed examination of Union strategy and how it eventually won the war for the Union. Controversially, he argues that the Union could have won the war in 1862 if it had followed McClellan’s plan. I was also interested in “The Revolt of the Generals,” a chapter in Sears's Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac. This chapter focused on the political intrigue in the Army of the Potomac after the sacking of McClellan.
DW: Your book’s subtitle “Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory” is an intriguing one. Without giving all of them away for free, can you briefly discuss one of the “gaps” from your list and its consequence(s)?
JWG: I have identified several leadership gaps in the book. One of these gaps is the Union war aims. Lincoln wanted to restore the Union. He wanted to do this with limited fighting, loss of life and destruction of property. This has been referred to as the “limited war” aims of the Union. This war aim was based on the assumption of strong Unionist sympathy in the south and the belief that the rebellious states would come back into the Union rather than fight a costly war. This was not a realistic war aim and it helped to lengthen the conflict. There was a contradiction in this “limited war” aim because to restore the Union the Confederacy would have to be defeated. This would involve the Union invading the South and the destruction of the Confederacy. This would mean the Union would be fighting to defeat the South and destroy the political structures of the Confederacy. The Union, therefore, could not fight a limited war to defeat the South.
DW: You are about as far away from U.S. archives as you can possibly get. How did you manage your research from afar?
JWG: Access to primary sources influenced the type of study I undertook. A lot of primary sources are available online, such as access the Official Records. Writing a military history where I looked only at the leaders meant there was a lot of letters, diaries and memoirs available. There were published collections of letters as well. I also have all volumes on the Report on The Conduct of the War. It would have been very hard to integrate any type of social history into the book because access to the letters and diaries of the rank and file of the Army of the Potomac would not have been accessible.
DW: Do you have more Civil War projects in mind?
JWG: I am interested at examining the Union strategy of raiding into the South with large infantry armies. Sherman’s change of base from Atlanta to the Savannah coast would obviously be a focal point. However, I am more interested in the development of the strategy as a result of the changes to the Union’s war aims rather than a detailed examination of the campaign themselves.
DW: Thank you.
By the way, readers, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask Prof. Green to recommend a favorite obscure Oxploitation movie, and he proved game with the as yet unseen by me choice of Inn of the Damned.