16 December 2012 by Published in: General musings 19 comments

One of the things that I have always loved about this blog is that it gives me a venue to try out some ideas/theories here before doing anything further with them. If people laugh, then that’s the end of it. However, if people say, “hey, there’s something to that”, then it’s worth taking it a step further. This post is one of those experiments. Let’s see how it goes.

By way of introduction, back in October, I was the keynote speaker at Ohio Day at Antietam. I did a talk on the role played by Ohio troops in the Battle of Antietam. In the process of researching it, I realized that there is no book on the subject to be found anywhere other than the book published by the Ohio Monuments Commission pertaining to the monuments to Ohio troops erected at Antietam, so I decided to do a book on the subject. My project actually covers Ohio troops in the entire 1862 Maryland Campaign, meaning that it covers the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam, and the Ohio troops (three regiments and two brigade commanders) involved in the Harpers Ferry debacle. There are four parts to the book: the units and the roles they played, the roles played by the two future presidents of the United States (Hayes and McKinley), profiles of other prominent Ohio officers (including Ohio-born Confederate Brig. Gen. Roswell S. Ripley) in the campaign, including profiles of the regimental commanders (two of whom were killed in the fighting on the Otto Farm or at Burnside’s Bridge), and finally, the three Medal of Honor recipients from Ohio. The book will be titled Buckeyes Forward: Ohio Troops in the 1862 Maryland Campaign. It will feature lots of maps and photos and should appeal to the general public, which is the intended audience.

220px-George_B_McClellan_-_retouchedOne of the prominent commanders profiled is George B. McClellan. While a native Philadelphian, Little Mac was living in Cincinnati when war came, and his initial commission as an officer during the Civil War was by Ohio Gov. William Dennison, who placed him in command of all of Ohio’s troops. McClellan’s initial campaigns in West Virginia primarily involved Ohio troops, so it’s a legitimate connection. McClellan is, of course, a terribly controversial fellow. Stephen Sears has made a career of vilifying McClellan, to the point of being unfair about it. Ethan Rafuse has written a very balanced and fair study of McClellan’s role in the Civil War that I believe is probably the definitive word on the subject.

As I was assessing Little Mac’s career with the Army of the Potomac, I was suddenly struck by its similarities to the career of Douglas MacArthur. Specifically, I was struck by the problems that both generals had with their commanders in chief, which problems led to the ends of both of their careers commanding troops in the field. Let’s explore those parallels a bit.

George B. McClellan was a Democrat who believed that the Civil War was primarily about preserving the Union, and not about abolishing slavery. He did not believe in total war, and tended to be cautious and conservative. He served under an administration of the other party, meaning that many of his political beliefs were squarely at odds with those of the Commander-in-Chief. There is no doubt that McClellan disdained Lincoln, and made a poor decision by snubbing the President of the United States in November 1861 by making Lincoln wait for half an hour when Lincoln called upon him. Their relationship only went downhill from there. McClellan’s letters to his wife Ellen, which were not intended to be read by the public, were extremely insulting of Lincoln, calling him a baboon and other such unflattering names. The posthumous publication of these letters has undoubtedly tainted the perceptions of McClellan of many modern historians, which is unfortunate.

In a draft of his memoirs, McClellan made the following statement, which does not appear in the final version of the book, which perhaps describes his military career better than any other statement I have yet read: “It has always been my opinion that the true course in conducting military operations, is to make no movement until the preparations are as complete as circumstances permit, & never to fight a battle without some definite object worth the probable loss.”

Sears, who is not only Little Mac’s harshest critic but also the leader of the anti-McClellan movement, says of him:

There is indeed ample evidence that the terrible stresses of commanding men in battle, especially the beloved men of his beloved Army of the Potomac, left his moral courage in tatters. Under the pressure of his ultimate soldier’s responsibility, the will to command deserted him. Glendale and Malvern Hill found him at the peak of his anguish during the Seven Days, and he fled those fields to escape the responsibility. At Antietam, where there was nowhere for him to flee to, he fell into a paralysis of indecision. Seen from a longer perspective, General McClellan could be both comfortable and successful performing as executive officer, and also, if somewhat less successfully, as grand strategist; as battlefield commander, however, he was simply in the wrong profession.

At the same time, when asked who was his ablest foe during the Civil War, Robert E. Lee declared, “McClellan, by all odds!” Certainly, Lee’s opinion counts. McClellan had some real talents. He was an outstanding organization and trainer of men; the Army of the Potomac as we know it is largely the result of his efforts. He was an outstanding strategist and an able tactician. He had a really rare gift for motivating men and for earning their love and trust; just the rumor that he was returning to take command of the Army of the Potomac in the days just before the Battle of Gettysburg had a genuinely electric impact on the men in the ranks, who loved him dearly.

However, there can be little doubt or dispute that the following statements are true:

McClellan was a child of privilege who achieved great accomplishments at a precocious age; he became general-in-chief of the Union armies at the age of just 36. He had an oversized ego that seems to have gotten in the way of his making good decisions for his career path. He graduated at the top of his West Point class and had the support of high-ranking officers (such as Winfield Scott) who helped advance his career path. He was a Democrat whose personal political beliefs and philosophies were at odds with those of the Republican President. He disagreed with Lincoln’s decision to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the wake of McClellan’s close victory at Antietam, and McClellan did not keep his displeasure with this political decision to himself. Indeed, there were times where McClellan was plainly insubordinate of Lincoln. His refusal to comply with the orders of the Commander in Chief led directly to his dismissal as commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862. He never led troops in the field again, and he ran for President on a peace platform that was diametrically opposed to the policies of the Lincoln Administration.

The parallels with MacArthur’s life and career in numerous ways are striking.

240px-MacArthur_ManilaDouglas MacArthur was also a child of privilege. His mother came from a prominent Virginia family, and his father was a Medal of Honor recipient who achieved the rank of lieutenant general in the United States Army (in fact, Arthur MacArthur and Douglas MacArthur are one of only two father-son combinations to be awarded the Medal of Honor). MacArthur graduated first in his class at West Point, and was fortunate to be appointed to serve on his father’s staff early in his career. He performed outstanding service in World War I, and received rapid promotions as a result. In 1925, at the very young age of 44, he became the Army’s youngest major general, and eventually became its youngest chief of staff.

During World War II, MacArthur became Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and is one of only a handful of men to wear the five stars of a General of the Armies. He developed the strategy that won the war in the Pacific and deserves recognition for being an able strategist. He eventually became the military governor of Japan after the end of World War II and is rightfully credited as one of the architects of the robust parliamentary democracy that succeeded the militaristic imperial regime that brought about World War II.

When war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, MacArthur was the first commander of the U.N. troops sent there, and his refusal to obey the orders of President Harry S. Truman led to his being relieved of command and ordered to return home to the United States. MacArthur never commanded troops in the field again. He was given the honor of addressing Congress, and gave a legendary speech that included the oft-quoted line, “I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away. And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good Bye.” MacArthur, a conservative Republican, toyed with running for President, but ultimately decided not to do so, clearing the way for the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served two terms as President of the United States.

Let’s recap: MacArthur was a child of privilege who accomplished great things at a young age, including becoming chief of staff of the Army. He had an immense ego that was often the subject of jokes and disdain, and which got in the way of his military career. He graduated at the top of his West Point class, and had the support of high ranking officers in important positions that allowed his career to thrive early on. He was a conservative Republican whose political views ran counter to those of Democratic President Harry S. Truman that brought him into open conflict with the commander-in-chief of the United States. His refusal to obey a direct order of that commander-in-chief led to his relief from command of the armies, and he never commanded troops in the field again. He toyed with running for President on a platform that would have been diametrically opposed to many of the policies of the Truman Administration.

Like McClellan, MacArthur is not remembered as a great battlefield commander. Instead, his defeat in the Philippines in the early days of World War II is, perhaps, the most crushing defeat ever suffered by the United States of America. The fact that the most renowned biography of him is titled American Caesar speaks volumes for the nature of his personality and of his legacy. Like McClellan, MacArthur is not fondly remembered or considered to be one of the greats of American military history.

I wonder what you all think of this comparison. I just found the similarities and parallels striking. Please feel free to weigh in.

Scridb filter


  1. James F. Epperson
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 4:27 pm

    I generally agree. MacArthur was a much better general, though: His campaigns in the Pacific included a number of brilliant moves, bypassing Japanese strongpoints. McClellan, IMO, really lacked moral courage; he failed to have the stones to seek resolution with the enemy. MacArthur would never have gone for a boat ride while his army was fighting for its life, as McClellan did at Glendale.

  2. Simon Mawson
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 5:32 pm

    It’s funny you characterize McArthur as someone not remembered as a great commander. It has always been my impression that is how he is remembered. Inchon and his Pacific campaign were great strategic moves. Or maybe I’ve been influenced by Manchester’s book (the only one I’ve read on the matter). I think that McArthur was a much more successful general, and I think thats where the comparison ends.

    P.S. In response to the above comment that “McArthur would never have gone for a boat ride”… I’m not sure if this was sarcastic. If it was I applaud you for your dry wit. If it wasn’t you should look into McArthur’s career.

  3. Simon Mawson
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 5:38 pm

    They were also both beloved by their men.

  4. John Foskett
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Now this is a great post. I’ve always vaguely thought about the similarities between these two self-preeners, although even McClellan could hardly rise to MacArthur’s level of self-infatuation (hence the famous Eisenhower quote about Marshall and Dugout Doug). As much as I denigrate McClellan, however, he was probably a better general than Dugout Doug. One need only look at the incompetence which led to the destruction of MacArthur;s air force at Clark Field many hours after word of Pearl Harbor had been passed on, his poor preparation for the attack which occurred on December 8, and his mishandling of the New Guinea campaign to discern a difference. Fir all of his military faults McClellan never managed debacles like those two incidents. And I doubt that Little Mac could have come up with such verbal nightsoil as “Stygian darkness…” McClellan also wasn’t in charge of West Point when it was routinely ignoring eligibility requirements for football players.

  5. Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 6:50 pm

    But McClellan was, for all practical purposes, relieved for not being aggressive and proactive, in the eyes of his commander. McArthur, on the other hand, was relieved for being aggressive and proactive… in the direction quite opposite of his commander. I think, while there are similarities between the careers of these Generals, each is a complex study. There are chasms of differences.

  6. Clark B. Hall
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Eric, both were insufferable ego-maniacs and both were openly disdainful of civilian authority–a personality trait rather at odds with that ‘lil ‘ol Constitution thing..

    And in the end, both were cast aside by a startled civilian leadership (and public) who finally confronted the hard lesson that a West Point graduation is not a guarantee to successful leadership in the field. The bizarrely-indiscrete David Petraeus is the latest example of that oft-repeated lesson.

    And we don’t need to look too far afield to discover other miserably-failed West Point leadership examples.

    Where is Omar Bradley when we need him?

  7. Chris Evans
    Sun 16th Dec 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Great post.

    I have often thought about the comparison between the two. They really are two of the most self confident Generals (who openly showed it) in American history (Grant was supremely confident too but darn if he didn’t just go about doing his job without strutting around so much).

    They really despised civilian leadership telling them what to do. That’s why I think Grant and Eisenhower are way more successful because they weren’t always saying how stupid the President and everyone else was.

    As you mention they both had extremely pampered upbringings that made them feel (for better or worse) superior to everyone around them.

    I think that MacArthur’s campaigns in New Guinea WWII were more decisive in destroying the enemy than McClellan’s Civil War ones were.

    It is also funny that they both really wanted to be President but saw men (Grant and Eisenhower) win later who they felt superior to. The clerk line from MacArthur about Eisenhower always cracks me up.

    I like studying both. I try to see both sides. I think Manchester’s ‘American Caesar’ is wonderful on MacArthur and Rafuse does a great job in defense of McClellan but I can’t help thinking that in the end that they both got what they deserved.


  8. Mike Schneider ( Kick)
    Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 12:17 am

    Eric, good article..

    I think Macs problem could best be described as not being able to destroy the thing he loved the most..
    it always seemed he lacked that one thing that Grant always had, the ability to persevere with what he had
    instead of always waiting until all his ducks in a row,,
    I think sometimes he waited so long for just the right circumstances that he missed his opportunites..
    Mac reminds me of Bernard law Montgomery.

    McArthur will always been an enigma .

  9. John Foskett
    Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 11:59 am

    I’ve never understood MacArthur’s brilliant reputation based on the New Guinea/southwestern Pacific campaign. That whole enterprise was in good part a sop to MacArthur’s boundless ego. New Guinea was not a well-managed campaign and the Pacific war was won by the Nimitz campaign through the central Pacfiic to Iwo/Okinawa and the ability to unleash B-29’s (and ultimately the two bombs) on the home islands. None of MacArthur’s defenders ever discuss December 8 – in Arthur Conan Doyle’s terms, that’s the dog that don’t bark. For all of his faults, McClellan never suffered a negilgent debacle like that, one which easily could – and should – have been avoided. Could Dugout Doug have defeated the Japanese in 1942 if he’d taken a few basic steps to avoid that disaster? Probably not. Would the Japanese campaign have been more difficult, time-consuming, and costly? Yes. By the way, MacArthur’s treatment of Wainwright was shameful. And kudos for the Inchon operation but that was no more brilliant than McClellan’s planned combined operations up the Peninsula.

  10. Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I think MacArthur’s reputation and abilities as a battlefield commander are being undervalued here. His WWI record with the Rainbow Division was stellar and his troops from the Great War loved him, in marked contrast to the feelings of many of his troops in WWII.

    As to MacArthur’s presidential aspirations, he attempted to gain the Republican nomination three times: 1944, 1948 and 1952. His problem in the first two attempts was that he would not declare himself an official candidate, instead preferring to get political friends to work behind the scenes to get him nominated. Circumstances were somewhat different for him in regard to the 1952 election.

    Craig hit the nail on the head – McClellan’s greatest fault was his lack of aggression. In the end, MacArthur was sacked for pursuing a total victory – the only kind of victory in war in his mind.

  11. John Foskett
    Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Those are valid points (to some degree) regarding WWI but MacArthur was only a brigade commander and the Meuse-Argonne offensive was a logistical and tactical mess for the most point (due to reasons beyond MacArthur’s command level or responsibility). The comparison with McClellan involves army command, however, and I’ve already pointed out problems with MacArthur’s performance at that level in WWII. I’m not clear on the implication of MacArthur’s “aggressive” intentions which led to his recall in Korea. MacArthur had foolishly (and as it turns out wrongly) assured Truman that the PRC would not intervene in Korea. After that proved 100% innaccurate, he urged Truman to expand the conflict and invade China. Fortunately Truman had a much clearer vision of why and how to keep the Korean War limited without inviting the USSR to respond, perhaps with nukes. And maybe that’s the biggest difference between MacArthur and McClellan. The latter might have bordered on insubordinate but he could hardly be accused of wreckless, even foolish, judgment. For the record, I am far from a revisionist on McClellan. But MacArthur’s blind egotism was more dangerous.

  12. Chris Evans
    Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Yes, the Meuse-Argonne offensive was quite a mess. I don’t think I knew how exactly how bad until I read, ‘To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 The Epic Battle That Ended the First World War’ by Edward G. Lengel.

    Lengel has some choice words about MacArthur in the book.

    I thought the American Experience from 1999 on MacArthur was quite well done. I recommend everyone to seek it out. Maybe they’ll do an excellent one on McClellan someday.

    The transcript is located at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/macarthur/filmmore/transcript/index.html

    I like some of the quotes from it, a commentator says about MacArthur,
    “One colleague during the Pacific War described him as someone who combined a sense of courage, vanity, ego, insight, but his greatest fault, he said, was some one who mistook his emotions and ambitions for principles, and he could never distinguish between the two.”

    And it ends with some great turns of phrase:
    “MacArthur had had time to think about where he would be buried. West Point was special to him. He would be there, in time, at the edge of the Plain. Across from the best clerk he ever had, Ike, who never led a charge. Pleased no doubt that he occupied more real estate than Eisenhower. Acknowledging, perhaps, the prominence accorded Washington.

    There was room at West Point — next to the son of President Ulysses S. Grant. But for Douglas MacArthur sons of Presidents was not Presidential enough. He accepted a site that gave him the equivalent of a Presidential library. With a museum, an archive, a gift shop, and a splendid place to rest. With room for Jean beside him.

    Douglas MacArthur was buried as he was born — to the sound of bugles. His funeral was replete with all the ceremony that he had come to cherish as a boy at the army post at Ft. Selden, New Mexico. Unlike his father, he was buried in his army uniform.

    On April 11, 1964, one of the greatest soldiers in the history of the United States Army was buried in Norfolk, Virginia.

    A Navy town.”


  13. Scott Smart
    Mon 17th Dec 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Not sure I really see that much connection between McClellan and MacArthur. I do agree with previous post on the New Guinea campaign. Given FDR’s grand strategy of Europe first, it doesn’t seem like the resources needed for the New Guinea campaign were worth the strategic result. Though I suppose to some extent the need to placate the Aussies, Brits, and Dutch played a role. I think the New Guinea campaign though forced the Solomons campaign to protect MacArthur’s flank, and I don’t see the cost of the Solomons as being worth the strategic result. For both McClellan and MacArthur, it might be interesting to consider how they approached joint warfare with naval forces, and how successful they were.

  14. John Foskett
    Tue 18th Dec 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Scott: I think you’re right about the cost/benefit analysis of the New Guinea campaign. The sorry truth behind the southwest Pacific strategy was that it was driven by MacArthur’s unlimited ego and his need to stage that photo opp of him wading ashore in the Philippines – which if I recall correctly had to be reshot a couple of times until Dugout Doug figured it had the right Hollywood features, while American kids were fighting Japanese troops a little further inland. The Pacific War, as noted, was won by the campaigns led by Nimitz. To repeat, McClellan was a rank amateur compared to MacArthur in the realm of self-worship and was probably a better general, for all his faults. And I am very, very far from being a defender of Little Mac, Galena and all.

  15. Dennis
    Wed 19th Dec 2012 at 6:09 am

    I have little regard for either. They are perhaps the two most overblown egomaniacs in our military history.

    Dougie lost me when I first read his comments that threw General Wainwright under the bus for the loss of the Philippines in John Toland’s “But Not in Shame.” The true stars of the Pacific were the navy since it would have been kind of difficult for the army to march from island to island.

  16. Wed 19th Dec 2012 at 10:49 am

    Photo was NOT staged, that rumor began as photos of him wading ashore at other beachheads were taken in the following days (1st Cav, 7th Inf Div, 96th Inf Div). The intent was not for him to get wet at all at Leyte, but rather to be dropped right on the beach but the landing craft was unable to get in close enough. The fighting was about 1/2 mile to 1 mile inland in the area of Palo where he landed. Kenney – who was with him – recorded that sniper fire was still prevalent in the area (although Kenney also wrote that MacArthur was unarmed but in fact Mac had a Colt revolver visibly in his back trouser pocket, in addition to the small Derringer he always carried concealed in his coat pocket).

  17. John Foskett
    Wed 19th Dec 2012 at 4:08 pm

    I guess Dugout was fortunate that multiple photographers were present to capture that spontaneous moment from multiple angles – plus the speech on the beach, laden with histrionics for the Filipino people. If I recall correctly, the “staged” aspect was denied a few years back by Bill Dunn in his book – Dunn, of course, can be seen striding ashore with Dugout and was tight with the General. The whole thing was consistent with that quote about Dugout which was attributed to Ike. Little Mac, so far as I know, never got his pants wet for Brady or Gardner, although the photographic process was primitive in those days.

  18. Ralph Hitchens
    Thu 20th Dec 2012 at 11:00 am

    MacArthur not a great battlefield commander? He certainly did not shrink from frequenting the front lines, in both World Wars — highly decorated as a brigade commander in the First. Also, I can understand Lee’s comment about McClellan. He confronted “Little Mac” at the Seven Days, where his losses exceeded Union losses, and again in the Antietam campaign, where he held on by a whisker. It’s also been argued that McClellan’s peninsular campaign was the only original strategic approach to Richmond during the war.

  19. John Foskett
    Thu 20th Dec 2012 at 11:33 am

    MacArthur was not a “battlefield commander” in WWII – he was an army commander. Whether his ego summoned enough bravado to be in the “front lines” would merely establish that he had no grasp of his proper role in that war. As for me, I want to see the photo of Doug looking out the window of his mistress’s hotel room in Manila on December 8, wondering why there was all that smoke and noise coming from the direction of Clark Field. Equally as dramatic as the photo of him striding ashore on Leyte.

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