Be A Winner, Not A Whiner

A Civil War lesson in how not to be

Abraham Lincoln (center) prepares to fire George McClellan (sixth from left). (National Archives)

There are some people you just don’t want working for you.

Like the guy who is great at keeping a neat desk and a tidy office, but is just horrible at actually accomplishing something?

Or that woman who always “dresses to impress,” but never really does anything impressive, or even productive.

Then there’s that other guy who always points fingers when something goes wrong and is quick to shift blame onto someone else.

Sure, we’ve all met someone like that. Sadly, we’ve probably been that person a time or two. Hopefully, though, we don’t add to the problem with an inability to self-reflect and self-correct.

Usually these wretched personality traits result in low production, poor efficiency, maybe low morale. Sometimes it forces employees to pick up slack that they shouldn’t have to.

But sometimes, the fate of a nation is in the balance.

Civil War General George McClellan exhibited all the traits that supervisors hate in an employee.

George McClellan — poser.

McClellan had every one of the bad traits I mentioned above. And when he put on the trappings of leadership, the result was disaster.

McClellan was a general in the United States Army early in the Civil War. If education and looks were any indication, McClellan should have won the war. He had graduated near the top of his West Point class; worked as an elite engineer on the Mexico City campaign of 1847; toured European battlefields; and was a railroad executive.

After the disastrous Union loss to Confederates at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln looked about for someone to reorganize and revitalize the disillusioned Army of the Potomac, which operated around Washington, D.C.

He chose McClellan.

McClellan had re-entered the army at the start of the war, and he had some minor success in western Virginia. Lincoln thought his pedigree fitted him to lead the army.

McClellan agreed. Plus, he convinced Lincoln that he could lead not only the regional Army of the Potomac, but the entire United States Army as well.

Lincoln, a trusting soul who thought military men surely must know more about warfare than he did, appointed McClellan to both jobs.

McClellan worked diligently. He spent hours reorganizing the army, drilling them, ensuring they knew the army’s manual of arms. The soldiers were becoming a force to reckon with.

But all McClellan was doing was the equivalent of tidying his desktop — march here, march there, stand at attention. And McClellan got them to look good doing it.

But armies are made to fight.

McClellan wasn’t.

Do something — even if it’s wrong. (Common wisdom)

McClellan dawdled around Washington for months, training and drilling his troops but little else.

By spring 1862, Lincoln was so distressed with McClellan’s inaction that he drafted orders from the White House designed to get the armies of the United States moving — with or without McClellan.

McClellan responded with the ambitious Peninsula Campaign, in which the general proposed floating the Army of the Potomac down the Potomac River, through the Chesapeake Bay, and landing them at the tip of a peninsula of land extending southeast from Richmond between the York and James rivers.

The army would attack the southern capital from the peninsula, rather than a more conventional direct route between Washington and Richmond. But the plan relied on speed, and that was something McClellan couldn’t provide.

Pick good people and let them work. (Paraphrased from Teddy Roosevelt)

One of the chief reasons McClellan move quickly was his belief that Confederates constantly outnumbered him. He was hide-bound to a West Point maxim that an army must outnumber its enemy 2:1 if it is to attack.

McClellan had roughly 100,000 men in his army. His military intelligence officer — one Major Allen — counted Confederates on the Peninsula at nearly 100,000. Thus, McClellan believed he needed another 100,000 men before he could safely advance.

Major Allen’s intelligence, of course, was a joke, as was he. Allen, in fact, was Allan Pinkerton, whose Pinkerton Detective Agency would alternately earn fame and infamy in the West after the war.

McClellan repeatedly requested Lincoln to send him more men. The president could send only a relative few. He had to keep enough around Washington in case Confederates staged a raid on the capital while the bulk of the army was away.

In turn, McClellan blamed any failure of his army on Lincoln. He called the president “the original gorilla.”

McClellan crept to the gates of Richmond where he allowed Confederates to thwart him — not once but twice — in the battles of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days.

Not surprisingly, Lincoln fired him.

Either lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. (Popular 1970s poster)

After totally confounding McClellan in the Seven Days, Confederate General Robert E. Lee headed north. He handily beat Union General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run, then planned to invade the North proper.

As Lee crossed Maryland, Lincoln frantically sought a general to reform the Army of the Potomac and stop him.

He chose McClellan. Again.

The man’s long suit was organization, and he definitely could refit the army. But Lincoln needed him to annihilate Lee’s army. Lincoln had decided to radicalize the war by making its goal the abolition of slavery, not just preservation of the Union. Another timid McClellan performance would not do.

McClellan promised victory, and he started out well. But when fate handed him — miraculously and implausibly — a lost set of Lee’s marching orders, McClellan fell apart. He moved slowly, timidly again, as if victory was so assured he could take his time achieving it.

His dawdling allowed Lee to coalesce his army along the banks of Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg, Maryland. McClellan attacked him there, on September 17, 1862. The resulting Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest battle in American military history.

However, it was only a qualified victory for McClellan. Sure, he stopped Lee’s northern invasion, but he then let the Confederates slink away to fight again.With an extra push, McClellan could have destroyed Lee and perhaps ended the Civil War.

Lincoln took what victory he could, and after Antietam he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

He also fired McClellan. This time he stayed fired.

No one can be all bad.

And, of course, McClellan wasn’t. He was a master at military organization. He was also great at planning. He simply was not cut out for execution.

I have always thought Lincoln missed a chance when he made stodgy Henry Halleck military chief of staff instead of McClellan. Little Mac could have stayed at the War Department, drawn up organization charts and campaign plans, and become the George C. Marshall of the Civil War.

Lincoln also bears some fault for McClellan’s failures. Once he knew McClellan’s shortcomings, he returned him to a job that was over his head. As McClellan’s superior, Lincoln failed to put him where he could be most useful.

Still, the Civil War had a make-it-up-as-you-go quality. Lincoln was learning how to be a wartime president minute-by-minute.

But McClellan did have those bad traits — poser, procrastinator, and finger poser. They make poor employees and colleagues today. They were just as annoying in 1862.

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

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