Lincoln-McClellan more substance than style

London: Abraham Lincoln is considered one of America`s greatest presidents — having shepherded the young nation through its Civil War.

Still, Honest Abe had his detractors.

And we`re not just talking about those who supported the Confederate cause or members of the opposition Democratic Party.

It was somebody a lot closer to the 16th president who wasn`t a huge fan.

George McClellan, the man Lincoln selected to lead the Union army in the early days of the war, once wrote that his boss was "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon" and considered the president his intellectual and moral inferior.

Despite his contempt for Lincoln, McClellan had no choice but to coexist with his commander in chief as the two plotted military strategy with nothing less than the future of a nation at stake.

Journalist and historian John C. Waugh explores the complicated dynamic between the pair in "Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His General." Waugh clearly has done his homework: He traces the lives of both men back to childhood and takes the reader through their early careers.

They actually met several years before the war — at a time when both were in the private sector, with the Philadelphia-born McClellan in the Midwest serving as an executive with the Illinois Central Railroad and Lincoln, then an attorney and former congressman, providing legal counsel to the railroad.

By 1861, the war had begun, and McClellan — a highly regarded West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran — was drawn back into the military. After leading his men to decisive victories in a series of early skirmishes, he started to draw some national attention.

Lincoln eventually elevated McClellan to the rank of general-in-chief of the Union army. That`s when the drama really kicked in, with McClellan dueling with Lee at the bloody Battle of Antietam, Lincoln relieving the general of his command due to a perceived lack of aggressiveness, and McClellan challenging Lincoln for the presidency in 1864.

Waugh rightly directs much of his attention on this turbulent period, but while his intentions are true and his research solid, the author`s approach unfortunately doesn`t allow him to deliver what could have been an engaging retelling of one of the most dramatic periods in U.S. history.

The problem lies mainly with the book`s structure.

Waugh relies significantly on McClellan`s correspondence to drive the narrative. So there is a setup paragraph about, say, an impending troop movement, then line upon line of quotes from a letter sent by the general in which he relays his thoughts on the matter at hand.

He might have been better served to tell the tale by the fly-on-the-wall method — putting the reader in the barracks as McClellan agonized over whether to attack Lee`s troops, or in the White House as Lincoln stewed over more bad news from the front.

"Lincoln and McClellan" has its shortcomings, but it remains a strong work of scholarship on a unique and interesting subject.

It may not win many style points, but substance still counts for something, and the book should earn a well-deserved spot in the hands of Civil War aficionados and historians alike.

Bureau Report