When Presidents Fire Generals: Lincoln and McClellan

Obama and McChrystal could have learned something from the men’s “failed” relationship.


In the summer of 1861, two very different but equally brilliant leaders formed a partnership that journalist-turned-Civil War writer John Waugh calls a "serious failure." In Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His General, Waugh paints a mythlike, historical narrative. Its central character, George McClellan, suffers from a single, near-fatal flaw: hubris. As major general of the Union army, McClellan had an unmatched military mind, but he was unwilling to accept President Abraham Lincoln as his boss. Waugh suggests that had McClellan respected, trusted, and embraced his commander in chief, the war could have ended much more quickly. Waugh recently spoke with U.S. News about the two men and what lessons their relationship holds for contemporary political and military leaders. Excerpts:

How do you think modern commanders in chief and their generals compare with Lincoln and McClellan?

Whenever there's been a conflict between a general and the president, it's been that the general has gotten the wrong idea of his place. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had the same relationship with President Truman as McClellan had with Lincoln. And it was the undoing of both those men. But a president has got to be sensitive. I think President Obama is going to have challenges; he's got a couple of bright generals working for him.

After the Whig party collapsed, Lincoln joined the new Republicans and McClellan the Democrats. Do you think their politics impacted the decisions they made during wartime?

I think so. McClellan became basically the darling of the Democrats. They wanted someone who could oppose Lincoln strongly and they thought McClellan would be the one to do that. But McClellan was no match for Lincoln. Lincoln turned out to be one of the most astute politicians in American history. McClellan ran for president only conditionally. When Lincoln ran for president, he ran wholeheartedly. Lincoln was more committed to his political philosophy.

Is it typical for a general not to be a political animal?

They aren't trained as politicians. They may have a gift for it, like Dwight Eisenhower had, but by and large they tend to look on politics with some disdain. Certainly McClellan did.

Can a general make a good politician?

Half a dozen generals have become president. It depends on whether they have the political savvy.

Are there lessons here for modern leaders about civilian rule over the military?

They need to know how to deal with the different kinds of personalities. Both the leader and the general have to respect each other and know their roles.

What is the best word to describe Lincoln and McClellan's relationship?

Regrettably, it was a failure. I put a great deal of blame on McClellan for his stubbornness and inability to see Lincoln's greatness.

Is McClellan the only one to be blamed?

It can be argued whether Lincoln should have given McClellan everything he wanted. But it was more up to McClellan to accommodate himself to the president. Had he been able to do that, it would have been a different relationship altogether and I think he might have succeeded.

What was McClellan's greatest flaw? What was Lincoln's?

McClellan's was his hubris. He had a different strategy for winning that war. He stuck to it regardless. I think McClellan was actually right about Washington being safe when he went down to the Virginia Peninsula. I think Lincoln was wrong about that. Lincoln's greatest flaw, if you can call it a flaw, was being overprotective of the capital when he didn't need to be.

To be a general of McClellan's caliber, how can one not be supremely confident?

I think you have to be, yes. But, at the same time, you need to be open to change if necessary. You can be the most brilliant strategist in the world but, if you don't have that better-rounded aspect to your approach, then you are not going to succeed.

What surprised you the most while writing this book?

That someone of McClellan's brilliance would not see Lincoln's greatness and capitalize on the fact that he must work with this president, despite what he might feel about him personally.