April 21

The McClellan Factor

April 21, 2014

Personal Growth

At the beginning of the American Civil War, the armies of the North were beaten by the armies of the South in one battle after the other, so the morale of the men was declining. Early in the war, General George B. McClellan played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army for the Union, so in November 1861 Lincoln appointed McClellan as the general-in-chief of the Union Army. Very soon, however, McClellan demonstrated a consistent inability to commit large armies in the most effective—but also dangerous—ways.

On one occasion, McClellan withheld more than a hundred thousand troops from battle simply because the opposing forces had erected fake cannon at the other end of the battlefield and marched an endless circle of the same men in sight of the Union Army, all to create the appearance of large numbers of solders—who, by the way, all carried broomsticks instead of rifles.

Lincoln went through quite a string of other generals, none of whom proved effective—some outright incompetent—until he finally appointed Ulysses Grant as general-in-chief. Grant was not considered by many to be a brilliant strategist or tactician, but he did not hesitate to commit his troops to engagements where he could make a difference, despite significant setbacks on occasion. In planning his future battles, Grant was not deterred by his past failures. Lincoln once said of him, “I cannot spare this man. He fights."

A great many of us suffer from the “McClellan Factor.” We don’t want to make mistakes. We don’t want to look stupid or suffer losses. So we take no action at all, thereby making the worst mistakes of all: we learn nothing meaningful and do no good in the world.

If we want to learn and be happy, we have to be willing to make mistakes, even big, embarrassing ones. We have to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Metaphorically speaking, we have to avoid the McClellan factor and be more like Ulysses Grant, willing to commit our resources where and when we can, despite the ever-present possibility of defeat and humiliation.

If we’re willing to do that, we might lose a battle or two—almost certainly will—but we’ll win the war and the peace. It’s worth the risk.

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