What I Don’t Want For Christmas: Part 2

Edward Bonekemper’s latest book on George McClellan would make the perfect gift for fellow blogger Dimitri Rotov.  In all seriousness this study looks like a complete disaster which would at least be consistent with his earlier books on Lee and Grant.  I probably sound overly harsh, but I absolutely cringed when I tried to get through his earlier book on Lee, which was nothing more than a poor rehashing of Alan Nolan’s argument.  While I disagreed with Nolan’s evaluation of Lee’s generalship at least he was able to put forward an argument in a clearly articulated manner.  Bonekemper’s latest book is titled, McClellan and Failure: A Study of Civil War Fear, Incompetence and Worse.  Here is a description:

Promoting his own ideas and career regardless of the consequences, McClellan spent his Civil War command defying his superiors and attempting to avoid battle, eventually becoming a thorn in the side of President Lincoln and the Union cause. Removed from command on November 5, 1862, McClellan’s overly cautious attitude nevertheless permeated the Army of the Potomac for years. From West Point to Antietam, this volume examines his Army career. The main focus of the work is McClellan’s Civil War service and the ways in which the man and his decisions affected the course of the war. The Union Army’s invasion of northern Virginia, the Peninsula Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run are examined in detail with special emphasis on the roles which McClellan played–or did not play. Through a combination of incompetence and paranoia, McClellan managed to throw away numerous chances at a Union victory and, consequently, a quicker end to the war.

Going back to the title of the book one has to wonder what Bonekemper means by “and worse.”  Maybe we will learn that McClellan beat his wife.  It is hard to imagine any study by Bonekemper being worth a purchase price of $45.  Do yourself a favor and spend the money on Ethan Rafuse’s new book, McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.

11 responses... add one

I don’t happen to think the book on Grant is that bad: it’s just not very original.

Brooks, — I actually agree that his Grant book is the best of the lot. The problem is that, as you point out, the argument is unoriginal. There is something strange about someone who makes a career on repackaging the arguments of others. My jaw dropped when I saw the $45 price-tag for the McClellan book.

Great discussion. For my two cents, what’s even worse is some of the books you see that are mostly made up of block quotes from the ORs or other contemporary sources with no real argument or interpretation at all. A few “authors” come to mind, but I won’t name them here. Suffice it to say, as one of my acquaintances put it years ago as he was browsing one such book, “Gee, more proof that someone can make money copying the ORs.” And somehow they seem to sell a lot of copies. What can you do?

Take a look at Bonekemper’s book on Lee and you will find not one single manuscript source listed. Basically, the whole thing is pulled from a few O.R. references along with published postwar accounts written by the usual suspects. Notice that his books tend to have sexy titles. The Lee book is titled _How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War_ and published by Sergeant Kirkland’s Press which is apparently out of Spotsylvania. This latest book is published by McFarland which I assume has a slightly better reputation. Still, why would I pay $45 on a book with such a title? Yeah, they somehow manage to sell, which I guess is a commentary on Civil War readers.

Kevin,

This book was originally submitted to Brassey’s. Don McKeon, the former publisher (he recently left) asked me to review it as part of the publication decision.

I read the thing and hated it. It was written specifically to rebut Ethan Rafuse, and it’s not well written. It’s even more poorly researched–next to no primary source research. It’s a book with an agenda. I told Don McKeon that he would be making a huge mistake by publishing it, that doing so would do nothing to promote the reputation of his press. Fortunately, he listened to me.

I most assuredly won’t buy it.

Eric

Actually, in an odd way that’s quite a tribute to Ethan. I understand there’s a master’s thesis out there by someone not too happy with aspects of Let Us Have Peace, but a whole book? Wow.

It’s almost a little too easy to tell McClellan’s story if one chooses to embrace the negative stereotype … and not much of an intellectual challenge. I mean, take some Steve Sears, a dash of TH Williams, a pinch of KP Williams, and a sprinkling of Bruce Catton, and there you have it. Only the citations absolve someone of what I like to call intellectual plagiarism; we’ll have to accept lack of originality. That’s the case in much writing: I have no idea whether that’s the case in this instance, although these comments point in a certain direction.

I’ve seen this in certain recent books about Grant, although I’ll add that Michael Korda’s little book is refreshingly original in how bad it is.

I don’t think you need to be a McClellan apologist to detect that the standard story is lacking in key places.

I have to admit that if I ran MacFarland I would probably publish it. There is definitely a market out there for these types of studies that come packaged with sexy titles. Hell, I’m surprised he is even aware of Rafuse’s work.

Brooks,

While you are right in that one need not “be a McClellan apologist to detect that the standard story is lacking in key places”, rest assured that if one does so he will quickly be labeled one. Those names you mention (the Williams Twins, et al) are considered sacrosanct in certain circles, particularly the psychobable crowd. Something like simple inflexibility, accepted as the central flaw in others, is just not good enough when it comes to McClellan. There must be deeper, darker things afoot.

Kevin,

You too are correct – there’s a huge market out there for this thing. Many who would publicly decry this book in fact buy into what I’m pretty sure is its thesis hook, line and sinker. They may not tell anyone about it, but they’ll buy it. A $45 book will certainly serve to confirm that they have been right all along.

Kevin,
McFarland is based in North Carolina. I’m familiar with them because when I was running the gift shop at the Civil War site where I used to work I would get their catalogs. Most of what they’ve published in the Civil War arena is pretty good, but their books are always pricey in my opinion. I never carried them in our shop because I knew I wouldn’t be able to unload them. One of their better offerings is Fred Mallison’s “The Civil War on the Outer Banks.” I can’t speak to the academic rigor of the work, but at least it was a story that needed to be told. McFarland has also published quite a large number of regimental histories, which I would say probably have a limited appeal as well. Overall, however they seem to be a pretty good publishing house.

I found Rafuse’s book to have some questionable conclusions, particularly his analysis of the Seven Days, BUT it is nicely written, well-researched and provides some thought provoking sections. I think its most valuable contibution is on McC’s pre-war politics, moving from Whiggery to the Democrat Party. Maybe one day there will be a definitive biog. on McClellan.

I thought the Seven Days analysis was a very strong point of Rafuse’s book. I was less impressed with his take on Mac’s actions during 2nd Bull Run, and he missed out on some recent scholarship concerning the timing of a critical telegram in September 1862. But all in all, it’s the best study of McClellan to date.

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