“Tragicomic” was the word that historian James M. McPherson used to describe Union General George B. McClellan, when I interviewed him last year. After studying the Civil War, and Little Mac himself, for years, I am a hundred percent sure that I agree with his assessment. No general, perhaps in the history of warfare, made such comical decisions on the battlefield and with his strategy that led to such tragic results. Though he was touted as the “Young Napoleon” and savior of the Union, both by his own words and those of others, his two tenures as commander of the Army of the Potomac resulted in complete and utter disaster and embarrassment for President Abraham Lincoln and the nation.
Having lectured three times on the Peninsula Campaign (once while student teaching at a high school, once to adults for my job, and once in the Civil War class I am teaching at a middle school), I can honestly say that no person or event garners such laughter and disbelief than anything involving McClellan. While adults may smile and chuckle, the kids are usually amused to the point of laughter. “How can anyone be that stupid?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Not being able to leave it at that, I go more in-depth and say that it really was not stupidity, per se, that brought down the great George Brinton McClellan. This was a very complex man, even more so than his peers at the time. While suffering from a God-complex, he had to battle himself, his superiors, his fellow commanders, and the enemy all at the same time. He was a man who Phil Kearny wanted to shoot, Halleck wanted arrested, his men wanted to lead them to hell and back, while Lincoln simply wanted to understand him. He had the mind of Wellington, the ego of Napoleon, and the killer instinct of a snail.
No general came so close to ending the war, when he was less than five miles from Richmond, vastly outnumbering the enemy, and chose to retreat because he feared a trap. For a man who would have rather had his men drill, parade, and do anything but fight, he was in command of the army on the bloodiest day in American history, during the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. No general has ever eclipsed his bravado, when he made a visiting Lincoln wait on him in the parlor of his home, for hours, before having a servant gently walk downstairs to tell him that McClellan was done seeing visitors for the night.
He was a man who first inspired, and later incensed. He was the one true beacon of hope for the army, on two occasions, and then the ultimate scapegoat when victory for the Union was at its bleakest moment in late 1862 and early 1863. Even when he left the army for good, he would make one more insulting return, when he ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1864, before eventually settling on being governor of New Jersey in 1878. Love him or hate him, he is the most fascinating and ironic character of the American Civil War—a man who has never been portrayed, except for a few fleeting seconds.
The monumental task of bringing George McClellan to life in To Appomattox will rest on the shoulders of D.B Sweeney, who has a lot to consider in playing the role. In order to be successful, he has to play the part as if he is the greatest general in the history of American warfare. He has to have the ego, he has to have the false greatness. As mentioned earlier, there are many conflicts going on with McClellan. The arrogance he so eloquently exclaimed in his letters to his wife will have to lift off the stale and browned pages of history and up into the life of our television sets.
Having seen his abilities as Dish Boggett in the rough and rugged TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove, I am curious to see how he will spin it around to be a character that is completely the opposite, as McClellan was never known to want to get down and dirty. Given Sweeney’s appearances in so many films and television series’, spanning many different genres, I am confident that he will be capable for the role. This is certainly a job for someone that has a long track record, and his includes more than 70 appearances in film and television since 1985. He is also a man that knows how to stay busy, as he currently has five films coming out over the next year, and is fresh off making guest spots on the hit TV shows Castle and Hawaii Five-0, my personal favorite.
In getting back to his character at hand, we need to see a hopeful rise to greatness, a stalling as he ponders his options, his bitterness with deciding to never commit his army to a fight, his embattled generalship as he collides with his fellow officers, and a fall from grace equal to that of Napoleon Bonaparte. McClellan needs to be played as a hero for the character portrayal to be successful. Even as it is apparent to the actor after reading the script and the audience from watching it played out that he is wrong, he needs to be played as being right. The audience must have a false sense of security with McClellan, and feel uneasy when seeing him on-screen. Those involved with this series need to go out of their way to have McClellan genuinely seen as the savior to those who know nothing or little about the American Civil War. They will be in for the shock of their lives when they watch his career unfold, and perhaps, one of the best acting performances in mini-series history, if done to perfection.