D.B Sweeney and the Challenging Role of George McClellan

“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.

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10 Responses to D.B Sweeney and the Challenging Role of George McClellan

  1. Very well said. I’m greatly looking forward to D.B’s portrayal, and hopefully to have some conversations with him as the interpretation unfolds. This will be the first time Mac will be portrayed on screen to any importance, and it’s all very exciting to anticipate!

  2. Robbie Doyle says:

    Is there any chance we might have a more balanced post on McClellan? “…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.” – Very subjective and, in my humble opinion, incorrect comment to make. McClellan hasn’t been as feted as Lee, Grant or Meade but he certainly wasn’t incompetent. The fact that he was too cautious to press Lee after Antietam having prevented the Rebel Army from moving on Washington is hardly something that could be dubbed an “embarrassment.”

    “…he would make one more insulting return, when he ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1864.” Why insulting?

    It’s true that McClellan is a complex character. Egotistical, yes. Self-opinionated, yes. Charismatic, that too. Adored by his men, he was ultimately more of an organizer than a fighter. I’m not in the “love him” camp but I think would be wrong to portray him as a “hate” or “tragicomic” figure.

    “Well, Stoddard, for organizing an army, for preparing an army for the field or for fighting a defensive campaign, I will back General McClellan against any general of modern times—I don’t know but of ancient times also.” – President Abraham Lincoln.
    Lincoln’s Third Secretary: The Memoirs of William O. Stoddard, ed. by William O. Stoddard, Jr. (New York: Exposition Press, 1955), 160.

    I have always entertained a high opinion of his [McClellan’s] capacity, and have no reason to think that he omitted to do anything that was in his power.” – Robert E. Lee, post-war.

    • I didn’t say that he had the mind of Wellington for nothing. He was a brilliant organizer, which was why I also said that his men wanted to follow him to hell and back. He was loved by his men, yes, but hated by nearly everyone above him and in his command.

      • Robbie Doyle says:

        That’s fair enough, Greg. It’s true to say that Lincoln’s advisers and some of his McClellan’s fellow generals were not his biggest admirers but on the occasion of his second departure on Nov 11, 1862, The New York Times reported on his departure from Warrenton train station: “Officers poured into the car in a stream, to bid him farewell. Burnside and he sat on the seat together in earnest, confidential intercourse. At length all had gone, and Burnside rose to leave. McClellan held out his hand, and Burnside seized it warmly in both his. McClellan then placed his hand on the shoulder of his brother General, and with a look full of unutterable things, spoke a brief parting sentence to him, which is his legacy, and not the public’s.”

        I just feel that McClellan deserves better than consistently being held up as the stereotypical scapegoat for was to become a bloody and drawn-out war.

        By the way, this project is something I am 100% behind & I wish all associated with it the best of luck.

    • Tom Hercel ( from NJ.. home of the 1ST New Jersey Cavalry) says:

      Antietam – McLellan was still there after Rob.E Lee had left so lets give him credit for that. Didn’t he also do well at Malvern Hill?
      I know thats not the whole story but wanted to give credit for that.

  3. Jim Lamason says:

    Hi all,
    There are two great storys from the Civil War that show for me at least the great desparity in Little Mac.. As the Army of the Potomac marched towards its 3 days of destiny at Gettysburg, the rumor rippled up and down the ranks of the Army , that Mc was back! The men cheered like they hadnt in a long time….
    The other is when Lincoln with an aid was standing over looking the Army of the Potomac in camp.. “Sir Lincoln was reported to have said, “do you see what we have before us?”, “why yes!! ” was the reply.. “The Army of the Potomac” he exclamed.. “No” Lincoln said,”It is Mclellans Body guard!”…

  4. I didn’t know that story… Just might have to slip it in somehow to the shooting schedule.

  5. Jim Lamason says:

    Mclellan is one of the great stories of the Civil War… One of the other things about him, his opinion of his greatness I dont think ever waned.. As a result, over his grave in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton New Jersey is an oblisk declaring to all that take time to read it, the founder of the Army of the Potomac, and then General and Governer. It is about 25 feet tall. His wife, God rest her dear soul, is buried next to him. Over her grave is a 1ft by 2ft slab in the ground with her name and dob and dod incribed. Thats it….. The woman had to be nearly a saint to put up with an ego like that.. Jim

  6. Pingback: The FNYTSF Mailbag: A Gettysburg Glitch, and a Defense of McClellan « From New York to San Francisco

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