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General Mcclellan’s Report
by [?]

1864

We can conceive of no object capable of rousing deeper sympathy than a defeated commander. Though the first movement of popular feeling may be one of wrathful injustice, yet, when the ebb of depression has once fairly run out, and confidence begins to set back, hiding again that muddy bed of human nature which such neap-tides are apt to lay bare, there is a kindly instinct which leads all generous minds to seek every possible ground of extenuation, to look for excuses in misfortune rather than incapacity, and to allow personal gallantry to make up, as far as may be, for want of military genius. There is no other kind of failure which comes so directly home to us, none which appeals to so many of the most deeply rooted sentiments at once. Want of success in any other shape is comparatively a personal misfortune to the man himself who fails; but how many hopes, prides, sacrifices, and heroisms are centred in him who wields the embattled manhood of his country! An army is too multitudinous to call forth that personal enthusiasm which is a necessity of the heart. The imagination needs a single figure which it can invest with all those attributes of admiration that become vague and pointless when divided among a host. Accordingly, we impersonate in the general, not only the army he leads, but whatever qualities we are proud of in the nation itself. He becomes for the moment the ideal of all masculine virtues, and the people are eager to lavish their admiration on him. His position gives him at a bound what other men must spend their lives in winning or vainly striving to win. If he gain a battle, he flatters that pride of prowess which, though it may be a fault of character in the individual man, is the noblest of passions in a people. If he lose one, we are all beaten with him, we all fall down with our Caesar, and the grief glistens in every eye, the shame burns on every cheek. Moralize as we may about the victories of peace and the superiority of the goose-quill over the sword, there is no achievement of human genius on which a country so prides itself as on success in war, no disgrace over which it broods so inconsolably as military disaster.

There is nothing more touching than the sight of a nation in search of its great man, nothing more beautiful than its readiness to accept a hero on trust. Nor is this a feeble sentimentality. It is much rather a noble yearning of what is best in us, for it is only in these splendid figures which now and then sum up all the higher attributes of character that the multitude of men can ever hope to find their blind instinct of excellence realized and satisfied. Not without reason are nations always symbolized as women, for there is something truly feminine in the devotion with which they are willing to give all for and to their ideal man, and the zeal with which they drape some improvised Agamemnon with all the outward shows of royalty from the property-room of imagination. This eagerness of loyalty toward first-rate character is one of the conditions of mastery in every sphere of human activity, for it is the stuff that genius works in. Heroes, to be sure, cannot be made to order, yet with a man of the right fibre, who has the stuff for greatness in him, the popular enthusiasm would go far toward making him in fact what he is in fancy. No commander ever had more of this paid-up capital of fortune, this fame in advance, this success before succeeding, than General McClellan. That dear old domestic bird, the Public, which lays the golden eggs out of which greenbacks are hatched, was sure she had brooded out an eagle-chick at last. How we all waited to see him stoop on the dove-cote of Richmond! Never did nation give such an example of faith and patience as while the Army of the Potomac lay during all those weary months before Washington. Every excuse was invented, every palliation suggested, except the true one, that our chicken was no eagle, after all. He was hardening his seres, he was waiting for his wings to grow, he was whetting his beak; we should see him soar at last and shake the thunder from his wings. But do what we could, hope what we might, it became daily clearer that, whatever other excellent qualities he might have, this of being aquiline was wanting.