The Civil War’s ‘Young Napoleon’: An Interview with Richard Slotkin

Richard Slotkin is one of the most well-known historians of American history and culture. His writings on the frontier, the Old West, Hollywood Westerns, the Civil War, and World War I, among other topics, have played a significant role in shaping the field of American Studies.

In 1973, Slotkin published Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, the first of his trilogy on the mythology of the American West. The book remains a cornerstone in American Studies in its examination of how the colonization of the frontier and the violence used against Native Americans defined certain attitudes and prejudices that influenced American culture for years to come. The subsequent books of the trilogy, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890, and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, further explore these themes of American mythmaking.

Slotkin is a Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, where he has taught for over 25 years. In 2010 he was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His new book, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution is an absorbing, perceptive analysis of the war campaigns of 1862 and the events that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. The book is also an engrossing account of the power struggle between President Abraham Lincoln and his 35-year-old Union Commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George B. McClellan, who had his eye on the Presidency. In Slotkin’s pages, McClellan seems to have all the shaded complexity of one of Shakespeare’s hungry strivers.

Among the many glowing reviews for the book, a notable one came from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in last December’s Wall Street Journal. “Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam stands out for its ability to show how human relationships remain powerful historical forces, even during times of great crisis,” said Emanuel. “Slotkin uses the friction between Lincoln and McClellan to spotlight Lincoln’s ability to learn from failure. Lincoln’s frustrations with McClellan’s half-measures helped him to appreciate the full scope of what the Civil War needed to achieve, leading to his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam.”

Slotkin talked with PopMatters recently in an email interview about his new book and his body of work in American Studies.

You wrote that the narrow union victory of the Battle of Antietam was used by Lincoln as a motivation to issue the preliminary part of the Emancipation Proclamation. That in turn led to a “revolutionary transformation of American politics and society.” Could you describe what you mean by “revolutionary” and how far-reaching were the repercussions of the Emancipation Proclamation in American society?

The Proclamation was revolutionary in both its political and its social consequences — that is, it made a radical and permanent change in the character of American government and society. It radically expanded the existing powers of the presidency, developing a concept of the president’s “war powers” that had never been considered before. Lincoln asserted that as commander-in-chief, he had the power to confiscate the property of citizens inhabiting rebellious districts, without judicial proceeding. Although Lincoln claimed, and believed he had, constitutional warrant for his action — and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court rejected his view — in practical terms he was transforming the presidency.

The result of the Proclamation was to begin the process of revolutionary transformation in the economy and society of the South. In purely economic terms, this was expropriation on a colossal scale. At a stroke of the pen some $3.5 billion worth of property was legally annihilated – this at a time when national GDP was less than $4.5 billion, and national wealth (the total value of all property) about $16 billion. It guaranteed that if the Union was restored, Southern society would be revolutionized; and by changing the social status of blacks, it had the potential for transforming the character of citizenship throughout the nation.

Two codicils had immediate and especially radical implications. One enjoined blacks “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense.” This was intended to offset the accusation that Lincoln was fomenting a “servile insurrection” and race-war. But by suggesting that blacks could use violence for self-defense, the proclamation attacked the fundamental principle of plantation law and discipline, which absolutely forbade the slave to physically resist abuse by a legal master, and even denied the slave the right to appeal to a court.

More radical still was the declaration that freed slaves “will be received into the armed service of the United States.” The right to participate in the common defense is a civil right which not even the free states then recognized. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

A total of 180,000 black men would serve, roughly nine percent of the two million total Union armies enlistments, and their actual contribution was significantly greater, since these enlistments were concentrated in the last two years of the war, when the total strength of the Union armies varied between 700,000 and one million men. The war would have been lost without them.

What drew you first to General George McClellan, or “The Young Napolean”, as he’s often been called? What is it about him that makes him so compelling not only as a notable figure from history but as a character that stands out on the page?

What drew me to the Lincoln/McClellan conflict was the combination of the clash of principles and the conflict of personalities. Lincoln clearly represents a progressive, forward-looking view of race relations and the whole concept of American nationality and democracy. McClellan is a reactionary on these matters, determined to preserve White Supremacy and for that reason willing to tolerate the perpetuation and even the expansion of slavery.

Then there is the contrast of character. On the one side is Lincoln, pragmatic, his sense of the tragic and the comic, his grasp and profound commitment to understanding the human consequences of slavery and of the war for the union; focused on the task at hand and willing to set personal pride aside to get the job done. Then you have McClellan, the “Young Napoleon”, who is a world-class narcissist, thinks of himself as the only man who can save the union, and is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone — mentors, colleagues, his own men — to further his ambition.

He continually reverted to the idea of a military dictatorship, which might come to him through Congressional action, the abdication of his opponents in Lincoln’s cabinet – or even a military coup. Although that last was an extreme idea, he liked to entertain it. He took pleasure in telling his wife, “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!” In August, 1862, a few weeks before Lincoln reappointed him to command of the Army of the Potomac, he mused: “If I succeed in my coup everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet. It may go hard with some of them in that event, for I look upon them as the enemies of the country & of the human race . . .”

Lincoln’s conflict with McClellan was far more dangerous to constitutional government than the later clash between President Truman and General MacArthur during the Korean War. The Lincoln-McClellan conflict occurred in the midst of civil war and revolution, when the authority of constitutional government itself was under challenge. Like Napoleon, McClellan had created a cult of personality in the Army of the Potomac; and his army was not half a world away, but was entrusted with defense of the president, his government, and the capital of the nation. Even a failed or abortive coup attempt by a few disgruntled officers would have done severe, perhaps irreparable harm to the Union cause, and set a dangerous precedent for the future of constitutional government.

There’s a recurring trend in history for celebrated, charismatic military men to experience an occasional fall from grace. Marc Antony, Albrecht von Wallenstein, General Douglas MacArthur, and more recently, General David Petraeus. At the risk of coming to a broad generalization, how might George McClellan fit into this trend? Was there more than merely ambition at stake?

McClellan was not brought down by scandal (like Petraeus) or defeat (like MacArthur). Lincoln fired him after he had won his most important victory. The issue between them was both political and military — in a Civil War, the two are inextricable. McClellan was fighting to achieve a limited victory, which would lead the South to accept a compromise peace — one which would preserve slavery, and even concede to the South some form of autonomy within the Union, for example by giving Southern states veto power over legislation affecting slavery. That would have included just about any law affecting economics, and any move for further expansion of territory.

Given his goals, McClellan would never throw all his resources into a quest for total victory; nor would he tolerate emancipation as a war aim. Lincoln’s strategic vision was clearer and deeper. He understood that the South would not accept peace of any kind unless its military strength was utterly broken. He had also become convinced that the war could not be won without a direct attack on slavery.

Slavery was the basis of the South’s economic and military strength – to break the South’s ability to fight, its economy must be broken. On a deeper level, slavery had caused this war, and as long as slavery existed a new outbreak of civil war was possible. The longer, costlier war for the Union that now seemed necessary could only be justified if it removed the root cause of conflict. But it would take a revolutionary use of federal power; and it would make a compromise peace impossible. It was impossible to expect McClellan to execute that strategic design — so Lincoln fired him.

McClellan was against the Emancipation Proclamation, for the reasons that you’ve described so well in the book, particularly at its root, that it would threaten the very safety and existence of a certain way of life in America. In a letter to his wife Mary Ellen dated around November 14, 1861, he’s rather frank about his sentiments and feelings towards what he thinks is the unjust suffering of blacks:

“When I think of some of the features of slavery, I cannot help shuddering. When the day of adjustment comes, I will, if successful, throw my sword onto the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks.”

This letter was a personal one, but it’s hard, at least for me, to know where the private man and public one separate. Given his personality, was this concern of his part of his wanting to seem like a moral savior–altruism for the sake of public adulation–or was he genuinely moved to horror and pity?

His sympathy for the hard lot of slaves was genuine, to a degree. McClellan was a sentimentalist, who made a great parade of his sympathy for the unfortunate. Yet when put to the test it is always himself, his “sufferings”, his display of noble or sympathetic traits, that he is writing about. He wants his wife to think him a splendid fellow.

You see these traits in what he says about his soldiers. He “loves” them. But what he loves about them is the love they display for him, their hero-worship. The real limits of his sympathy are suggested by the fact that he rarely if ever visited the wounded in hospitals, was blind to the soldiers’ actual feelings about himself and emancipation, and was willing to sacrifice them to advance his political interests as he did during the Second Bull Run campaign, when he refused to sent reinforcements to the beleaguered forces under General Pope.

On slavery specifically, he thought the institution needed “reforms” to prevent physical abuse and the separation of families. But he thought the way to achieve that was to leave slavery in the hands of slave owners. The “best men” among them would see to it that reforms were made. Substantively, he wanted to preserve slavery, believed devoutly in white supremacy, and generally refers to Black people as “niggers”.

In addition to your historical non-fiction, you’ve written three novels: The Crater (1980), The Return of Henry Starr (1988) and Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln (2001), which won the 2001 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. What inspired you to write these novels, and does writing fiction inform your research and grasp on your non-fiction narratives?

I guess the inspiration for writing these novels was the sense that I had a story in hand — a great story, a significant story — that for some reason I could not tell as a historian. Usually that was because the evidentiary basis was too slim. To put it another way, I felt I understood more about these stories than I could prove by the canonical methods of evidence and argument.

So what I did was to try to actualize that understanding, to project myself imaginatively into those stories and see them from the inside. In The Crater that involved seeing a Civil War battle from multiple participant perspectives; and since I was also doing social history at the time, adding an appreciation of the multi-cultural character of American nationality in that time and place.

With Abe, I had to imagine the childhood of Abraham Lincoln, using only the fragmentary evidence we have, adding something from my understanding of childhood, a little “reverse engineering” (deducing the child from what we know of the man). In all three books I had to immerse myself in the language and the physical characteristics of the time and place, the slang, the smells, the hygiene. Whatever their value as novels, as a historian I found the imaginative exercise invaluable in enhancing my appreciation of the subjectivity of historical experience, the importance of understanding the limited perspectives from which historical actors act.

The books of your frontier trilogy are taught in universities worldwide in relation to a variety of subjects in American history, visual culture, art history, political science and literature. Since their publication beginning in the ‘80s they’ve become the invariable go-to sources for understanding the larger trends in American mythmaking.

The world is becoming so globalized now, and America’s population is becoming more culturally diverse than ever before. What do you think the future of American Studies is now, and what would you hope that a student, or really anyone, reading your books, would take away from them in terms of understanding American history and culture?

American Studies now is trying to engage with the trans-national and international forces and influences that played into and out of our national development. I think it’s a healthy move beyond the origins of the field, which focused primarily on the internal dynamics of national development. However, it’s important not to lose sight of those internal dynamics, and of the peculiarities of our national development.

I think my work remains valid and useful as a way of looking at that national story. Nationalism and the world order based on nation-states have not, as yet, given way to anything like a trans-national political, social, or economic order. I think my focus on the specific culture of American nationality offers an understanding of the cultural or ideological bases of American foreign policy, of social violence, and of our way of dealing with ethnic and racial difference.

Your contribution to Film Studies has been huge, not only in terms of your work on Westerns and their cultural impact, but also with your critical studies of war films and historical narratives for the screen. So here’s a more light-hearted question, but I one that I think is important in relation to your work into how movies shape our perception of culture.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re the Guest Programmer on Turner Classic Movies and that they’ve asked to pick four of your favorite films of all time for the evening’s line-up. What would you pick and why?

Ah well, this will date me. But I have to go with the films I grew up with (to the extent that I’ve grown up).

John Ford’s The Searchers — it’s the Western as Greek Tragedy, and its handling of race and the psychology of racial violence is sharper than most critics give it credit for.

High Noon — classic story, maximum impact using a minimum of visual means. Watch Katy Jurado deal with race, sex, and gender and then remind yourself the film was released in 1951.

The Wild Bunch: because it shows what Vietnam did to us by doing it to the Western.

Casablanca: no explaining it — is it the quick pace and the deft irony of the dialogue that makes you forget how utterly sentimental it is? Somehow, when they sing the Marseillaise you feel yourself tearing up, and it’s not even your national anthem. Play it, Sam.